Fatima’s country

Just as I was settling in to the routine of attending the mosque class on Sunday’s, Fatima suggested we switch it up. She wanted me to come to her apartment during the week for more one-on-one time. I continued to fasten my headscarf in the rearview mirror, only now I emerged into the busy parking lot of a student housing complex. I felt like Clark Kent making the transition to Superman. I walked the pathways to Fatima’s building in hijab. I wasn’t concerned about running into anyone I knew because I felt unrecognizable. I had never understood why Lois Lane couldn’t tell that her super hero boyfriend was the same guy as her reporter colleague, but it suddenly made sense. Identity is so much bigger than a face.

The personal details about Fatima I had gathered at the mosque were skeletal at best. She had come to the United States for her husband’s graduate studies. She had two little girls. I also knew the basics about her homeland: a colonial past; a ruthless leader, initially supported by the west, brought down in spectacularly grisly fashion; roving bands of militants fighting for control. Its story was similar to at least a dozen other countries in that part of the world.

Now, with time spent just the two of us, I put meat on those biographical bones. Despite my preconceived notions regarding the status of women where she was from, Fatima had managed to obtain an advanced degree living there. She had been a professional working woman before coming to the United States. Her husband’s degree in agricultural sciences was being funded by her country’s government—some aspect of which was obviously working well enough to finance such projects. But her family’s efforts to broaden their horizons came with sacrifice. Since arriving in the U.S. more than five years earlier, they hadn’t returned home once. Both of their little girls had been born here. Their grandmothers back home had never held them.

I had only ever met ex-patriots of countries like hers who fled and had no desire to return. Not Fatima. She longed to go back. She spoke of her homeland with a tenderness some might reserve for the dearest loved one. She showed me pictures on the internet of its most beautiful features. She fed me its popular dishes. She called it “my country.” “This is food we eat in my country.” She and her husband had visited another town in the United States that reminded her of it. “The temperature, the way the air smelled,” she said with a serene smile. “I closed my eyes and I was in my country.”

I wondered how she felt about the ruthless leader who had been killed—if his rule was as bad as the media here had made it seem. She hadn’t been back since his death. Her gaze lowered to the floor, her expression went pensive. She nodded, “It was bad,” she whispered. She told me about a cousin who was executed for carrying anti-government propaganda in his car. “I’m sorry,” I said. I meant for her family’s suffering, but also for whatever role my country may have played in creating the situation. “Thank you,” she replied. I searched her eyes but didn’t see any blame there.

 

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Tashahod

Fatima explained that today the children would be practicing saying the portion of the prayer called the Tashahod in Arabic—and that maybe I could read along and get a feel for how it sounded. The Tashahod is a collection of sentences recited as part of all five daily prayers.

In English, the words are straightforward: “All salutations, peace, perfection, omniscience, and prostrations, prayers and blessed deeds are for Allah. The peace of Allah be upon you, O Prophet, and His mercy and blessings. Peace be on us and on all righteous servants of Allah. I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.” The phonetic translation cloaks it in mystery, at least to my untrained ear: At-tahiyatu lillahi, was-salawatu wattaiyibatu. Assalamu alaika ayyuhan-nabiyyu wa-rahmatu llahi wa-barakatuh. Assalamu alayna wa-ala ibadi llahi s-salihin. Ashhadu alla ilaha illa llahu wa-ashhadu anna Muhammadan abduhu wa-rasuluh.

Every student took their turn. I listened carefully. A few were too young or too shy and didn’t make it all the way through. Their voices trailed off or their presentation ended in a face-plant on to the table. Fatima gently prodded and corrected. One kid who was a bit older performed exquisitely, his annunciation clear as bell. It sounded beautiful and otherwordly, like the music of a concerto played at double time and backwards.

When the other instructor took over, Fatima and I retreated to the upstairs library. She wanted to explain a little more about the guidelines regarding the Tashahod, so she got a pencil and began to diagram something on a piece of paper. She wrote numbers for each of the daily prayers depending on how many rakahs they required. Starting with the fajr, she created a column: 2, 4, 4, 3, and 4. She explained that what the children were practicing was really only half of the Tashahod; the other half, which some people refer to as the Durud, is another variation of a request for Allah’s mercy and blessings. Next to the 4’s, she wrote: 2, ½, 2, whole. She said after the first two rakahs of these prayers, you recite half the Tashahod, then complete the next two rakahs before reciting the entire Tashahod. For the morning prayer with only 2 rakahs, you can do the entire Tashahod at the end. However, for the maghrib prayer at sunset that only has 3 rakahs, it goes like this: 2 rakahs, ½ Tashahod, 1 rakah, whole Tashahood.

I stared at the marks she was making on the page. I could feel my eyes surrender focus; soon I was watching through two filmy blinds. Maybe it was time to throw in the hijab. Like the other faiths I had explored, the primary ideas weren’t so difficult to grasp, it was all the stuff that had sprouted up around them: the customs and rituals, many of which developed after the main messengers were long gone. A few of the essentials regarding prayer and other behaviors could be found in the Quran, but the rest was based on the daily habits and practices of Muhammad himself as recalled by the people who had known him. This extensive compilation of guidelines called the “Sunnah” supplements the Quran.

Something about the Tashahod being chopped in two pushed me over the edge. I could not believe the intricacy of these procedures. How was any newcomer expected to understand, much less adopt them as her own? Do religious people see how intimidating it is to approach their belief systems? For believers, all these rules and formalities wrap them in a warm, familiar blanket; for an outsider, they create a barrier impossible to penetrate.

Fatima could tell I had hit a wall. I couldn’t take my eyes from the paper. “I think that’s enough for today,” she said. She put her hand on my arm and I reluctantly lifted my gaze. “Don’t worry,” she told me. “Allah wants it to be easy for you.” I tried to smile, but I wasn’t convinced.

For several weeks, I sat in on the children’s class. I got used to arriving in the mosque parking lot, putting on my headscarf, and making my way to the back entrance that led to the classroom. The sound of Arabic as performed by squirmy students grew familiar. I began to recognize certain phrases, and to know what they meant. I wasn’t sure that I could ever put all the pieces together and do the prayers myself, but I tried not to think about that yet.