Category: Faith, Islam, Travel (Miscellaneous) - Posted On: March 9th, 2009
I have written a companion piece for “Emeralds”. I am trying to alternate between publishing pieces here and publishing them at othermatters.org ; since I published Emeralds here, I am publishing this one at the other site. Read the beginning here, and if you are interested, go to see the rest by clicking the link below.
A male cardinal in March; a flash of red against snow. He jumps up the branches of the oak tree wearing a black mask over his eyes. He is crimson from his crest to the tip of his tail; one is almost glad, seeing him, for the bareness of the season. Were there leaves on the trees or sun in the sky, he might not seem as bright. I throw burnt popcorn from the second floor porch. He fights sparrows for the seeds.
I trace the shape of the minor chords up and down my knees. My hand makes a small round shape, gloves curled, imagining keys. It is a habit of thinking; in the familiarity of the scales from C up an octave to C, I find familiarity upon which to daydream. I have learned enough of my religion to feel at ease with submission and belief. Islam and iman, the first two i-words, have meanings which are clear to me. One can list their requirements on two hands, and fulfilling them, feel complete. But what of the third i-word, what of ihsan? It appears in the dictionary under husn: beauty, perfection, excellence. Ihsan is a derivative verbal form meaning the enacting of these. To do what is beautiful, to do what is perfect, to do what is excellent; what do these mean? Each time I consider these questions, I recall the same hadith.
Narrated Omar bin Al-Khattab:
One day while we were sitting with the messenger of Allah there appeared before us a man whose clothes were exceedingly white and whose hair was exceedingly black; no signs of journeying were to be seen on him and none of us knew him. He walked up and sat down by the Prophet. Resting his knees against the Prophet’s and placing the palms of his hands on the Prophet’s thighs, he said, “O Muhammad, tell me about Islam”.
NB: I am interested lately in the topic of ihsan. I intend to write a series of posts about it; this is an introduction.
“The irony is that your selfishness hurts you,” she says. “You’re so selfish that you drive other people away. The result is that you don’t get what you want.” My throat sinks into my toes. I am too demoralized to speak. The defense instinct, at times falcon-eyed, beats feebly inside my chest like a tired old one-good-winged crow.
Why fight? She is either wrong or right. If she is wrong, will arguing change her mind? If she is right, will it change mine? I want to defend myself, I decide, because I want her to think well of me. I want to be, if not admired, then at least liked. I splay and tighten my toes as I think; at times like these, there is such comfort in the mundane. Ten curved digits, yellow-white, grasp and pull at air. I want to be known as excellent. I think about ihsan.
The cat slinks across the floor. Pa-tit-tit-tit, the pads of her feet make very quiet drums. Her belly is lined with tufts of white fur, which fluff up in contrast to what is otherwise sleek. She is, by all accounts, excellent in her role as the cat. She sleeps in a moon-colored ball behind knees at the foot of my bed. Her mouth gushes in the springtime, when the birds come out of hiding to play on the windowsill’s far edge. She drinks water from every available cup, and prefers those not assigned to her. She licks herself clean in the morning, and once again at night. When her bowl is empty, she cries.
I can find no fault in her execution of cat. Even when she bites, when she pees on the floor, when she sheds fine gray hairs on the abaya’s black edge, still, she is being a cat. Biskit, I tell her in my mind, you are excellent at that.
Out the window in the streetlight, tiny pellets of icy snow whip their way to the ground through the branches of a tree. It is a flawless tree, not obsessed with playing the saxophone, or rude when it wakes up in bed. In the winter, its leaves drop abruptly, like the towel from around a woman who is sliding into her bath. Then it stands bare, alternately black and gray, as snow, clouds and sheets of icy alternately blanket the street. It witnesses the traffic’s flow. When the calendar claim’s spring’s approach, the tree resolutely agrees. Though more snow may fall, it sends out buds. It’s branches lighten as they grow, until come April, new growth crowns the top of the tree. Later, flowers, leaves, bees. Helicopters in September, continuing through autumn.
Tree, I watch as it withstands snow, you are excellent at that. Down the street near the disappearing curve, a yield sign is bent. Someone has slammed against its face; a deep crease worries its brow. Its readability is lost; were it not for color and shape, it would pass beyond recognition. Yield sign, I am sorry to say, you are not an excellent thing.
So far my search for ihsan has only measured the world which is far removed from me. I look around the flat. A dress from Palestine, embroidered red and brown, fraying all the way up the front edge. The top of the range, papered over, charred with oil gone black. A bouquet of cut carnations, flowers going limp. The apartment is full of man-made things, all of which are failing. “Say something nice,” I whisper to the phone. “Something you like about me.”
My ear continues to ache for a long time after we have hung up. I prowl from living room to kitchen, from bedroom to bath in search of a sign of something which is excellent about me. A smooth yellow passion fruit pie waits on the fridge’s top shelf. I cut a slice with a butter knife. It is soft and cold along my tongue, but not sufficiently sweet. Close, I tell myself. You are almost excellent at cooking.
Passion fruit has a taste like flowers. If anything excellent is in your pie, my sterner self answers back, it is in the ingredients which were perfectly created. The fruit, the sugar, the flour, the egg; you made none of these. You combine raw materials passably. I remember the way that scholars will sometimes begin their public speech. Bismillah, in the name of Allah. Any goodness is from Him, all mistakes are from me.
I have not yet prayed the fifth prayer for today. Demoralized by my wandering, I shut myself in the bathroom, and roll up my sleeves. I make my intention above the sink. At least, I tell myself as I wash, you can make this an excellent ablution. At least you can hope that if you are sincere, then this Allah might accept.
My musalla is a small red rug spread alone on a graying floor. I lie down on it afterward to feel its softness pressed against my cheek. Ihsan, the Prophet said to Angel Jibreel, is to worship Allah as if you see him, for even if you don’t, surely he sees you. It is clear enough to me what this means in the context of salah. To concentrate more, to clear out my heart. To make sincere intention and dua. To find within recitation and dhikr a path toward continual remembrance. It is not the outer acts of worship which tonight concern me.
Tonight, I am worried by the inner ones. Teaching First Grade is worship, is it not, if my intention makes it so? Cooking and running and writing and reading, all of the things which I love, could be worship if they were properly applied. I review faces in memory. Who do I know who is excellent? From whom can I learn, and on whom might I lean? My companion’s words from earlier this evening still, when I think of them, sting. I pretend to be hunting for emeralds. Look through your furious churning to see if anything of value remains.
The yellow is fading from Ezkina’s world.
She sits at her table, coloring, singing a sad song to herself. A story of bees rests under her crayon; she spreads lemon over pink. “Ezkina,” I call to her from my desk. “Ta’ali, mama. Come here, please.” She looks up from her singing with the surprise of one who has felt invisible. Her head tilts to one side. “Me?”
I nod at my palest child. She lines up her crayons on the edge of the tape which marks her First Grade seat. From the box in the center of the table, she has taken three: lemon, chartreuse, maize. Why do you love yellow so? My heart wants to understand. Most of the girls in our class love blue, or purple or silvery pink. Our boys love green or red or red and green. They are too young to realize that these are the colors of Christmas. For a moment I wonder how they will feel when they realize that their favorites speak of a holiday which we do not celebrate. Who among my children will change, and who will stay the same?
The full post is at othermatters.org…
Category: Faith, Travel (Miscellaneous) - Posted On: January 29th, 2009
I lay three fatted twigs along the fireplace’s grate, and stretch an Ossipee log across them. I have loosened handfuls of splinters along its face, in the hope of encouraging flames. It is a dark morning; new snow has fallen. There is precious little paper, and no real kindling. I tear strips from a brown bag, and twist them into chords. These I stuff into the gaps between the log, the grate and the twigs.
The match in my right hand resembles blond hair, rigidly shellacked. It flares easily; no more force is required to ignite it against a sandpaper square than one might exert on a pencil’s lead, when signing one’s name to a page. I touch the matchhead’s flame to the tip of each twig. For a moment, they sweat grease. Then a sound like breath through gritted teeth, and one by one they ignite.
An inch and a half of each must be burned before the log will be met. My three small fires suck sap from these twigs like children emptying bones. A few of my paper twists start to burn; they are slow in unfurling. I grow tired of watching, and rise to make tea. My feet are cold along the floor, and in their stiffness I think of Abbu. He is the only member of the immediate family whom I have yet to meet. I ask my husband to describe his father, and comb his answers for clues. Abbu is the shyest, the most imaginative. He is a day-dreamer for all that I know; or perhaps like Baji, artistic? There is little satisfaction in guessing. I seek similarities between us in history. In railways, in camels, in poetry; in dua, migration, tea.
Category: Uncategorized - Posted On: January 1st, 2009
Neela toddles across the bridal suite, and finds my makeup bag. At three, she is old enough to unzip; a grey kohl pencil, a strand of pink pearls and a collection of pins spill onto the floor. From these she extracts the pearls. Looping them around her neck, she shuffles in the direction of the windows.
Her presence is a relief. I didn’t know what to do with myself, waiting here alone. There are steps which must be taken: changing clothes, arranging my scarf, making wudu, praying. Perhaps other things must be done, but I do not know what they might be. Moreover, there is nowhere to hang my things. My wedding dress stretches along the floor, crepe over satin. White. I kneel on the floor by the collection of pins, pursing the carpet in my hands. One, two, three. One has a head of white, another of pink. The third is slimmer, black. I stick them through the makeup bag’s thin plastic sides. There they wait, like three exclamation points, ready to punctuate something.
The toddler drifts back toward me, singing Twinkle-twinkle ABCs. “Hi Neela,” I try. She waves her hands, around the beads. “Mine.” I make no move to remove them. They hang long around her neck; they fall almost to her feet. You can keep the pearls if you will stay. I catch my insides pleading.
Neela’s mother smiles. Hafsa, thank God for Hafsa, settles onto her knees by me. “I’ll get dressed, and then you can help me with the hijab,” I make my best guess. Is this what brides do? The scarf is simple and blue in my hands, with thin hooks of white lace along its face. I fold it into a rectangle, conscious of its lack of weight. Hafsa takes it from me and nods. “Sure, habibti. Take your time.” I collect my dress from the floor.
The bridal suite, normally the nursery, is attached to the sisters’ shoe racks and wudu station. I imagine a porcelain trough, at which women will wipe their feet. I have never performed ablutions here; the mosque has not long been open. Mine is the first wedding in this masjid. For a moment, alone between rooms, I wonder what I am doing.
I have never seen a nikah ceremony, and no matter how many times it is explained to me, I cannot play out its form in my head. Objectively I know that I will mostly sit. There will be no music, no exchange of rings. I have memorized my only line. Yes, I give my consent. I open the door to the changing room. It holds a sink and a toilet, a small rectangle of carpet, a pot on the floor holding water, and a pair of plastic shoes.
I unwind my scarf in the mirror, and pull off the underscarf tube. A short bob of hair, ginger brown, crackles with static electricity. The bangs stick to my forehead. My cheeks are splotchy, and my eyes too big. Little Red Riding Hood looked no more surprised than I, on my wedding day, do. I try saying my line in the mirror. “Yes, I give my consent.”
I wash my hands, my mouth, my nose, my face. My arms, my head, my ears, my feet. In two minutes, I am dressed. Isn’t this supposed to take more time? I tie Hafsa’s good white underscarf back behind my ears. My shoes are with my parents, driving lost along the river. I stick stockinged feet into the bathroom flipflops and pad my way to the entrance of my room.
Hafsa draws in her breath. “Beautiful,” she says. “You look beautiful.” She unfolds my scarf. “Come here. Closer to me.” Her toes point the way to Mecca; I settle against her, knees touching knees. She holds one end of the hijab under my chin, and winds the other around my face. Then begins the pinning.
First the white pin, head like a pearl, is woven through the top of the scarf. I am conscious of too many worries for my heart to settle on one. Orange-flower water, the arrangement of tarts. Flower girl bouquets. Has anyone found the milk for the tea? Where shall I sit? What of the imam? What of the non-Muslims? As she works, I try not to breathe. I am conscious, in my stillness, of sweating. Getting married, I decide, is like life in a spacesuit. No matter how you approach, there is no way for you to touch.
Hafsa rolls the scarf tightly against my cheeks. She studies my pins for a moment, and whispers two of Allah’s names. The pink pin is rejected as others are found; she finishes, and studies me. “Do you want to put the kohl?”
Other ladies have begun to arrive; the door opens and closes like the mouth of a fish as they enter, smile, and leave. Salaam, salaam, salaam; I am stuck on greetings. My mouth is dry as saltines. “Yes. Kohl. Please.”
I close my eyes as her hands touch my face. She is solid and warm. She holds the pencil against my brow, hesitates. I feel the temperature change as she moves her hand away. Can she tell that I already tried with the kohl, but that I do not know what I am doing? No matter how old I get, makeup always makes me look like a girl who has snuck into her mother’s handbag. I thought I had wiped my efforts away.
Her laugh is almost as warm as her touch. I open my eyes, and she pats her lap. “Please, come down here,” she says. “I know it seems strange, but it is the best way.” I stretch my dress down around my legs. Hafsa, if you told me to fly… I rest my right cheek against her knee, and curl my side against the carpet. The floor is reassuring.
Neela comes over to watch her mother’s work, while Hafsa’s hands play at my face. I am terribly tempted to sleep. In the spaces between talking, my worries make seltzer inside me. Where will I sit, when it is time? Where should I look? Shall we finally shake hands?
The crowd in the ceremonial room has reached critical mass. I can hear the sounds of people, padding back and forth along carpet, talking in twos and threes. Are my friends out there? I imagine Sue and her baby. Alison, Rene. They have never been in a masjid. How are they feeling, along about now?
And then I remember what I have tried to remember since the wedding planning began. My friends want this to succeed. Our guests whom I do not know also want this to succeed. Everyone gathered at the masjid today is here because they wish to be supportive. If there is no tea, they will not care. If the lemonade is too flowery, or if it is not flowery enough, no one but me will notice. If I do not know where to sit, someone will tell me. If I forget my line, I will be reminded.
I smile up at Hafsa, who smiles down at me. “Okay?” she asks. “Okay,” I answer. From the downstairs musalah, the call to prayer sounds. “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar.” The sun has begun to set, and the time has arrived to pray. Here at least is one thing which does not depend on me. Hafsa and I stand and join our shoulders and feet. Two points determine a line. As the imam begins to read Surat al Fatiha, I am as at home as I have ever been. The wedding moment creeps closer, but I know how to pray.
Category: Uncategorized - Posted On: September 23rd, 2008
Originally published at othermatters.org in July, 2008.
The entrance to the mosque is hidden behind a metal door which swings. It is early, still, for maghrib; I imagined, walking downhill, that I would find a space inside, up in a balcony, where I might wait to pray.
The masjid is a simple thing with a short minaret, just this side of shabby. Its facade has been whitewashed in recent years, and yet, still, patches of brick, swathes of cement are visible through its skin. I am reminded, standing outside, of veins on the back of my hand.
In the shade of the Blue Mosque, its adhan is drowned. Still, I think, while I slip off my shoes, maybe small things suit me better. Perhaps here the women, should any come, will line up with me. Perhaps, this time, as one body, we will pray together.
Shoes in hand, I push open the door and am stopped up short by legs. Three women wearing stylish niqabs sit together, knee to knee. They wait in the alcove, on concrete squares. I try the door leading into the prayer hall; a woman, behind me, murmurs. We are locked out.
I settle myself in a free corner to wait. We give salaam softly, the ladies and I, before they return to their conversation. I rest my wrist in my lap and trace my thumb up the lines in the fingers. Subhan Allah, Subhan Allah, Subhan Allah. God is Perfect, God is Perfect, God is Perfect. My hand prickles in the evening. The door through which I have just passed creaks open again, and a child, perhaps eight, finds her way inside.
A woman whose veil is silky dove grey asks the child to shut the door, to come to her side. I watch as the girl picks her way through the assemblage of feet, and then it hits me. I understood what the woman said. They are speaking Urdu. My vocabulary in Urdu might be scant, but it is downright
conversational compared to my Turkish.
I cannot keep from beaming. Two minutes later, we’ve done places and names. They are Rukhsana, Saadia, Aban. They are from Quetta, in Pakistan. Aban is telling me about her children when a click from the inside of the masjid sounds; a deadbolt is slid away. The women stand and flip down their veils. We may come inside to pray.
A limp curtain the color of bone shades the beginning of the stairs. Aban holds it open for me, and up, together we walk. The women’s section is a bird’s nest, perched high up at the ceiling. Benches have been fitted before the window sills; while we wait for the imam, the women prostrate and the children pray. I follow the tradition I know best about how to enter a mosque; when I am done, I settle myself at Rukhsana’s side. My eyes travel over the tops of the walls. Above the point of the mirhab, three names are hung in a line: Allah, Muhammad, Ali.
While I am wondering about the display of these names, the iqama sounds. Its words are different than those I expect; it contains new phrases. The women line up, side by side. I feel, then, the weight of my choice. This mosque, I am more and more certain, does not reflect my tradition. There is plenty of time to pray at my hotel; is it wrong for me to stay?
Saadia’s hand comes from under her veil to pull me closer to her. Our shoulders are touching. Our feet are aligned. The warmth of her body keeps me in place. This is the first place in Turkey where I have felt another Muslim stand so close to me to pray. This mosque is the first place where I have been comfortable with our line.
The hall in which Ruwi’s tomb lies is louder than the sea. A host of dead disciples rest in elevated graves. Each of these is crowned with a peg, wrapped with a turban, engraved. The flow of traffic through the hall is halted in places, in tightening clumps, where masses of people slow. Were the room a brain and we blood cells, the building would have a stroke.
My guides, two young girls from the university, are anxious to have me see everything. I understand their impatience, their pride; this is their city’s legacy. A giant dervish made of fiberglass spins eternally before a restaurant on the edge of town. I let myself be led by the arm to the foot of a mountain of green.
The stone has been carved to resemble a shroud, such that it falls in waves down the length of the sarcophagus. It is protected by an ornate gate, enfolded in walls painted with blue, with gold leaf, where verses are written in red, black and green. There is nothing plain on which to rest my eyes. I am momentarily dizzy.
Women around me are crying, their hands cupped in prayer. They make dua facing the tomb. I try not to hear. What practice is this? My understanding of what is right cannot be reconciled with what I see. There is no God but Allah, I say to myself. Next to me, Lale is watching.
I am at a loss. Shall I tell the girls that praying to saints is shirk? Should I ignore the practice? Shall I give in and raise my hands, as if to make dua?
I find that my heart mostly wants to see a different room. I am trying to keep my distance from the tombs when Tezer presses me. “Do you know Al Fatiha?” she asks. At my nod, she smiles, and looks into my eyes. “Please say it with me.”
Read the Qur’an in public? I open my mouth to decline, but am stopped up short. How many times so far this trip have I felt lonely wishing for just one person to pray with me? Faced with the chance to give Tezer what I’d like for myself, I find I cannot disagree.
In the office I feel five kinds of alone. The nurse has installed a needle in my arm, a long, flexible thing, which terminates in a capped valve. I hold the Qur’an in my right hand, and do my best to read. The print is tiny, tiny; I have to narrow my eyes to make out the letters, to keep them away from the clock.
I listen to the noise of the crowd outside: to the footsteps of the soldiers, to sirens which cry. When last I stood in the hallway, they were marching prisoners through. Arms folded behind their backs, they stared at the ground. I wondered where they were going. Men with tubes of blood protruding from their noses wandered through Cardiology. I watched families with angry eyed children, and elders who shook ceaselessly. Nurses came running with a defibrillator into one of the patient rooms. After a moment, two women left its doorway, wailing.
I try to take myself away, to remember everything which Hafsah has taught to me about tajweed. I watch my mims and my nuns, I pay attention to madd. My favorite surah for months now has been Al-Ala. “But you prefer the life of the world, though the hereafter is better, everlasting,” for a moment, I am back at school, legs curled under on the edge of the rug, watching the Qur’an competition. I hear the shaykh greeting us, and the microphone buzzing.
The door to the office opens, dyeing the walls pale, pale green. Into the room, two women in black stumble, shaking. For a moment they stand, uncertain, holding their cell phones. I scoot over to the edge of the couch, and touch the space next to me.
One of them settles against me, while the other remains standing. They call relatives. For the first time in Turkey, I will myself not to understand. I finish the surah, and look ahead. Next is Al-Ghashiya. The
Overwhelming. I let the Book fall open in my hands, asking God to pick something else for me. When I look at it again, it is open to page 531: the beginning of Al-Rahman.
The couch shakes from the force of my companion’s sobs. I hold her as best I can, one hand grasping the Qur’an, and the other, wrapped around her arm. The women finish their conversations, and the one who is standing leaves. The woman sitting next to me shifts her weight uneasily. Wait, I want to say to her. I swear that I can give you something. I close the Qur’an, and zip shut its cover. I try to hand it to the woman next to me. Please, I beg her with my heart, have my Qur’an. This is all I can do for
She looks at me blankly, and does not take my offering. Still, she does not get up. I rub her arm slowly, up and down, black crepe whispering. I place the Qur’an in her lap, now she will understand. You will be okay, I think to her. I swear that if you read it, you will find some relief from your suffering.
She stands up then and kisses me. “I cannot read it,” she says in Turkish. I am surprised to find that in times of trauma, I can understand. For a moment, she holds my hand. “I don’t know how,” she says, “you read it for me.” She raises her hands to the sky, as if cupping something. “Make dua,” she says, as she rewraps herself to leave. “Please.”
No one else in the masjid is under the age of seventy. The brothers show me into the room, a big empty place, which has been built for the ladies. They take care in making sure that my shoes are well placed, and they shut the door after me. While the last strains of the adhan die away, I sit, remembering.
The time after the adhan stretches on while I wait for anyone to come and pray with me. I vow to myself that this time, I will not pray alone. If anyone else comes, anyone at all, I will ask her to line up with me. I study the floor around me to count the sets of beads.
The door opens at last and another woman comes in. She is old, like the other faithful, and surprised to find company. I smile, but she does not see. She sits with her hands on her heart. At last, the iqama begins.
Please come to me, I ask the woman, as both of us stand to pray. I try to make eye contact, which she seems bent on ignoring. As the call begins to end, my heart thuds. I cannot do this alone, not this time.
“Come here,” I tell her in Arabic. She turns her head and blinks. She does not understand what I have said, but she has connected with me. “Come stand by me,” I try again. I pat my side, I incline my head. Please, I ask her silently. Please join me. My khushoo is so weak lately. My mind keeps wandering. I want to pray my best. I want you next to me.
Then the injustice of what I ask overwhelms me. Are your legs broken? I ask myself. If praying separately is too hard for you, then go to her. Stand by her. You do not have to be as helpless as you act. You can still do something. The shy, lazy part of me rebels. But I’m standing in the right place to start the line, a voice in my head says to me. She’s all the way over on the left. That’s wrong.
I take two steps toward my sister, and she takes two toward me. The imam begins to pronounce the first takbir, and finally, we are moving. We meet in the middle, and fold down our hands. We are finally touching.
Category: Uncategorized - Posted On: September 23rd, 2008
Originally published on othermatters.org, July, 2008.
Konya, July 7
I listen to Sevde’s breathing change as she falls asleep. Our beds form an L, such that without moving, I can study her face. Thirteen years old and wrapped up in pink, she rests on her right side. I am glad that her restlessness has ceased, even if, by falling asleep, she has left me. Of everything I want for her, perhaps foremost is peace. Outside of our window, Konya is quiet; along houses built of cinder blocks, nothing living stirs. This is not a city of strays.
It is our second and last night together. On the eve of my departure, I find myself tense. “Why do you have to go?” Osman asked after pouring the tea. “Sueda, Sevde, Nihal and Fatma all want to know. They do not understand.” The question stretched between us, quivering, like a sheet hung in the breeze. Try as I might, I found nothing to say. Dear God, forgive me.
In the end, I gave the family my best smile. “Please, come and visit me in Boston. If you can get a plane ticket, I will take care of you. You will have no worries. Insha’Allah, you will be my guest.” My voice rose up half a step, as it does when describing a dream.
Osman smiled faintly, translating. Nihal made a motion with her hand, like an old woman grasping a cane. “When we have the money to come to Boston, we will be old.” We laughed then, and stirred more sugar into our tea. Bored on the couch, Sueda clicked her feet. “Sos?” she asked me in Turkish. “Sos?” Our private game of misunderstanding. “Sos?” I echoed back at her. “Ya Sueda, sos?” It is easier to know what to say to a six year old. We have nothing to dispute. For first graders, the present is much more interesting than the future or the past.
I reached across the floor to her. Our second ritual, after “Sos?” involves me pretending to break eggs on her head. First three taps on her hairline, with all my fingertips together. Then, on the fourth, I let my hand sink slowly against her brow, expanding. “Yumurta, Sueda?” I asked her. “Yumurta?” she replied. “Yumurta, Anna?” Egg?
I laugh to myself, remembering. I study the shadows of our room. Above Sevde’s bed, Ayat ul Kursi shines unevenly in the moonlight. I can make out only the beginning. Allahu la ilaha illa Huwa, Al-Hayyul-Qayyum… The rest, too dark to read, plays in my memory. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. So many cherished people have read this verse to me. At school, at the masjid, in the park; sitting together, in the grass, under the most magnificent sky. I wish, for an instant, that Sevde were up so that I could read it for her. At least then I could give her something. After peace, what I want for my beloved is protection.
I am at a loss as to what I can do for Sevde and her family which might be even half as precious as what they have done for me. How can I reciprocate? What do I have that I can share? At home, I could feed them, I could introduce them to friends. I could walk them through the arboretum, under honeysuckle leaves. As it is, most of what I have done in their company is to accept, to receive, to take, to thank. My mind’s eye floats back over our days.
We met on the train, the girls and I, on the Anatolian plateau. Nihal and her daughters came to my table, and sat down beside me. There, above Juz ‘Amma, veiled in smoke and electric light, Nihal asked me to read. She paused at my mistakes, and corrected them. When I stopped, we held hands. In the stream of Turkish which followed, I understood very little, besides “together”, “Konya” and “home.” Eight hours later, blinking back sleep, I sat on the couch in her house. Hos geldiniz, sweetheart.
In retrospect I can tell that we share love; yet, I find that I cannot pinpoint the moment of its genesis. Somewhere between Mevlana’s tomb and Alaaddin Masjid, somewhere between talking and cooking. Perhaps it was yesterday, when the sun disappeared, and we readied ourselves to pray. “Namaz, Sueda?” I asked the child. “Yalla, mama. Namaz.” I moved to the right, so that she could share my rug. It was good, I realized as we touched feet, to be praying with children again. To bow together, to place our heads on the floor. This takes me back to my First Grade class, to love for Allah’s sake.
Its practice infused today. The family’s elder members and I sat together over sunflower seeds, minding their shop. In the shade of nightgowns, scarves and rings, we passed the hours away. Sueda, whose cough could wake the dead, slept on the floor in the corner. Between doses of yellow syrup, now and then, she woke up to spit or to cry. While she stayed awake, I sat her in the chair at my side, and we raced paper airplanes. An expression of our love to be sure, but not the moment of its birth.
From within her tangle of sheets, Sevde, sleeping, mumbles. I cannot make out what she is saying. Indeed, I don’t know where to start. Who is her best friend? Is there a boy she is fond of? What does she want to be when she grows up? Of her practice, her hopes, her dislikes and her daydreams, I know exceedingly little.
Perhaps a book could be written on all of the things about each other that we do not know. Middle names, favorites, birthdays. The politics of the school where I teach, the tragedies of our homelands. I do not know this family’s worries, and they do not know mine. Our shared vocabulary is perhaps 300 words; I cannot, in Turkish, even tell them how I feel.
I remember the end of our evening. After dinner, when it had been determined that I really was going, we bundled into the car. I did not understand our purpose, until we had arrived at it. “We are going buying,” Nihal explained, reaching again for my hand.
Suddenly, up ahead, a bus station loomed. Osman held the door to the office, while the rest of us lined up inside. In a soft voice, he approached the clerk at his desk. “Are there buses to Adana, tomorrow?” he asked. “I need a seat on the women’s side.” Slowly, he nodded at me. “She would like to leave in the morning. Please take care of her. She speaks English.”
I unzipped my wallet at the clerk’s assent, and thumbed through money to pay. Osman, watching, leaned quietly toward me. “Anna. No.” He slid a debit card from his pocket, and handed it across the counter.
My heart stung with something akin to shame. The price of the ticket eclipsed what their store grossed today, never mind what little it actually earned them. The moment passed while I tried to sort out what to do. The clerk charged Osman’s card, and handed the ticket to me. We walked out into the darkness then, with me still wondering. All the kinds of thank you that I know how to say seem silly in the face of such extravagant care. They do not understand Jazakum Allahu khayran, though I have said it many times.
I was quiet on the way home, and when the girls and I hugged each other good night. Wishing Sevda sweet dreams, I climbed into my adopted bed. What is the proper etiquette for accepting a gift? I asked my heart. For that matter, what is the proper etiquette for accepting love?
An hour has passed, and I still do not know. Moreover, I am tired of trying to reason it out. Better generations than my own have surely dealt with this. I creep across the room in my socks, to my messenger bag. From its side pocket, I draw out a square of silver. It is thin, no wider than two sticks of lead, with a wide clear screen along its back. Billed as an Islamic Encyclopedia, it has the Qur’an, several tafsir books, a qibla finder, and collections of ahadith inside.
I carry the device back to my bed, and turn on its screen. In the darkened room, its light seems distressingly bright. Will it wake Sevde? As quietly as possible, I push tiny keys until I’ve found what I’m looking for: ahadith mentioning love between Allah’s servants.
They are many, and they are beautiful. We should, I learn through the reading, tell our beloved sisters and brothers that we love them. The reward for such love is mentioned time and again; to love each other for Allah’s sake is to earn the love of Allah. I imagine the angels, crying out, Allah loves Sueda. Allah loves Sevde. Allah loves Osman, and Fatma and Nihal. This is what I want for them, I decide. That they, who love me so readily, will in turn be loved.
My eyes begin to fill up with sand. It is almost time for sleep. I fight for a moment against it; there is another hadith I remember, which I want to read first. In the Musnad of Abu Ya’la I find what I am looking for. The hadith of the pulpits of light reads:
On one occasion the Prophet, sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam, finished the prayer and turned toward the people and said, “O people, listen and understand. Allah has slaves who are neither prophets nor martyrs, but both the prophets and martyrs envy them for their closeness to Allah.” A Bedouin stepped forward, pointed to the Messenger of Allah and said, “O Messenger of Allah, tell us about these people.” The Prophet was pleased with the Bedouin’s request and said, “They are from various peoples and tribes who have no ties of relationship between them. They love each other purely for the sake of Allah. On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will present them pulpits of light for them to sit on. Their faces will be light and their clothes will be light. The people will be scared on the Day of Resurrection, but they will not be scared. They are the friends of Allah who will not have any fear upon them nor will they grieve.”
I imagine us all together, Sevde and Sueda and Fatma, and Nihal and Osman and I. Sadia would be there too, on Judgement Day, with Abeer and Aafreen. My children from school. God willing, my husband. God willing, our family.
When I wake up, it is already 7:30, already time to pack and go. In the kitchen, Nihal has breakfast. There are three eggs to be shared among the six of us, small white things with orange yolks. I chew my half carefully, while I watch the family. Sueda catches my eye. “Yumurta, Anna?” she asks. “Yumurta? Sos?”
“Sos, Sueda?” I answer her. And then “Sueda. I love you.” She leans her head to one side at the jumble of syllables. “I lof yew,” she tries. “I looooooooove you,” I tell her again. I smile and make the gesture for breaking eggs. She wiggles her nose like a rabbit. “Anna, I love you.”
Category: Uncategorized - Posted On: September 23rd, 2008
As-salaamu alaikum, dearest readers.
For some time now, I’ve been publishing stories on a supposedly weekly basis at othermatters.org. I am going to import a selection of them here, so that you might enjoy them. (And so that they might provide some context for stories such as “Catarina’s Garden”.)
Category: Travel (Miscellaneous) - Posted On: August 27th, 2008
I make my way through the underbrush keeping count of the dead and the living. Over the fence, Rome streams past. Not far beyond, I was told by the priest, lies the Mediterranean Sea. Five, no six, weeks in countries with beaches, and not even a lick of swimming. I laugh at myself as I shuffle along. Some things are only for dreams.
The edge of my nightgown collects barbed seeds; a few sneak their way through the toes of my shoes, seeking soil in my feet. I have resolved that each day I will find one more living thing. Today’s has yet to reveal itself to me. It is the afternoon of Day Six.
I think of Catarina alone in our room, laughing. She takes endless IV bottles into which the nurses inject thick fluid, cloudy white. She has rough yellow fingers and fine orange hair. It took three days to realize that no one else can understand her, either.
Changes have taken place in the yard since only yesterday. For three days on the sidewalk between the women’s ward and the trees, I have watched a bird, desiccating. Yesterday’s viscera no longer remains. Today even feathers are blowing away.
On one hand I count palmettos, thistles, butterflies. On the other, yellow grass, a carapace. Chips of bark, which from one angle appear whole, but from the side reveal themselves to be no more than rust-colored layers. My heart aches for the things which once were part of something living.
Points of confusion arise in the trees. Here, a cascade of needles sag against the ground, hiding pine cones of waxy green. The bough has broken but is not yet dried. You could mistake it for living. Ten yards away, another waits: withered, but still standing. How shall I count them? If neither will grow, then are they both dead? I stand sideways in the shade, half to think, half to hide.
You should be careful what you ask for, my conscience says to me. A shadow moves in a patch of grass, and stretches its paws at me. The lines of his form blend seamlessly into the background of moss and leaves. I hear Ibtisam’s voice in my head. All living creatures give thanks to Allah, and they do so endlessly. Don’t step on the ant, it’s making dua. I look the cat in the eyes. Is it true? Do you want to join me?
I go back to looking for the right place to pray.
Catarina squeals and tells the world I’m Chinese when I try to pray in front of her. Nieces and nephews crowd her bed in the evenings. The new ones try for a while to talk, before they begin repeating. How are you, Zia? How?
On Monday, the guests and I had a screaming fight over the state of our room’s door. “Everyone who walks by stares into our room.” I choked. “As if we were animals. They are…” I tried to remember the word. Is “malediti” a swear? “I have a need of some privacy,” I stared at the newspaper on my bed.
In the end, the door stayed open, and Catarina’s guests crowded around her bed. I went for a walk until they left, slowly up the hallways, past the chapel, to the bar to buy blood orange juice. When I came back to the room, Catarina looked at me and shrieked. “You are always eating.”
“No, you’re always eating,” I answered her crossly. She moved her hand in a drunken circle, laughing. Her lips folded down where her teeth should have been. “Are you hungry, Catarina?” She looked without focusing her eyes at me. “Bo.” “Catarina!” I tried to hear her husband’s accent in my head. “Are you hungry, bella?” Her forehead split into rays. “Gah!”
I took two plastic cups from her nightstand, and poured half of the juice into each. “Do you want some orange juice?” I tried to think of the word for cool. “E fresco.” She extended her movable hand toward me. I passed her one of the cups. Orange juice for old ladies. Alone in the yard, I allow myself to remember my Grandmother, drinking.
There are pine cones everywhere. Some, piled up at the bases of trees, make me wonder who has come this way before me. Have there been other women, terminally bored, who passed through these grounds, neatening? Some of the cones have been bleached light gray by sun or rain; under the pressure of my right foot, these crumble like daisies. Others are brown, their bract scales open; I feel between these for seeds.
There is a pine cone here for every possible fate. I am jealous of the beautiful ones, perfectly preserved, which sit just so at the edge of the trees. I am frightened of the broken ones, bright green, behind me. Dear God, say I’m going to last for longer than that.
Each soul stays on earth for as long as is its duty. I remember Serra in Turkey, holding my hand, as we walked through the alleys of Fatih. I asked her if Istanbul’s history of earthquakes worried her, if she was scared that she might die in one of these. “I believe that when it is my time to die,” she said, calmly, “nothing will save me.”
I think about coming and going, about those who have gone from me. The pain of remembering is always the same. Grasses swim, leaves grow bright. Tiny rainbows form around every source of light. Their souls were done, I tell my heart. You must stop resisting.
My scalp prickles with sweat and grime. Six days in the same underscarf, six days without washing. Six days of sleeping in hijab. Six days of Roman waiting.
The next time Catarina’s husband came to visit, I stood up and smiled at him. “Look, over here,” I led him to the window. “We have an air-conditioner in our room,” I said. “It is nice and cool, if you want to feel it with your hand.” He trailed his fingers in the sunshine, smiling. “They actually don’t have an air-conditioner out in the hallway,” I tried. “So it is cooler in here if we keep the door closed.” I adjusted the folded sheet I’ve been using as a sajada. And maybe I can say my prayers, when it’s just you guys looking at me.
He unwrapped the cardboard boxes on her meal tray. A lump of soft white cheese. Unsalted broth with tiny, gummable stars. Country bread, encased in a thin plastic packet. A bottle of apple pulp for a sweet. Catarina waved her left arm, shaking. “Mangia, bella. Va be’, mangia. Look, they’ve brought you stracchino. How lovely. Come on, Catarina. Eat.”
Ahead, in the sunshine, five stumps wait, cut off at the height of my knees. They are crowned with amber droplets, each fragrant, each unique. I crouch down at the first of these. Ants thin as the whites of my fingernails run along its face. I pick up a scrap of bark from the ground, and balance it in an age ring.
If you were my son, I tell the tree, I would call you Hamzah. My eyes travel around the circle, imagining. Hamzah, Talhah, Salman… Is it wrong to name children for the companions? Two more stumps remain. I think of bravery, of wit and redemption. Of Al-Hubab and Omar.
On Day Five at lunch, when Catarina’s husband came, he was changed. When the nurse came in to change her bottle, he backed out into the hallway. When he came back, his face was red. Silently, he folded himself into the seat at the end of our room.
He crossed his arms in his lap, and stared at the wall over Catarina’s bed. How did the two of them come to occupy such different places? I wondered then, watching. They must have been matched once. They must have been healthy and young, and in love, and carefree, once upon a time.
Tears made their way morosely down my roommate’s husband’s face. “How long have you been married?” I could not stop from asking. He looked up at me blankly. “How long…?” I tried again, uniting my fingers. “How long together?” Subtlety belongs to the mother tongue. His eyes opened up. “Thirty years.” He took a breath. “We were already old when we married.” He was not as sad, saying this, as I expected, listening.
I cannot dissuade the ants from entering the puddles of amber. Please, little ants, that way is your death. They were already old when they married. I wonder who is back in our room now, if Catarina is again alone. I think of her husband, bending to kiss her, without her dentures in. Is this what awaits me, when I get married? Will I ever have it so good?
Category: Uncategorized - Posted On: April 25th, 2008
This one is for my most beloved brothers. May Allah guide and bless you always, accept your good deeds, and give you Jannah.
Let’s say that you are sitting in Harvard Square, on a sunny afternoon. Perhaps you look from your spot on the grass, and you see a sister. For the sake of argument, let’s give her a nice hijab. Something easy to wear, something in white or blue. Maybe an abaya too, and an under outfit (of which you can see, at most, the ends of her sleeves and trousers). She would likely wear socks, outside of the house, and sensible (if worn out) shoes. Because she is impervious to heat, she wears a jacket too.
When the sister finishes talking to her newest, elderly friend, she will slowly take her leave. She will rise and walk away. One approach that you might take involves following her into the middle of the street and saying, by way of introduction, “Are you Muslim? Because if you are, then I am about to do the rudest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.”
Your shy and honorable sister will find this perplexing. What kind of question is “Are you Muslim?” Surely her manners and style of dress have already made this clear. Does anyone observe formal hijab for their own amusement? Are you asking if, perhaps, she plays a Muslim on TV? She is even more confused about your desire to misbehave.
Believe it or not, your sister does not want you to do anything rude. Whatever temptation might be leading you to speak of poor adab, she prays in her heart that you (and she) can resist disgrace. She is all for covering the mistakes of other people, when she sees them, and letting Allah be the judge. She hopes that you would do the same thing for her. At this point, your sister starts to feel afraid. She will try to place your accent, to figure out where you are coming from. No beard, short sleeves, fitted pants. Are you Croatian? Israeli? American?
Imagine that our beloved sister actually just wants to go home. She has overdone it with walking today, all the way from Central Square to Mount Auburn Cemetery and back. She is terrified of snakes, and had the misfortune of watching one winding its way around a cormorant’s neck. It’s belly flashed silver above the mud-brown Charles. She hated the water then, imagining it squirming. From nowhere, now, she remembers, and fears asphyxiation.
You are not helping. “Actually, I am Muslim too,” you say. “And I know that the hardest thing for women in America is to dress themselves properly. But I look at you, and I see that you are doing perfectly.” You follow her as she turns down Mount Auburn street. “I want a woman who covers up,” you explain, “And you look like a good Muslim girl. So I thought, if you’re not seeing anyone…”
For the first time, she interrupts. “Actually, I am. I’m all set, insha’Allah. Thank you.” She clear her throat in the way she’s learned from the Algerians. “Jazak Allahu khayran.” She is trying hard now to leave you, while living up to her name. Grace, grace, ever grace, she prays silently. You clench your hand, and cluck your tongue. “Oh, man,” you complain.
The nerves in her neck draw tight.. “Actually, there are lots of sisters in America who cover up.” She pretends that her feet are interesting, and begins to hurry up. “Like you?” you ask. You don’t understand that she feels naked, discussing her clothing. She catches the hem of her cloak against her foot.
“If you mean sisters who wear abaya and hijab like me, then yes, there are lots of them.” She pauses. “For example, everyone at my place of work does. But I think you have to be involved in the Muslim community if you want to meet them.” For a minute more, you walk by her. “I have five years of work experience you say,” and she begins to feel old. You press a folded paper into her hand. “Here, this is my phone number and email address.” You ask her to open it. “Can you read my name?” She nods, and her lips are white.
When she is finally alone, the sister will pull her accoutrement closer to herself. She will look at her shadow, and wonder. She will try to forget all that you said, except for one thing. “I know the hardest thing for women in America is to dress themselves properly,” she replays your voice.
Then she thinks, for the rest of the walk home, about how you are wrong. What could be easier than a long loose cloak, and not having to spend even a minute worrying about your hair? Her clothes do not press on her belly, or squeeze her where she shouldn’t be squeezed. The easiest thing of her whole walk today, she decides in her heart, was figuring out what to wear. She straightens her scarf under her chin, pats her tired ears.
She tries to figure out, while she is alone, what the hardest thing really is. Loneliness? Waiting? She remembers her friend. Getting old? She is grateful to have faith in heart. Maybe that’s the hardest thing, she thinks while she unlocks her door. The times when your iman is low.