Eds. Note: We’re featuring the stories and perspectives of Muslim youth between the ages of 18-25 this month! Today’s feature is our first short story.
I used to write poetry. Don’t worry, I am better now.
During those days of angst, my life consisted of Tumblr posts, Instagram, little pastel graphics I’d make that were nothing really (but got quite a few likes), quirky romance movies with oddball characters, and guilty pictures of actors on my iPod touch that I begged my parents to buy for me. And of course, poetry. My secret was Pablo Neruda:
“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”
Ah, how my heart flutters. Of course, when I read my own poetry now, it is not a pleasant experience for my heart, or my ego. But back then, poetry was my one weapon against the world. And the world, looming large, was my mom.
When you are a fifteen-year-old girl in an orthodox Muslim Tamil household, you don’t spend much time out of the house. Thus, by this age I had developed acute cabin fever against my mom, and my home. My dad came home late, but my mom was always there, sharper than my conscience ever was.
Once, I was watching a live Coldplay performance on my laptop. Chris Martin was on the mike and all the girls were screaming. It seemed that each and every one of them was more beautiful than I was. None of them had the inflamed red spot I was sporting on my nose just then. None of them had to hide their frizzy hair under a scarf. My mom is beautiful with fair, clear skin, high cheekbones and full lips. I am oily-skinned and acne prone with chubby thighs.
Just then my mom entered my room with clothes for my cupboard. I closed the window on my laptop, but she had noticed what I was watching. I could not prevent myself from looking shifty though, technically, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Her nostrils flared. She quietly arranged the clothes in my cupboard, left to get some more clothes to stack in my cupboard.
“You know, Neimat, you’ve changed a lot. So much ibadah you had. Now…” she murmured.
“What?’ I asked. I hated the high-pitched petulant tone of my voice.
“These days your mind is not where it should be. That’s all.”
But then she went on.
“What are you doing all the time on the computer, Neimat? Hmm? You know your aunts don’t even allow your cousins on Facebook. What are you doing chatting all the time?”
“All this is natural. Just be careful, Neimat. And, remember: Allah is watching.”
There was a vague, ominous tone to her words. She would have done well as a member of the Mafia.
“Shaitan will put these thoughts in your head at your age. But you must be strong.”
“Yes, mom.” I sighed.
The severe look on her face softened. She smiled, taking my face in her hands, cool fingers stroking my cheeks.
“My Neimat is strong, I know. At least you have ibadah, and pray five times a day. As long as you do that, Shaitan will stay away a bit.”
I smiled at her as she walked out.
Then, I sat back, feeling drained and guilty. The ferocity and heady sensuality of the changes in my body frightened me.
After I prayed Zuhr, I felt a bit better. I sat on the musallah and made dua, “Ya Allah, help me purify my thoughts and my body. Keep the devil far from me, and help me be a good Muslim.”
I imagined my mom nodding approvingly. But sometimes I feel like we pray to different Gods. Her God had flared nostrils, his hands were on his hips and he took account of each action and thought, nodding his head vengefully and biding his time until he could punish you.
My Allah, when I imagine him in my head, has the face of my grandfather, wrinkled with time and smiles. As a child, my grandfather took me for trips into town in Tirunelveli. He would buy red, apple-shaped lollies for me at one of the stalls in the junction.
My Allah wept for me when I did stupid things, and was happy for me when something nice happened to me. He was loving and forgiving and, above all, understanding. He understood how bad my day was when I didn’t respond to mom’s attempts at conversation. And he understood the fears mom felt when she saw her daughter growing up too.
Sometimes I just go through the motions when I pray. But he understands. Allah has ninety-nine names in Islam. I gave him a hundredth: “The Understanding.”
I once showed my mother a poem I had written for her. It was a bitter, symbolic monologue about our relationship.
I gave my mom my iPad. I had posted the poem on my blog (since deleted). The olive green drapes were drawn against the sunlight, and a warm, green light rippled through the room. She read it lying on her bed. It took her nearly ten minutes to say anything. All the while I walked around the room, excitedly trying to occupy myself. I picked up and set down knick-knacks from the shelves while giving sidelong glances at my mom’s impassive face lit up by the blue glow of the iPad.
What kind of a reaction did I expect?
In the silliest of my fantasies, she quietly gave me back the iPad and never spoke about it again, but from then on there was a marked improvement in the way she treated me. But, to tell the truth, I was quite fearful. I expected a fight and was having second thoughts.
“Mmm,” my mom said, jolting me out of my reverie. “It’s nice.”
“Yeah?” I asked, my heart beating fast.
“It’s nice…You put it up on your blog. It got some likes. That’s good.”
“Yeah.” I said.
“It’s good, only…Neimat, why don’t you try writing something else? Like articles, maybe?
“I don’t know. Something more…worthwhile?”
She laughed at the look on my face.
“No, no, no. I mean…something easy to understand. Something a lot of people can read.”
Eventually, I stumbled to my own room. After closing the door, I sat on the edge of my bed and had a good cry. Hot tears, wet nose. After the release, I wondered what I could do that was more worthwhile. She was right. The bitch. I wasn’t going to do anything with my poetry or silly doodles.
I lay back in bed and saw a dull, gray life of mediocrity and wistfulness ahead. I saw myself at eighty, wearing a hijab and thumbing my prayer beads and boring my grandchildren with long, droning tales that belied a bitter, tearful spirit. My only refuge would be that I was a good Muslim. My personality would sour with the tang of fire and brimstone the way my mother’s had.
I sighed and sat higher up on the cushions, my knees bunched up in front of me. I picked up the small supplication book from my table and read. But none of the hadeeth or dua seemed to relate to me right then. It was time for Maghreb anyway. As I sat on the prayer mat everything was quiet. My mind had been given a good scrubbing by the tears. I cupped my palms and prayed.
“Ya Allah…give me the strength to bear my parents. Help my mother not to be so angry. Ya Allah…help me lead a good life. Help me be a good daughter. Give me a great ambition and help me achieve it. Help me have better skin. Help me get good marks in my Math weekly test. Ya Allah, help me.”
After praying, I looked at my drawings with their abstract, geometrical, and flowery patterns. Not worthwhile.
Then I picked up the dua book with the ugly purple cover and a silhouette of a niqab-wearing woman on it. She resembled a dementor or a wraith more than your average Muslimah. It struck me that I could make a personalised cover for it. That would please mom, wouldn’t it? That would be something worthwhile.
I decided to cover a whole sheet with designs and use it to cover the book. But what designs? Something calligraphic. I opened the supplication book to one of the hadeeth that I had dog-eared: “Allah is beautiful and loves beauty…”
I absently copied the words out in large, loopy handwriting: Allah is beautiful, and so am I.
Now, I can’t remember the exact reason why I did that. I doubt I knew even then. It was, as is always the case, several things, I guess. I was feeling bad about how I looked, I wanted to write poetry, but felt too sorry for myself. I wanted someone to comfort me.
I looked at the words on the paper for a few moments as an idea slowly arose in my mind.
I began working feverishly. I tore out a page from a spare notebook and started scribbling on it. After Googling fonts, I used the pastels, glitter and scissors from my table.
After an hour’s work I was done. Lying on my table, pretty in glitter and in calming green and blue, was my pocket-sized prayer:
“Dua of a Daughter
Give me the strength to bear my parents.
Give my parents the strength to bear me when I am weak.
Help my mother understand when she hurts me.
Help my father understand me. Help us become closer.
Help us all come closer to you, Allah, and to become better people.”
The line about my father was mostly to fill up space. When I went to bed that night I felt like I’d done something worthwhile.
I made other prayers after that. I gave a few to my friends, at their request. Dua for exams, Dua for fear (after watching Paranormal Activity), Dua for beauty. A lot of my friends wanted that last dua. I would use my own words along with quotes from the Quran, the hadeeth, the Bible, books I had read, U2 (I love Bono! I don’t care what anyone else says. I love him.), and a whole hodgepodge of other material.
Nearly three years later, I found one of my prayers tucked inside my then-boyfriend’s wallet. I had met him a year-and-a-half prior when I wasn’t making prayers much anymore. But for him, for us, I made a prayer.
We were at a Chilli’s on our first anniversary as a couple and Amir had gone to the washroom. I looked around out of habit to see if any of my relatives were there. The whole restaurant was quiet and lonely as I sat sipping my Coke. I decided to rifle through Amir’s wallet for his driver’s license. His picture on it made me laugh. That’s when I found the prayer. It was smudged and the sides had small tears where it had been folded. The prayer was drawn in red and black and yellow and white:
Help me, help her, help us
Help us become one though not the same.
Help us carry each other.
Help us care for love.
Ya Allah, let us not forget the rose for the thorns.
We are in love
And in love let us live.”
My insides curdled in embarrassment as I read the plaintive words. I felt sorry for any God that had to take them seriously. I smiled ruefully and put the prayer back in the wallet.
My mother had eased up on me a bit. Whether because of my age or hers, I do not know. I thought back to our interaction on the day I met Amir.
“I only have one daughter, I want her to look beautiful,” she said, while spraying me with body mist in front of a mirror. “All the boys will be looking at you. Stick with your friends. Your father doesn’t know there will be boys at the party. Just be careful, okay?”
She stood over me as I looked in the mirror. My acne wasn’t entirely gone, but it had diminished to a few minor forehead blemishes. And thank God the red spot hadn’t re-appeared on my nose! I had tweezed my upper lip and my hair fell in lovely waves to my shoulder. I still didn’t look like my mom, but I didn’t look bad either.
At the party, a boy looked at me. Amir. It was the first time a boy had flirted with me. It was quite flattering. Especially when the boy in question was tall and athletic with gorgeous, untidy black hair, an infectious grin, and the ability to play the guitar.
The night Amir asked me out, we were sitting on the bumper of his car at the Sharjah creek. I had lied to my mom that I was at a friend’s place. My friends knew, and I felt a stomach-churning guilt combined with a heady excitement. I inhaled the smell of sea salt and his aftershave. We both knew what was coming. And we were nervous.
I stared out at the sky. Cloudless and as dark as my sin. The moon was on the horizon behind us. The sea rocked and swayed a gentle dance; it cooled my nerves.
“Look at that sky, isn’t that beautiful?” he asked.
“Can you even see the beauty, you soulless atheist.” I teased.
And then there was an awkward silence in which I realised that he had been building himself up, and I had just ruined it.
Eventually he spoke again. “When I look up there. I feel something stir within me, something emerge. I don’t know. I can’t explain.”
“I know, I think that’s God speaking.” I shudder now thinking of what I said.
But then he took both my hands. He got down on his knees, right there on the pavement.
“It’s the same feeling I get when I look at you.”
Well, how many boy-hungry sixteen-year-olds can resist something as grandiose and silly as that?
When Amir came back from the washroom I said. “Well, Atheist McGodless. You still have a prayer in your heart, eh?”
He shook his head. “What?”
I told him about the prayer I had found.
“You were looking through my wallet?” he frowned.
“Relax. I just wanted to see your driver’s license again.”
“Loser,” he laughed, kicking me under the table.
“Well, so what about it?” he asked. “I still keep the beautiful prayer that my girl wrote for me.”
I laughed, “It’s so silly.”
Honestly, I was disappointed that he still thought it was beautiful.
“How are your classes going?” I asked him.
‘Meh…” he said. “They’re okay. Gotta get a degree for my bread and butter, no?”
He was in the final year of his B.B.A Degree ( I was a freshman) and he hated it. I didn’t care one way or another. I was stuck here.
“Once we get enough money, babe. It’s only you, me, and the whole world. Nothing can stop us.”
I felt irritated at the ease with which life presented itself to him, a man. I was cooped up at home in Dubai and any day my mom might start looking for suitors. This was something Amir and I never discussed.
I had spoken to my mom a few days before. I wanted her to ask my dad whether he would allow me to go abroad for studies. She told me firmly that I wasn’t going anywhere until I was married. But she did grant me the concession of studying whatever I liked wherever my older, salaried, sensible husband resided.
I clenched my fist and bit down on the straw, sucking down the Coke.
I broke up with Amir a few weeks after that. I did it via text message. He called me on my mobile immediately after. He wanted to hear me say it. I told him through a dry mouth and with a shaky voice. I could hear him crying. I hung up.
He harassed me for several days after over the phone until I finally blocked him. When I saw him again, it was a few months later at a mutual friend’s place. He was unshaven and spent the whole time giving me mournful looks and making things awkward for everybody.
I heard that he started cutting himself. And now I am sure I made the right decision in leaving him. At first I thought he was romantic, but now I realise that he is not sure whether he lives in real life or is a character from a movie.
I pray more often nowadays. In the quietness of my unlit room, while sitting on the musallah I feel the vastness of the universe that Amir talked about that night. I feel lonely. My life is all my own to live and I don’t know if I can. Like Sisyphus rolling a terrible boulder up the hill in inane, ruthless repetition – and all for what?
So I pray. Do I believe that prayer will cause the dark waters before me to part? I don’t know. I’m scared. Sometimes I just go through the motions. Most times actually. It’s a comforting habit.
But tonight I realise that a prayer isn’t a favour to be granted. A prayer is a lonely call, one that I make in the dark caverns of my heart: worn by emotion, broken and put together again. Floundering and living, I am a blind, pulsating thing.
I have made this call a thousand times before. All I have gotten back are empty echoes. Deep within my wretched and glorious heart, the call resounds. And then there is silence. A silence like death.
But, wait. Something emerges. Something infinite. Life like a river rushes through me. I breath and I am alive and that is all that matters. The colours and sounds of my life seep through me and it feels like the kingdom of heaven is within me for a moment, before the flesh and its senses claim me again. The world rushes in in great tumult. Let the horns and trumpets sound and let the angels sing my coming. Rebirth.
For awhile I will walk this earth: My parents will hurt me again. I will fall in love again, or do something stupid or selfish. My future, dark and stormy, overwhelms my vision of life. And the call will tremble upon my lips once more. And in this way till the grave.
Faisal Pakkali is a twenty-year-old writer living in Dubai. He is a student accountant and writes in his spare time. He has previously been published by Bartleby Snopes, Pantheon, Everyday Fiction and The Missing Slate.