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At the age of 24, I have yet to hear my parents utter the words, “I love you” to me, or to each other despite 34 years of marriage.
Growing up, I always felt like I did not know what love was because, unlike my American friends, I did not grow up hearing those three words. During my teens, I subconsciously battled with the concept of love. When my friends dropped the “I love you” line at the end of every encounter or long telephone conversation, I didn’t know how to reply. To make things more complicated, the media used the words “I love you” very loosely: songs, TV shows, and books all sold a story of love.
I convinced myself that “American” love and “Muslim” love were distinctly different. However, this idea vanished after I began college and met friends from different backgrounds. I was shocked to find that some of my non-Muslim friends related to my upbringing.
When I think about the concept of love, I cannot help but think of a conversation I had with my high school librarian in the last week of my senior year. I was sitting at my usual table when my favorite librarian approached me for our daily chat. After I told her the university I would be attending in the fall, she exclaimed, “Oh, there will be plenty of hot guys there!”
“I won’t be looking for them,” I responded.
“Then they won’t be looking for you either,” she replied.
I was offended that she thought my definition of love was similar to her perception of love, that she thought we shared the same concept of love. At the time, and for many years to come, I believed that the concept of love varied between cultures.
Five years later, I was sitting across from one of my patients. At the start of my shift, I would enter my patients’ rooms to introduce myself. As I walked in, I realized that my patient was crying. The patient had been healthy for most of her life, but had recently found out that she had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I consoled her, but was confused because, until then, the patient had been very optimistic. She had taken the news like champ, and was willing to go through an aggressive treatment with minimal promise of a cure.
After a few minutes, I found out that her husband of almost 20 years was filing for divorce because he was coward and couldn’t go through it all. I sympathized with the patient, remembering how affectionate the couple had been towards one another. There were plenty of “I love you”, kisses, and hugs. What happened to the marital vows he took in front of God? Vows to be true to one another during good and bad times, and in sickness and health?
Despite the many curses I sent to God to destroy the heartless man, I continued contemplating on the nature of love. What does “I love you” mean? How can the daily “I love you” become “I am filing for divorce”? Soon, I began to detest the words “I love you.”
In the following weeks, I kept thinking back to my childhood, trying to remember if anyone had ever said “I love you” to me. I kept coming up empty-handed, and realized that the words “I love you” were a foreign language to me and my ancestors. Instead, remarkably, every childhood memory I had involved being shown love instead.
I realized that although I had never heard my parents utter those three words to each other, I had seen their undying love in their marriage. Just earlier this year my father was diagnosed with a heart condition and my mother stood by his side every waking moment, driving the nurses and the doctors’ crazy about how they were not providing good enough care. Every morning, I watched my father wake up my mother for morning prayers. This is love, in its purest form.
Even though my parents never told me that they loved me, they have shown me their love in their willingness to immigrate to America and put aside their hopes and dreams to give me a better life. At the age of 24, I don’t have any memory where my parents were not at my side encouraging and cheering me on as I fumbled through life. It was my parents who wiped away every tear. At the age of 19, when I had my first panic attack and thought I was dying, it was my father who sat next to me as I asked him to recite the Shahada with me because I swore in the name of Allah that I was dying. He sat near my bed for what seemed like hours before the ambulance came even though he knew I was not dying. This is love, unconditional and attainable.
I finally realized that I was not confused because I did not know what love was. I grew up in a household that showed me what love is and taught me that the most important thing you can do for anyone is to show them love. I was confused because I was raised in a country that expressed its love for me at every chance, yet has miserably failed to show me love.
I write this piece in hopes that we, as an Ummah, never forget to teach our children HOW to love instead of just how to say, “I love you.” As the Muslim community grows and assimilates in America, I fear I will see our youth become like my patient’s heartless husband because they were never taught that love is a verb, love is action.
Say “I love you,” but show the people you love that you love them too.
Nadira Ibrahim, the daughter of Somali refugees, is an aspiring writer. Her goals in life are to create stories that uplift, entertain, and, most importantly, educate others. Nadira dreams of a day when Muslim women take back their voices.