Pakistani ghost story

800px-Basement_of_Lawang_Sewu_2011 This blog has become too serious. How about an authentic little ghost story?

One of my cherished memories from Pakistan is the scary story-tellings at night. “Jinnon ki kahaniyan.” Friends, relatives, family, – we’d be sitting together and chilling out, and suddenly someone would start telling a scary story. That would remind the other person of another scary story, and they just kept pouring out. Eventually, everyone was so terrified out of their wits that they didn’t even want to go pee by themselves. And each of these scary stories bore the mark of undeniable authenticity because ‘my uncle’ or ‘my mother-in-law’ or ‘my Qur’an teacher’ told me.

My mother reassured me that jinns lived in remote, desolate areas. And then she reminisced about the jinn who pestered her father, my maternal grandfather, a hakim (a doctor of Unani medicine). This jinn was mischievous, and had a tendency to pour out big sacks of cardamom and clove in long, neat lines. But that’s another story.

We were always being warned not to wear perfume at night or the jinns “stick to you” or fall in love with you. “When I grew up,” my Urdu teacher Mrs. Wasti said with a chuckle, “I discovered who those jinns were.” Also, don’t walk under a tree with your hair loose at night: jinns will definitely attach themselves to you. Years later, I met a Bosnian woman in London: her son’s eye was damaged by jinns, she claimed, because he urinated under a tree where this jinn happened to reside.
There was the tale of the maulvi saheb who used to teach in a madrassah. and one day, he asked his student to bring him a glass of water — and the student stretched out his hand — aaaaaaaaall the waaaay to the kitchen. So it turns out he was a jinn.
Abbu told us a story like that once. But this was not a jinn story. It was a ghost story.

Abbu was the eldest boy of his brothers and sisters. His father was a high-ranking civil servant, a gold medallist in Engineering in the days when Muslim boys did not get gold medals very often. He was a lover of literature and culture.

Then, suddenly, my grandfather took a second wife. She was a beautiful and smart woman. From my dad’s stories, I gathered that the elder wife (my grandmother) died soon after that.

My father still hates polygamy. It’s not that he’s a feminist or anything like that. Not by a long shot. He just hated the way his mother ached when another woman came along and took her place. He doesn’t want to see another woman hurt like that.

His mother died. It was probably a home abortion gone terribly wrong, because she did not want to bear any more children for her bigamist husband.

Later, one thing led to another, and abbu ended up in a domestic quarrel, and his father told him to get out of the house.

Abbu loved his father. He adores him to this day. I think some people who never quite attain to their parents – because of soured relations – always love them like children, and cannot transcend that aspiration. They struggle through their parents’ injustices, still trying, like children, to make mummy or daddy love them best.

So abbu left the big house in Mayo Gardens where my grandfather’s large family lived. He spent some nights in the park called Lawrence Garden (or Bagh-e-Jinnah, as it was renamed). “There were snakes this long in Lawrence Gardens in those days,” he’d brag. I don’t know how he eventually got off the streets and back in business, but I know there are sad tales of abandonment in there.

Abbu put himself through medical school. Every summer, Pakistani students go on vacation because the summer is just too hot to do anything. And this was before the days of air-conditioning. So every summer, when abbu could not stay at the Nishtar Medical College hostel anymore, he left to seek shelter. He’d try to crash at a relation’s house, or a friend’s. Sometimes people were kind; other times, they were not.

One summer, with no options, abbu’s only choice was to stay at an abandoned house that belonged to a relation. Abbu tells some tales, so I never quite know for sure. He claims that the house was built on a cemetery. Every night, he says, spirits or jinns appeared to disturb him, and terrified him out of his wits. I will never know whether they were actually jinns or anything other than his fears and loneliness. All I know is that my big abbu, who terrifies a lot of people, does not enjoy being alone at home.

One night, he said, he was sitting, terrified, in the house. Suddenly, he saw his mother. His dead mother.

Only, she was a torso. Head to waist.

She looked at him, and she smiled upon him. It was as if she was saying, “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of you.”
From that day on, there were no more hauntings.

Was it really a ghost? We shall never know. But my abbu, the skeptic, who doesn’t buy superstition, was convinced that his mother had come to drive away the spirits from her son. And it strengthened his heart. That’s all we need to know.

An explanatory footnote to my blog post on ‘Unmosqued’

I hate defensive writing. I hate saying, I didn’t mean this and I didn’t mean that. But that’s what I’m going to do today.

First, my last blog post on the Unmosqued discussion was heartfelt, the product of almost two decades of work with the Muslim American community.

Second, that selfsame blog post was not primarily a reflection on or analysis of CIMIC, the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center. I was not being insincere when I said that CIMIC is head and shoulders above the other mosque and community experiences I have had. We have here people who are genuinely interested in the community, in being inclusive, and in being egalitarian.

But CIMIC, like (let’s pull a number out of a hat) 90% of mosques in the United States, works within a particular format, and that format is what I spoke of in my last blog post.

The fact that a mosque arranges a viewing of Unmosqued speaks volumes for the secret desire for change among even gatekeepers.

One thing is certain: when I demand change, for me, for my daughter, for my sisters who have never been to the mosque, I am doing so because we all need that change. We are trapped within a format, a methodology, and it’s not working for almost all of us (I could pull out another percentage from my hat here).

One of the problems is, in most communities, we are too busy reacting to ongoing challenges to think about that change.

One of these challenges that I have seen decent, well-intentioned mosque folks deal with is this: the salafi Islamists at the gate, pushing for control, more control.

If you’ve lived through the 1990s, you’ll wonder why they’re still trying to get control, but they are. And when they get a khutbah in, you hear their views on gender and politics, and you respond with NO MORE.

No more authoritarian, foreign, sexist religious ideology. It was dominant during the 1990s here, and we have no nostalgia for it.

In the words of the dating website: It’s Our Time.

The ‘Unmosqued’ discussion

photo-mainWe had a viewing of the documentary Unmosqued at our Islamic Center tonight.

It resulted in, on the one hand, the release of pent-up energy and input that I have never seen here (and long-standing members said they hadn’t seen in ages). On the other hand, the rather negative note on which the documentary concludes – with rather sparse indication of possible routes to the future – meant that the viewing also resulted in a sense of despair and a sense of unresolved polarization.

I am hopeful that we will have more community discussions similar to the one we had today.

The brief ensuing discussion (cut short by ‘isha prayer and the lateness of the hour) revealed a polarization around a) a profound sense of pain, alienation, and disconnect and b) the reaction of gatekeepers (which is a relative term), one of resentment toward the negative emotions (see a). We didn’t have the opportunity or the leadership to resolve this polarization either.

I am left, wistful, with one of the last comments in the documentary – a young man who said that the current mosque culture would not change or shift but simply die, and be replaced by something different.

Rather optimistically, I thought, another young man said that Muslim Americans would be leading and creating the mosques of the future. Yes, I thought, but only if  those mosques are very different creatures. I certainly can’t see a lot of young Muslim Americans of the future sidle politely into the back of the congregation, to listen quietly to some man (week after week, some man) rehearse his oddball views on life and Islam. They will either depart, or (if we are lucky) they will become part of a very different mosque.

One thing is certain:

The defensive reaction of the “choir” is not going to help resolve the polarization. If someone has been hurting, who has been urged and yelled at to be invisible and inaudible for years in this space, you cannot scold them for being in pain. You cannot scold them for being absent at the meetings (where their views are shrugged off anyway). You cannot judge them for being uninvolved in the mosque when the cultural setting of the mosque, the cultural language or style of the mosque is alien to them. It is a man’s space. It is a middle-aged man’s space. The unconventionally religious, the female, the youthful, the Black, the convert, etc. have been excluded and marginalized a long, long time. So don’t tell women (for instance) that it’s their own fault for not charging into the man-dominated crowd and making their mark on the mosque. I will not have it. I have served, I have worked, I have represented, I have smiled through the pain a million times, and I am the community. I will not be scolded for not doing enough. I will not be told off for having been thrown out of this space years ago.

imageAnd one more polarization:

Some women do feel a part of the mosque community and they are happy to serve (or be permitted to serve in subsidiary roles). I understand. But I do not wish to help my husband with his mosque work. I wish to have my own role in the mosque. I do not wish to cook or serve food. It’s not one of my talents. Gardening and lifting heavy objects are not my talents either. But I can lead discussions. I can teach. I can evaluate the Sunday School. Oh, and I can write khutbahs and deliver them. [Do I hear terrified silence?]

Also, ladies, I do not want to hear the words “Sisters’ Representative” ever again. No. You are not my representative to the Men. Thank you, but no. It is 2015. No more of that rubbish please.

So with all love and respect to those who are content with the status quo as well as to those who offer cultural spaces in the existing mosque – it’s just not enough. I want more. And I am not alone. I am the majority – the absent majority. If I am to contribute (as opposed to just show up for the occasional Friday congregation, gripe about the irrelevance of the sermon, and leave), I must have more. I will not settle for less.

Call me impious, call me a discontented shrew if you will, criticize me for my clothing if you want. I am hardened from years of practice. But for my daughter’s tomorrow, because I know she will flee the mosque if it is anything less, I will continue to show up in my own clothes, in my own style, and I will continue to demand MORE.

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Update, March 1: OK. It seems that this post really spoke to some people. I want to add a couple of things:

First, I think our local mosque and Islamic Center is head and shoulders above the dreadful experiences I’ve had before. But as I said (repeatedly), we need MORE. The choir is happy or content with what we have. But they are unaware of the crowds that, unlike even me, are completely disconnected from the mosque.

Second, in case anyone got the wrong impression, I think the documentary is excellent. It is the perfect catalyst to break through smooth exteriors beneath which there lurks turmoil. But once people have got back in touch with their pain, they must have leadership and facilitation.

With polarized perspectives, that is one thing that we must have: facilitation. I wish I’d been It at our discussion, but there just wasn’t enough time.

OK, I was also simmering in my pain.

That pain. The moment I saw those images of barriers, walls, dividers, and CCTV. It all came back to me. Hours of service, immersed in the mosque community, running over to the mosque -like a mother hen – the day it was vandalized, iftar dinners in the freezing women’s space during winter Ramadans … And hours of argumentation, men saying (in various accents) that women didn’t belong in the main space, in the executive committee, anywhere except the women’s prayer space, the fury, the impotent fury and disbelief that this was happening in my beloved mosque space.

So excuse me for being in pain, and for my tone being a little unbalanced. I promise, next time, I will be a calm and empathic facilitator. Give me a chance. Another discussion, okay? A second viewing of Unmosqued and I will be better.

Because I really, truly believe that at our mosque, Unmosqued allowed for the best, most powerful, most energetic flow of ideas I have EVER seen.