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To Mars, Together 29 May 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Education.

It’s official: if we ever build a colony on Mars together, it will be called “Tae Kwon Do Soccer Ball: First Grade Muslim Country”. Wadi, Land of Shoes, Madia, First Graders on Mars, Marsy Red Mars, Roodi, First Colony, Super Team and Death Shooter did not make it through the second round of voting. The class has spoken. I write the colony’s name on the whiteboard, and underline it with a flourish.

“Sister Amani will be the Ambassador of Mars,” I announce. “And I will be the Ambassador of Earth.” “What’s an Ambassador?” Walee asks. Amani and I look at each other. “Do you know the word in Arabic?” I ask. She nods. “Safir,” she says. No one on the rug looks reassured. “An Ambassador is a person who represents a place,” I say. “And if you want to do something in their place, then you have to get their approval. Also they might be able to give you money to help you pay for what you want to do.”

They accept my explanation without complaint. “So in this case,” I say, “we are going to pretend that Sister Amani is representing Mars. When your team finishes its proposal, you can bring it to her. She will read it, and will tell you what she thinks. If you tell her how much money you need to build your part of the colony, then she might be able to write you a check after she signs your paper.”

For an hour we write. Each team has a writer elected. They describe their teams, our colony’s needs, their best ideas and plans. “We are Team Air,” writes Hamoudi. “Our purpose is to let the First Graders breathe.”

The students put their heads together to arrive at a price. “Sister Anna?” Nadim raises his hand. “Are we supposed to add up *everything*?” His eyes do not believe me when I nod my head. “Everything that we are going to need in order to live on Mars, habibi,” I answer. He pulls his fingertips through the air. “Broccoli, Spinach, Lobster, Bread, Chicken, you know, Salad?”

I give him my best smile. “Everything that you think we might want to eat, my love.” I approach Team Transportation, before a thought occurs to me. “You might need to explain to the Ambassador how you are going to store this food, also,” I say. From Team Yum’s table, Sara looks up. “The ice caps, Sister Anna!” She smiles at her team. “Don’t forget the ice caps.” Across the room, Amani catches my eye. Today she is dark and I am bright; we are like two halves of a sphere, equal and opposed. For Salat ul Janazah, she has worn black. To cheer up the children, I have worn white.

Finally the balance of noise shifts in the room, indicating that all the teams are done. “You may sit on the rug with your team as soon as your table is clean,” I head for the rocking chair. My ribs ache as if I have been coughing, though my lungs are clear. A small dry tickle in my throat reminds me that I have not gone for water yet today. I hand my mug to Sara. “Cold, please.” She is out the door before I can tell her to put back on her shoes.

Team Yum settles into first place, while Team Fun sticks to the back. Transportation and Air take the middle rows, and sit up on their knees. “Criss cross, applesauce,” I say.

As they settle down, Ayah’s face goes yellow-pale. She walks across the rug to me, and leans against my side. “Sister Anna, I feel bad.” My heart moves. “I know you do, honey,” I whisper. I look at the class. Will they let me hold her in front of them, without complaining? “Ayah is having a hard day,” I told them earlier. “She might decide to talk to you guys about it, or she might not. But today you are going to show her a lot of mercy. Please.”

While I am wondering where to put her, she climbs into my lap and goes limp. Her head rests under my chin, and she tucks away her arms. No one of the fourteen assembled before us speaks. I thank the students in my heart for their latitude. Then I crook my left arm around my passenger, and take their papers in my right.

“I hope you will enjoy hearing about everyone else’s work,” I use a quiet voice, so that they almost have to strain to hear. I do not want to shout into Ayah’s ears. Team Yum’s paper is on top. I clear my throat and read.

We are Team Yum.
Our purpose is to get food for us to eat on Mars.
Our plan is to make salad. We will have a garden.
We will raise chickens.
We will make soup, and apple pie.
We will make all the food on Earth, and then we will send it to Mars.
We will use ice caps for refrigeration.
That is our best idea.
The price is $6000.

I imagine all of us together, eating apple pie and chicken underneath the Martian sky. “Probably by the time we are teenagers, it will be possible,” Hamza says. I do not remind him that we are leaving each other in two weeks. “Insha’Allah, habibi,” I say instead. “Or maybe even when you’re in your twenties, insha’Allah.” The next paper in the pile belongs to Team Transportation.

We are Team Transportation.
Our purpose is to move people back and forth,
and to save money.
We plan to use spaceships and rockets
and upsidedown motorcycles and flying cars.
We plan to take the kids to school.
We would get the gasoline from the ice caps.
Our best idea is flying.
The price is $2000.

The class stirs, laughing. Any number over a hundred remains comically big. I read the proposal from Team Fun, and am about to start on Team Air, when Aly raises his hand. “What’s wrong with Ayah?” he asks. She turns her face against my arm.

“Did you ever have a hard day?” I rock us slowly back. From the front row, Muhammad raises his hand. “Yes, when my Jeddu died. He couldn’t eat.” His fingers describe a torso, emaciated. “And how did you feel?” I ask him. He looks at me slowly. “Heartbroken.”

The class instinctively knows when to hush. “My Tata died a year ago, and that’s how I felt too,” I say. “Your Tata?” Sara looks up at me. From the back, Ali raises his hand. “You know,” he grinds his jaw, “I know how you feel. My grandpa, he died too.”

Ayah looks up at me. “My jeddu died.” Her voice is a whisper. I brush her hair behind her ears. “I know.” On the rug, the children are still. “What’s wrong, anyway, Ayah?” Hamoudi asks. It is enough to get her to sit up.

“Give me my paper,” she says. I hand her Team Air’s report. She holds it before her mouth. “We are Team Air. Our purpose is to let the First Graders breathe.” She sits up, and a brown ponytail brushes my shoulders. “Our plan is to use plants,” she hides herself. “So that we will breathe.”

She tells of air tubes and masks, and special oxygen pumps. When she finishes, her face is brighter. She leaves my lap and settles onto the floor, next to my rocking chair. If she is not yet back on the rug, she is that much closer. Marwa, from the purple row, raises her hand.

“Does Allah want us to go to Mars?” she asks. The question takes me by surprise. I do not know exactly what I think, or what to say. “What do you think?” I ask her. “Would Allah like us to go to Mars?” The children in the rows in front of her shift and smile. Ali shakes his head. “I say no,” he says. “Because how would we pray? We wouldnt’t find the qibla, and our masjid might float away.”

Hamza agrees. “We would have to use wires on the masjid, and even then, our prayer rugs would float away.” Marwa, behind him, shakes her head. “No,” she says. “I don’t think that’s right. Because, you know, maybe Allah created new things, and he wants us to see them. Allah probably wants us to go to Mars, to see the ayat and pray.”

Next to me, Ayah’s eyes stare far away. “I think Allah would like us to go to Mars too,” she said. “So we can live good new lives.”



1. Priscilla Gilman - 29 May 2008

Lovely, as always, Anna.

I think, for many reasons, that Allah does not want “us” to go to Mars, but to live well on Earth. For one thing, there are so many past, present and future first-graders who need food, good schools, homes, medical care, clean air and water. The insane quantities of money that would be required (those numbers would really get the kids in hysterics) to send even a couple astronauts to Mars and back, could do an awful lot of good here on Earth.

The ending with Ayah is perfect because the whole go-to-Mars mythology depends on a fantasy of getting away from who we are, from our humaneness and vulnerability, and even from death.


2. Larry Gilman - 29 May 2008

I’m Priscilla’s husband: she told me to read this piece. “I’ve been wanting for a long time to get you to read Anna’s writing,” she said, and knowing my interest in Mars as an object of modern cultural fascination, around which notions of renewal, escape, and transcendence often revolve, she sprang her trap.

Good, very good. Breathes compassion and a love of the first-grade relationship to reality. I like the free verses (as I read them) that the kids make on the theme of interplanetary logistics.

Perhaps you might append a glossary sometimes when there are many non-English words in a piece. After much Googling and close reading, I’m still not sure if Jeddu is a proper name or a Jeddu is a type of relative. Has a pet died? A person? My reading hangs up a little because I can’t be sure of what has happened that makes Ayah feel bad — the nature or magnitude of her loss.

I am grateful for your piece as I am for all good “religious” writing — writing informed by faith in whatever way. There is too little of it about.

3. Baraka - 29 May 2008

Salaam ‘alaykum dear Anna,

Simply wonderful, Anna – my favorite piece of yours thus far. The story is funny from the very first line, and the characters leap off the page and crowd ’round one’s knees in their liveliness. You’ve taken the reader right into your first-grade classroom and shown us what a delightful and poignant place it can be.

And, I second Larry – there is too little good faith-infused writing. Your vignettes are exquisite.


4. Anna - 29 May 2008

As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh, dear Larry, Priscilla and Baraka.

May Allah’s peace, mercy and blessings be with you all. I am so happy that you wrote! Thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts with me. Jazakum Allahu khayran. May Allah reward you with the best.

Here is a rough glossary, insha’Allah:

ayat are signs of Allah’s miraculous, wonderful power. “miracles” might be a good English rendering.

habibi is “my beloved” (to a male.)

habibti is “my beloved” (to a female.)

Insha’Allah is “if Allah will it”.

Jedda is “Grandmother”.

Jeddu (or Geddu, in Egyptian) is “Grandfather”.

masjid is “mosque”.

qibla is the direction that Muslims face during prayer. It corresponds to the direction of the Kaaba from wherever you are. (The kids are stressed out in this story because they don’t know how to figure out the right direction for prayer.)

Salat ul Janazah are “Funeral Prayers”.

Tata is “Granny”.

I hope this helps. If someone with stronger Arabic foo would like to correct me, I would appreciate it. :)

yours, much cheered to have heard from you,

5. Umm Layth - 30 May 2008

as salamu ‘alaykum

This was a great read. Thank you so much for sharing it in such a beautiful manner.

6. Sherri - 30 May 2008

Hello Anna,

I very much enjoyed your article. It reminded me a little of something that happened on my way home from the grocery store tonight. I was carrying a lot of things, and behind me a mother and daughter approached.

“Sometimes,” the mother told her daugher, “Adults have bad days. It just happens. Your teacher might be in a bad mood today, and tomorrow things will be better. You just have to wait. Sometimes good people have bad days.”

The little girl did not seem reassured. I turned around to see that they had stopped, and the mother patiently explained again. At the time it reminded me of your classroom world, which is very different from the very “adult” world in which I live. It was funny to hear a statement so simple, and true, said so loudly on the street.

When I read your article tonight, I was reminded again of this moment; especially when I read about Ayah. We are all dealing with loss, every day, and the longer we live, the more loss we accumulate. Loss occurs in little ways, and in big ways. On many days it is balanced out by happiness, but sometimes not. Sometimes we need to talk about it, and sometimes we can’t.

All humans, big and small, experience heartbreak. Your response to Ayah, the way you reminded the class to give her space and show her mercy, reminded me of how we should approach all our friends and family, every day, no matter what their age.

7. memsniff.org » Blog Archive » To Mars, Together - 30 May 2008

[…] To Mars, Together […]

8. Larry Gilman - 1 June 2008

Thanks for the glossary terms, Anna. They do help. Maybe a permanent glossary tab could be appended to the top of the Other Matters page and arranged so that contributing authors like yourself could add to it over time. Then readers like Priscilla and I could consult it and build vocabulary without pestering you in the Comments. Ah, I am full of helpful suggestions for jobs for others can do . . .

I am moved by your words of blessing. With a prickle of pleasant shock I recognize the obvious yet again — that the divine love manifests across our religious boundaries, like clear water drawn from widely-spaced wells.

In synagogues and in some Christian liturgies (including my own, Episcopalian), the following blessing from the book of Numbers is often spoken, and I offer it in return for your own holy words: “May the Lord bless you and guard you, May the Lord shine His countenance toward you and be gracious to you, May the Lord lift up His countenance toward you and give you peace.”

Insha’Allah; and I believe God does will it.


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