On numerous occasions, dance has put me in an altered mental state, or trance, through which I magically have transcended pain and disability. Still, I was blown away by how radically it altered the mental state of my aunt Mazal.
Mazal was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in the 1920s — somewhere in the middle of my dad’s six older sisters and three older brothers. Following a violent upheaval in the 1940s, she and the rest of my family fled from Iraq and resettled in Israel.
Whenever I encountered her — during childhood trips to Israel and when I lived there as a young adult — she was wearing bold makeup and flamboyant clothes, grabbing my face firmly and affectionately when kissing my cheeks, and laughing boisterously, filling the entire room with sound.
As a child, I saw her through the lens of my dad and his siblings, who generally spoke of Mazal in disparaging terms: She was harsh, gaudy, trashy, a whore. As a young adult, however, I came to recognize her as a strong and vibrant woman, and I wondered why everyone disapproved of her so.
Was it because she was a loud, passionate woman instead of a properly docile one? Was it because she was the darkest member of the family? Was it simply because she liked bright colors?
I got my answer the year before she died:
For two years, Mazal had been suffering from Alzheimer’s — a disease that had left her frail, deflated, resigned. The transformation was astonishing and heart-breaking: Every day, this once-boisterous woman would sit in a corner, zombie-like — crumpled in a chair, shoulders hunched, head hung low.
Initially, she’d only lost memory of Hebrew and French. She could, however, still speak Judeo-Arabic (the Hebrew-Arabic dialect of Middle Eastern Jews). As the disease progressed, however, Mazal lost that ability as well.
She was left mumbling unintelligible noises that sounded like Arabic but meant nothing. My aunt Nava, who often hosted Mazal, would smile lovingly and nod patiently, not understanding a single word.
One day, Nava, Mazal, and I were having lunch in Nava’s kitchen, when Nava got up to retrieve something from a back room. Mazal, who had been sitting comatose in her chair as usual, suddenly jumped up and leapt over to the space in front of the refrigerator, where she promptly began belly dancing — reaching her arms out to me, in an invitation to join her.
She had spontaneously transformed into another woman altogether — laughing, humming, full of life, face radiant and eyes sparkling with a mischievous glint.
So there we were, belly dancing and laughing in front of the fridge, when we heard Nava returning to the kitchen. Mazal halted her dance, put her finger to her lips, excitedly whispered, “shh, shh, shh,” scrambled over to her chair, and promptly returned to a zombie-like state, as if nothing had happened.
What. The fuck. Was that.
Later that afternoon, we were sitting in the living room, drinking tea, when again Nava retreated to the back of the apartment, and again Mazal sprang to life, bouncing out of her chair and belly dancing – humming and laughing as I shimmied my hips to the best of my ability by her side.
As Nava’s footsteps drew near, Mazal put her fingers to her lips in a conspiratorial shushing, raced to the armchair, and promptly returned to her stupefied state.
Let me give you a bit of background before I go on any further:
I’ve got what you might call a reputation in my family. I’m the bad girl, the black sheep, the one who does her thing and speaks her mind and doesn’t tolerate any b.s. Think punk-rocker chick meets the Stepford wives, and you’ll get my drift.
So although I didn’t get the whole altered-mental-state thing at the time, I wasn’t too surprised that Mazal felt comfortable sharing with me something she kept hidden from other people. I didn’t understand the significance of what she was sharing, however, until a later conversation with Nava:
I was asking what life in Iraq was like from the perspective of the girls in the family, since I ‘d only heard stories through the lens of my father. Nava revealed to me, for the first time, that she had wanted to be a lawyer like my grandfather.
She’d been on her way to law school, she said, when she met and married my uncle. That was the end of that.
“What about Mazal?” I asked. Nava’s facial expression changed to one of disdain, as she pursed her lips and tossed her head to the left. “She wanted to be a belly dancer,” Nava replied, her tone dripping with disapproval. “She wanted to move to Egypt, because she thought they had the best belly dancing and the most glamorous men.”
In one fell swoop, it all made sense:
In Iraq, at least in the Jewish community, being a dancer, musician, or any kind of artist was tantamount to being a prostitute. Good girls did not belly dance. Good girls did not pursue glamorous men. Good girls certainly did not move to another country to belly dance and pursue glamorous men!
I had felt alienated from and misunderstood by my relatives my entire life, but suddenly I realized that I had a kindred spirit among them: Mazal.
She must have been full of life as a girl, yearning to celebrate her body and spirit in a society that stifled both. I imagine she expressed desires and passions that were forbidden for girls or women to even think about.
Given that she ended up following the expected script — socially, sexually, and (lack of) professionally — I also imagine all her passion got trapped inside, turning her creative fire into rage. I’m not surprised if she was in fact “harsh.” I bet she was resentful as hell.
Dancing with her for the sum total of those five minutes was one of the most sacred experiences of my life. After what must have been a lifetime of being condemned for the essence of who she was, Mazal chose to share her dancing soul with me.
I’m not sure how Alzheimer’s works, but I know for a fact that Mazal was in an altered mental state when she was dancing. The woman was totally lucid.
I have drawn a few conclusions from this experience:
- Dancing is a manifestation of Spirit.
- Spirit has the potential to transcend and transform the limitations of Body.
- When we lovingly embrace someone else’s Spirit, we create the space for that person to transcend and transform physical limitations, and therefore, to heal.
- When, to the contrary, we condemn someone else’s Spirit, we compromise that person’s potential to heal.
As for Mazal and me, the last time I saw her, I was leaving Nava’s apartment as somebody was escorting Mazal there. Mazal was walking slowly and meekly, eyes downcast, body sunken. When she saw me, her whole face lit up, and she smiled broadly.
She grabbed my face firmly and affectionately, then kissed both my cheeks.