by Lillie Aissa Jeanrenaud in Identity on 8th March, 2023
Le Musée De La Mamie: The Museum of My Grandmother is an exploration of French-Tunisian culture through the remembrance of the author’s grandmother and her environment. Writer Lillie Aissa hopes to inspire engaging deeper with one’s elders and personal roots.
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One of my favourite things to do is observe people through a glass window with a hot drink. To watch all these city people doing the dance of modern life and showing up so uniquely ignites a deep curiosity within me. It fascinates me how many ways of being there are, ways of dressing, living and moving through the world. Our differences enrich us, as individuals but also collectively.
As someone who studies the environment, I could only liken these gorgeous patterns, rhythms and details of difference as akin to a thriving ecosystem. In our 21st century world of pluralism, it is essential we embrace, nourish and celebrate differences. I have three different cultures, French, Tunisian and British, and I am no stranger to cultural traditions as well as cultural tensions. It can be painful not feeling represented anywhere, to know that ‘history’ is often comprised of the powerful and wealthy. Unless we re-position ourselves as worthy of remembrance and reverence, will our legacies continually be washed away like marks in the sand?
I am making it my mission to document the fragments of my unique blend of French-Tunisian cultures and radically remember. I propose all of us children of immigrants and marginal people do the same, in a turn of phrase I call ‘Musée De La Mamie’. I want to use this radical remembrance and archiving of the everyday to constructively build and shape our futures while being anchored in our hidden histories.
This great remembrance begins within our own four walls, with the people who are the backbone of the family and wider community, yet not praised enough. For me this is my grandmother, Mamie. I recently visited Mamie’s flat for the first time in a while and got transported back to this childhood realm of Arabic TV, plastic on the sofa and Mamie’s orange henna in her hair. This space used to seem huge and filled with boredom but distance, time and space, has made me crave its predictability.
My grandmother is Tunisian and she lives in an extremely ordinary part of Southern Paris. This place has humdrum beauty though, with its halal butchers, markets and the old man selling flowers in the Métro. Her flat is tiny and could be a large room if the wall was knocked down, yet there was a time when this flat housed six people.
The walls, imbued with our history, are a shrine to our family, something very common in Tunisian culture. Every inch of space is covered in childhood photos, drawings, postcards as well as Quran verses. There are cultural artefacts alongside all our photos, a reminder to never forget where we come from, even as we – her children and grandchildren – navigate the privilege of being able to travel around the world.
The person who takes up the most space on the wall is the one who has passed on, namely my late grandfather, Ali. By keeping us all in frames, we are made to feel safe, eternal and protected from the cruelty of our world.
We can all be together, even if only on this wall.
This act of cultural preservation is a way we can process our grief and never forget those we have lost. There has been a shift in cultural archiving to online spaces such as Facebook where the deceased’s page can be made into a legacy site.
When I think of Mamie I think of incoming Messenger calls, and her signature gift to me; 20 euros and a Kinder Bueno, a longstanding tradition. I think of how she has become more open-minded and continues to grow at 79 years of age. I think of her cruel biting comments, yet how she loves us all so much.
I remember her unhinged stories from the Tunisian countryside (bled), where she was raised. How she never had the chance to read or write as a little girl, a young woman, even as an elderly woman.
But Mamie is a determined and passionate lady and made it her mission to begin French classes in her 60s. I think of how the first time she saw primary school desks was when she sent her own children to school; how she’s taught herself everything she needs to know.
How she did it all for us. How I’m doing it all for her.
Those who came before us are a source of inspiration ,so it’s imperative to aspire to continue their beautiful winding legacy into the future. We need a mass movement of remembering before we lose our histories entirely. Remembering how our families spoke, what they ate and the things which make our cultures unique. I suggest a Musée De La Mamie, a renaissance of archives where we can document and share memories and people most important to us. We can learn about how grandmothers from around the globe do their hair, the things they regret and their prayers for the future. They stand before us like ancient trees, full of wisdom and honour.
It is our job to disperse, disperse, disperse and spread their song as far as we can.
I have told you all about my Mamie, and now I ask you to remember your own, or another person in your lineage who you would like to know more about.
Where were they born?
What were the challenges they faced?
What makes them special?
What can you learn from them?
What would you like to teach them?
How can you honour them?
Do you ever look in your eyes and see them?
What will you tell your children about them?
Finally, how do you wish to be remembered?
A Geography student of French-Tunisian origin, who grew up in Camden Town. I am a writer, with a particular interest in cultural geography, diaspora and spirituality. I am interested in alternative ways of seeing and remembering. For this reason I have created a cultural geography blog and multimedia platform, called Love Letters to Landscapes. This blog post has reached 88 views, from 10 different countries. This summer I am doing my dissertation on the political ecology of NYC community gardens, with a centring of migrant women's experiences.