Someone asked me last week, “How are you doing?”
Someone asked me last week, “How are you doing?”
My father’s ageing has made me tender hearted to the elderly. This is good because I’ll be in that age group soon.
I remember him saying one evening this March, “Zarina (ammi), I’ve become alone. I’m alone.” Just being frail, bedridden, and mentally wandering makes it harder for him to join the party. Everyone goes to work, parties, shop, chat, while he’s too weak to come along.
This March, after a ten-day stay, I had to move from my parents’ home to a conference hotel in Lahore. But to simplify it for abbu’s mind, I told him we were leaving for the airport and flying out. As we prepared to load into cars and leave for PC Hotel 30 minutes away, abbu limped over and got his sneakers. He put them on, painstakingly slow with the shoelaces. And with a heartbreakingly eager smile and a pitifully determined mien, he said he was going with us.
“To the airport?” I asked, unsure if he was planning on flying to the US with us, or if he’d figured out our stupid little ruse. “Yes, of course!” he smiled bravely, “Zarina, let’s go. You’ll go with me,” as if he knew well enough that he’d encounter resistance. As if he knew someone would say, “No, stay. You’re too weak to go. There’s no room in the car. Everyone *else* has to go.”
So he smiled, showing how game he was for anything. And even as I wondered how we’d handle this situation – that we’d LIED ourselves into – my heart shattered to see this powerful man reduced to smiling as if he’s pleading, and trying so hard to become part of the party, to say goodbye to his youngest child for who knows how long.
I had a heartbreaking dream about an ageing mentor being depressed and alone. Today I had to call to check on them.
Don’t forget your ageing loved ones. Isolation increases anyway. Try to assuage it.
This is abbu kissing my hand tenderly at my daughter’s birthday party in Lahore.
My dear friend (and author of Cairo, Ms Marvel, and The Butterfly Mosque) wrote a heartfelt and thought-provoking post today about the role of mothers in the construction of Ramadan, Eid, and other holidays.
I’ve noticed a lot of Muslim mommies getting burned out this Ramadan…the long summer hours, the difficulties that creates with children’s schedules and other household errata, the inability to stop and go deeper into one’s personal practice because one has to create a holiday atmosphere out of thin air for the sake of the family. The cooking, the special, time-consuming holiday treats, the Ramadan calendars, helping kids memorize their surahs, planning for Eid, etc…whenever I feel like it’s too much, I remember that for kids, mama and baba essentially *are* the holidays. There’s an early 20th c English writer (whose name I’ve forgotten) who put it very succinctly in an essay about his childhood: each household has its own animating genius, and that genius is often (though not always) feminine. I’ve shifted my thinking in recent years–since the kids have been old enough to understand what Ramadan is–from the idea that the holiday is something I celebrate to the idea that the holiday is something I create. It hasn’t made the work easier but it has made it more fulfilling. The idea that the kids will look back on these days with joy–and that the joy will shape the internal rhythm of their lives, which will carry the whole tradition forward through a time of tremendous uncertainty–is what makes this time wonderful to me in the same way the extra ibadat and contemplation made it wonderful to me pre-kids. We are in the rush hour of life; we are now the middle generation upon whom both the younger and the older generations depend, and if there is going to be delight and splendor in any of it, it will have to come through us. The joy we have will be the joy we bring. – G. Willow Wilson
Now, Willow adopts a joyful, creative approach to this loving labor.
My approach is the grumpy one, characteristic of the lazy youngest sibling of the family. In other words: WHERE THE HELL IS MY READY-MADE EID? Where are my ammi and abbu? Why am I the grownup today? Why do I have to be up and cooking? Why can’t I just walk into a pre-prepared holiday?
When I first wrote the poem Immigrant Eid (2005), I was desperately depressed for a variety of reasons. Svend was at work, unable to get a day off. I struggled to motivate myself to go for Eid prayer.
they announced Eid today.
my house is silent.
i hear more sirens than usual outside.
my husband’s at work.
i couldn’t get out of bed and go
to eid namaz.
i really should push myself, i thought,
and go, but thought, then, go for what?
so my husband and i can split up
at the mosque front door to go and sit
with our respective strangers inside?
so aunties in abayas can look
at my pants, because they’re shabby and
because they’re pants, and then look up
at my face unseeing-
When we’re done i come out and wait
for him in the cold parking lot
watching people hurry to cars
and segregated parties in their
tight little colour-coordinated groups-
while a bearded man in a jalabiya
stares at this female body jammed
outside in a twisting river of men.
when i got out of bed at last, i didn’t
want to, and i couldnt stop crying
in the shower.
ammi has cooked two types of sivayyan
and put them out in glass bowls,
with carrot halva and Kashmiri chai.
My Eid outfit complete with sparklies
is lying ironed on the bed.
Auntie Shaista in the drawing room loudly
waits to see how my outfit looks.
Little Izza is knocking at
my door, asking when i’ll be ready,
when I will come out to admire
her pink sharara and bright new shoes.
Asad is watching TV, but
the corner of his eye is waiting for me
Abbu and Imran are just returning
in white kurtas from eid namaz.
in the fortunate first world
where I’m supposed to be bettering my life
and speaking english all the time–
here, where there is no dust, no flies,–
here, in the warm clean tiled shower
i can’t stop sobbing
Alone, with sirens screeching outside,
i prayed two rak’ahs afterwards
with seven takbeers
and seven tears hit the ja’inamaz
with far too loud a splash, and then
i read some pages of the eleventh sipara
and sent sawab to the Prophet,
my shaykh, my uncles and aunts,
grandparents, like ammi does, and then
I’m sorry i didn’t go to Eid namaz
and then i couldn’t stop crying again
my heart broke right there on the rug
and spilled wide open
and i said please don’t be mad at me.
look, i’m here, and my outfit’s in Lahore,
and Izza’s knocking on the door,
and I have no sivayyan,
and my heart the poor tattered heart
that I know You love
is broken today.
He looked at me, with those quiet eyes
and said, yes, I know. i cried again
and said that eid is eid
only because You’re here with me.
ten years in this new home of mine
and still eid day is not quite eid.
They say it’s eid today, but there,
on the rooftops of Lahore, young boys
saw a little sliver of moon that shone
through smoggy clouds and snaky cables
as an eagle swam across the sky.
Here, i saw no moon, i saw
moonsighting.com, and wrote an email-
eid mubarak exclamation point-
and cc’ed it to everyone.
i thought of calling ammi to say
eid mubarak. but i was afraid
my voice would catch, and she would hear
who i am here
and then i’d know for sure that she
was there, and there are no sivayyan
on my IKEA table, no halva
on the stove, no kashmiri chai
steaming in pretty china cups
no smiling niece outside my door
and no red kurta on my bed
I remember my friend Jasmin affectionately reminded me that here in North America, I was ammi now, and I must cook sivayyan and plan outfits for everyone.
Humph, I thought to myself, (though I inwardly agreed), but I’m not done being not-a-grown-up yet. When I sleep deeply, I often wake up groggily, thinking tranquil thoughts of: “I can sleep in, because ammi and abbu are taking care of everything in the entrance of the house – comings, goings – and I am not in charge.” And then I remember, my kid is waiting for a meal, and I have to go to work, and ammi and abbu haven’t lived with me in 26 years. I’ve been gone from home since 1991, and have been a guest in my own family home since then.
As the baby of the family (um, a rather old baby now), I never quite mastered the domestic arts. My husband – well, he’s got patriarchy to blame – certainly never mastered domestic anything. I once asked his dad (an old-fashioned White guy) why he never trained his son to pick up his socks; dad replied, “Well, [with a trace of gentle accusation] my mother took care of all that and I never had to do it. So with my boys, I wanted them to have what I had.”
Well, funny enough, my mother had to take care of everything, forever, and she wanted me to have what she never had – the liberty to chase ideas in books all the way to the United States and a PhD, and to be free from the kitchen. My father, who loved his daughters’ academic pursuits, groused irritably, “And then they all have to just make rotis some day.” He really hated that.
My mother rarely ever asked me to take care of household affairs. This was a practice rare in Pakistan in my socioeconomic class. My mother did this partly because I was sensitive and prone to fevers, partly because I was the baby, – and partly because I started observing strict purdah at age 16 and announced virtuously that I would not be serving tea to mixed-gender groups in the living room and I would not be interacting with the gardener or the peddler. Well, then, I’ll be the Outside Market Woman, ammi decided, and guard my daughter’s spiritual virtue while she reads Iqbal’s poetry in seclusion.
I was a teen who’d pile up my clutter and shut it up in an armoire: my mother and sister gasped when I said, “Well, what else is the armoire for?” My father would often dart into my messy bedroom and make the bed for me, shaking his head at my response: “What’s the point? I’m going to sleep in it in a few hours anyway.”
Here I am now, in the U.S., a place where we often do not even get a day off for Eid and must make arrangements. In Chicago, we can get sivayyan (not good sivayyan, usually) at a restaurant on Devon Street, and we can join the festivities with other families (families with grownups who grew up before I did).
Adulting still hurts, but I’m starting to do more of it. But a disproportionate share of the burden of holiday-construction still falls to mommies like me. Creating the decorations, when you are not a crafty or practical person, may not sound painful to you. Preparing holiday meals you’ve never made (making them in treacherously large quantities so that they never turn out the way ammi made them) is often simply depressing to those of us who aren’t sugghar domestic goddesses. Yes, we exist. We are mothers, and some of us are not great at cooking, we hate cooking, and are terrible at tidying up.
Some of us are married to spouses who are even worse at the domestic arts. Some of us have spouses who cannot physically see dust, dust-bunnies, dirty dishes on the coffee table, and gunk on the counter. So I am perpetually trying to keep ahead of the other clutter-creators in the house: if I abandon one cardigan on the couch, pretty soon my kid will abandon socks, hoodie, books, and pencils in that spot and my husband will forget to pick up socks, boxers, pants, and t-shirt. I can leave no trails, because they will become mountains.
The urgency to get better at adulting comes home to me even more now. Ammi is now losing mobility. She whose hands never failed to produce meals proverbial far and wide in their deliciousness is now not cooking anymore. She is also more forgetful. She reminds me gently that she is in her 80s. I know why she is reminding me. She wants me to be prepared. She knows I am not. I am not ready to lose my ammi.
And I am not ready to take on that role alone. I am not ready to be the kind of kick-ass ammi my ammi has always been. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to try – because my version is so mediocre. Sometimes, I cook saag gosht or kareley keema, and am filled with disgust and frustration because it is so uninspired in comparison to my mother’s cooking. I toss the spatula, cover the pot, and inform Svend, “I’m not touching that junk but you’re welcome to it,” and he rushes to gorge himself on the meal. “It’s good,” he always says, “your standards are too high.”
I’m not ready to be in charge.
Sure, though, I guess I enjoy it when my family enjoys the summer vacations, the religious holidays, the experiences I create. But sometimes, it’s a bit like trying to tickle yourself. Or trying to experience suspense in a story you wrote. It’s just not the same. But sure, it is the circle of life.
Eid Mubarak to you. And good luck creating a holiday for your children. Or sulking because you really don’t want to do all that work.
In this month of Ramadan, I expect to be above worldly concerns. I find myself facing a spiritual challenge.
I’m thinking of certain colleagues I worked with in the past who were deceitful and unconscionably backstabbing. At a time when my career just taking off, I was diligently teaching and publishing my research. I was courted for my scholarship, my ethnographic work, my rich experience, and yes, the “diversity” I brought to the White institutions I served.
But due to certain colleagues/supervisors in my past, I am now in a non-tenure track position.
At my first tenure track job, I thought, if I worked hard, I’d be safe from internal politicking among a mixed bag of underperforming academics, xenophobic White evangelicals, and dogmatically anti-faith Islamophobes. Not to mention some White anti-Muslim students whose consistently rude behavior inside the classroom shocked other students. The year I was supposed to get my 3-year reappointment, just a month or two after an excellent evaluation with good teaching and *outstanding* publications and no red flags: I was denied reappointment. I still remember my utter shock and speechlessness at that meeting. I still remember the White woman who had been mentoring me and listening to all the accounts of backstabbing against me, as she turned, baldfaced to me and said, that despite my evaluations and my work, “we know you.”
Of course the paperwork didn’t add up, so the Provost overruled it, but each of these events threw me into a fury of legal activity and job-seeking – instead of publishing and scholarship. Instead of staying put in a position where I might get tenure but would definitely be miserable, I was heavily courted for a position at a small college and left. Tenure would not be a problem. I’d go up for tenure the next year.
Turns out, I got hired into the middle of a turf battle between a Dean and a VP.
My new dean held my paperwork back for a year because of his grudge against the VP who hired me. Only the Faculty Council’s expression of great concern got him to meet me for annual evaluations and start paperwork. Soon after the VP got hired by a new institution, the Dean took action. Turns out (according to my department head) he had planned to get rid of me all along. Months after he communicated this decision secretly with bigwigs in the small college, he moved against me.
The year that I was supposed to go up for tenure, with my file ready to go, I published an award-winning book. Everyone told me I was a sure thing. I was at a teaching institution, with good evaluations, a heavy load, and a new book (which few of my colleagues had). That same year, one week after giving me a great evaluation, my dean gave me my termination letter.
Sometimes I think of those colleagues, deans, department heads, and the people who could have been allies but chose to throw their lot in with the powers-that-were.
I think, I should have been tenured by now. I could have been full professor. I could be focusing on publishing instead of job security. I am in a non-tenure track position with an uncertain future.
I’ve had cancer twice in this journey, which made it even harder to pull myself up off the ground by my bootstraps and overcome my terror of venomous colleagues.
Everyday that I wonder about my academic and professional fate – and my ability to support my family …
… In my heart I have difficulty forgiving these people.
Oh, I do nothing to hurt them. I only blog, to warn others of the dangers of higher education institutions – often, waters infested with smiling crocodiles.
But I struggle because I bear wounds in my heart, and injury in my soul, and it holds me back.
We have said our goodbyes to coffee and various other midday loves, and launched into a month of restructured schedules.
When I was pregnant and had gestational diabetes, it was terribly strange to not eat cookies, or chocolate, or any glucose-laden fruit in any quantity.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. Not eat something I really wanted to do. Not do something I really wanted to do. Wake up when it wasn’t necessary to wake up; stop eating when it was fun to keep eating; not eat pudding because my nafs wanted it; turn off the tube when I didn’t have to; close the curtains and close my eyes and talk to the Beloved when it wasn’t time for an obligatory prayer.
In his “Discourses,” Hazrat Shahidullah Faridi (RA) discusses how both fasting and tahajjud (the optional night prayer) break your aadat, your habit. This is why Da’udi fast (associated with the Prophet Daoud, or David) is highly recommended: fast one day, don’t fast the next, and so on. Otherwise fasting just becomes habit, something your body desires and easily falls into. Hazrat Zauqi Shah (RA) says that when you take some form of medication constantly, it ceases to be medication and becomes regular food.
The tahajjud prayer in the middle of the night breaks habit too. You go to sleep, and then you wake up. This is difficult.
“Soon shall We send down to thee a weighty Message.
Truly the rising by night is most potent for governing (the soul), and most suitable for (framing) the Word (of Prayer and Praise).”
– Surah al-Muzzammil (73:5-6)
For those who have at times done tahajjud — (not by accident, like, “Man, I can’t sleep so I’ll just get up and pray,” but by design) — you know how it is. You can feel that:
“Every night, when the last third of it remains, Allah, our Sustainer, the Blessed, the Superior, descends to the lowest heaven saying, ‘Is there anyone to ask Me so that I may grant him his request? Is there anyone to invoke Me so that I may respond to his invocation? Is there anyone seeking My forgiveness so that I may forgive him?’” (hadith).
The 5-time namaz is awesome, and necessary to keep you on track. But it’s more like a regular meal. Tahajjud, or optional zikr, or optional charity, or meditation, is more like the ambrosia that brings you back to life, to appreciate everything that had become habit.
Sometimes I feel like we Muslims of relatively moderate religious observance simply organize our lives so that religious observance becomes aadat, habit. We don’t push ourselves on an everyday basis. We don’t venture every now and again.
It’s not a struggle for me not to drink alcohol, because I was raised with a visceral disiike of it. Because I don’t like the smell, and because I don’t socialize at bars. Do I still get credit, or does my habit, upbringing, and tradition get all the credit? And how do I grow from adhering to my no-alcohol principles? Not drinking is simply part of my routine, and drinking would actually be very inconvenient and uncomfortable for me.
Does that mean I plateau from leading a religious life that has little element of effort?
“And for such as had entertained the fear of standing before their Lord’s (tribunal) and had restrained (their) soul from (lower) desires.” (Surah al-Nazi’aat, 79:40).
Habit is like a cocoon that encases us and almost protects us from the exhilaration of spiritual experience.
Sometimes, the spiritual masters say, even sinful acts which make you humble are better than acts of piety that make you arrogant and confident. (Of course you shouldn’t plan on those sinful acts. Obviously). By Mercy, they serve a purpose in your spiritual progress.
You build a persona of yourself, as The Pious Goodly Moderately Conservative Yet Open-Minded and Ecumenical Muslim. Every day you turn to that persona, and follow in its footsteps from the day before. — Which reminds me (speaking of ego) of a poem of my own from my niqabi days, Ghalib Day at the Quaid-e-Azam Library (1991 maybe):
… [It] shocks me
into realising that the years for me have
swept past in a fever of doing
something or nothing, of something happening,
or nothing happening, chewing
the endless gum of every day. We unstick it
from under the table, grey
and hard and stale though it may be –
(we must continue from yesterday), every day
unthinking — Lord, slow me down; remove me from
the pointless race of every day,
and let the ceaseless rattling train of
routine fears, joys, sorrows, hopes, stay
its deafening motion, – stop, and let me
see the landscape of eternity
and see each individual moment bloom like a flower,
and wither naturally.
The gestational diabetes diet made me stop for a moment to see the moments bloom.
This Ramzan, I’m intimidated at the thought of not drinking coffee at midday. But I’m still grateful of the reminder – of a time when I used to give up something, every now and again. Not because I had to. Not because it was haraam – but like the crazy lover Majnun who foregoes food and rest to catch a glimpse of the camel that carries Laila in the curtained palanquin. You rush to the mosque, not because you should, or because you must, or because you get to see friends, but because of the flame in your heart that makes you run in different directions to seek, even blindly.
“No means whereby My servant seeks My Favor are more pleasing to Me than the observance of Faraa’idh (obligatory practices). And My servant ceases not to seek nearness to My by optional practices until I make him My favorite. And when I make him My favorite, I become his ears by which he hears, his eyes by which he sees, and his hands by which he holds, and his feet by which he walks. And if he asks Me for something, I fulfill his desire, or if he seeks refuge against anything, I grant him refuge” (hadith).
These words of the Beloved shed light on the secrets that I am blind to, the beauties that I’ve veiled in words, in do’s and don’ts.
Religiosity can become such an idol. Such a persona. Such a stagnant pool.
Ramzan helps shatter that idol so we must struggle to see what lies beyond it.
Break it up, and truly BE, in freedom and in love.
This post is loosely based on a old post I wrote in 2006. My life now is very different from that intense moment of my life then, but some things are deeply similar.
I was struggling to meet my advisor’s deadline to submit most of my dissertation. I was also very pregnant, and under pressure to eat healthy and exercise (which, given the time crunch of the dissertation writing, was highly unlikely). I really did almost nothing but sit on my rear end and type. I ate whatever I could get, ate more because of the stress, and ate more cream puffs and chocolates and ice cream. Consequently, at my OB visit, the nurse told me I’d gained 8lbs in 2.5 weeks, and I know I did no exercise except walk to the bathroom now and then.
The day before I wrote this old blog post was a high, high-stress day, because I had to turn Chapter 6 in right away. I woke up and got to work, and worked till 3:30pm.
When I was done, I was ravenous, and wanted to weep loudly because a) I’d just been under so much stress and b) I’d just finished the stress-inducing task–and now what?
I was lost.
So I felt a bit like the day after Ramadan. I barely knew what to do with myself.
I wondered, when I emerge from my dissertation and my defense, what will remain of me?
Something about graduate school kills the creative impulse. And then the ensuing/continuing pressure to finish and then be productive forever kills all liberty to just get up and run out spontaneously and have fun. To write for fun. To write adventurously. To do anything that comes from within.
The anomie and alienation of the academic profession today threatens to disconnect academic writers from the very source of their intellectual and spiritual inspiration.
Where work should allow us to flourish, academic labor under capitalism alienates us from our work.
Sometimes when I decide, like once or twice a year, that we should really “do something,” I come up empty. I don’t want to do anything anymore. I just want to be still and be nothing. I don’t know what I want. I am a domestic mule for academic work and the endlessness of the work is devastating to the creative impulse. I’ve lost some of that inner child. No, not that inner child that I had in my womb. My own inner child.
At that time, I thought: When I come out of my defense and they tell me I’m Dr. Mir, I wonder how I’ll feel. When they grant me liberty from this task, and instruct me to go forth in triumph, I bet I’ll have an impulse to break into song, loudly and soulfully:
آشیاں جل گیا، گلستاں لٹ گیا
هم قفس سے نکل کر کدهر جایئں گے
اتنے مانوس صیاد سے هو گئے
اب رهائ ملے گی تو مر جایئں گے
My nest has been burned, the garden has been plundered
When they let me out of my cage, where shall I go?
So intimate I have become with my captor
If I were to be granted freedom, I will surely die
Today, years hence, I find that I am in the same position as many others. Our cage is wrought of the job market, cannibalistic employers, and the hordes of un/der-employed academics. The ropes of the broader economy tense and chafe against our skin, never allowing the freedom to listen fully to the free mind/heart.
As a Muslim woman academic of color who is pretty good at public speaking and who is not a shrinking violet, I’ve often found myself drafted into service as the Face and Voice of various endeavors, organizations, and institutions.
I get drafted as the Face and Voice of various endeavors because I rock. But often, less talented male colleagues imply that it’s because I’m female/Muslim/a POC/pretty.
I’m female/Muslim/a POC/pretty, yes. But I also rock. I work hard.
In mainstream (predominantly White and predominantly non-Muslim) academic institutions, this has meant that I have served as a dash of color, a sprinkle of exotic faith practice, and a flash of academic talent and brilliance – just before I’m shoved out the door because I’ve served my purpose. (Check out my resume. You’ll see which institutions I’m talking about.)
At times this also means that in Muslim and predominantly non-Muslim settings, I have to do more, because I have to speak and shake hands with people and confer legitimacy on the host/endeavor. (Check out our resident vibrant Muslim immigrant female! Listen to her speak accentless English! How awesome are we!)
It also means that in certain conservative religious settings, I’m irrelevant because I’m not enough of a shrinking violet. At the Mosque Open House, I’m great. At the Friday prayer, not so much.
At times, too, once I’ve done more by way of lending Face and Voice to an endeavor, I’ll hear snide comments from male colleagues – who have been sitting idly in the peanut gallery – about how I surely don’t mind providing my pretty female Face and Voice to the endeavor, do I?
To those male colleagues, I present my most prized ability, one I share with Dave here:
My heart is filled with despair. In order not to communicate it to others, I will quit writing about this for now.