In the US pandemic, remembering a shrine in Lahore one week ago

We’re back in the US, and the nation is in the throes of coronavirus terror.

For me, this is a moment to look back to a day a week ago, in Lahore. We visited the Darbar of Hazrat Mian Mir one evening, just before maghrib prayers.

Crowds of men, women, and children wandered all over, observing the same proxemics that get me nervous. I kept my teenager in my sight as we wended our way through a busy street.

We made our way through a dusty street, and were told to deposit our excellent European shoes with some guy, in a pile of locally acquired flip-flops. Having done this, we had to walk barefoot a few long, long steps in a dusty, dirty street that saw the traffic of many humans and animals. We entered the daalaan or courtyard of Hz. Mian Mir, expecting it to be as serene and quiet as it was last time we visited. It was not. A troupe of qawwali singers were singing devotional songs.

We walked barefoot across the marble courtyard. The floor was spattered with pigeon droppings. I saw my husband and daughter, true to their American habits, were wearing socks – I kicked myself for not doing so. It was hard for me to concentrate because I was so aware of germs, dust, pigeon droppings.

We prayed the ‘asr prayer in the masjid area. As I stood up, a man genially approached my husband and informed him the women’s area was over there. I snapped at him good-humoredly, because I am older than him, probably, pointing to the supposed women’s area. Every area in the courtyard had men, women, and children. There is no women’s area. He grinned, and left.

We prayed. The chatai, the plastic woven prayer ‘rug’ was dusty.

When we finished, I sat for a muraqaba-e-shaikh, meditating, opening my heart to the faizan of Hz Mian Mir. The dust, dirt, noise, and pigeon droppings fell away.

Today, we sit in our home in Evanston. Not a single coronavirus case has been found here. The schools will close today. There isn’t any hand sanitizer or toilet paper left in the stores. Everybody is losing their shit.

At this time, I remember that moment of serenity, surrounded by people of mostly humble and working classes, with not a single hand sanitizer in sight, in the dusty 17th century courtyard.


Visiting abbu’s grave

I’m visiting Lahore this week, for my nephew’s wedding. After 3 days of hectic festivities, we took a breath. My sister is getting ready to fly out to Australia tonight, so we visited abbu’s grave today.

People wax very philosophical about graves; they say “The departed are actually with you, they are not in the grave.” But visiting a loved one’s grave is a powerful experience.

Abbu’s presence is very strong here in ‘shaheedan da qabristan‘ (“cemetery of martyrs,” because many of those who fell in the 1965 war are buried here).

Abbu used to dote on my nephew (the bridegroom this week). So my sister brought petals from the wedding roses. We scattered them on his grave. I told abbu we missed him, and his beloved grandson’s wedding was beautiful.

Abbu had a hard life, I said. He worked hard all his life so he could give us wonderful and comfortable lives. He gave us so much love. We always knew he was in our court.

I said, we weren’t the best children to you, but thank you, abbu, for everything; we are so grateful for everything.

It was hard to get up from his side. There are fragrant chambeli shrubs all over the cemetery. My kid brought home a chambeli flower from the cemetery and gave it to ammi. We conveyed your salam, she told ammi, and we brought you a flower from there.

Under my breath, I told him sorry that it takes me so long for me to visit him. Sorry that I never gave back as much love as I received.


Capitalism in your heart

… And deep down, capitalism seeps deep into the texture of our everyday life. We begrudge our families hours and minutes. We charge spouses and children in resentment and guilt. Weekends and holidays are not enough to make up for leisure with our families. A price is paid for every day, every hour of abandon. Even when we are ‘free,’ we are not free of these habits of disconnection. We are not whole. We are not connected. When we connect with others, we are on unpaid leave. 

It is women more than anyone else who pay the price for breaking the rules of capitalism, for prioritizing connection. It is appropriate for women to pay this price, is it not? Since they are naturally oriented to connect. Let them, then, continue to pay the price – these ‘defective’ soldiers of capitalism.

Capitalism isn’t theoretical. It’s intimate & violent. It doesn’t peek in on you sometimes. It’s constant. It’s habit of thought, a stranglehold on hearts, a constriction from which to escape we call for self-care & vacations – temporary fixes & an integral part of the system.


Small inequalities: gender and the family

Image result for family labor inequality women
Via Greater Good.

The vast world of inequalities women deal with on a day to day basis is completely untouched by public debate, law, or policy.

The inherent gender inequality built into our social and emotional lives, into how we structure our days, into our expectations for what female individuals must do, the value of one person’s time compared to another’s — these are the intimate family spaces untouched by policy.

These are the times and spaces where women are alone and without recourse.

These are the pockets of life where we are obligated to shut off our personal awareness of inequality, simply to live in peace and harmony with expectations of love and acceptance. Because once we articulate this awareness, social harmony in everyday life becomes conditional; love is stinted.

In order to be loved, we must give and give without question.


Dear khateebs:

  1. Say “sisters” as well as “brothers.” I promise no one will get aroused.
  2. Review your khutbah before delivery: If it is all 30 minutes of negative feedback, at least insert some positive notes. Take out at least some of the contempt and the shaming. People naturally try to avoid retaining negative feedback. If you want people to actually change their behavior, try positive notes. Today I heard someone spend 30 minutes assuming the worst of all his listeners in relation to how we use time.
  3. If your textual references are all so elevated as to be unrelatable for ordinary people, try inserting some accessible notes. Try mentioning stuff that can be put into practice. Contextual religiosity is something people can take with them. Otherwise it’s just pious shame that results in nothing. For instance, today a man exhorted attendees to drive 100mph in order to be in the front row at the masjid, promising that they wouldn’t get a speeding ticket. Also, try varying references to the Companions if they are all of this kind:
  • Khalid ibn Waleed saying bismillah illadhi … and drinking poison, and remaining healthy;
  • a sahabi hearing the Prophet say sit and then refuse to stand up because he never heard the Prophet say stand afterward;
  • Ibraheem (AS) leaving his family in the desert.

We have kids in the musalla; we’ve got people wondering whether they should be drinking poison. Maybe try piloting your khutba before delivering it.

4. Here in the U.S., please translate Arabic words. I kept having to tell my kid what you were saying.

5. Don’t shame people across the board for not being eager to attend lengthy Friday prayers. Not everyone has the leisure and freedom to attend lengthy prayer services. Some people have responsibilities. And by the way, some attendees may be physically unable to attend long prayers; some may not be able to retain their wudu. So exhort people, yes, to enjoy the benefits of leisurely prayer when they are able, but don’t assume that they are just bad and lazy if they don’t.


the darkness is inside the house

You wake up and as you roll out of bed

you face the dark.

Your heart sinks

and asks

can we stop?

can we not move


But now,

with years of facing the darkness

you now have the strength

the knowledge

the power

to remind yourself

reassure yourself

comfort yourself

(yes it’s comforting)

The darkness is not really outside.

Well, maybe some of it is.

But the heaviest, the most pitch black darkness of all

is inside.

Because it’s always there.


death is real

Our last photo of Yeti with Ghost, just 3 hours before he died.

When you love, you feel pain. Again and again.

My cat died Thursday evening. I held his dead body, stared in horror at his glazed wide-open beautiful eyes, struggled to hold up his limp neck. It occurred to me that his is the only dead body I have held since my parakeet died in 1977 and my kitten died in 1987.

Death is an awful presence.

I’ve been sad all weekend. It gets worse when I cuddle with Ghost, and I wonder, is he sad? Does he miss his brother? His only species friend? My heart breaks all over again.

Today I hauled myself to an academic lecture at the Northwestern University MENA lecture series. Though not directly in my scholarly area, it turned out to be fascinating lecture about the history of medical practices, medical teaching, and practices of bodies/cadavers in colonial Egypt.

My mind didn’t wander once. But as Dr. Khaled Fahmy spoke about the dignity of dead bodies, the weight of Yeti’s body returned to my arms.

Death is not something you can prepare for. It is not theoretical. You can read about it, and pray about it, but it is far beyond all of those things. Death is real.


the certainty of death

I am grieving all of the world. Wildfires and destruction in Australia, hate in India, crackdown in Kashmir, fear of new wars, Iran.

And Yeti. My cat.

Yes – it’s weird to be grieving one cat in these terrible times.

But listen: Yeti was alive.

He dropped & died in seconds. He fell, gasped, and was dead.

We can die in one SECOND.

How would we live if we were truly certain of this?


I am You and Me and Us

We used to joke about how Ghost was always the more attractive of the two. Yeti was lanky, a little clumsy, not as elegant as Ghost.

But now that Yeti is gone (it hurts to type that), I realize that Ghost isn’t the same Ghost now.

As my daughter put it, we’ve lost not only Yeti but Ghost-and-Yeti.

Humans, pets, creatures don’t operate as individuals. They function together and create something together.

And if I may, human cultures, racial groups, tribes, and nations work the same way.

Together, we are Love and Majesty.

We ourselves will not work if we try to eliminate each other.

We need each other to be, to live, to survive, to love.