Uncategorized September 23rd, 2008
Originally published on othermatters.org, July, 2008.
Konya, July 7
I listen to Sevde’s breathing change as she falls asleep. Our beds form an L, such that without moving, I can study her face. Thirteen years old and wrapped up in pink, she rests on her right side. I am glad that her restlessness has ceased, even if, by falling asleep, she has left me. Of everything I want for her, perhaps foremost is peace. Outside of our window, Konya is quiet; along houses built of cinder blocks, nothing living stirs. This is not a city of strays.
It is our second and last night together. On the eve of my departure, I find myself tense. “Why do you have to go?” Osman asked after pouring the tea. “Sueda, Sevde, Nihal and Fatma all want to know. They do not understand.” The question stretched between us, quivering, like a sheet hung in the breeze. Try as I might, I found nothing to say. Dear God, forgive me.
In the end, I gave the family my best smile. “Please, come and visit me in Boston. If you can get a plane ticket, I will take care of you. You will have no worries. Insha’Allah, you will be my guest.” My voice rose up half a step, as it does when describing a dream.
Osman smiled faintly, translating. Nihal made a motion with her hand, like an old woman grasping a cane. “When we have the money to come to Boston, we will be old.” We laughed then, and stirred more sugar into our tea. Bored on the couch, Sueda clicked her feet. “Sos?” she asked me in Turkish. “Sos?” Our private game of misunderstanding. “Sos?” I echoed back at her. “Ya Sueda, sos?” It is easier to know what to say to a six year old. We have nothing to dispute. For first graders, the present is much more interesting than the future or the past.
I reached across the floor to her. Our second ritual, after “Sos?” involves me pretending to break eggs on her head. First three taps on her hairline, with all my fingertips together. Then, on the fourth, I let my hand sink slowly against her brow, expanding. “Yumurta, Sueda?” I asked her. “Yumurta?” she replied. “Yumurta, Anna?” Egg?
I laugh to myself, remembering. I study the shadows of our room. Above Sevde’s bed, Ayat ul Kursi shines unevenly in the moonlight. I can make out only the beginning. Allahu la ilaha illa Huwa, Al-Hayyul-Qayyum… The rest, too dark to read, plays in my memory. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. So many cherished people have read this verse to me. At school, at the masjid, in the park; sitting together, in the grass, under the most magnificent sky. I wish, for an instant, that Sevde were up so that I could read it for her. At least then I could give her something. After peace, what I want for my beloved is protection.
I am at a loss as to what I can do for Sevde and her family which might be even half as precious as what they have done for me. How can I reciprocate? What do I have that I can share? At home, I could feed them, I could introduce them to friends. I could walk them through the arboretum, under honeysuckle leaves. As it is, most of what I have done in their company is to accept, to receive, to take, to thank. My mind’s eye floats back over our days.
We met on the train, the girls and I, on the Anatolian plateau. Nihal and her daughters came to my table, and sat down beside me. There, above Juz ‘Amma, veiled in smoke and electric light, Nihal asked me to read. She paused at my mistakes, and corrected them. When I stopped, we held hands. In the stream of Turkish which followed, I understood very little, besides “together”, “Konya” and “home.” Eight hours later, blinking back sleep, I sat on the couch in her house. Hos geldiniz, sweetheart.
In retrospect I can tell that we share love; yet, I find that I cannot pinpoint the moment of its genesis. Somewhere between Mevlana’s tomb and Alaaddin Masjid, somewhere between talking and cooking. Perhaps it was yesterday, when the sun disappeared, and we readied ourselves to pray. “Namaz, Sueda?” I asked the child. “Yalla, mama. Namaz.” I moved to the right, so that she could share my rug. It was good, I realized as we touched feet, to be praying with children again. To bow together, to place our heads on the floor. This takes me back to my First Grade class, to love for Allah’s sake.
Its practice infused today. The family’s elder members and I sat together over sunflower seeds, minding their shop. In the shade of nightgowns, scarves and rings, we passed the hours away. Sueda, whose cough could wake the dead, slept on the floor in the corner. Between doses of yellow syrup, now and then, she woke up to spit or to cry. While she stayed awake, I sat her in the chair at my side, and we raced paper airplanes. An expression of our love to be sure, but not the moment of its birth.
From within her tangle of sheets, Sevde, sleeping, mumbles. I cannot make out what she is saying. Indeed, I don’t know where to start. Who is her best friend? Is there a boy she is fond of? What does she want to be when she grows up? Of her practice, her hopes, her dislikes and her daydreams, I know exceedingly little.
Perhaps a book could be written on all of the things about each other that we do not know. Middle names, favorites, birthdays. The politics of the school where I teach, the tragedies of our homelands. I do not know this family’s worries, and they do not know mine. Our shared vocabulary is perhaps 300 words; I cannot, in Turkish, even tell them how I feel.
I remember the end of our evening. After dinner, when it had been determined that I really was going, we bundled into the car. I did not understand our purpose, until we had arrived at it. “We are going buying,” Nihal explained, reaching again for my hand.
Suddenly, up ahead, a bus station loomed. Osman held the door to the office, while the rest of us lined up inside. In a soft voice, he approached the clerk at his desk. “Are there buses to Adana, tomorrow?” he asked. “I need a seat on the women’s side.” Slowly, he nodded at me. “She would like to leave in the morning. Please take care of her. She speaks English.”
I unzipped my wallet at the clerk’s assent, and thumbed through money to pay. Osman, watching, leaned quietly toward me. “Anna. No.” He slid a debit card from his pocket, and handed it across the counter.
My heart stung with something akin to shame. The price of the ticket eclipsed what their store grossed today, never mind what little it actually earned them. The moment passed while I tried to sort out what to do. The clerk charged Osman’s card, and handed the ticket to me. We walked out into the darkness then, with me still wondering. All the kinds of thank you that I know how to say seem silly in the face of such extravagant care. They do not understand Jazakum Allahu khayran, though I have said it many times.
I was quiet on the way home, and when the girls and I hugged each other good night. Wishing Sevda sweet dreams, I climbed into my adopted bed. What is the proper etiquette for accepting a gift? I asked my heart. For that matter, what is the proper etiquette for accepting love?
An hour has passed, and I still do not know. Moreover, I am tired of trying to reason it out. Better generations than my own have surely dealt with this. I creep across the room in my socks, to my messenger bag. From its side pocket, I draw out a square of silver. It is thin, no wider than two sticks of lead, with a wide clear screen along its back. Billed as an Islamic Encyclopedia, it has the Qur’an, several tafsir books, a qibla finder, and collections of ahadith inside.
I carry the device back to my bed, and turn on its screen. In the darkened room, its light seems distressingly bright. Will it wake Sevde? As quietly as possible, I push tiny keys until I’ve found what I’m looking for: ahadith mentioning love between Allah’s servants.
They are many, and they are beautiful. We should, I learn through the reading, tell our beloved sisters and brothers that we love them. The reward for such love is mentioned time and again; to love each other for Allah’s sake is to earn the love of Allah. I imagine the angels, crying out, Allah loves Sueda. Allah loves Sevde. Allah loves Osman, and Fatma and Nihal. This is what I want for them, I decide. That they, who love me so readily, will in turn be loved.
My eyes begin to fill up with sand. It is almost time for sleep. I fight for a moment against it; there is another hadith I remember, which I want to read first. In the Musnad of Abu Ya’la I find what I am looking for. The hadith of the pulpits of light reads:
On one occasion the Prophet, sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam, finished the prayer and turned toward the people and said, “O people, listen and understand. Allah has slaves who are neither prophets nor martyrs, but both the prophets and martyrs envy them for their closeness to Allah.” A Bedouin stepped forward, pointed to the Messenger of Allah and said, “O Messenger of Allah, tell us about these people.” The Prophet was pleased with the Bedouin’s request and said, “They are from various peoples and tribes who have no ties of relationship between them. They love each other purely for the sake of Allah. On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will present them pulpits of light for them to sit on. Their faces will be light and their clothes will be light. The people will be scared on the Day of Resurrection, but they will not be scared. They are the friends of Allah who will not have any fear upon them nor will they grieve.”
I imagine us all together, Sevde and Sueda and Fatma, and Nihal and Osman and I. Sadia would be there too, on Judgement Day, with Abeer and Aafreen. My children from school. God willing, my husband. God willing, our family.
When I wake up, it is already 7:30, already time to pack and go. In the kitchen, Nihal has breakfast. There are three eggs to be shared among the six of us, small white things with orange yolks. I chew my half carefully, while I watch the family. Sueda catches my eye. “Yumurta, Anna?” she asks. “Yumurta? Sos?”
“Sos, Sueda?” I answer her. And then “Sueda. I love you.” She leans her head to one side at the jumble of syllables. “I lof yew,” she tries. “I looooooooove you,” I tell her again. I smile and make the gesture for breaking eggs. She wiggles her nose like a rabbit. “Anna, I love you.”