I lay in bed that first night at boarding school, listening to the silence wrap around me. Instead of hearing my father’s voice chanting the shahada – ‘There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet’ – I heard my own voice whispering: ‘Mahdi, Mahdi, Mahdi – this is all because of you!’
My father’s face turns bird-liver red. He attacks, raising his slipper high, a stray vein in his forehead throbbing. But the cockroach has already vanished, as though the earth had cracked open and swallowed it whole.
Shaking his head, my father murmurs the words he resorts to in moments of disappointment – ‘There is no power but in God the Great’ – before realising, in a panic, that he is still holding the slipper. He flings it to the floor and raises his hands to the ceiling – ‘Forgive me, O Lord!’ – then scrambles down on all fours, muttering the name of God the way we do when we’ve misplaced something, like the only comb in the house or the keys to the front door.
When he finally slumps out of the kitchen, dejected, it dawns on me that God has concealed the cockroach from my father because He has not forgiven him for uttering His name while holding a slipper. I lie down, pressing my cheek against the cold stone floor, murmuring the name of God with all my might so that He may guide me to the creature’s hiding place.
Though I feel the revulsion human beings usually experience towards his species – especially since he was the type that had wings and could land, at any moment, on your head – I also feel a pang of sympathy. I recall all the times I had seen these creatures squashed, burned, drowned. The neighbour’s son liked to deposit them in the ice compartment of the fridge and watch them slowly freeze to death.
And didn’t God Himself create that cockroach, I suddenly think, just as He had created me? I was lucky: imagine being destined to a life of scurrying anxiously around and taking refuge in the most disgusting places, from the toilet bowl to the crack beneath the sink.
I peer under the cabinet and feel a rush of elation when I finally spot a pair of trembling whiskers. God has answered my prayer! Determined to save the cockroach and prove to Him that I could respect all His creatures, I heave myself up and reach for the jinntass.
For as long as I can remember, that magical copper bowl has been sitting in the same spot on the top shelf of the cabinet. On the outside it is etched with palm trees and mosques, inside with the outline of a hand filled with words that were a mystery to me until I was old enough to understand they were Quranic verses.
My mother believed that the words of God could bring calm to a frightened heart. She would fill up the bowl with water and bring it to me when I woke with a start in the night. She hurried to fill the bowl the day our neighbour, Suad, scrambled down from her balcony to ours to escape a burglar she’d found in her house.
My mother brought the bowl to her lips and the water splashed everywhere as Suad pushed it away, wailing: ‘My leg! I’ve broken my leg! I beg you, take me to the doctor!’
I fill the bowl and place it at the foot of the cabinet, squeezing my eyes shut and hoping that the cockroach will drink the holy water.
The name of God had always echoed through our house: from the radio, from the minaret of the local mosque and from my parents’ lips at every opportunity – my father when he caught a whiff of basil or mint, my mother when she saw her bread dough rising. They prayed to Him in feverish gratitude for giving them the gift of prayer.
But don’t think I loved God any less than my parents, oh no. God was always with me. I saw His name sketched in the clouds that drifted across the sky; in the light pooling from the street lamp in our alley; in the pores of an orange, like eyes. Whenever I felt pain, I would put my hand on the spot where it hurt and repeat three times, ‘In the name of God, Most Generous, Most Merciful.’ And because God is God, and therefore male, I would apologise to Him, shamefaced, whenever I let out a fart or saw a few drops of pee on my underwear. And you shouldn’t think that I was ignoring Him all those hours I spent doing my homework or daydreaming about boys or staring at my face in the mirror, wondering how to get rid of those tiny blackheads on my nose.
The cockroach didn’t drink the water that day, and the following night I found his remains under my father’s slipper. Before I could stop myself I went to my father, swept my arms wide and declared: ‘Look, Father! Look at the spilled blood of that pitiful creature, the oozing guts! Did the Prophet himself not counsel us to lead animals gently to their death?’
I was trying to imitate Ustaz Najib, my Religious Studies teacher: the deep, rich tones of his voice and his enchanting language – an elaborate classical Arabic that was always laced with poetic images and studded with parables.
‘My girls,’ he would say, ‘you must be as precious and rare as pearls, whether deep in the sea or safeguarded behind locked doors.’
But then, almost overnight, I was no longer the pearl in the Religious Studies lesson or the obedient girl at home. I had just turned fourteen and, although I still performed my daily prayers and wore skirts that reached down to my heels, I began to ignore my father when he told me to cover my mouth when I yawned so that the Devil couldn’t sneak in. I mocked my mother one day when she said that the minaret of the Ali ibn Abi Talib mosque sways or stands still depending on whether or not the oath taken before it was true.
My parents began to furrow their brows when they heard me giggling or humming a tune, wolfing down a piece of cake or admiring a dress in a shop window. My father would mutter that someone or something was leading me astray, and my mother would warn: ‘Loving life is the mother of all sins.’ I would think to myself: But didn’t God create jokes and cake and flower patterns too?
And when my father told me to chant the shahada before I went to bed in case I died in my sleep, I didn’t tell him what I was thinking. I didn’t say that my nightie keeps away death, just like it kept away bedbugs. My aunt had brought it for me from Mecca, so the fabric was made of Quranic verses rather than threads. She was carrying it with her as she circled the Kaaba and threw stones at Satan. My parents had taken it with them when they went to the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab in Damascus, and they had wiped the tombs of the saints with it in Iraq.
And then the day came when I even refused to wear this beloved nightie of mine.
Ustaz Najib was teaching us the history of the imams.
‘The twelfth imam, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan, was six years old when his father, the eleventh imam, Hassan al-Askari, passed away. Muhammad’s uncle, Jaafar, was known as a devout man, a forsaker of earthly pleasures. He claimed the title of imam after his brother’s death. But when Jaafar stood up to lead the funeral prayer, the child appeared and declared: ‘Stand back, Uncle. I am more entitled than you to lead the prayer over my father’s soul.’ He led the town in prayer as confidently as an adult, to the astonishment of all, including his mother, Narjiss. After that, he disappeared under mysterious circumstances, an absence dictated by God, and in the end he will return, by the will of God, to establish a nation of righteousness and fill the world with justice and truth after it has become saturated with tyranny and debauchery.’
A classmate raises her hand and says: ‘My father says that the imam was born in Samarra and went into a cave there and never came out.’
‘There are many stories and predictions about Imam Muhammad ibn Hassan al-Askari, also known as the awaited Mahdi. The truth resides with God alone. Only He knows where His creatures are, even if one hides between a peanut and its shell.’
I suppress a laugh, remembering a neighbour of ours who would reply, when asked about her husband who had migrated to Africa: ‘I’m waiting for the Mahdi to return.’
Then another thought occurs to me. I raise my hand.
‘Sir, was the imam really six years old?’
‘Yes, he was indeed . . . perhaps a year older or younger. What we can be sure of is that he disappeared at a very young age.’
I raise my hand again and have barely been given permission to speak when I blurt out: ‘What about his mother? She must have been so worried!’
An image of Narjiss in her white mud hut began to form in my mind: searching frantically for her son, running towards the door – I could not imagine any windows – whenever she heard a sound. ‘Mahdi! Mahdi!’ she would call out, climbing a tree so that the wind would carry her call to him, wherever he was. And when the wind carried back nothing but the echo of her own voice, she would remember the neighbour who lost her son in the fish market and ran around looking for him, prising open the mouth of every big fish before finally going home to sit on her doorstep, sad and pitiful, waiting for him to return.
The teacher’s voice filters through my reverie. ‘You must focus on the essence, my girl. Don’t let yourself be carried away by the impulsiveness of emotion and the whims of the spirit!’
But Narjiss was not listening to the teacher. I see her holding on to her son, trying to prevent him from leaving. ‘I love my son more than I love myself. He is the juice of my heart, the stuff of my liver! This boy is the most beautiful thing that flutters in my breast!’
‘But, sir, what if he missed her too and came back in secret to say goodbye and tell her that his disappearance was dictated by God and that he would come back to her some day? Would she believe him or would she scold him and say: “Where have you been? My heart was between my feet with worry!”’ I continued in silence: I thought a fierce monster had shredded your flesh from your bones.
‘I have one question for you, student!’
I have to tread carefully: this is the first time Ustaz Najib has called me ‘student’ and not ‘my girl’, and the space between his eyebrows was now filled with furrows, like little hills.
‘Have you heard the saying: “A strong believer is more beloved to God than a weak believer”?’
‘Now tell me: What is your favourite fruit?’
The truth was that my favourite fruits were the ones I’d never tasted before: the strawberries, pineapples and mangoes that I’d seen for sale at Souk al-Ifranj, the market frequented by foreigners. But something in my heart told me that strawberries and pineapples and mangoes would not be appropriate fruits to mention in front of Ustaz Najib, the other students or in this school in general. Figs were a safer bet: they were the cheapest and most common fruit, and had been mentioned in the Quran.
I replied that figs were my favourite, and begged God’s forgiveness for not being entirely honest.
‘You see, my girl? You’ve answered your own question. You eat figs spontaneously, unthinkingly – and this is precisely how you should soak up the True Religion, with all its wisdom and mystery: without thinking, without judgement.’
My mind drifts as I think about how I eat figs. I think of how I often admire the smoothness of their skin, their tiny ruby-red seeds. How I always split one open before putting it into my mouth to make sure the worms hadn’t beaten me to it.
Before I know it my hand has shot up again and the sentences fall from my mouth, one after the other, before I’ve been given permission to speak.
‘The thing is, Ustaz Najib, I don’t eat figs unthinkingly. I think a lot about how the trees were planted, how they were nourished by the sun and rain, how the fruits grew, and how they came to be so sweet, like honey. But the Mahdi is a mystery to me. Where is he? Is it really possible for someone to disappear for all of these centuries?’
‘Remember, student, that a strong believer is more beloved to God than a weak believer.’
‘But the truth is, sir, I can’t stop thinking about his poor mother. Imagine if you were to disappear when you were six or ten or fifteen years old. Would your mother give you up so easily? Wouldn’t she search high and low until she found you?’
The class was silent. Ustaz Najib stared at me for a moment, stunned. Then he turned away, mumbling in a voice that faded to nothing: ‘Let’s move on to imam number . . . uh . . .’
That evening, I refused to wear the nightie, which had begun to feel like the scarecrows they use to frighten away birds in the orchards and the fields. I tore it slowly into long thin shreds and tossed them out of my bedroom window one by one, watching as they drifted to the ground.
When they handed out our final grades that year, I scanned the page looking for Ustaz Najib’s mark. Imagine my surprise when I saw he had given me an A+. Still, when I heard my parents that night praying to God in gratitude for my place at the top of the class, I found myself insisting on leaving home to attend a well-known boarding school one hour away from the capital. I didn’t wait for their answer and began to look for a scholarship right away.
And on my first night at boarding school, after the lights had been switched off and I heard the sound of silence instead of my father’s voice chanting the shahada, I found myself giving whispered thanks to Mahdi.
‘Mahdi, Mahdi, Mahdi – this is all because of you! If it hadn’t been for your mother, I wouldn’t have ended up here.’
Artwork © Romina Khanom, Women of Colour, 2014