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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

This weekend, put down your smartphone and listen to a loved one

Shelina Janmohamed writes on the fragility of life and the importance of preserving precious oral histories

A woman uses her smartphone. Veejay Villafranca / Bloomberg
A woman uses her smartphone. Veejay Villafranca / Bloomberg

There comes a time when the older people in our lives, the ones who formed the backdrop and structure to our childhood start to fade away and slip over their horizons. And with them, their stories are lost.

This week my eldest maternal aunt passed away. His son offered a moving elegy at her funeral. She was the first woman in her town to drive. She ran her own shop and was a successful business woman. She lived on three continents. She was an adventurer, a migrant, a mother, a community activist and an entrepreneur.

As children we hear snippets of the stories from the grown-ups, synthesized versions of their experiences and the meanings they drew from it.

They become so ingrained into our family micro-cultures that when they tell their tales we roll our eyes at the hundredth time they make the same point. They have seen a different world to us, and lived through different times. Yet we shake our heads, sometimes affectionately, sometimes impertinently at their old-fashioned ways.

We can never be privy to the actual histories that they’ve lived. But, no matter how hard it is to elicit those experiences, we should try harder, before they slip through our fingers and become lost to us forever.

Right here and now, we are so busy capturing the moment on social media that we forget to put down our phones and have conversations. Instead, if we must have our devices, we should turn on the recorders and capture what we can of those lives.

It’s a good alternative to those pouty selfies with a platitude for a caption. Why subtitle life with words that could apply to anyone anywhere when you could capture a snapshot of an actual life with real stories that have actual meaning to how each of us got to the here and now and made us who we are?

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There's something about the last century that embodies a particular significance. Huge chunks of the world, including the Middle East, emerged from colonial rule and stretched their wings as new political entities. The mass migration from the 1940s onwards on a scale never seen before in human history has meant that the generations that undertook that global movement are now entering old age. They embody a transformative moment in history. And they are walking case studies of how human beings undertake, manage and pass on cultural change.

Our homes and lives are full of people who carry these cinematic stories, the historic, the public and the private. We think we know their stories, but our proximity to them means that sometimes actually we know very little at all.

We might think one of our parents has led an ordinary life, that we have an annoying neighbour or that old man at the coffee shop is unkempt. But in each of these faces is a story that we should stop and listen to. With some curiosity and time, the stories that emerge are wholly surprising.

I learnt from my aunt to be fearless and to throw off stereotypes about women, and to stay true to yourself. I learnt from my father about how to plot your own course of life when facing uncharted territories and historical change. I learnt from my grandmother how to nurture a family and remain its heart across times, geographies and cultures.

The loss of someone close is, of course, about the loss of their physical presence, of their energy, their heart, their love, their very being and everything that makes up the unique person who they were, and the person only they could be.

What we can do is to hold onto their story, their experiences, their unique moment and individual trajectory through the universe and our collective history.

We can and must capture that trajectory and we must pay forward its momentum so its story remains.

This weekend, grab a recorder, sit with an older person in your life and ask them about their experiences. What you find out might surprise you. These are precious oral histories. When they are gone they are gone. If we don’t capture the histories of those closest to us, then who will?

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