Thursday, January 25, 2007

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. Graceful young shapes huddle under draped black georgette. Middle aged women are comfortable in black cotton. Grandmothers sit on chairs at the back, fanning themselves, their lined faces soft and crepy. It is mid-August. My friend holds open her neckline for me to peer in--she is exultant to inform me she has followed the example of another friend and shown up at the overcrowded, swelteringly hot mosque wearing only a bra and panties under her jilbab.

Women screech shanti! from the kitchen near the back to achieve some measure of quiet in the basement full of women and children.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. Someone grabs hold of my chader as I walk past, shy and important, sent by someone's mother to get cups. "Do you know why I stopped you?" she asks me. "No," I say. "Because you have a pretty face, and I have a son," she says. I stare at her, goggle-eyed. I go get the cups.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. I volunteer in the youth committee's baby-sitting room at the top of the mosque. I slap a kid. I am afraid and sorry, but still angry. His mother gives me a look when she picks him up. I can't tell what is bitten off in recrimination and what is accent.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. I sit restless in the youth tent. The intense young Black speaker is from a hausa in New York City. He privately encourages me to come study there: "We need sisters," he says. I like him; if he thinks I can study, then obviously I can talk to him about my frustration at not being able to do the youth lectures along with the young men in the tent. Quickly, gentle, serious, heartbreakingly admirable, he sets me straight on the role of women--how they cannot take intellectual lead, even at the housa. Tears and snot start flowing uncontrollably out of my face, and he is startled, but continues to speak to me, even more gently, the way I want to be spoken to, except with words that do not disallow my thought. He bends towards my face which I cover with my hijaab, listening. Later he writes me a long letter from New York, and, crushed-out but speechlessly ambivalent, I infinitely delay writing back.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. Near the end of the ten days I make myself sit down with them, make myself listen to the Imam who lectures the adults--the Imam who describes the massacre, the Imam who tells us what it means. We sit; there are slow infinitesimal settlings in. Bodies slouch. Positions shift as gradually as continental drift. You don't notice you till are sitting alone, furthest out. My movements are too obviously tied to intent.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers.

The women sat in black in their tents. The ran out screaming when the army set fire to them, after the men died, one by one, in battle. The Imam's voice is cracked and atonal with grief. All around me the women shudder, moan and wail. I alternately weep and check around me to see if there's an actual fire in the mosque.

The daughters all cry in black around their mothers. We are rapt, convinced, as the Imam, almost incomprehensible, runs rampant with detail, winds through stories like a hairdresser twisting curls and pinning them into your skull with bobby pins, describing the nobility of Imam Hussein and the base cowardice of Yezid's army. Where we are unconvinced is our own fault. Puzzled, I try to meet the red, wet eyes of others, eyes that flicker away.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers, listening to the words. The words have been deep-fried in significance. They spatter hot oil. We flinch. They are for us to eat, to become a part of us. These are the words we will use, later. The mother weeps; she is revving and fine-tuning her grief-machine for the future. These are the tears she will weep later. You are killing your father, she will say. Only symbolically, we will tell ourselves, because otherwise it's him or us.

We will feel sorry for ourselves, thinking these dramas have arisen because we are migrants to western cities. But then how is it that the lines handed to us are so old?

The daughters all sat in black around their mothers while the tents burned down around us. Where would I have been in the battle at Karbala? A little rat watching from a hole in the corner? Watching the noble men die, noble because they fought? Where would I have been in the battle at Karbala?

Running the babysitting corner? Arguing with the young men in the youth tent?

One of the daughters, wandering outside, occasionally trying to make herself sit with the other daughters, around the mothers, all in black?

Where were the daughters in the battle at Karbala? One of them, Bibi Zainab, bolted out her tent towards the men murdering her brother, left the seclusion of purdah, and spoke the truth of what happened to anyone who would listen, after. But what happened isn't all there is to truth, anymore.

Some daughters were partly present, at Karbala, as a few grains of sand. The grains of sand fly into eyes heroically squinting at their fate. Tiny, chaotic, troublesome and seeking, small gusts unexpectedly stir them into movement. At Karbala, some daughters have not fully come into being yet. When they do, they will walk as though underfoot, fly into stinging furies, and bear sand's disbelief it can hold together in the wind. They will also observe, fly into eyes and make them blink. Their strength and presence will make themselves felt in signs that once marked not belonging. They will learn to choose some of these strengths, outgrow others, come into the present, and develop new ones. The daughters will play their role in the battle, unaware of daughters still to come.


sumayya said...

thanks rabia :). i love this piece.

rabfish said...

thanks sumayya

Octavia said...

Thanks for writing this.