“What are you watching?
This question from my father, as innocent as it seems, makes me lovingly cringe.
“It’s a show Dad.”
“Is it a movie?” he’ll say, sitting next to me on the sofa and squinting at the TV. More internal cringing.
“No Dad, it’s a show.”
“What’s it called?”
Here’s where things get tricky, because A) some of the more nerdy shows I watch have weird names and B) my dad, as a rule, will always mishear the title. I can mumble or enunciate, it doesn’t matter. I call this Dad’s Third Law of Hilarious Misinterpretation.
“Doctor What?” he’ll ask quizzically.
“Firebug? Fire kya?”
There is a lot of affectionate eye-rolling and gritted teeth and repeating myself until he gets it right. Once the title is established, he’ll try watching for a few minutes. He asks questions, tries to follow along. But inevitably, after a max of 8 minutes (sometimes 10 if there are commercials), he’ll shake his head and say “this is weird. You watch weird shows,” before retreating behind his newspaper. I call this Dad’s Second Law of Attention Span.
God bless him, he does try.
Two and a half years ago, I left my financially comfortable global marriage for an expired passport and economic uncertainty. It was the saddest and bravest decision I’ve ever made. The US economy teetered in the worst recession since the Great Depression. There was no alimony, and I had not worked in twelve years.
The fear of “what ifs” loomed in monstrous proportions. I had no soft spots to land and no deep-pocketed family members to help me start over. Leaving meant leaping into a terrifying yet potentially poetic abyss.
Marriage had furled me tight. I couldn’t celebrate my complexities, and I longed for a different rapport with my spirituality. I felt like a fat and undesirable failure, and how I experienced my identity within the relationship wasn’t what I wanted to be out in the world.
When you find that you can’t locate yourself in a significant part of your known world, you have a spiritual obligation to make a new map. I jumped wide and fierce into the unseen with no compass.
I started an anonymous, now defunct blog. I had one published book and an anthology essay out in the world, but this secret writing felt unusually invigorating. My hands shook with unspoken truths so badly that I had find release. The words dribbled from my fingers as their own life forms. The writing was raunchy, irreverent, and always deeply personal.
I wrote about everything and everyone, although identities were kept secret. I admitted how I felt undesirable and then documented with questionable discretion the men who proved otherwise. But in those debilitating moments of post-divorce trauma, when nothing seemed to exist except fear and self-loathing, writing offered sanity and empowerment.
Sometimes, the best survival kit is one that includes only hope, prayer, and writing.
When my husband, Hadi, and I lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, I volunteered at an internado for girls. It wasn’t quite an orphanage. Most of the children had a parent or a grandparent who were unable to care for them due to poverty or addiction. I believed then that my motivations for volunteering were selfless. It had nothing to do with the loneliness of living in a foreign country or being away from family for the first time. I simply had time on my hands, and I wanted to make a difference.
I did not know then that I was stepping into a bottomless pit of need, that the longer I volunteered there the more layers and layers of things I had no power to fix I’d uncover. The homes the girls went back to on the weekend were broken, the discipline system at the internado was broken, their schools were broken, their friendships with each other were broken, their shoes were broken, and their hearts had been broken time and time again.
During those years, I felt guilty for everything. My bed, my space heater, my shower, my clothes, my washer and dryer, my childhood, my education, my parents, my husband. I had so much. Too much.
When I was a child, Ramadan – like the life that stretched before me – seemed magical. Forbidden for the very young, fasting was a mark of adulthood, a rite of passage for which we were all too eager. You woke for the early morning meal with a sense of pride, keen to know what mysterious things adults got up to at this delicious hour.
As I grew older, Ramadan became a time to pause life, a time for reflection as well as a time for community. Growing up outside of our respective ethnic identities and cultures, this month provided the chance to regroup and reconnect with friends and family.
We became used to a melding of cultures where we’d reach for spices in two languages during iftar, knowing only our ethnic name for certain spices and only the English one for others (I will never call “saunf” aniseed or “dhaniya” cilantro, but “namaak” will always be just plain old salt to me). We indulge in kibbeh and kunafeh at our Arab friends’ houses, in pakoras and dahi bade at our South Asian friends’ houses. During Ramadan, we seem to make up for the things we never realized we were missing – the sound of adhan from all corners, mosques on every block, altered work hours to make the fast easy: all things available in the Muslim-majority countries from whence most of us came.
After my brother’s passing, Ramadan became a month of refuge from the chaos of my grief. It allowed me space to breathe, mourn, to build up strength for the remainder of the year. The past few years, I have been able to recharge and re-center during this holy month by finding solace in the strength of the spiritual.
But this year? This year is different.
When a daughter is born into a loving family, she is cherished and treated like a princess and dressed up like pretty little doll with colorful plastic bangles and trinkets.
The beautiful princess is told fairy tales before being tucked into bed. Her mother speaks about the knights that saved Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White. Then, this little girl begins to dream of her very own Prince Charming and she starts looking for him as soon as she turns sixteen years old. Some girls get lucky and bump into him without trying. Others have to face mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and cousins who love them as single women — until they hit a certain age. Then, some princesses find themselves unmarried or maybe divorced and still without children.
At that point, the fairy tales are over — unless you consider the types of mothers/aunties/cousins who are metaphors for trickster witches; it is often women who make girls feel miserable about the state of their lives. No matter how educated, talented and beautiful a single woman may be, she is always sidelined and frequently humiliated because she is unmarried. It seems that some women can’t imagine alternative realities for themselves or for their daughters.
I’m tired of fairy tales. We need new stories about our future that go beyond marriage saving us from a life of ruin and despair.
Lately, I think in the shape of maps. Cartography is a relevant metaphor as my boundaries are bending yet again. My tongue wags in the direction of due East. I am revisiting old languages while my writing hand rests.
The immigrants gather together in my coffee shop, no matter the country of their origin. They call personal grammars from the air. The Persians gesture with palms towards the heavens; the Arabs stretch arms out wide as if to catch a word before it leaves the sentence; Indians write postcolonial diatribes with cigarette smoke. Some drink to lost memories hidden in their tea or coffee cups. A few read their stories from beer foam. They all remember somewhere else and some time from before.
He tells me that he would be disappointed if he returned home after thirty years of absence. Nothing will be as I remember, he says. He wasn’t supposed to stay here after the degree, but a political revolution changed the map of his world. He shrugs his shoulders. Now, his American-born children can’t speak the language well enough to understand the stories of their grandparents.
Like you, I say to him, I often have to choose which parts of myself I reveal to whom. We are always in the process of censuring our stories, speaking in languages half-mastered, or retreating to cultural corners where our imagined identities are safe and comfortable. He nods his head in agreement.
If one seeks stories of loss and regret, then that is what one will find, I remind him.
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I had the moment my future husband would see me in my wedding dress all planned out. Although it wasn’t necessarily a Middle Eastern tradition, he’d be waiting for me at the end of an aisle. I’d walk in with my father, and upon seeing me in all my bridal glory, he had had one of the following options: a) cry with manly restraint b) open his mouth wide with surprise before breaking into a smile of wild, uncontained joy c) step back and clutch his heart so stricken by my beauty d) some combination of the above.
When I got engaged at eighteen to the son of our closest family friends, I was disappointed to discover that my fiancé, Hadi, also had an image of the moment he’d first see me in my wedding dress and it involved no such dramatic displays of devotion. He merely wanted to be the first one to see me in my wedding dress in a private moment that only the two of us shared.
I’d never seen a bride and groom meet before their wedding in any movies or television shows. I supposed Hadi could have the kind of the reaction I desired when it was just the two of us, but then our guests wouldn’t witness his outpouring of emotion. How else would anybody know that we were not getting married because of our families’ friendship but because Hadi loved me more than any man, in the history of time, had ever loved another woman?