Hope – Chapter 8
I cannot remember ever going to the mosque when we lived in London. We must have gone sometimes because we were surrounded by Muslims who did and there would have been awkward questions if we did not at attend at least some of the festivals in the Islamic calendar. We were not trying to make people believe we were something we were not. That was never Papa’s way. It was more about maintaining traditions that linked us to our origins, I imagine in the same way some of our British neighbours went to church for a wedding, or at Christmas. Added to that was the deeply rooted belief that we, as Muslims had to be seen to conduct ourselves in a way that was acceptable to the community we were from. In other words we had to live as good Muslims even if we did not observe all the religious rituals and practices.
As a female-child on the cusp of puberty being thrust into a strict Muslim society upon returning to Jordan was very traumatic because everything I did had a religious signpost. It placed restrictions upon me that I had never even imagined before, let alone experienced for myself. I could not say for certain whether my mother agreed with them, or had adhered to them herself, but giving the impression that I had been brought up in the ‘right conduct’ was of the uttermost importance. That is, how I behaved was more important than what I believed. This, Mother maintained, would make me more acceptable to family members and would ease my passage back into the community.
However, living under tight restrictions without knowing the religious basis for observing them did little to advance my way towards Islam. In fact it did the opposite. I quickly discovered that my gender meant the rules were very much stacked against me. The strict moral code which everyone seemed unquestionably to abide by, quickly became a millstone around my neck and many of my pre-nuptial misdemeanors, which were not unlike many of my peers, was a reaction against it. Needless to say it took many years, and a few beatings, before I learned to appreciate that the prophet Muhammad created them for my protection and honor, and not just because he wanted to make my life harder.
I had many unhappy years lamenting the altered state of my life’s journey until eventually I found peace in Islam. It came after all my children had been born and I had come to terms with my changing fortunes. Failing health and old age were fast approaching. The gift of fertility for which I would always be grateful; the early onset of arthritis; diabetes and a persistent gall bladder problem, had all had an impact on a body that I no longer felt in control of. If someone else was in charge, I was done resisting.
As if physical torture was not enough, the re-emergence of childhood nightmares of spending eternity in a fiery pit unsettled my mind so that I dared not sleep. There was only one thing for it: I took out my sewing machine and made my very first Jilbab. Unwilling to inhabit yet another black shapeless garment, I chose a white cotton material with pale blue circles from which to make a simple, loose outer garment that women can ware over house clothes during prayer times. Wearing one was not compulsory if just praying at home, but it felt right to ready myself with appropriate dressing rituals. Naturally this lengthened the whole praying process, and doing it five times a day certainly had its challenges, but if I was to have any peace in my remaining years on this earth - and the life thereafter - it was a challenge I was prepared to take if I was to become a true Muslim.
Naive I may have been, but it was not until I saw the cross around my sister’s neck that I learned that Jigi was not a Muslim. I discovered it quite by chance during that first illuminating visit when all our assumptions about each were laid bare, each demanded debate, but for the most part remained unexplored because we were either too polite to ask or were out shopping.
The revelation came to light while sitting outside a judge’s chamber with Uncle Mohumed. We were waiting for the judge to sign papers that confirmed Jigi’s identity as rightful heir to grandpapa’s land. Spying a gold cross hanging around Jigi’s neck Uncle Mohumad asked her, with a hint of alarm, “Are you a Christian?
“Not really, it was a present from my boyfriend,” she replied, horrifying him on both counts.
“I see, then might I suggest you take it off before you go in to see the judge,” His tone remaining even.
“Why?” she replied a little too casually for my liking.
“Because if he sees you are not Muslim, you will lose everything,” replied Uncle giving me an accusing look as if I had deliberately withheld vital information from him.
I shrugged at him, “I didn’t know. I assumed she was Muslim.”
“Why would you assume such a thing?” Jigi shot back at me,
“Because your family are Muslim, so that makes you Muslim, doesn’t it Uncle?”
“It should do,” He was staring intently at Jigi while twiddling his mustache. That could mean only one of two things, either he was going to gather us up and march us out of the court, or he was going to rip the cross right off Jigi’s neck.
Neither happened because Uncle Mohamed was a reasonable man and not a strict Muslim himself. But he was a pragmatist. “Perhaps then Jigi, you could just take off the cross for the hearing?”
“I can’t do that, it was a present... but I will tuck under my top if you like” she conceded with a wry smile.
“That will be fine,” Uncle Mohamed nodded graciously. “No one will question that you are anything else if there is nothing to say otherwise. But,” he added with a hint of mischief, “Your God might have something to say about it when you return home.”
The inevitable family stand off regarding Jigi’s non-Muslim status was narrowly avoided that day, mainly because Jigi had not admitted to actually following the Christian religion. Had we been a closer family with more fundamental Islamic beliefs, I doubt Jigi’s Christian identity would have been allowed to go unchallenged. Most Muslim families are very tight communities. When one steps out of line, all work together to bring them back. The lack of cohesion and cooperation in our family meant that most its members had been free to follow their own path with little resistance from others. This, however, was not the case the next time Jigi came to Damascus.
It was six years since I had last seen Jigi and we had been invited to have dinner with my father’s sister, Aunt Aesha. My Aunt and I do not enjoy the best of relationships on a good day, but then it was particularly strained. She had never shown any interest in me when I was growing up and was being passed around the family when really, as nearest, direct relative, it was more her responsibility than anyone else’s to take me in. Yet, my Aunt’s response was to stay as far away as possible. I saw nothing of her for many years until she came knocking on my door when Jigi came to Damascus. Everything in me wanted to slam the door in her face, but that is not the Arab way. It is not my way.
The visit had started off pleasantly. Aesha sent her son, Ciash, to collect us in his rusty old VW which always had to be started on a hill. As with many Damascus City dwellers in our family, Aesha’s apartment was on the top floor of a four story block. Used to the routine Jigi allowed Ciash to carry her up the three flights of stairs - four, when we went out to the roof garden for the BBQ. It was the first time I had set foot in my aunt’s nicely furnished, spacious apartment, although it was not one they lived in much. Several of her six children had green cards and therefore lived in America which meant that she and her husband spent at least half the year in Dallas where their eldest boy and his American-born wife.
After serving tea my Aunt invited us to help her prepare lamb kebab in the kitchen. Jigi seemed quite happy to participate in this, I guess, because it felt culturally authentic enough for her to describe in that journal of hers. [The demands of marriage and the arrival of children meant that my own journal writing had dwindled in recent years. I was glad that she at least was taking up our story. There seemed little point in my continuing to write when the motivation for doing so become flesh and blood.]
Sitting at the table shaping the marinated mince lamb around the skewers I spotted Aesha’s husband lurking in the doorway. This being odd in itself because men of his generation do not set foot inside a kitchen food unless it is time to eat. Reclining on a stool nearby, I was aware that Uncle was staring intently at Jigi, clutching his prayer beads. I became nervous. It was not unusual for men of his age to idly fondle their prayer beads, but on this occasion I felt that there was purpose in this action. I sensed trouble and looked for an escape route. Not easy as I was in no fit state to carry Jigi across a room, let alone down three flights of stairs.
Kebabs made, Uncle brought Jigi a bowl of water to wash her hands in. Feeling my skin prickle with anticipation, I knew what was coming next. Taking the bowl from her Uncle gave her the prayer beads. They were simple, but prettily decorated - thirty-three in all for the prayer to flick each with their thumb while reciting, “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the Greatest”).
I could see from Jigi’s face that she had no idea why she had been given them. “Oh, thank you, they are lovely,” she said taking them and wrapping them around her wrist.
Taking her hand gently Uncle took the beads off her wrist and placed them in the palm of her right hand. “Allah is the greatest’. You say it.”
Jigi stared at him blankly, but not because she didn’t understand him.
“Do you know what they are?” I asked her gingerly.
“Yes, I know what they are, but this is the fist time I’ve actually seen anyone in this family use them. Do you have some of these?”
“Yes, but I don’t use them. Mostly the men use them because they have time to sit and play with them.” I smiled, probably a little too sarcastically.
“So why is he giving them to me?”
Passing the beads back to Uncle, Jigi smiled her sweetest smile, “They are very nice, but I don’t think I can accept them.”
I was praying that would be an end to it and we could get on with dinner. But Uncle was persistent. Taking Jigi’s hand he slapped the beads right back in its palm, “Say Allah.”
Again, calmly, she refused, putting the beads on the table which had just had dead animal on it. Very unclean. A very big problem.
Quickly snatching up the beads Uncle thrust them at my Aunt to wash. When she returned Uncle again attempted to make Jigi hold them again. “Allah is the Greatest!” he demanded. Whatever resolve Jigi might have had not to retaliate I could see was about to slip as she went to slam the beads back on the dirty table again. “Just say it! You don’t have to mean it,” I hissed catching hold of them before they landed. A foolish suggestion in any event, putting us both at risk of eternal damnation, but it seemed a reasonable compromise considering we needed to get out the building in one piece.
Predictably, she refused, something I should have been used to by then.
Dismayed Uncle looked from my Aunt, to me, and then back to my Aunt, clearly at a loss for words.
Silent until that point, Aesha looked at Jigi with the sort of stare I could only imagine she reserved for her bitterest enemies. “Your father would be turning in his grave if he knew that you were not Muslim,” she accused shaking her head in shame.
With an equally ice tone my sister replied, “Really? Well if he is, perhaps he should ask his WIFE why she left me in a Christian country, where I was sent to a Christian school to be brought up in the Christian religion. If you have any objections to my religious leanings I suggest you take them up with her!”
Whether they did or not we are unlikely to ever know. Aesha and my mother had always had a tempestuous relationship. Friends one day. Enemies the next. Yet the subject of Jigi not being a Muslim was never raised by her again. Nor were we ever invited back to eat BBQ with them.
Religion was not something Jigi and I had spent much time discussing during her visits to Damascus. It is not that we avoided the subject on purpose, it’s just that the subject never seemed important enough to take precedence over family gossip or some the other trivial matter that we always seemed to find time to bicker about.
However, Jigi’s altercation with Aunt Aesha and her husband indicated a shift in her attitude that I had not noticed before. It was not her uncooperativeness or refusal to be bullied, I was used to that, but more the conviction with which she spoke. The inevitableness of it. Her words had made sense to a point. She had been born and brought up in a Christian country, but that still did not account for the fact that she refused to compromise when challenged to do so, whereas a few years earlier she had.
Unwilling to start a debate I thought I might lose, I continued with my prayer rituals aware that Jigi also had her own. Her “quiet times”, as she called them, tended to occur in the morning, on the balcony outside my bedroom in full view of all the neigbours. While that did not concern me greatly, it did worry Omar, not because she had a Bible on her lap, but because her head and often her shoulders were uncovered. After pointing this out, Jigi slung a shawl over her bare shoulders but Omar never won any battles regarding her exposed black mane which hung loosely down, more often than not, unbrushed.
“Why are you so religious now?” Jigi asked me on a tea and backgammon trip to the Hamadiar. It was our favourite outings together, even if it did exhaust me.
“I changed,” I replied noting the enquiry in her tone, “I learned more. I know more. Before I don’t know anything. Now I do.”
“So you are more a head-religious person than heart?”
“Yes, I suppose,” I replied cautiously.
“Is that good?” she said, not taking her eyes off the board.
“Nooo... before I had something in my heart, but I didn’t know what it was. Nobody taught me anything, but as I got older and learned from people around me.” Jigi looked up. I had her attention.
“So what was in your heart when you were young then, if you didn’t know about God?” she asked.
“I felt it... I felt that there was a God who loved me when I was a child... because when I did bad things I would feel his smack for it.”
“That’s how you knew God loved you? Wasn’t it more likely to have come from your mother?”
Jigi was being provocative, but it was the first conversation we had had on the subject since her clash with Aesha and I saw it as an opportunity to teach her something about Islam. “Jigi, look whether it was God or Mother doing the smacking the punishment was over. Done. I had paid the price for my wrongdoing. That means I will not be punished later, or worse still when I die, and end up going to the Devil. That’s all I heard when I was a child. ‘Suzan, you are going to the Devil’”
“Wasn’t that only said to you when you were naughty? That’s when people usually said it to me? Jigi replied with a dry laugh. “What about when you are punished for no reason? When you’ve done nothing to deserve it”
That was difficult to answer, so I said what I always said when I did not have one “Alhamdallah”
“What does that mean?”
“Alhamdallah? Thank God for everything.”
“Really? You say ‘Hamdallah’ when something bad happens to you?”
“Alhamdallah. Yes - for good... or for bad.”
“Did you say ‘Alhamdallah’ when dad died and your life went to pot?”
“Went wrong. When dad died, everything went wrong for you, yes? Life changed big time didn’t it? Weren’t you just a little angry at God about that, or was it Alhamdallah?”
“I can’t be angry with my God, Jigi.” was all I could say in response, because to say anything else would bring damnation upon me for daring to question the Almighty God.
Jigi rolled her eyes at me. “I know, but then, when you were eleven years old and weren’t as devout as you are now, you must have been a little peeved at him. You had a good life in London and then overnight you came back to this,” she snorted yanking at my Hijab. “You’ve just said that God deals out punishment for wrong doings in this life. It would be completely un-natural not to ask ‘Why?’ I’m a Christian and I ask God that question all the time.”
“You do? Aren’t you afraid of what he will do to you for questioning his will?”
“He doesn’t have to answer me. And mostly he doesn’t, but it doesn’t hurt to ask the question.
I smiled knowingly at her. Of course I asked the question. I spent my whole life asking it. “Why?” was the first thought to enter my head when Papa died, and at intermittent intervals since. But I could not verbalise it because if I did, I might actually find myself blaming God for the change in my fortunes as a result. “Must we only accept good from God?”
“Hah, Job said that as well.
“Job, who is Job?”
“He’s a chap in the Bible whose life God allowed the Devil to ruin. Is he not mentioned in the Qur’an.
“Ah yes, yes he is, and everything was restored back to him, wasn’t it?” I replied triumphantly.
“Yes, but after a lot of soul searching and questions to God for apparently turning against him in the first place.”
“No, no, he did not question God, Job simply invoked God by recognising that it was God who had brought the distress on his life... and it was God who brought good back into his life.
“Sounds very convenient. I am sure God would have wanted Job to learn something before he restored his life back to him. What does the Qur’an say about that?
“Why don’t you read it for yourself?”
“Maybe I will one day. I’m only just getting to grips with my holy book”. Her eyes were back on the board. She always did that when she wanted to move on to another subject. “I don’t think you were so religious when we first met.”
“Nor you,” I countered.
“I wasn’t but I did have a religious upbringing and I knew the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, she said with a wink. “I went to a Methodist school remember. But you weren’t praying five times a day and I don’t think you had been to Mecca then. So what changed?”
“Just getting older, Jigi. Time is running out...”
“You’re being dramatic again,”
She cut in. I ignored it. “Being near to God is important and to have his forgiveness for all I have done in this life.”
“Is that what it is all about? You are earning your way into Heaven?”
“I suppose, in a way, because I must stand perfect before God when I see him.”
“Sounds like very hard work to me,” and took my last two checkers.