4 Years a Mom: My Memoir on Motherhood

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It’s my son’s 4th birthday today – four years since the mum in me was born. Four years since I experienced water breaking for the first time at 4 am in the morning, four years since I knew what it meant to be swooning in death-like pain to be able to bring new life into the world. Four years since my heart has been transformed to contain a dweller who will forever be irreplaceable.

Don’t be deceived by the first paragraph though, this isn’t going to be one of those mushy motherly dedications or monologues about how fantastic motherhood is. I was (am) the kind of mother who never ‘enjoyed’ being pregnant and definitely never loved or ‘missed’ breastfeeding. However, my natural feelings towards these phenomena are completely separate from my value and gratitude for them – having become a mother, I can fully comprehend what it can mean to be pregnant for those who want to have children but haven’t been able to yet, and how truly enjoyable or difficult different parts of motherhood can be for different mothers depending on their personalities and circumstances.

Six months after my son was born, I’d written this reflection on motherhood; but last month I was going through some old photographs of my son and I, and since then I’ve been meaning to share something. With every picture that I browsed through, I realized it was but a momentary capture of the one role that singularly dominated the past 4 years of my life. My infant son’s fingers wrapped around mine, 1-month old him looking up at the colorful bees in his musical mobile, the first videos of him laughing or excitedly flexing his legs on the bed, pictures of him in his high chair enjoying his apple and oats and smearing his baby books with food, happy selfies of us where we both managed to shower and get changed before dad got home, moments of him observing bees and flowers in the garden or splashing in the bath tub, videos of him simmering with fever in my lap and narrating hilarious fever-induced stories, or him engrossed in discovering processes in the kitchen or playing alone with his cars under the table in the garden, him flipping through the books we’d read everyday and the stories he’d ask for on loop, pictures of him relishing his favorite home-made cookies or cupcakes or watching his favorite cartoons: a thousand moments and more of just me and him; him in my care and me by his side.

I couldn’t believe I’d been the one watching, nourishing, teaching, disciplining, supporting, observing, encouraging, loving, caring and constantly being there for another human being in all those moments. And all those pictures were but a few of our moments together that happened to be captured by a camera: I’d been doing this continuously for four, full years. In that instance, my mind reeled thinking of the decades and millions and millions of moments that mothers throughout time have spent dedicating their entire existence to another, like it is the most ordinary thing to do. I realized that day that it must be the most natural thing to do, but it definitely is one of the most extraordinary things to do too.  I hadn’t realized just how much of my inner potential this one role was capable of extracting and bringing forth. I didn’t realize how far being dedicated to the nurturing of another soul could go in nourishing and growing my own. I hadn’t realized how my child was shaping who I am as much as I was molding him. As mundane, monotonous, restricting and often miserable as motherhood had been, I hadn’t realized what a spectacular sight it would be to behold someday.

Today when I look in the mirror, I see wrinkles and eye bags and uneven skin tone and blemishes that I didn’t have four years ago. I realize a lot of it is probably going to stay too and I try (very) hard to embrace that fact. But I also see the soul and inner strength I never had four years ago. My body has aged, but I have simultaneously grown and matured and evolved in so many wonderful ways. My time was constantly sacrificed and given away, but I was unknowingly creating, building and achieving so much.

There have been many dark days. Days I’m certain will never be over till I am no longer a mother. Days of frustration, loneliness, anger at not knowing how to handle yourself and your child, days of exhaustion having to do so much by yourself, feelings of being trapped for eternity with human beings less than half your real and mental age, days when every bone and muscle and nerve in your body is throbbing in pain and your eyes well up with tears that you’ve managed to hold back for far too long, days when people pass the kind of inconsiderate remarks that knock the words out of even the most self-assured mothers, days when everything you’ve done or have been doing is belittled to the point where you just want to abandon everything and run away, days when you feel like not a second of being a mother was or ever will be worth it. I’ve been through all of these days, every single mother has. They are as real and as existent as the good days, don’t let anyone fool you into believing otherwise. It is because of days like these that I’ve also realized that no one deserves your all and your best all the time.

Being a devoted mother does not mean destroying your own self. Being a good mother does not mean giving in to your child’s, husband’s, in-laws’ or society’s every demand and expectation of what you ‘should’ be doing as a mother. Being a perfect mother does not mean packing Instagram-worthy lunches everyday, doing daily Pinterest crafts, tracking and achieving every Baby Centre milestone by the millisecond and trying to legitimize your bouts of guilt and insecurity because your child isn’t ‘performing’ as well as your friend’s. Being a loving mother does not mean never, ever leaving your child in someone else’s care so you can take a break with your friends or go out on a date with your husband or do something you love for a little while. Being a dedicated mother does not mean carrying your child on your hip all day and doing every little thing for them because teaching them to be independent requires more patience and effort and then conveniently blaming your lack of me-time on your all-consuming children. Being a caring mother does not mean being the only parent who wakes up in the middle of the night to tend to the children or cater to their every need with no spousal support despite their father being present. Being a great mother doesn’t mean taking the entire world’s burden on your shoulders and not asking for the help or support that is either within your reach or within your rights. Let me assure you, you’ll be getting no special awards or recognition for any of this. You’ll only be in for some major resentment once everyone goes on to live the lives they were meant to; while you’re left with nothing but hopefully good memories of how every drop of your blood, sweat, tears and time was spent in raising your children who don’t seem to even remember to call you, and all those in-laws and people who dictated what you did as a mother couldn’t care less that your body, mind and soul are broken and constantly hurting after years of ‘perfect’ mothering.

Being senseless and sacrificial are not the same thing, though it’s very easy to confuse the two as a mother. Yes, easier said than done, yes not everyone’s circumstances are the same; but no, everyone has the ability to choose to stand up for themselves. Everyone has the ability to choose to give value to themselves. Everyone has the ability to choose to ignore other people’s opinions. Everyone has the ability to choose to make healthy, balanced lifestyle choices. Everyone has the ability to choose to seek the physical, mental, emotional or other help they need. Everyone has the ability to choose to live a life with some semblance of structure, boundaries and routine that may gradually but eventually lead to you being a good mother while also being good to yourself. The only difference is that making and sticking to that choice will be relatively harder or easier, depending on your circumstances. 

And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt for sure in these four years, it is that making the choice to love and take care of yourself while you love and care for your children, will make all the difference.

 

 

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Hostages at home: how desi women die inside in KSA

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“Yaar, this color looks so damn good on me…” she drawls, smacking her lips and throwing a glance at her best friend through the mirror. Lying with her head hanging off the side of the bed, her best friend looks at her and agrees.

“Not one friggin’ shaadi to wear this at, can you imagine? When was the last time you attended a wedding?”

“3 years ago, my cousin’s – in India”, she replies, trying to recall how it felt like to be part of a family gathering.

“I can’t believe your mom let you come today man, I’ve literally been dying for this. Please don’t tell me you have to leave early today too.”

“Shut up and be happy I came. I had to beg her for the whole week to let me come here and make sure I didn’t even let out a breath that might accidentally upset her, and my dad has duty tomorrow so he warned me that I better be ready by 9 pm to be picked up.”

“What the hell – just two more hours?!”

“Can we stop wasting time discussing things that will never change and talk??”

********

“When is your friend going to go home?” her brother asks for the 16th time. “I want to use the computer in the room.”

“She just got here so go do something else and stop bugging me.”

“What do you girls get out of talking so much anyway? What a waste of life you both are”, he comments flippantly, unaware of the array of brutally honest comebacks she’d kept in her mind for years but never bothered to verbalize.

“Unlike you, we don’t get to go out of the house unfettered, and we still like interacting with real people like normal human beings do. I’m sure your gadget-addicted brain cannot process that so get lost”, she says and slams the door, forcing herself to ignore how different her life is from her brother’s just because of her gender.

*********

“Isn’t it enough that you meet at school everyday? What madness is this coming back and chatting with the same friends at home for hours?”

“But we don’t get time to talk at school mummy, break time lasts only for 15 minutes and we can barely talk about anything”, she pleads.

“When will you ever be satisfied? Even if you lived the whole day with each other your useless bak bak will never be enough for you! I don’t understand what there is to talk so much about? Get up and finish cleaning your room. I have to break my back cooking and cleaning for you everyday and all you can do is come home from school, fill your stomach and sit like a queen and waste time talking to your friends.”

*********

“Why has she called you home again? Didn’t you just meet recently? MashaAllah you keep meeting each other every now and then but always keep complaining that you haven’t met in ages.”

“Ma, the last time we met was three months ago”, she remarks dryly.

*********

“What is this madness of wanting to meet at restaurants and cafes? What do you do there that you cannot do at home? Decent people don’t need to meet outside the house. We’ll get some good food or your mother will cook something, call them home and have a good time here. I just don’t understand this craze of meeting outside. No, you are not going to the mall with your friends, end of discussion.”

*********

“Sana, if your dad can’t drop you, take a cab with Aisha, man. You both live so close, and you won’t be coming alone.”

“Are you mad? There’s no way my dad’s going to agree to let me take a cab!”

“Yaar it’s 2016, there’s Uber, Careem, EasyTaxi, the whole world is using these services now. It’s safe yaar I’ve used it so many times. Tell your dad my parents let me use it, I’m sure he’ll agree.”

“Daddy, I was thinking I could maybe take a Uber or Careem cab to Hina’s house with Aisha. She uses these cabs and said they’re very safe”, she dares to mumble after reconsidering for hours whether or not she should risk it at all.

“What did you say?” her mother asks in exaggerated shock, as she puts down the dishes she was scrubbing. “Happy? Didn’t I tell you she was getting out of hand since she’s been hanging around with that Hina? Happy with the freedom you’ve given her?” her mother lashes out at her father.

“Achcha, so you want to take cabs on your own now? Of course, we have money growing on trees. Where is this tree of money can you show me, Sana? Get me also some of it. Maybe we should plant a few of them right here at home so I don’t need to go and slog at work anymore, you don’t seem to care anyway about how hard your father has to work before you come up with these new new demands. Hina told you they are safe so they become safe? Next Hina will dance naked so will you also go dance naked??? Go to your room and don’t show me your face, you understand?!”

*********

“Now that you’re so independent and earning yourself, what do you need us for? You can keep going and burning your money in those fancy restaurants with your friends, of course God didn’t give you the sense to use your money wisely. Every second day you’re splurging on something just to satisfy your never-ending desires. You’re almost 30 but don’t have the brains and character we had when we were half your age. Try inculcating at least a little humility and sense of gratitude, especially towards your parents. Nobody will want to marry a hot-headed arrogant woman like you otherwise.”

*********

“Listen, my school friends are having a reunion at Outback on Wednesday. Can you drop me?”

“What time?” he asks, annoyed by her new request.

“6 pm. We’ll be there till after dinner, say till about 10-ish”, she responds cautiously.

“So I have to drop you at 6, then drive back in traffic for more than half an hour and then come back to pick you up in 2 hours? Over that, I would’ve just gotten back from work. Now don’t tell me I have to keep the kids.”

“No I’ll take the kids. I even missed the last reunion… this happens only once a year. Even last year I only got to see the pictures on Facebook”, she says trying hard to keep her voice steady and polite.

“If you spent less time looking at other people’s pictures on Facebook and filling yourself with regret for no reason it’d do everyone a whole lot of good”, he snaps. “Be ready at 6 and don’t make me wait in the car for God’s sake.”

Guys, hubby’s agreed to drop me – will be getting the kids. I can finally make it, YASSSS!  she texts, excited beyond belief.

*********

“Mamma, cookie!”

“Mammmaaaa, cooooookieee!” her toddler yells.

“Okay sweetheart, let’s make cookies”, she says and heads to the fridge.

Oh great, no chocolate chips and no butter, she mutters in her head.

‘Pls get one pack choc chips and 200g butter on the way home – Hana going mad for cookies’, she texts.

“Sweetheart, once baba gets back home I’ll make you some cookies because we don’t have the stuff now, okay?” she says, desperately hoping there’ll be no meltdowns.

“NOOOOO! Mammmmmaaa, I want cookie now! Cookie! Cookieeeeee!” she bawls and throws a fit, hitting her helpless mother.

*********

“What do you mean you’re feeling suffocated at home? When will you stop crying about this? What else do you want? We go out on the weekends, I come back tired from work and still take you wherever you want to go, I buy you whatever you need, you meet your friends whenever possible. When will you stop eating my brains about this?”

“You spend half your day at work, you come back so tired that I don’t even ask you to take me out anywhere. Where do we go on the weekends except to buy groceries or to some restaurant?” she retorts.

“So what else do you want to do, dance on the streets? What can I do if there are only malls and restaurants to go to here?! Go get a job if you can’t stand being at home.”

“How can I get a job now with the new baby? Where will I leave the kids? Who will take care of the house? Why don’t you understand what I’m saying??”

“WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? Every country has its issues. If this is how life is here, accept it. If I was the king I’d be the first one to legalize driving so I wouldn’t have to keep listening to how trapped you feel inside the house. I don’t understand what the hell it is you want.”

“For God’s sake I don’t see another human being the whole day here!” she explodes. “Everywhere I go, I’m surrounded by walls. If I ever do go out, it’s from home into a car and then into another closed space – either a store or a house or some other damn building. Nobody walks on the streets like back home, everyone is in insulated spaces. The only interaction I have is online and it’s killing me!”

“Well the weather doesn’t allow people to walk about most of the year, fuel is cheap and everyone has cars and the culture is just different here, so it’s not going to be like back home”, he replies, calming down a little.

“I know that”, she groans irritably. “I know all of that for God’s sake! But do you have any idea what it does to us? To girls and women who are stuck at home here either because of paranoid control-obsessed parents or busy husbands or infants or ridiculously over-priced taxis or the complete absence of affordable public transport?! Do you know what it feels like to be a grown woman and not be able to drive in your own car to get some groceries but instead have to wait till someone else is available to get them for you? Or to not be able to interact with like-minded human beings in real-time for days on end? To not see anyone in the neighborhood, to not see signs of human life like kids and families on the streets and in open markets, like everywhere else? To have all the clothes and make-up and shoes but no weddings or parties to attend? To have to go through layers of oppressive protocol just to be bestowed with the right to basic human interaction?? Beg your frustrated parents or spouse for permission first, then coordinate timings in a way that will be suitable for everyone to be dropped and picked up without incident or causing major domestic discord, then be reminded for months on end about how you inconvenienced the person(s) who went out of the way to facilitate your meetings and how indebted you are to them for your doses of oxygen?
What is wrong with this place, what is wrong with us, what happens to desi people as soon as they step foot here? Why do parents forget they grew up in houses with open doors and large windows with neighbors and family streaming in and out everyday and sounds of birds and the rain and vendors walking through the lanes, and not dark apartment dungeons in a land that can never become home? Why do they forget they walked back from school with their friends everyday, they roamed the streets and bazaars with cousins as young people, sat under trees and enjoyed the breeze, and the only thing they needed was their own two feet? Why do they forget that they got to enjoy being part of the groom’s or the bride’s side at numerous weddings while their children would miss out on them year after year because of school or exams or ticket prices? Why do they forget that they grew up with maids and drivers and extended family for support back home whenever they remind their immigrant children about how lazy or spoilt or ungrateful they are? What do they expect when they confine their daughters to their rooms, clamp down on their basic right to interaction and then oppress them with taunts of spending their entire life on phones or on the couch? Why do they expect their teenagers and young adults to want to be at home the whole damn time just because they’re tired of dealing with the world and enjoy nothing more than avoiding everyone and being in the house?

What would husbands call it if they had no daily access to affordable public transport, only their wives could drive and they had to depend on them for access to friends or food or even getting water? What would these same desi parents call it if they were locked inside their houses for their entire childhood and youth because it was either too hot or too unsafe or too expensive or too inconvenient or too late to go out? Hostage. Yes, hostage at home. That’s what they’d call it.”

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Note: this article is based on the real lives of a large number of desi girls and women suffering due to a combination of their oppressive culture/home environments and practical realities in KSA. There are quite a few desi women who have not had to suffer this plight, like women of other nationalities (including Saudis) who are living happy lives here because of better socioeconomic conditions and/or loving guardians who understand and provide alternative solutions to the women in their care. 

ADDITIONAL note: As expected, the article comes off as a typical anti-Saudi rant to some readers, even though everything from the title to the content is clearly about how a large number of desis take undue advantage of practical realities in KSA to exert control over the women under their care – NOT how KSA oppresses desis. Please re-read the previous sentence as many times as required to clarify to yourself what this write-up is about. To ensure that readers read the article in its specific context and not misinterpret it, I inserted the above note at the end of the article – however this still doesn’t seem to help.

If you are unable to relate to the content of this article because your experiences have been different either because you are a male or because your guardians are sane and just, or because you’re financially much better off than many other desis here or because you have extended family here or because your parents/guardians are very social and maintain a healthy social life, congratulations because you’ve been very lucky to not be suffering a fate countless women currently are. Please don’t invalidate other people’s realities by comparing them to worse situations just because you have never experienced them – you can personally choose to deny that this sort of abuse is happening but it IS, and some basic courtesy and foresight requires that you do not belittle people’s struggles on a public platform where a victim of these circumstances is very likely to read and further be affected by callous remarks. 

Feel free to move on to content that you can relate to.

What to do when you feel powerless in a worsening world

You’re out on a beautiful day at the park with your perfectly healthy spouse and children. You’re driving to work in your new car, traffic is moving smoothly, you’ve just had a wholesome breakfast and you’re feeling fantastic. You’re unwinding with your friends at a chic restaurant, discussing wedding preparations, phones, workplace politics and high-school days as the waiter serves the next round of expensive food. And in all of these moments, you randomly scroll through your newsfeed and suddenly see something that sucks away your happiness. Your heart winces for a second knowing there’s a horrible parallel reality playing out that very moment somewhere else in the world: children are bleeding and crying out for their parents in hospitals, refugees are stranded at borders after days of deathly journeys to safety, innocent people are being detained and held captive for years with no charge, famines and bombs are killing scores of people in conflict zones, floods and earthquakes are wreaking havoc in already impoverished areas, infants and girls are getting abducted and raped, the world is turning upside down and all you want is for all of it to just STOP.

You feel angry, enraged and powerless every time you see an image of a suffering that is too out of your reach to change. You feel guilty just living the normal, safe, healthy life you live. Many times you feel indifferent because there really is nothing you can do. And then you feel ashamed for being so heartless. There is only one question screaming inside all of our heads: what can we do to make it all stop? There has to be something, anything we can do. We just want somebody to spell it out. List it out. Shout it out. 

No, I don’t want to say “make dua” and just change the subject. Yes, dua is and always will be the greatest form of help we can offer. But as Allah [swt] says in the Qur’an, we were given our lives to do – to act in the best of ways: 

[He] who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed – and He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving. [Qur’an: Chapter 67, Verse 2]

To understand what you can and must do, first and foremost:

  1. Recognize and take advantage of your privileges

    If you’re not worrying about where your next meal will come from, if you have a bed to sleep on and a bathroom to use, if you have clothes to cover you in different seasons, and if you have even just one person in the entire world who cares for you, you are extremely privileged. But of course we know that. Tell me more, you’re thinking.

    Your safe geographical location is a privilege. Your being employed is a privilege. Your spouse is a privilege. Your voice, sight, hearing, knowledge is a privilege. Your parents and siblings being with you is a privilege. Your daily food is a privilege. Your source of clean drinking water is a privilege. Your education is a privilege. Your fully functioning body is a privilege. And your vehicle, bank balance, passport, phone, computer, furniture, social status, degree, extended family, comfortable house, social circle, connections, influence, weekly entertainment and eating out are a luxury. An opulent indulgence. A surreal dream for majority of the planet. There is someone out there who doesn’t have a single thing of everything you have. Repeat this to yourself: there is someone out there who doesn’t have a single thing of everything I have. Try imagining yourself with absolutely nothing of what you own and possess: there are people living with that much of nothing.

    So value and be grateful for every, single thing you have. If you’re employed, don’t take your job for granted. Use your position to be of benefit for those who are struggling for a source of sustenance. Become a breadwinner for strangers who have no means to earn for themselves: widows, orphans, refugees, the displaced, the disabled, the abandoned. Look for them and you will find them. Today you are safe, healthy, influential, talented and independent – use these privileges to do anything you can to provide a dignified life for those who need it. Look for organizations that are creating homes for refugees and orphans, or providing medical aid or education, or providing shelter for victims of war or abuse, or caring for abandoned children and old people – and commit a monthly amount to them. How much you give doesn’t matter. Just give. And keep giving whatever you can.

    Share your meals with the less-privileged in your own area. There is hardly a city in the world where there is no one in need of food. Commit to give a wholesome, home-cooked meal once a week to a garbage collector, an immigrant with no family, a struggling single mother, your domestic help, or even the cleaner/tea-boy at your workplace.

    Similarly, give a ride to someone in your car. Pick up a set of clothes for someone who could use them when you go shopping for yourself. Invite someone with no friends or family and make them remember what home feels like. Use your gadgets, your network and your social media presence to be of benefit.

    earth-day-facts.jpg

  2. Choose mercy

    Be kinder to those around you and in your care. Everyone, including yourself, is in need of each others’ mercy. The hallmark of our beloved Prophet’s [saw] character was his mercy, above all else. His concerned, caring heart was declared a mercy upon the worlds and his greatest distinction. There is nothing better, nothing more honorable and nothing more beneficial than choosing to be merciful like the greatest man [saw] was.

    Inculcate mercy in yourself: mercy is empathy, kindness, care, forbearance, patience, gentleness, forgiveness, graciousness and tolerance. Mercy is holding back when you want to unleash your anger on someone who upset you on the road, at work or at home. Mercy is looking the other way when someone working for you messed up or didn’t do a proper job once or twice. Mercy is knowing that someone is having a rough day and choosing to give them a break. Mercy (upon yourself!) is avoiding senseless arguments at home, at work or online that are clearly going nowhere. Mercy is taking care: of your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues, your neighbors, and even the birds and animals around you.

    Think of the worst person you know today. Try imagining them as children. Every tyrant, every oppressor, every aggressor, every thug and every murderer was once an innocent, unblemished child. Just imagine that. We become our worst selves when we consistently and continuously choose aggression over mercy. What world do we expect to live in when everyone is choosing to forego mercy in their individual interactions and lives?

    Be merciful. Teach and inculcate mercy in others. The whole world is affected by how merciful you choose to be.

  3. Make an incredible dua

    As you sit safely in your house on your prayer-mat after salah, ask Allah [swt] to grant the same peace and security to those who are in danger at that very moment. As you look at the rooms and facilities in your house, ask Allah [swt] to grant the same ease and comfort to those who are living in tents and on streets at that very moment. As you wear your clothes and put on your shoes, make dua to Allah [swt] to grant the same and more to those who don’t have them. As you sit at the desk of your stable job, ask Allah [swt] to grant a means of sustenance to everyone who is desperate at that very moment. As you cook your food, ask Allah [swt] to provide for those who are hungry from where they least expect, because He [swt] is capable of doing all things. Ask Allah [swt] to grant everything you have and even more to those who are in need of the blessings you got without asking. Make a dua in your ease for those in difficulty atleast once a day. The most incredible thing about making such a dua is that it will certainly be answered:

    “The supplication of a Muslim for his brother in his absence will certainly be answered. Every time he makes a supplication for good for his brother, the angel appointed for this particular task says: ‘Ameen! May it be for you, too’.” [Muslim]

    It doesn’t stop at being answered though, even though that’s all you want: an angel – an angel makes dua for you to have the same!

Making dua for the good of others is a sign of mercy blooming in your heart. That is why an angel makes the same dua for you the moment you have made it. The reward for good, whether that good is a feeling, a word or an action, is only good. As Allah [swt] says in one of the most beautiful verses of the surah (so aptly) titled “The Most Merciful”:

“Is the reward for good [anything] but good?” [Qur’an: Chapter 55, Verse 60]

 

Living vicariously.

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image source: hunter-life/deviantart

There are parts of your heart and mind that seem to be perpetually stuck years behind you in the past. The rest of you has moved on, willingly, with the rest of your choices.

But those parts of you that don’t seem to move on have actually been given away. To the moments and the people that you had to leave behind at one of life’s many crossroads. There is no redeeming those parts of you again – they’ve left you forever, but have forever become part of everything you left them behind with.

There is a look of your eyes, an image of your smile, a whiff of your scent, a trail of your voice, a memory of your gait, a trace of your personality, a glimpse of your mind, an inkling of your aura, a sentence spoken by your lips, a distinct leap of the heart in your presence, and an echo of a thousand words and silences – that you’ve left embedded forever in another soul, of another time.

As you breathe and live unaware, there are people that roam the earth carrying a bit of you inside them. Even when you cease to exist, you are still alive in hearts that have yet to stop beating.

 

 

Where do you go when you’re in the middle of nowhere?

I have reached nowhere mutliple times, but today, I have officially reached the middle of it. I am, at this very moment, in the middle of nowhere. Having finally arrived, let me describe this location to you.

Nowhere is a real, physical space. It is not metaphorical, it is not a figure of speech to describe how lost one can be: you can physically be nowhere. It is as expansive and as eery as a barren, abandoned desert, the winds of solitude, fear and anxiety blow hard and strong, howling like the winds you’ve heard when storms are at their peak. It is deathly dark and hauntingly lonely… it is a realm that opens up and swallows you whole in life’s most difficult moments. Nowhere is where you go, where you are driven, left at, pushed into or banished in a moment, by a few words, by a singular action, by a horrific turn of events, by a gradual paving of the way, by a sudden revelation, by fate, by chance, by design, by destiny.

Nowhere exists in houses and hospitals and prisons and trains and buses and bridges and boats and garbage dumps and clubs and brothels and palaces and plains and mountains and caves and schools and rooms and tents and seas and courts and panels and slums.

To be nowhere, you have to hit a complete dead end. An end. An end of time, of effort, of support, of energy, of will, of health, of solvency, of resources, of help, of a relationship, of an embrace, of a roof above your head, of the ground beneath your feet, of breath in your lungs. You have to be utterly, completely helpless, broken to the marrow of your bones, crushed to the core of your heart, suffocated of the last bit of life in your soul.

When you are absolutely physically, mentally and emotionally stranded: at that instance, you are in the middle of nowhere.

An unwanted newborn baby abandoned at a garbage dump, an innocent prisoner awarded an irreversible sentence hearing the keys lock his cell for good, a single mother with a feverish child escaping from war crying under a pouring sky at a closed border, a burdened debtor on the run hiding from a loan shark’s thugs in the middle of the night, a patient who has just been informed that there is nothing else that can be done to save him, a kidnapped girl stuck within the walls of a brothel watching the next monster approaching her bed, a man lost in a desert for days who has just collapsed knowing there is not a soul in the world who knows where he is, the last surviving sailor in the middle of a raging ocean that has killed everyone on board, a woman who is abused by her husband for years and is forced to live with him because she has nowhere else to go to, a youngster stoned on the highest dose at a club that still doesn’t numb his shrieking emotional pain, a boy trapped between the school’s wall and his bully as his mouth is stuffed to stifle his cries for help, a student at the edge of a tall building having done everything to please his unappeasable parents, a man on the bus back from a workplace he was unjustly fired from without a penny for months of forced labor and nothing left to buy his next meal, a mother who is unable to prove that her child is indeed her husband’s who died just after it was conceived, a person unable to get anyone to listen to his side of the story because of his social status or his inability to express coherently or the magnitude of the manipulation against him… are all in the middle of nowhere.

Where do you go when you reach the middle of nowhere? 

You go down on your knees, touch your head to the ground in that endless, crushing, lonely darkness and speak to the Only One who exists when you’re nowhere… and you plead like the greatest man did when he collapsed under a tree one day and felt like he was in the absolute middle of nowhere:

“O Allah! I complain to You of my weakness, my scarcity of resources and the humiliation I have been subjected to by the people. O Most Merciful of those who are merciful. O Lord of the weak and my Lord too. To whom have you entrusted me? To a distant person who receives me with hostility? Or to an enemy to whom you have granted authority over my affair? So long as You are not angry with me, I do not care. But Your favor is of a more expansive relief to me. I seek refuge in the light of Your Face by which all darkness is dispelled and every affair of this world and the next is set right, lest Your anger or Your displeasure descends upon me. I desire Your pleasure and satisfaction until You are pleased. There is no power and no might except by You.”

By Allah, as soon as you call out to Him, you will feel Him listening. You will feel your strength coming back as soon as you have complained of your weakness. You will feel your honor returning in His presence as soon as you mention how humiliated you feel. You will realize the delight of having always been solely in His care and in His eyes as soon as you wonder when you will escape the prison of your tormentors.

And then you will know that nothing else matters in that moment, and in every moment than His being pleased with you… and even so, that your trial was never about Him gaining pleasure through your suffering, but to bring you back to the Light that only comes at the end of extreme darkness, to grant you the kind of relief that comes only after extreme struggle, to grant you the favor that comes only after immense sacrifice,  to grant you the honor that comes only at the price of fighting with every fibre of your being for the truth, to grant you the kind of comfort that comes only after overwhelming loss, to bless you with the kind of love that comes only after having walked through the fire of spite, to grant you a healing that is meant only for the most broken and to grant you a victory that comes only to those who had to fight with no one but God by their side.

That’s why, at the end of this incredible plea, you are left acknowledging the singular most empowering truth: that there is no power and no might except with God.

And while you’re there, in the middle of nowhere, with the power and might of God above, below and all around you, you don’t need to run anywhere anymore. You trust, and you wait.

I request you to make a heartfelt dua for me today. Allah knows I need it. 

Truths About Marriage I’d Like You to Know

Man and woman holding hands at a table

“Zayn, I need to talk to you.”

When a close friend who’s just been married or is deciding to texts me those words, I fill equally with a sense of understanding and dread. After letting her know an approximate time of when my son will choose to take his nap that afternoon so we can talk, I go about getting things done and thinking of the girl I’m going to be listening to soon. I think of everything I know of her, and everything she’s told me about the person she’s chosen or may be choosing to spend the rest of her life with. Then I mentally kick myself for having unwittingly assumed the role of marriage advisor and wonder at what exact point in time I became one.

How do I advise someone about what marriage is going to be like or what to think of/do about/how to navigate through a usual/unusual marital situation, when I am barely 6 years old in marriage, will never really know the minutest details of their sticky situation (like the weather that day, if there were any changes in the flavor of their usual breakfast drink, which angle the MIL’s eyes were positioned at that exact moment to better determine her intentions, if his colleague had finally hit the wrong nerve, etc.) and who they and their husbands really become within the four walls of their house?

I thought about what could be some general and important truths about marriage – things most people don’t (want to) talk about and too many people should have known before they made the leap. I  decided to write down my most profound personal realizations based on everything I’ve experienced, witnessed, been confided in about and have understood in these almost 6 years. For the ones I love and the ones I may never know. I’ll start with the very first thing I’d like you to know about marriage:

  1. There will never, ever be a marriage like yours.

    Because there will never be another you and another him to ever exist. This is the greatest and most beautiful truth about marriage. No one will ever be able to forge or fully comprehend the exact bond you share because your marriage, like every single marriage out there (how ironic), is a unique bond of two unique people. That’s why it’s futile to measure your marriage against someone else’s, in fact you can’t even compare your current marriage to a past marriage you may have had because the most fundamental element of any marriage, the spouse, is different. And the worst thing you could do is compare your marriage to the imaginary one you’ve created in your head with that person “you could’ve/would’ve been with if not for…” because, okay this may be tough to get but it’s the truth, you have no idea who you will really turn out to be with that someone and how your marriage will really turn out till you’re married to them.

    Yet, despite this, you will go through a range of typical, routine problems couples all over the world have to deal with, regardless of who you and your spouse are.

    The tough part is when you face those excruciating situations unique to your marriage that you’ll have to battle through alone. Times when no one will understand why you aren’t as happy as you should be and what you’re making a fuss or constantly fighting about. And it is okay in these times to be broken, because either you know something you can never say out loud, or you have an inside view of reality no one will ever see, or believe. These are the real trying times, the times where you will find no solace, no respite, no solution, no relief and no recovery from except through reliance on the only One except you who understands.

  2. You will never truly know a person till you are married to them.

    Yep, it does get worse than that: you will never truly know who you are till you get married (I hate to say ‘wait and watch’, I really do).

    Yes, even if you’ve been dating from the hospital nursery, living day in and day out with someone in a relationship where both parties have legal rights and can be held legally, morally and socially liable is a totally. different. ball game. Everyone’s true self only comes out under this triple-filter test. Sometimes he will become a burden you wish you could break free from with no consequences, and sometimes you will become the last person he wants to be with. There will be days when you will not be able to look at your own self in the mirror, and days when you will wonder if you even recognize the person lying next to you.

    Yet, even so… the incredible truth also is, that you will never know what you’re capable of becoming and the brilliant transformation you’re capable of inspiring in someone’s life, till you are married.

    Patience and perseverance are as immutable as gravity: they have the same result, wherever they are applied. There’s powerful positive transformation happening every time there is friction followed by resolution, unfortunately we just don’t get to see it right then (just like so many obvious things we get blind to whenever there’s friction). And always, always remember: the transformation’s happening both ways. Regardless of who is truly wrong or right, every time there is friction and there is perseverance in the face of it, both spouses grow by leaps and bounds. If you  were right and you forgave, you become more magnanimous than you were. If you were wrong and you accepted, you’ve given your ego another good blow and your marriage another solid brick. If he was right and he was gracious about it, your respect and love for him will shoot through the roof. If he was wrong and you didn’t go on about it, he will give you starry-eyed stares for not being an incarnation of his dad/mom in these situations.

  3. Marriage will NOT compensate for the fun you did not have.

    I don’t know if I should continue writing or draft my final will first because the moral police has set out to find me and finish me right about now (my dad might just be driving them). But I shall continue because I’d rather die making a point.

    You’ve heard it girls:
    “You can do everything you want, after you get married.”
    “Once you’re married your husband will take you wherever you want, but you can’t go now.”
    “Steer clear of boyfriends and wait to marry the right one – I promise you’ll have the greatest time of your life!”

    NO, YOU WILL NOT. You will not get to do “everything you want” when you do a pregnancy test one day and find two lines on the reader. You will not get to go “wherever you want” when your husband is away at work 10 hours a day, spends a total of 3 hours on the road and comes home wanting to just dive into bed. And, your husband may never end up being everything you imagined in that boyfriend you made sure you never had – no, this does not mean you should have a boyfriend before you’re married, it means just don’t come into marriage expecting any of this. If you’ve been fed this stuff, I want to honestly let you know that none of it is absolutely true.

    Your parents may understandably want to shelter you from anything that may cause you harm, and in the case of desi parents this includes the possibility of dying in a car crash if you roll down the car window without their permission. But I can perhaps say now that alot of children have been stopped from much more than they need to be, without being given any alternative source of enjoyment either. Alot of parents have stifled their children, especially their daughters, when it comes to allowing them the space and freedom to enjoy their lives, saying no to whatever they like just because they can. It is these same children who end up making ill-informed or hasty choices for marriage and then fill with regret, resentment and frustration when they aren’t met with the freedom and fulfillment they had always imagined (and were told) marriage would afford them.

    So if you’re a young adult, do what you enjoy or are passionate about (if it’s halal of course). Color your hair if you like, join that art class you’ve always been interested in even though your parents may prefer you focus on your grades, go for those hiking trips and crazy escapes in the middle of the semester, hang out with your friends and have great conversations and it’s okay to be back late sometimes. Apply to your dream university even if your parents may not believe in you/want you to go there just to know if you would’ve ever got in (and if you do they will most likely want you to go trust me), don’t constantly guilt yourself about ‘maybe’ upsetting your parents about every little thing. From what I’ve noticed repeatedly, parents forget and forgive much easier than we imagine and keep relaxing their rules with every new child as they grow in wisdom and realize they’ve been making a big deal of too many things.

  4. Your happiness depends on how honest you’ve been with yourself, above all else.

    I’m serious, before you even conjure the silhouette of your future husband in your mind’s eye, take a paper and pen and do your best to discover your own self first. Are you an extrovert or an introvert, or both? Do you really want an extrovert or an introvert, or both?  What are your inherent strengths? What have different people in your life consistently pointed out in you as a flaw? Have you ever given that flaw any thought or done something about it (for the record: it will be this flaw which we’ve always failed to acknowledge that will come out in its most vicious form after marriage)? What childhood wounds are festering inside you that may end up hurting your marriage or the person you’re married to? Are you ready to be more selfless, patient and sacrificing or are you just hormonal? Are you really okay with whatever his family is like as long as he fits your criteria of ideal husband (LIKE REALLY)? Are you really okay if he doesn’t have a well-paying job right now or would you rather start off well settled? What techniques of conflict resolution do you usually resort to, and what negative and positive patterns are you carrying in yourself from being exposed to your parents’ relationship? Are you aware and ready for the fact that every marriage will go through a test?

    Based on all of this (and many more similar questions), what kind of person do you really want, need and feel you can live with? And based on the answer to that, how close does the person you’re considering seem to being the one?

    Instead, we’re so busy trying to slim down to fit into that perfect bridal dress with exquisite sequins and choosing the correct font for the invitation card, that we don’t realize not having considered these questions will be the reason we’ll have a severe urge to burn that same dress or card one day, because we can’t stand the sight of our stupidity.

  5. There will never, ever be any valid reason to rush into marriage.

    Not for halal sex, not because you’re getting older, not because good guys are getting extinct, not because something is better than nothing, not because marriage halls are getting expensive, not because your younger cousins already have two kids, not because you’re dangerously close to being too mature for a woman and you may never ever find a man more mature than you, not because your beauty is fading, not because your khala thinks it’s time, not because it’s better before you get any fatter, not because someone wants to see you married before they die, not because you just want to finally be able to set your relationship status to atleast goddamn ‘engaged’ while your friends are putting up statuses about baby poop, not because it is your lucky year according to the Chinese calendar, not because he’s too cute to not be snatched away by someone else, not because you just have to buy and wear that stunning wedding dress, not because you have to honor some made-up promise to a cousin’s father the day you were born,  NOTHING.

    There is absolutely NO reason to rush into choosing who you will be spending the rest of your life with, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and for as long as which you can never legally enjoy the same sort of relationship with anyone else.

    You only get married for the first time once. You only lose (for lack of a better word) your virginity, your singlehood and leave your parents’ house as a first-time bride once in your entire life. You only entrust everything you are – your hopes, your dreams, your mind, your soul, your body, your fears, your ‘never married’ self to another person ONCE in your life. You will never have the power of this unbridled choice again.

    Think, ponder, consult people, consult God, consult loved ones, consult enemies (to identify what will make them happy about this marriage), consult children (they usually have the most innocent agendas “he’s great because he always comes with chocolates”), keep praying on it till your heart feels at peace either to go ahead or opt out.  Make sure you’ve done everything in your power to be as sure as you could have ever been.

  6. Great marriages exist.

    I know, I know, the previous 5 points may have made you seriously reconsider becoming a mosque matron/solo-travelling till you die a solitary death/being content baby-sitting other people’s children for the rest of your life, but yes, as much as all of them are true, the saving grace of the institute of marriage is that great marriages exist (just like the fact that there have been people who have awoken from a coma after 35 years).

    How do I know? No, my marriage is not great, it’s good, but I feel it getting there. I’ve seen people get there. I’ve personally witnessed couples who’ve made it, just as I’ve personally been made privy to many miserable marriages. And just like everything I’ve said so far to try and remove the sugar-coating glazed onto the image of marriage, I’ll tell you that great marriages take alot, A LOT of hard, crazy, mental, ridiculous, backbreaking work. And while also depending on who’s in it, a crazy long time to happen.

    What kind of work? Like controlling your eyeballs when you would have definitely rolled them (try imagining someone being absolutely absurd and then giving a benign, gracious smile), like sincerely responding with “you’re right, I am” when someone subtly/explicitly compares you to a useless sloth, like hearing “not today/now/this year/this month” to something you’ve really been looking forward to for a long time and saying “sure, fine.” (NOT “Sure. FINE.”), like choosing to be nursing your new child while your single friends are choosing which country to fly to next, like telling yourself “maybe he’ll try next time” when he’s never tried in ages, like apologizing even when you know you’re not wrong for the sake of sleeping in peace or so the kids see you happy, like accepting your fault without putting up a senseless fight every time, like choosing to continue being open and vulnerable after being hurt, like trusting your gut instincts about the good in the person you married and going on, like finding out your spouse found someone else attractive and forgiving them despite the deep heartache, like controlling the urge to fill your loneliness with temporary relationships when the going gets tough, like supporting your spouse when they’ve lost your only source of income and are unsure of where to go next, like greeting guests with a wide smile when you’ve cried your eyes out moments before, like putting your dreams on hold till the family settles, like making an effort even when you’re exhausted, like coming to terms with the fact that you will never agree on or enjoy those certain things together and choosing to continue despite that, like choosing to treat your spouse’s wound/illness over your sleep/your game/your show, like listening even when it gets boring, like consciously trying even when it doesn’t come naturally to you, like having long periods of mundane, unexciting days and still finding something to be happy about, like lowering your gaze when you suddenly feel like taking one more look, like continuing to be there when you’ve been given the cold shoulder, like listening with an open mind even when you’re in the line of fire, like biting back on that word you’re dying to hurl, like trying to find meaning when nothing’s making sense, like continuing to pray for it even when nothing seems to be changing, like keeping up your effort even when there’s barely any in return, like not acting on impulse when you feel like you have just about every right to, like consciously recalling the good when you face the bad, like not giving up even if you have to keep fighting harder and longer for the good… like too many things we’d rather not do.

    When you go through all of that and (ALOT) more together and come out alive, take a photograph of yourselves and send it to me. I need empirical evidence to write a book on this.

If I Ever Got to the Gates of Heaven

As a child, I would sit alone behind the living room curtain, staring out for hours at the night, wondering what other children around the world would be doing at that moment – sleeping, eating, writing an exam, getting beaten up, playing, or sitting behind a curtain and wondering about me, just like I was about them.
As a child, I would often find indescribable peace lying down on the marble floor and falling asleep on it. The only thing that rivaled that peace was the serenity I found in falling asleep on the prayer mat.
I would watch TV upside down, with my legs up against the wall. When I got bored of TV, I would look up at the protrusions and wedges in the ceiling and imagine it to be the floor and divide it into rooms and decorate it with different furniture in my mind.
Some memories are etched so deeply in my mind, I wonder why they are the ones that are there. Do we have the ability to so vividly remember emotionally intense experiences that it feels like we’re in that very moment once again?
Like an unforgettable night praying next to my then very busy dad as a child in the balcony and later watching the stars. I can even recall the gentle wind and the distant look in his eyes and the slow pace of his breathing, as we’d finished praying and he was looking out to nowhere, and his lips were moving with dhikr, and I just watched him.
Then another day I woke up for school and caught my eyes in the mirror as I washed my face and felt like I’d seen the most beautiful eyes in the world.
Then one day when I was in KG 2 and my mom couldn’t pack lunch in time in the morning and promised us she would bring it to school. The lunch bell rang and I waited for my mom at the school gates and she hadn’t come. Lunch time was over and I was back with an empty stomach in class. A few minutes later, my mom was standing breathless at the class door with a mixture of anxiety, exhaustion and guilt on her face in her cream and peach scarf. Miss Shirley looked at me and told me I had 5 minutes to eat and get back to class – the equivalent of being allowed to cheat in an exam in a convent. I got out and mom opened the lunchbox and kept it in front of me, and watched me with so much anticipation as I took in the steaming hot fried fish with rice and ghee, as if every bite I took was vindicating her a bit more for committing the heinous crime of keeping me hungry longer than I should have been for one, single, meal.
And when I was 4 or 5 and got red chilli powder put in my eyes. I can never forget the afternoon light in the room and how my limbs moved trying to resist.
And when I was out playing for a long time and came back home and kept knocking for an hour on the door till I fell asleep on the marble staircase. My family didn’t realize I was missing when they left for a dinner party.
And when as a child, I watched nervously as mom cried into the phone to her sister till she completely broke down.
And memories of trying to focus the sun’s light onto my hand with a magnifying glass. Or dropping different colors of paint into a glass of water and watching them swirl so beautifully.
Or feeling like my heart would explode and crying uncontrollably when little Mariam was taken away from her mother and had no idea what was going on as she kept looking back at her mother in A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Or protesting as my young maternal uncle would leave our house and keep teasing me with special nicknames he’d kept for me: Jupiter and ‘thing’ (because I said the word so much).
Days in university with my Turkish best friend, discussing life and existence and revelation and beauty and God. Making her and a British friend try desi food in a South Indian restaurant. Watching her burst into tears  and hug me as she read a write-up of my fondest memories, a file that I would give anything to recover.
Sunny mornings of my childhood or when I’d set out for class in university.
When new knowledge opened up doors in my mind I never knew existed and I reveled every second in the unparalleled bliss that only enlightenment can bestow.
The rife and hot anger in my heart when I would experience or witness injustice that I could do nothing about.
When I was in an auto rickshaw listening to the driver desperately discussing how he’s trying to complete the arrangements for his sister’s wedding with his aunt.
When I could concentrate considerably in my prayer which would transport me to another universe.
Exchanging hugs after Friday prayers at university with friends.
Feeling so lonely on the bus sometimes.
Noticing the different shape, texture and color of the leaves of different plants growing in the same soil and thinking ‘God. Only God.’
Missing more than just one beat as my eyes would catch those that searched for mine and mirrored my soul.
A song that stirs up so much longing for so many things that time has taken away with it.

What is the purpose and end of all our individual experiences? Why are 6 billion people having 6 billion different experiences at this very moment and what is their collective meaning and purpose and end?

The infinite emotions we experience and their constant exertion on the heart through the journey of life is so paradoxical. All our experiences have an affect on the heart: the organ that has to work to keep us alive while life keeps wearing it down. And at some point, it’s as if the heart gives up trying to thrive and is just struggling to keep us physically alive and get life over with.

With a heart like that, the only thing that stirs it is when I imagine myself finally getting to the gates of Heaven. I imagine standing alone, light in front of me, as I levitate in a dark starry space. My eyes are closed and my face is turned up and I take in a deep breath. And I’m thinking “Just. Let. Me. In.”

I enter and have my heart in my outstretched hands handing it to God and He’s hearing my thoughts, as I break down:

‘Take it. And don’t ever, ever leave me again.’ 

Gates_of_heaven_on_earth_by_Vyner