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Principessa 15 May 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Culture.

The princess guards the prayer from her alcove. I beckon her with my hand. Through knees, a pink t-shirt rocket comes skipping. We meet and link arms, as to dance.

“Do you want to pray with me, mama?” I ask. Brown eyes blink almost gold. “I am going to pray in front of my dad!” Abeer says. She indicates the mihrab with one hand. Questions rush through my heart. What exactly is there, in the nook before the imam? I never venture into the brothers section, and from across the hall, I cannot see. What of the imam? I think of Biskit, settling herself onto my sujud spot at the most inopportune of times.

The muezzin rises for the iqama. We press cheeks, and she is gone in a cloud which smells like grapes. Next to me, Abeer’s big sister, Aafreen, aligns our toe bones. She is midway between Abeer’s size and mine, beautiful and slight. Her scarf is a folded triangle, twisted carefully and pinned with a thin golden chain.

Afterward, the crowd is slow to settle. Aafreen and I make dhikr, kneeling side by side. My heart pangs remembering last week, when I lost my temper. Starving and wretchedly tired, I tried to rouse the teen from the awards ceremony before she wanted to leave. She refused to come, and I threw up my arms. Khalas. Who died and left me the chauffeur?

I regretted my snappiness the next morning, when her mother came in to forgive me. “Aafreen was worried about you yesterday, Sister Anna,” she said, cradling my hand. “‘Sister Anna was so tired, Mama. And she didn’t get enough sleep the night before.'” Saadia paused. “She loves you.”

I glance sidelong at the girl, and find her smiling at me. Together, our shoulders are warm. We are like parents after a fight, bashful with each other, wanting to be close. Alhamdulillah, thirty-three times.

The brothers make their goodbyes, while the sisters reposition our wall. It is a new blue thing which glides on small black wheels across the carpet, our sliding fortress.

When we have finished making dua, we settle against the wall. I do not join the sisters in the fortress’ shade. The point, for me, of coming upstairs for the lecture is to be able to see. I choose a spot by the wall from which I can watch head on. The lecture begins with Qur’an, with Surat al Muddaththir.

“Qum fa’andhir.” The imam’s voice stretches across the crowd. Arise and warn. No one speaks, save the children. Even here, on the second floor, toddlers walk, unrestrained. A tiny boy, perhaps two, wanders in green overalls to the imam’s feet. He stands at the edge of the man’s white table, tracing the microphone cord with his eyes.

“These are the second verses revealed to Prophet Muhammad, sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam,” the imam says. “He is told to stand up, to shake off his sleep. This is not the time to rest. This is not the time to hide. This,” he turns his palms to the ceiling, “is the time to act.”

I struggle not to let my thoughts turn too far in. What about me? Shall I stand too? My pulse beats sixteenth notes into my sternum. Listen, listen, I tell myself. If you listen, you will remember later. “This is the beginning of the call to da’wah. No one else was Muslim yet,” the shaykh reminds us. “Except for Khadija, radi Allahu anha.”

I imagine being one of only two Muslims in the world. “Sometimes, when we present Islam today, people question the role of women in Islam, and we do not know what to say. ” His voice grows heavy. “If we examine the history of the first converts, we will find the answer.”

“First, the Prophet Muhammad, sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam, invited his wife to Islam. Before anyone else accepted Islam, the two of them prayed together. In this, they were alone.” He survey the brothers with his eyes. “This is a good reminder for you,” he tells them, “to make your wife your partner. She is your helper. It is she who will be by your side.”

“Then who came next?” He asks the air. “We will see that the next one to accept Islam was a child. We will talk of Ali ibn Abi Talib, radi Allahu anhu.” From the doorway, I see a flash of gold and pink. Little Miss Laughter, the princess herself, carries a white glass in her hand. Next to me, Aafreen sighs.

She walks without lifting her feet. None of the water spills, and when she reaches me, it is still cool. “Sister Anna…?” she asks. She hands me the cup before I can answer. It is full in my hand.

“Jazaki Allahu khayran, sweetheart.” She pushes away curls. Aafreen moves over so that her sister may settle down between us. She looks pointedly at my purse. “My mama gave you that!” She holds onto a tassel and looks up at me. “Because you are poor!”

I decide that it is time to communicate silently. I unzip the handbag as quietly as I can. From it, we need my pen, round with gold ink, and a First Grade tablet, printed with blue and white designs. On it, in careful letters, I write her name. Next to it, I draw a star. I hand the tablet to her.

Abeer’s eyes are shiny as she makes out her name. She holds the pen carefully in her right hand. Carefully, she misspells my name. Sister Aana, she writes. She draws a star. She shows me the tablet, but does not return it. To my slight chagrin, she flops down on her belly. Then she pulls the tablet close to her chest, and props herself up on her elbows. Chewing her lip, she writes.

“Abu Talib did not have much money, and so Prophet Muhammad offered to take Ali into his household,” the imam is saying. “He was just ten years old.” Next to me, Abeer traces over her comma. She feels me watching her, and hands the notebook back. There, beneath my name, is a new message. “I love you, Sister Aana.”

From his table, her father holds the attention of the room. “Youth,” he pauses. “After his wife, Prophet Muhammad spread his message to his children.” He does not say “This is what you should do too,” but the brothers nod as if this is what they have heard.

I shake the pen quickly, in the hope that ink will spill down into its tip. “I love you too, kitten,” I write. She reads my message and touches her chest. “Me?” she asks. I nod. You.



1. Baraka - 15 May 2008

Salaam dear Anna,

I am struck by your ability to take an ordinary scene, one which many of us have experienced at the local mosque, and weave it into an extraordinary one full of significance, self-awareness, and emotion.

Thank you for reminding me to be a better observer, and to remember that there are stories hidden all around us.


2. Muslimah X - 15 May 2008

Salam, knowing the family that you speak of I am so touched by the way in which you describe them. A lovely example of a family mashaAllah reminds me of the aya from Surat Al-Furqan in which Allah (SWT) describes one of the characteristics of Ibadur-Rahman:

“Rabbana hablana min azwajina wa dhuriyatina qurat ul-3yoon, wa’aj3lna lil muttaqeena imama”

My lord, bestow on us from our spouses and children those who are a cooling to our eyes and make us among the leaders of the pious

May Allah give you the same dear Anna

3. maximus mercury - 16 May 2008

Salam Anna,

Very well written and intricate as your writing always is – but I was looking throughout for the resolution of whatever inner conflict you are feeling in this piece. I don’t think I found it. I don’t understand what you mean by this:

“She indicates the mihrab with one hand. Questions rush through my heart. What exactly is there, in the nook before the imam? ”

Sometimes, I feel like you’re cloaking what you’re thinking about during these pieces, trying to present it in a stream of consciousness that will perhaps hide the real questions from all but the most astute of your readers… That is your prerogative as a writer, of course. But it leaves me feeling worried, without knowing what it is I am worried or melancholy about.

Anyway – an upcoming Juma’a mubarik to you!

4. ANNA - 16 May 2008

Wa alaikum as-salaam, dear Maximus, Muslimah and Baraka.

I appreciate your feedback very, very much. Thank you for taking the time to stop and comment. Muslimah, Jazaki Allahu khayran for the ayah! You gave me something lovely to reflect on. Baraka, your attention is coveted and valued by me. You encouragement, invaluable.

Maximus, you are right, of course. I am completely guilty of keeping my inner conflict to myself. In fact, usually with these pieces, first I write them, and then I erase every sentence which tells explicitly how I feel. I’m not sure why I do this. Possibly I am afraid of appearing sentimental. Perhaps I am afraid of what will happen if anyone figures out what my inner conflicts really are. Perhaps I enjoy keeping secrets. In any case, the line you cited is straightforward for me to explain.

I wrote: “She indicates the mihrab with one hand. Questions rush through my heart. What exactly is there, in the nook before the imam? ”

I meant: My heart is like a duck in a hailstorm, with questions falling all around. Some of these questions deal with what is hidden (or inaccessible to me) in Islam. Whether because my Arabic is poor, or because I lack cultural expertise, or because I just haven’t reached a particular point in my learning, sometimes I am left wondering what it is that is just out of touch.

The sentences are about brothers, too. The manners I learned for dealing with men (from my midwestern, Catholic family) are very different from the adab I have learned since. I do not always understand at all how to find ease in interacting with brothers. It is disconcerting to straddle two worlds; one in which men whom I barely like at all assume that we will shake hands (at the least) without thought; the other, in which brothers I actually love and I apologize to each other and look away if we so much as brush arms.

In both cases (Islam generally, and brothers in particular) I feel that the proper answers exist, but I don’t know if or when I will uncover them. Just like I don’t know if I’ll ever see what, really, the mihrab contains.

5. maximus mercury - 16 May 2008

Dear Anna,

Thank you for such a detailed response to my comment. I am gratified! I see that the Mihrab reference was not just a trigger point of concern in the piece but also a very neat metaphor. Even though the two go hand in hand, I failed to appreciate the literary device of the metaphor when I read yesterday (perhaps because real writing is the exception not the norm in blogs). Nicely done.

What you say about the adaab of interaction with the opposite sex: I do understand what you mean. Even though I do not interact closely with the Muslim community out here, I have felt these things when interacting with cousins on the more orthodox side of my family – and it never fails to leave me disturbed and slightly unhappy. I feel like the people I really have smth to share with in the world are the only ones I perhaps will never share more than cordial distance with because they are the only ones practising the adaab, while we both continue to deal w. the rest of the world as usual, with greater freedom of expression and exchange with strangers. All I have to offer is that one seems to come to one’s own individual conclusions about how rigidly the adaab should be interpreted over a lifetime. The greater puzzle of gender segregation and purdah remains uncracked as far as I know.

As to your writing about conflict: like you said, you have preferences about which side of things you show to the world…but it would be so fascinating to hear both! To have the pieces where you are the calm, thoughtful instructor and then also the pieces where you are voicing the conflicts you have. I say this with the insatiable appetite of a reader, of course, nothing more.

Anyway, good reading/talking!
all the best.

6. ABD - 16 May 2008

mashaAllah, your last two posts have been particularly well written—narrative and content linked intricately together.

to my mind, maximus’ question highlights the importance of dramatic tension in carrying the reader through a piece. i am reminded here of the film before sunset, where ninety minutes of pure dialogue could not have been sustained without the implicit tension between the characters and the irony of their situation.

since you’re explaining lines: the one i didn’t understand was “what of the imam?”

7. ANNA - 17 May 2008

Jazak Allahu khayran always, ABD.

“What of the imam?” is about khushoo. I can envision concentration achieved through a strict blocking out of what is going on in the world around you. What I wonder is whether or not one can achieve perfect concentration with a world view which includes, for instance, one’s five year old daughter. When Abeer is near her father during prayer, does his focus include awareness of her presence? On some level, I want it to. Even if she is too young to pray, I want her to be included.

As for dramatic tension, ay yi yi. There’s an art to using it.


8. nadia - 18 May 2008

salaam anna:

one thing i’ve always loved about the mosque is how children are welcomed, whether to play, to run, or to be hugged when their voices cry out during prayer.

but i don’t understand this question of perfecting concentration by blocking things out. in our salaat, we open our hearts to Allah. so how could we be unaware?

9. Anonymous - 18 May 2008


I had a thought, please don’t take it the wrong way. I know the family and people that you are writing about and recognized them immediately. As we discuss the particulars of the skill (or is it art…or both) of how we capture the scene…I wondered…do these people know you are writing about them? I wonder how they would take it if they knew that parts of their lives were being displayed for the public? I wonder if they might wish to be consulted before they are included in these descriptions? Just a thought…since although names have been changed, for those who are familiar with the community, it is quite obvious who certain people are??

May Allah reward you greatly

10. Anna - 18 May 2008

As-salaamu alaikum, Anonymous.

Writing is observing the world around you. It is like seeing. By virtue of having sensing organs, I am compelled to write. A hazard of being beloved by me is that I might someday choose to write about you. If this act, like any other, is done with the intention of serving the will of Allah, then I pray that the Most Merciful will accept it.

The family you are referring to and I discussed the writing process, and the role of blogs and dawah back when we first met. They have never faltered nor failed in their support of me. I care strongly about doing the best by them.

What I see in my story is a public tale of a public event which was conducted for the purpose of bringing together the Ummah and increasing our ‘ilm. I am glad that Allah, Subhanahu wa Ta’ala, gave me the gift of being able to share the honorable things which I saw there with others. I didn’t elect to write about everything I saw, because I don’t think that all of it would serve a constructive purpose. What I picked to write about was love, tenderness, forgiveness and affection. These are all issues of immediacy for me. Maybe for all of us.

All I can promise is that over time, my focus will diverge. New faces will come to populate these pieces. Some, maybe you will not know. Others, maybe you will. Please, if you find value in my writing, then try to be content with that and do not judge too strongly my intent. Allah will take care of that.

11. Anonymous - 18 May 2008

As-Salamu Alaikum dear Anna,

I never at all meant to offend or judge you or your writing. I do find great value in your writing and merely asked out of my own love for the family you write about as well. I was genuinely curious as to whether they knew they were being described here, especially the children for whom I feel some degree of responsibility as well. Certainly I never made mention of the intent with which you write. I know too well that intent is contained in one’s heart and is known only by Allah (SWT). I only meant to offer something perhaps by way of reflection, perhaps by way of advice as is your right upon me as a fellow Muslim.

I also asked by way of seeking advice from you as to the manner in which one should deal with such things when writing. I certainly see you as a superior in the art form and wondered whether it is something that as writers we should struggle with. I am deeply sorry that it seems my own paucity of skill in even phrasing my question has caused you any displeasure. I assure you that I did not mean any ill will. It was intended as a genuine question and truly reflected curiosity on my part.

May Allah accept from you and reward you greatly according to the best of intentions.

Your sister…

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