Karen Jayes – acclaimed South African author of For the Mercy of Water, award-winning journalist, enchanting speaker, and mother of two to boot. I felt extremely privileged to be in the presence of a woman who exudes such graceful stillness and strength. Her eloquent hands wove the air with slight gestures, delicately poised, almost expressing more than her words. Almost.
As she calmly and gently led my writing class into the Gaza warzone, her quiet strength shone. Every aspect of Karen and her story captivated and amazed me – her courage to face such devastation; her foresight in recognising the scarce resource water would become and what Konstantin Sofianos pin-pointed as the “privatisation of water”; discovering herself as a writer; and her personal struggles and triumphs. Her novel is about drought, but Karen washes over one in a shimmering wave.
Water – the topic of Karen’s novel seeped in. Shortly after meeting with her, Grahamstown (where I live) went bone-dry and the entire ‘city’ was without water for between seven and nine days. People piled their cars full of plastic containers, carted them to the spring (which we are blessed to have ever-flowing just outside of town), stood baking in long lines weaving up the path, and then lugged their haul back. The shops could barely keep up with the demand for bottled water, and I dare say water may have briefly rivalled the town’s infamous alcohol sales.
As we all grew smellier, the town seemed to shrivel to a dusty halt. ‘For the Mercy of Water’ – the title chimed over in my head, ringing truer than ever. Floodgates of a different kind sprang open – but realisations are not necessarily clean, nor gently soothing.
Fact – without water we die. We as humans know and recognise the dependency of our survival on this resource. Though fatality was thankfully not a concern in this instance, it was a sombre reminder of just how reliant we are on being able to simply turn on a tap. Additionally, how expectant we are of this ‘right’ and how angry or indignant we feel when this ‘right’ is not immediately met. The coldest bucket over the head and the most sobering of all is that the ‘irritating inconvenience’ of a sputtering tap is a year-round reality and daily life in much of the world – one in nine people do not have access to safe drinking water, and one in three are without adequate sanitation. Who knows what this will be in the future.
Another light that lingered after the lecture and refused to relinquish my attention was not the focus of Karen’s talk. In fact it was the area she plainly stated she felt most tentative about discussing due to the controversy it frequently provoked. However, Karen’s conversion to Islam after her experiences in the Israel-Palestine conflict resonated with me as an over-reaching symbol of what she personally had profoundly understood and taken away from the experience. It was not the oppression of her gender, but a devout faith with deep respect and acknowledgement of women.
The rippling implications of this echoed outwards. As cogs began to twirl and spin, I was confronted mid-thought by my own mind. Why was this so fascinating to me? What pre-conceived notions did I hold and was reacting to? My answer surprised me, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth as I tried to reject it. Unconsciously yet undeniably, I definitely thought of Islam as oppressive towards women. I now know better. By being and living her truth, Karen leads by example, thus acting as a clear and questioning mirror to onlookers. What I saw challenged me to rethink a stigma I did not know I held and open a door to understanding. For the mercy of humanity, I personally hope to continually have these boarders that we create broadened. Whether consciously created or not, it is only by breaking these boxes that we let in a new light.
If you are interested to know more about this incredible woman, these are a few sites and articles I particularly enjoyed. I recommend them all. The final one, Karen’s article ‘Worship behind the wall’, I found particularly insightful.
- Ellipsis – Karen Jayes For the Mercy of Water is a concise overview of the book and interesting interview with Karen Jayes.
- SA evoked through rural battle: For the Mercy of Water is a beautifully thoughtful analysis by Konstantin Sofianos of Karen Jayes’s book For the Mercy of Water.
- Curious case of Israel’s invasion of Gaza is a thought-provoking article by Karen Jayes regarding the politics and controversy of the recent Israeli invasion.
- Worship behind the wall is a moving article by Karen Jayes on her spiritual visit to the hostile West Bank.