The Summer of Healing

“You see…a book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy…a challenge [it is] to induct people…who had daily dealings with greed, abuse of power, and the Sisyphean nature of office work into the world of books. How gratifying it was when one of those tormented yes-men quit the job that had robbed him of every last drop of singularity! Often a book played a part in this liberation.”

~Excerpt adapted from Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop (p. 28)

Writing last summer

Took this last summer, when I still used to write

You see, I believe in the power of stories, not only in reading the experiences of others, but in sharing your own. The latter is more challenging. To make yourself vulnerable. I was brought up with pride in self-reliance. My grandfather embodied that and I saw it as a source of strength. Until this year. My first year of grad school, which ended yesterday. The list of things I’ve learned this year is long. At the top, however, is that excessive self-reliance is lethal.

I’d fallen into this very “Sisyphean nature” of grad school life.

I learned to write for science. I forgot to write for myself. I learned to read one peer-reviewed article after another. I forgot to read what used to make my soul happy. I learned to work from the empty office on the weekends. I forgot to prioritize reaching out. I learned to cook and clean and drive and pay the bills and be an adult. I forgot that adults need to breathe.

What happened over the course of the year was frightening, exciting, and overwhelming. Just as the earth beneath my tired feet was being snatched away from me, as my deepest dreams and desires were about to shatter into nothingness, I was given a second chance. A summer of healing. To recall who I used to be, to recreate an identity outside of grad school, to resume reading for pleasure, and to write, not about superficially beautiful places and beautiful foods, but about what makes my soul alive.

A friend’s passing this year has forced me to reflect that in our short lives, there is nothing more tragic than feeling incapable of sharing your story. I’m not sure if anyone will read this, but I personally know that my writing this summer will be one of the many fresh attempts at my catharsis. In three weeks, I’m lucky to be leaving for Morocco, where I’ll be living for most of the summer. Connecting with people on a deeper level and breathing new air, I’m sure, will do wonders for the soul. At the same time, I hope that others who chance upon my thoughts and stories will benefit from relating and connecting and sharing their own.

For now, I will end with a verse that has given me much hope this year. It’s from a chapter in the Quran called The Poets (26:78-80): “It is He who created me and He will guide me. It is He who gives me food and drink and heals me when I am sick.”

Shakespeare and Company

Took this two summers ago in Paris, at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore

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The Mirror of Erised

Present Day–USA

“Can I help?” he asked. His eager hazelnut eyes almost failed to betray his haggard soul. His attire, however, clearly gave away that it was he who needed help. On his right shoe was a hole, growing slowly to the size of his granddaughter’s soft palm. His gloves were so worn that you could see his thick, callused fingers peeking through.

The sun had forgotten to shine on New York on this particular morning as folks were recovering from last night’s winter storm. Rumors had it that such brutal cold hadn’t turned up in a century. While snow blowers were going berserk on this long road, a man and woman buried knee-deep in snow caught his eye. They were working with shovels, hauling the frozen snow bit by bit.

“Can I help?” he asked a second time. At a closer distance, he realized the couple was in their fifties, just like him. So used to living alongside indifferent neighbors, they didn’t seem to hear him the first time. This time, the woman looked up. The man smiled and gently took the shovel from her tired grip.

The woman’s husband curiously placed his hand on the man’s arm, “Friend, how much will you take?” On this icy morning, the man could think of nothing but the promise of returning home with warm milk and bread. “Whatever you wish,” he answered and began to shovel.

Winter 2017

Winter 2017

Thirty Years Earlier–France

They had been married for seven years, as deeply in love as when they had first been introduced to each other. Each year when she left for two weeks to see her family, he sent her text messages filled with longing. Shouldn’t she feel happy, she often wondered to herself. A loving husband, a relaxing job, a house the size of a mansion. And yet. Lately, her worried parents and nosy relatives made sure she didn’t forget what was missing and that she was now 32.

To celebrate their anniversary, the couple had been planning a trip to Paris for months. He had purchased the latest camera in the market to capture the glow she had lost over the years. He understood what it meant to miss what you never had. What further ached him was to helplessly watch her in pain. He hoped the promised city of love would do its magic.

And so they strolled through the Louvre, watched the Eiffel Tower at midnight, and even made the journey to see the ornate Palace of Versailles. Little did he know that the moment they were both yearning for would happen by the calm waters under Pont Neuf.

It was their last morning in Paris. Nothing was planned for this day, except what she had been waiting to share with him. What she had kept from everyone just to keep out the evil eye. As they sat on a wooden bench holding hands, watching the reflection of the clear sky and the bridge, she opened her mouth. No words fell out. Instead, an excited gasp. He turned toward her, confused. How could she explain to him the new life within her, its first kick? She placed his hand gently on her belly.

XXXXXXXXXX

Every so often, I re-read the Harry Potter series. This time, I discovered something that I hadn’t paid much attention to. The Mirror of Erised. I’d always dismissed it as a glamorous name for a mirror. Until this winter break. If you reverse the spelling of Erised, you’ve found The Mirror of Desire! Perhaps, I’m the only one who never realized this, but this chain of thought prompted the current article. For those unfamiliar with the Mirror of Erised, some background: The Headmaster Dumbledore explains to Harry,

“It shows us more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts…The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is.”

Different people long to fulfill different desires at different stages of their lives. How many people on earth today would look into the Mirror of Erised and see only themselves? How worthwhile is it to pursue what’s missing without an appreciation of what we have? With much self-reflection, I’ll end with a picture I took exactly a year ago from Thich Nhat Hanh’s you are here:

Excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh

Excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh

“Nice hair”

“Nice hair,” snickered the old man from his car at me and my mother, both of us wearing headscarves, as we entered the doctor’s office. My mother didn’t quite catch what he was saying and glanced at me, as she adjusted her black scarf with white polka dots. I am now unable to recall the look in the man’s eyes because mine were frozen at his mouth, registering the two words that had rolled off his tongue.

My mother ushered me inside. When I repeated to her what the man had said, she naïvely responded, “But we’ve covered our hair.” I explained to her that he meant to be offensive and that I couldn’t believe we didn’t speak up. As we took our seats in the waiting room, my mother tried to assure me that it was in our best interest not to retaliate in the moment.

That’s when I decided: I need to start blogging again.

For the past few weeks, I have been writing tremendously. However, I didn’t find the incentive to share anything. Such rich literature already exists that I felt a stronger urge to invest days pondering on those works instead of expecting anyone to skim through my material. Yet, this morning propelled me to write with a purpose. Having more time on my hands the past three weeks, I have devoured as many books as possible and the writers have provided me with the fuel with which I write today.

I first thumbed through The Autobiography of Malcolm X on 20 January, 2017. The day Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. A Muslim White friend of mine, inspiring in more ways than one, had sent me a copy in the mail. After putting it down for a few months, I finally finished it last night. The voice of Malcolm X and the African American’s struggle for freedom continue to reverberate in my ears alongside the two reviling words from this morning.

Another powerful book that I recently finished on race relations is “Americanah,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author. The fictional character, Ifemelu, writes about what blackness means in America in her blog titled, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” As an immigrant, she feels most free when she chooses not to straighten her hair and not to hide her Nigerian accent. She feels liberated in embracing her African roots while writing boldly about building a unique identity in America.

Similarly, to me – a colored, Muslim woman from eastern Africa – the United States represented the land of opportunity and diversity. I was proud to breathe on this soil. However, instances here and there manage to disgust me. For example, when President Trump hints at a system to track Muslims in America. 

Naturally, I felt drawn to Anne Frank’s diary, the raw honesty, the preserved experiences of a thirteen-year-old girl who went into hiding with her family, targeted for simply being Jewish in Nazi Germany. Last summer, I visited the house in Amsterdam where Anne and her family hid in concealed rooms behind a bookshelf.

On 16 March, 1944, she wrote, “The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings, otherwise I’d absolutely suffocate.”

For the same reason, I have been writing for years. And plan on sharing some pieces more regularly, in the case that doing so may enable me to connect me with other struggling souls.

After all, when your sanctuary is ruptured with a mere two words on a mundane, rainy morning, don’t you wonder how many speeches and writings will it take to prevent history from repeating itself?

The blue sky of Amsterdam, 2016

On February 23, 1944, Anne Frank wrote, “The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.” (Her words rang powerfully in my ears as I watched the open sky in Amsterdam, 2016)

The Pigeons of Iraq

“La ilaha illallah! La ilaha illallah!” I looked up from my book of supplications to hear a horde of men carrying a long rectangular box, clad in black. Curiously, I put on my glasses. As clarity hit me, the hairs on my body stood up in alarm. My first time seeing a coffin. Less than ten feet away from me. Merely a few hours ago, the human being now inside the box was breathing. Like me. Soon, I will replace this corpse as my loved ones form a line behind me, pray for the forgiveness of my sins, and leave me six feet within the dark earth.

In an hour’s time, seven dead bodies came and went and fresh tears escaped from my eyes. Windows to our soul, they say. This was the last morning I spent in Iraq. How befitting that it was here, in the shrine of Imam Ali, that I found the truth behind our fragile existence, for which I had travelled 10,000 kilometers. To feel death after having seen it so close behind the wheel at midnight two months ago, a time when I cried out Ya Ali thrice and Ali immediately came to my rescue. The relationship between life and death, between fear and peace, so delicate.

In “A Life Apart,” Neel Mukherjee writes,

“If he could only push the inevitable away to some unspecified point in the future when he was old enough, a proper adult, he would be able to deal with it efficiently and well, but no, it really was happening now. It wasn’t the luxury of a safe mind toying with dark imaginings in terrified fascination any more. At thirteen, he thought twenty-five was the right age for dealing with Big Events; now, at twenty-one, the notion of a safe age turned out to be a mirage, receding further into the distance as one approached a moving boundary. Perhaps there wasn’t really any safe age for him.”

Are we ever ready?  To face the challenges of this transient life. To let go of grudges and heartbreaks, the pursuit of power and wealth. To focus on self-education that benefits oneself, the community, and life after death. It’s now or never.

How befitting that I am on the way to the birth celebration of Fatima, my namesake, the revered wife of Ali, the daughter who soothed the eyes of her father, Prophet Muhammad. Today, my soul returns to Iraq. Yearning for the peace I felt in the shrine of Imam Ali. To be one of the hundreds of pigeons flying inside the shrine, chirping in resonance to the call of prayer calming that last morning I spent in Iraq. To be free.

The Pigeons of Iraq

A boy runs toward the mosque of Imam Ali in Kufa, Iraq. Sunrise, Feb 2016.