Glimpses of a Muslim Childhood
On the morning of my sixth or seventh Eid,
My mother dressed me in white Pakistani robes,
Holding my hand gently
As we walked through the bright wooden gates
Of the Islamic Community Center by our house.
I had not yet learned how to pray.
But my mother taught me how to bow in sajda,
The devotion of pressing one’s forehead
To the ground to feel smaller than God
has made you,
to feel as grounded
As I lifted my forehead
from the carpeted floor of the mosque,
Pink and yellow sequins drizzled
onto the prayer rug in front of me,
flashing and glowing on my sleeves.
I folded my hands neatly in my lap
after prostrating myself before a God
who I had not yet understood.
A small pink child of maybe five years
skipped around a massive marble minaret,
as if unaware of the robes of believers swaying
as they bowed in and out of sajda,
as if unaware of the luminous stare of
Arabic calligraphy on the walls reminding
Us all of an end.
As pilgrims continued praying for salvation,
She dropped sequins on us all,
Ornaments for the call to prayer.
Her gifts reflected against the dun lamps with cobwebs,
Added color to the tattered caps on old men.
My mother didn’t believe me—
Maybe she didn’t want to believe
That playfulness in a holy space
Arabic gospels bellowed
against the gothic stained glass.
Fabric from the Prophet’s home
Dyed in royal reds
Down cracking cement pillars.
Silver whispers of pilgrim prayers
Intertwined harmoniously in the air,
While a dazzling child twirled
Through rows of people,
Immersed in holy obedience.
She was a Sufi,
Sprinkling seeds of beauty
On fading rugs
And reflection-less rosaries,
Her dupatta draped easy
Over her shoulders,
Spinning in slow motion
Under the booming chandelier
That had names of all the prophets
That came before Muhammad.
I wondered if they had forgotten
To etch her name onto its golden rims.
She leaped into her mother’s lap,
Shedding sequins into her arms,
Falling slowly into the trance of
Lullaby nasheeds and golden ayats.
As the leader called the congregation
to place hands in front of faces,
to seek refuge under an invisible blanket,
(woven by angels, he said)
among hands, speckled with
gold and pink stars of childish confetti,
I raised my head to the divinely yellow dome,
Where praise trickled over our veils
And wondered if my childhood be this way,
Lost in the innocence of wandering,
Spinning spiritually among believers,
Unaware of the history that lied within
The cracks of the marble minarets
And the weeping stained glass.
At seven years old I understood that
The morose faces in a house of worship
Must not have felt the glory this child did—
The child who learned to rise
My grandpa leads me to the living room
And points outside as white winter flakes zoom.
I press my hand upon the cool window
and stare up to ask what he thinks of snow.
He simply says cheeni as the wind howls.
Behind the glass, particles move in slow
Motion and whirl over thick white blankets.
North Shore snow coats our frozen red swingset.
When I take his wrinkled brown hand in mine,
his wisdom pulses through me as he smiles
into my brown eyes three feet beneath him.
I fear that his system is too nervous.
His grip on my hand has become weaker
And his eyes have hollowed with dark creases
But the grin he gives me is warm with strength.
It leaves a dimple on his wrinkled chin.
Neither of us knows that this is the last
Snowy winter holiday we will have.
Azra’il, the Angel of Death records
the approaching death of my grandfather.
You first explained diabetes to me
As a condition that made your heart sweet.
At six, I knew Azra’il would come soon
But why was sugar so bitter to you?
I imagined a ball inside your chest
Covered in white sugar like diamonds,
Shiny silver specks flowing in your blood,
Dark brown skin stretched over sugary dust.
I didn’t understand why you were sick
Or why you would answer my questions with
Reassuring chuckles as if the thought
of being sick was a casual cost.
I did not realize your depth in illness
Until the fragments your vision left
You weak and motionless in a hospital
While snow whirled outside your sterile window.
The brightness in your chocolate brown eyes paled
To dry, still marbles on a fading face.
I could barely recognize you under
A silhouette of copper skin color.
I sat and watched nurses walk in and out.
Mom sat by the window and prayed but doubt
Streamed from her eyes, staining salt on her cheeks.
I choked out to ask if you could see me.
Only your heart monitor responded
With the hummed sound of your faltering chest.
You shifted in your bed, lips ice blue
As you said “Of course, beta, I named you,
Noor-ul-ain, the divine light of the eyes,
There is more to vision beyond my sight.”
For even without your vision, you saw
Peace within brutal sickness and solace
In leaving me as a child on Earth
Whose memories of you would turn
To sparse images of snowy winters
And the sweet and bitter sides of sugar.
If you had not shown me the beauty in
The dazzling winter world you created,
I would have never learned how to find you
In the winter world that you introduced.
The leaf under your name fell from God’s tree
So Azra’il came for you the next week.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un
Surely we belong to Allah and to Him shall return.
We whispered softly as we buried you
Just a week before November was through.
Despite your leaving, you return to me
in every winter season’s first cheeni.
Your sweetened soul continues to see
Even after leaving this zindagi.
You linger like soft gray flakes that glide
After a calm, weightless snowfall outside,
Serene in their translucence of motion,
Beautiful in their soft landings at home
In the backyard we found happiness in,
In a season I didn’t fully begin
To understand ‘til it came to an end
With the departure of a wise, dear friend.
The crease that sweeps her hollow cheek is young,
A slip of skin greyed by the winter’s sun,
Through years of fleeting skin and beaten bones,
My naani’s lips and cheeks resemble none.
Her henna’d hair is thin and frayed like yarn,
Unidentified under a hijab
Could God have faced her differently and how—
Without sinking eyes or furrowing brows?
How long have her words escaped from her lips?
And warmth in the touch of her fingertips?
Her age is just but one indication
Of departure from youth, strength of wisdom.
A photograph of her from sixty-nine,
Reveals a fuller nose and stronger hands,
Glossy, tight, braids pushed out behind her ears,
And mocha lips lining a toothy grin.
In agéd faces, skin can sink and swell,
The sight can fade with light and leave just smell
My naani’s face once glowed in gold sunlight,
Fresh and full, tanned brown and luminescent.
The crease that sweeps her hollow cheek is young.
She blinks and barely seems to bear the sun.
Her face is sour and slumped and drips its joy,
Onto my mother, who will one day—too—
Pass this beauty to me in passing time
Sadly, it seems as though all mothers will.