by Tina Zafreen Alam
stand stark and defiant
among the living
limbs stretched skyward
in seas of lush green
together and alone
I ask questions. If I were to think of the most notable thing about me, it’s that I ask questions and that sometimes, these are the questions that no one else around me thought to, decided to, wanted to or was prepared to ask.
In March, I went to a free workshop on herbal medicine for stress and anxiety in hopes of finding ways to cope with a violent and oppressive school environment. The facilitator/knowledge-sharer spoke about traditional and Indigenous practices in general and gave us information about Ayurvedic traditions in particular.
I left the workshop with questions. Though I have a very limited and basic understanding of Ayurveda, I didn’t know if it was the practice that my ancestors in Bangladesh would have been connected to. So, I asked.
First, I asked my Mamoni (term of endearment meaning mother, dearest and what I call my mother’s second sister) and she told me I had an ancestor that was a herbalist. I then asked my Khalamoni (term of endearment meaning dearest maternal aunt and what I call my mom’s third sister) and my mother about it and everyone gave me different answers. Finally, I asked my Nannoo (my maternal grandmother) and she told me about someone who practiced traditional healing. It wasn’t until I checked back with my Mamoni that I realized that they were speaking of two different relatives. I set out looking to learn about one healer in the family and ended up hearing about two!
What follows are interviews with two family members on my mother’s side, my Nannoo and my Mamoni. I sent them both the same questions:
What is your name and your relationship to me?
Nannoo: My name is Hasna Begum and I am your maternal grandmother.
Mamoni: I am your maternal aunt. I have been very close to you, having lived with your family in Canada for a couple of years. And you lived with my family for a couple of years, your junior and senior years in high school, in Montreal and in New Haven.
What is your personal relationship with traditional healing practices or traditional medicine?
N: I have almost no personal relationship with traditional healing practices or traditional medicine. I am science oriented.
M: I have no formal connection to herbal or traditional medicine. I do usually have a tube of Arnica that I apply to myself and offer to others for minor aches or bruises. My maternal grandmother used to have an old wooden chest of small bottles of liquids and sugar balls that she would open to treat our minor cuts and bruises when we were kids. I found this chest very intriguing and was distressed to find it gone when my grandmother passed away.
Is there a particular name for traditional healing practices and traditional medicine that is practiced in the area now known as Bangladesh?
N: Yes, traditional medicine is still widely trusted and practiced in rural areas.
M: Yes, there are terms for traditional medicinal practices in Bangladesh. The first is Kobiraji, strictly speaking, herbalism, and the second would be loosely termed as Ojha, who engages in “jhara/pura,” or spiritualism mixed in with some herbal prescription. This is when the medicine man or woman would do incantations as well as a blow on people as part of the cure. Probably more to it but I have not actually watched one. I would say that about ninety-nine percent of Bangladeshis will have gone to one or other form of herbalist/spiritualist in their lifetime (just guessing here).
I heard that we have a family member who was a healer and herbalist, can you tell me her name, how she is related to us and what you know about her practice?
N: Her name was Zohra, my mother’s youngest sister. She was a healer and herbalist too! She often visited my mother, Rabeya, sometimes along with one male healer. They sat on a mat. Lit candles in the middle and meditated for hours before starting any treatment. They chanted some unrecognizable words and brought out herbs from their bundles for treatment of the patient in front. My response to these activities is skeptical!
M: My paternal great aunt (my grandfather’s sister) was such a person. I know very little about her except that when some member of her family was really ill, some herbs were revealed to her in her sleep by an angel and when she procured and prepared these, it is said to have cured the patient. My understanding is that this happened more than once.I do not know her name but, she was supposedly very spritely and smart and picked up lessons when her brothers were being tutored. As a girl, she would not have been tutored. She married and had four children, three boys and a girl. She died at childbirth after her last child, the daughter, was born.
Did you ever receive treatment from her or through her direction? And if so, can you describe what your initial concern was, what the treatment was and how you responded to it?
N: I, myself ever received any such treatment.
M: She was gone long before I was born.
Can you let me know how her practice was received or perceived by the rest of the family?
N: Most of the family members thought that the whole affair was fake and senseless.
M: I believe her family appreciated that her herbs helped her family member. Also, I do not think that it bothered anyone that this was ‘alternative’ medicine. I believe she was very well loved and I get the impression that she was what we would call an engaging and happy young girl/woman.
Have you yourself ever felt any personal connection to her practices or have any of your children (or grandchildren)?
N: My children received such treatment and sometimes got healed!
M: Strictly speaking, I cannot say that I have. My experience has not been medicine oriented. I have had strange dreams and urges to call home when there was no particular reason to but I have not sought out any of it.So here are two or three stories when my connection to my family seems to have driven me to make phone calls to my family only to find that there was grave news awaiting me. The first instance was in 1986 when I was away in Harare, Zimbabwe, doing field research. I lived in Montreal and was a graduate student at McGill University. Most of my family lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In Harare, my then husband and I were renting a room in the suburban home of a Mrs. Jackson. She had a phone, but it was not one that we had access to. Also, this was a time when people wrote letters and phone calls were difficult – especially as it was still required to go via long distance call assistant to make the connection. Also, it was a relatively costly venture.
Anyway, I felt the sudden need to call home to Dhaka. Mrs. Jackson was reluctant. She only rarely used the phone to make long distance calls herself. In the end, she gave in when she saw how desperately I wanted to make the call. Also we gave her about Zim twenty dollars in advance. This was way more than the call would end up costing her.
When I called, my father answered the call and told me that a shadow had been detected the x-ray of his liver the day before.
The second story was when I called my mother in Dhaka from New Haven on the same day that she found a lump on her breast. This turned out to be benign.
Do you feel it’s important to pass down and chronicle these stories and traditions?
N: My ignorance is responsible for not giving much importance to this particular method of treatment. But I think, it may be important to pass down and chronicle these stories and traditions for the knowledge of social and cultural heritage of a particular region.
M: Yes, I do feel that these stories are good to relate to family and let them deal with them in their own terms. I know my ex-husband completely downplayed the spiritual aspects of my dreams but my sisters do seem to value them.
How do you feel about discussing and sharing this information?
N: I find this discussion and sharing interesting enough!
M: I do not usually tell these stories to people other than to close family. Since these are about my close ties to them.
My Nanoo had aunts on either side of her family who were practicing herbalists, though she only knew of the one she told me about, Zohra.
My Mamoni only knew of the other aunt, whose name we don’t know, because her grandfather (my great grandfather, who I called Senior) told her stories about his sister. But, my mother and my Khalamoni didn’t know about these stories and thought I had misheard or misunderstood when I asked about them. So, I wonder if she, like me, was asking questions no one else was asking. I know that she, like me and like our ancestor before us, receives messages in her dreams.
The very process of trying to find this information has been a painful example of how I personally have been forcibly and violently disconnected from direct access to my ancestral knowledge through colonization, assimilation, loss of language, genocide, displacement, migration, and the valuing of certain man-made ways of understanding the world (science) through simultaneously devaluing other ways of understanding the world (everything else). Yet, traces of those traditions live on in me and in my Mamoni, and maybe in other family members as well.
Whose knowledge is positioned as truth and fact? Whose knowledge is revered? Whose knowledge is taught? Whose knowledge is passed down? Whose knowledge is shunned?
The barriers I am facing might have started out as overarching structural forces, but they are being perpetuated by many factors on a personal level as well.
The information that we are given is often directly tied to the questions we ask and who we ask them of. If we want ties to our cultural knowledge, especially as Black, Indigenous, People of Colour or diasporic people that might mean a lot of digging for clues and work as these disconnections are here by the design and intent of white supremacy. The traumas and traditions of my family are buried somewhere beneath the surface and I am trying to uncover them, one question at a time, following the wisdom that already lives in my bones.
Tina Zafreen Alam
Tina Zafreen Alam is a poet and a member of the Bangladeshi diaspora living in Toronto. She looks to name and illustrate the ways that transgenerational and intergenerational trauma have marked her life, while also affirming the wisdom that has passed down along with it.