Left Behind

The house is large, very large. My mom and I hear each other’s every movement,  sometimes each other’s breathing.  I never noticed echoes before, but now, dishes echo, books thud, floors sing under footsteps, and closing doors startle the senses.

Such is life, now that my father is gone.

My father has been the hub and focus of the family for nearly sixty years, and now, in his absence, he is still at the center of things, and we reluctantly reposition everything and everyone in the family to accomodate his loss. We still cry, Mom every day.

Everything reminds us of him, of course, and we feel as if he’s still with us, as if he’ll emerge from the bedroom every morning, happy, ready for coffee and newspaper, planning the activities of the day.

We know he’s gone forever, at least his body is gone– Allah alone knows about the rest– but we still feel him, see him just around the corner, hear his voice as he wonders what’s for dinner. His favorite after shave lotion is still sitting on the bathroom sink. Sometimes I smell it, just to bring him back, and then I cry.

Now that spring is here, and the leaves are emerging, I look outside and see him sitting on the patio late in the afternoon, contemplating nature, worrying about the kids, or simply resigning himself to the inevitable. Mom and I brought out the patio furniture two days ago, but I redistributed all of it in a new pattern. Mom didn’t object. The memory of him sitting is his chair is enough; we need not look at the empty chair in its usual position.

It’s as if we’ve been left behind. He is gone, to be sure, and gone where? He is, “…in Heaven with his Lord,” as my mom says, but I still worry about that sort of thing, being educated in the medical model of life, and lacking the depth of spirituality that gives certainty. Death of a loved one, however, is one way of reinforcing a belief in life after death, if not of Heaven itself,  because I cannot bear to think he is anywhere else right how.

So we are left behind. We’ll join him someday, and that thought gives us courage if not confidence, acceptance if not the eagerness of anticipation. After all, what does life prepare us for, if not for more life?

Fitna Commentary

 

 

At the risk of exposing myself as naive and unsophisticated, I would like to ask readers to explain the Qur’anic verses used in the Fitna flim. Please don’t defend the situation by saying that the Bible has comparable verses. It does, but Christians are not going around blowing up themselves and others in obedience to those verses.Why are Muslims?

And please don’t tell me that American supported Zionism is behind it all. That’s too simple. And please don’t tell me to ignore it, like most Muslims are ignoring it. It won’t go away.

Of course, the verses are couched in context, but why are they not abrogated? Surely the potential for misuse should have sparked abrogation.

I’ve been a Muslim for many years, but those verses are problematic for me. The existence of ten positive verses for every verse encouraging violence does not cancel out the verses calling for violence.

I apologize in advance if I’ve offended anyone by calling attention to the elephant the room.

Definition of a Photograph

Transfered from Compaq 020 A photograph is like a particle of time. It is an instant within an existence, a stolen second along a continuum that was never meant to be disrupted. It is silence within sound, equilibrium within vertigo. form without function. It is ultimately a fossil, because it no longer exists. If you ever look at me face to face,  there is a good possibility that I will appear entirely differently.

Spring Cleaning

Spring, and inspiration from www.uniquemuslimah.wordpress.com  has encouraged me to continue the project I started recently, the project of removing clutter from my bedroom, in order to create a serene space.  This morning I tackled the three boxes of photographs that have been occupying space at the back of my closet for the past twenty years.

Family photos were easy to sort and keep. Under and overexposures were easy to throw out, but the others…well, those are the ones I was afaid of.

To my surprise, they drew smiles rather than tears. I found photos from trips I’d forgotten I’d taken, friends whose lives made intersections with mine, and places that nurtured me. I found photos of my apartments in Saudi Arabia, photos taken at weddings I attended, photos of me with a former fiance. I was smiling in all those photos, smiling with youth and the happiness of expectation, delight in the present, and discovery of a world I’d always known existed. Those photos I kept.

Interspersed amongst them I found old boarding passes, itineraries, receipts, travel brochures, medical records, greeting cards, newspaper clippings, unsent letters, recipes, and magazines. I threw these items out.

I also found unflattering photos of me during a fat phase, a fatter phase, and a pre-Saudi Arabia phase. Those photos are on hold. I’ll probably throw them out. They do not testify to the person I became, the person I aim to maintain, the person Allah blessed so richly, the person who needs to remember where she came from and where she is going.

Do not imagine, though, that I am so confident. Slippage is a fact of life, and so is imperfection. Self-flogging is easier than doing what needs to be done, and keeping old photos is easier than taking new ones.

However, in the effort to keep creating that serene place, in my bedroom and in my life, I shall be guided by Walt Whitman, who says:

“Discard everything that is an insult to your soul.”

If Worry Could Fix Things…

One day last year, while my parents were vacationing, I ignored a leak from the bathroom on the second floor of their home. A day later, the leak exploded and drenched two walls of the kitchen downstairs. I developed a migraine rather promptly. When I told my father, he said, “Don’t worry. The walls can be fixed.”
I nearly cried from guilt and worry, and then he said, “If worrying could fix it, I’d encourage you to worry more.”

That was typical of my father’s gentle way of making things right. For all his harsh words and strict standards over the years, he’d always had a charming way of soothing something that seemed unbearable.

I recall the night Ginger, my pet hamster, died. I was ten years old, and we’d been out, shopping, perhaps, but when we returned, I remembered that I hadn’t fed my hamster that day.

I went into the basement, where I kept his cage, and found his furry body curled up in his favorite corner. He seemed asleep, but his back peaked with a rigidity I’d never seen before. I reached into the cage and grasped him gently, as usual, but his body was stiff and cold. I dropped him and screamed. My father heard the scream and started screaming himself. He thought I’d encountered a burglar or worse.

I ran upstairs and yelled, “Ginger is dead!” and then felt guilty for causing my father such a scare. He’d been watching TV in the living room.

I cried, and could not go to bed, so I sat on the sofa close to Papa. He put his arm around me, and told me about the night his father died. I don’t remember the details of the story, because I was so impressed with the fact that my father did not cry while he told it, even though I could see he was still sad after all those years.

I said to myself, “If Papa can bear the death of his father, I can bear the death of Ginger.” I also realized that someday I’d be in his position. Someday I’d have to bear my Papa’s death.

That thought caused me to cry again, nearly to the point of choking, and to snuggle into my father’s side as if to pin him there next to me forever. How would I be able to bear Papa’s death? My ten year old heart didn’t know.

I asked myself that question periodically over the next forty-seven years, and never learned the answer. My father died on March 9, 2008, at the age of eight-seven, and I still don’t know the answer. A part of me has died, but not the part that contained my father. That part lives in my heart and half my DNA. His spirit still speaks to me and to everyone else he touched, and there are many of us.

 
Now I worry that when I stop crying, he will die yet again. In the meantime, I will ask myself not to worry. If worrying could fix things, I’d encourage myself to worry more.

 

A Travel Secret

You go to the museums and the tombs and the ruins and the statues because everyone else does, because these places are famous, because you’ve seen pictures of them all your life, because the tours focus upon them, because these are the places you can get to easily and you don’t know where else to go until you’ve been there awhile. You know these places are impressive and important, and you expect to feel enriched after you’ve seen them.

Now that you’ve have made your pilgrimage to the various shrines and wonders of the world, you can say for sure that the tombs and the temples are no more than ruins, suggestions of shapes with crumbling corners, useful now as a focal point only, an excuse to go to a place and wander through new worlds for a while, to pretend you are someone else, to imagine you have been reincarnated, to twirl around with your eyes wide open, to fantasize, to play, to revel in the freedom of the foreigner, to wish upon stars that have witnessed all of earthly history, and to know that you belong to it all.

A Walk on the Wild Side

 Before I went to Saudi Arabia in 1986 to work at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital, I bought a small book of Arabic phrases. The language, with its strange guttural sounds not made in English, and its curvy script read from right to left, fascinated me. I memorized the usual first phrases: min fadlak, shukran, marhabah, and ma’asalama— please, thank you, hello, and good bye.  Easy enough.  I would be ready.  I would know something about this exotic language.

Six weeks after my arrival in Riyadh, I got the courage to walk out of the housing compound to the neighborhood grocery store. I covered myself properly with my new black abaya, and threw a scarf across my shoulders.  As a Westerner, I was not obligated to cover my hair, but my bare head marked me as a foreign woman, and we all know what some Arabs think of foreign females. 

Halfway to the store, in the middle of a long block of residential villas, with walls surrounding them to hide the women, a small pick- up truck pulled up beside me. I noticed a bale of hay in back, half covered with canvas, but no animals.  The driver, an Arab dressed in a white thobe and checkered headdress, rolled down the window and said, “Marhabah.” 

I returned his greeting, “Marhabah!”  That was my first mistake.  I knew he’d ask me to get in, and sure enough, the next word– in English– was, “Ride? Ride?”  As I wanted to show off my acquisition of Arabic phrases, and be polite at the same time, I said, “La, shukran.” No thank you, with a smile. That was my second mistake. 

Suddenly, the truck pulled in close to the curb. I noticed no other person walking. In that neighborhood, only crazy foreigners walk in the broad daylight of desert heat.  No other car passed in either direction. I secured the flaps of my abaya across my body, and set my gaze straight ahead.  He jumped out, and rushed up in front of me, tripping and holding his manhood through the skirt of his thobe. His eyes narrowed, marbles embedded in the leathered creases of an old desert dweller. He smiled across a stubbly beard, unashamed of the gaps between his teeth, or what he was doing, and made grunting noises much like the noises made by the goats and lambs that he surely carried in his pick-up truck from time to time. 

I shrieked, and ran across the street.  He ran after me, hiking up his thobe to get a better grip and show me what he thought I wanted.  I shrieked again, picked up the bottom of my abaya, and ran fast in the heat until my lungs burned and I reached the main street, where six lanes of traffic whizzed back and forth, and he couldn’t possibly keep hanging on. 

The next day, I was told by my laughing Arab colleague that my polite American response had been more of an invitation than a refusal!

 

Haiku

  Sitting in the Grand Mosque at Mecca one mild spring morning, I listened to the omnipresent birds as they flitted above and around the Kaaba, singing their birdsong. Only birds talk in the Haram.  Humans pray, meditate, and bask in the beauty of Allah’s creation, giving thanks for their seat at the point on Earth above which Heaven seems nearest. I wrote this haiku: 

  

Swallows skim and swoop

Skid, slide, squeak and tumble down

A ladder of notes 

 

 

 

 

Walls

taquastruction.jpg  I squinted at white marble walls everywhere, as they reflected the brilliance of a Riyadh morning sun. Set at various angles, they somehow joined five separate buildings together in one geometrically shaped compound. Each building gave access to its tenants by marble steps, cleverly constructed so that no entrance could be seen from its neighbor. I would have loved to photograph those angles, but photography in public was socially taboo in Riyadh, except for civic purposes such as newscasts or education.In the lobby, protected from the intensity of the sun, I found relief. My husband knocked on the door of the ground floor apartment. The door opened just wide enough to let us in.

Stepping across the threshold was like stepping into the bottom of a swimming pool. Glossy, turquoise walls enveloped me and floated me down the hall, like the cushion of water that suspends one at the bottom of a dive into the deep end. I stared at those walls as I drifted inside, fascinated. I would have never dared to paint walls the color of a nine foot surge of water, and I had never seen such a color in other Riyadh apartments.

We rented it on the spot. My husband did not object to the walls or the royal blue carpet that joined each other at the floor.

Most interior walls in Riyadh apartments are painted white, as were the other four rooms in our apartment. The previous tenants must have had turquoise paint left over, because the fifth room had two turquoise walls that glowed when the morning sunlight fell upon them. That room had been a child’s room. Crayon marks remained, and I tried to remove them from the glossy surface, but ordinary soap and water did not do the job. As a temporary measure that lasted the entire six years of our tenancy, I placed two beds and dressers to block the sight of the previous tenant’s excesses.

Riyadh walls are made of thick concrete, rendering them cold in winter and hot in summer, but wonderfully soundproof. I never hung anything on ours, unfortunately, because I didn’t know how to pound nails into concrete. Sending my husband out for a concrete drill was too much trouble in a city that didn’t have yellow pages or numerical addresses on buildings. At first, I tried to find other ways to hang things on walls, but gave up. Our walls, like the sands of the deep desert, remained unmarked except for the shadows that fell on them as afternoon sunk into evening.

One wall of each room, including kitchen and bathroom, gave to the outside. This architectural device allowed for two important elements to be built into the larger rooms—a small window for light, and a rectangular opening into which tenants installed combination air conditioners/ heaters– – industrial strength. These dark rectangles dotted the sides of all walls in all apartments of all residential buildings in Riyadh. I never learned why central air hadn’t caught on except in hospitals and shopping malls.

Our kitchen window faced our bathroom window, because the apartment wrapped around an open space, and enclosure extending three stories up to the roof, allowing for natural light and air to permeate the rooms while protecting tenants from street intrusions. The second and third floor kitchen windows above ours also faced the bathroom windows above ours. During the change of seasons, when the air neither scorched nor froze the skin of anyone in those rooms, all tenants opened their windows. The odors and noises generated in those rooms—heard by all— wafted up and down the enclosure, but the rare luxury of gentle breezes, enjoyed just several weeks a year, inspired us all to tolerance.

This is what I remember about that apartment– its luminous exterior walls, its cool blue interior walls, and the lovely breezes carrying testimony to all our lives, the breezes that knocked down the other kinds of walls so firmly erected in Saudi Arabia–the walls of privacy and insularity by now well known, ironically, throughout the world. These walls are more difficult to penetrate than the concrete walls of the apartment buildings. The windows through which a foreigner can understand the life of a Saudi in Saudi Arabia are narrow, few, and far between.

There are walls keeping men away from women, Saudis away from foreigners, and Muslims away from non-Muslims. These walls are visible in the black drapes of the women and the white caftans of the men, in the gated compounds housing foreigners and the fortressed villas housing Saudi families.

These walls started to crumble under the influx of foreign workers, satellite media, war, and the inundation of everything Western and anathema to half the Saudi population. By the time I arrived in 1986, the walls of Saudi seclusion had already started to erode, but the erosion revealed a framework of steel. Who was it that said, “East is East, and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet.”?

The twain has met, but East is still East, and West is still West. It’s a matter of identity.