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Dew Point

This blog is dedicated to sharing my every-day discoveries of how the light and beauty of Islamic spirituality can be part of a modern, well-rounded way of life.

Month

April 2011

Calling home

Our home, photo by Mandy Merzaban

This is our family home in Richmond, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver, captured in a photo my younger sister shared with me yesterday upon arriving home with our mom. My sisters and I have not been home for almost two years, the 24-hour travel time and 12-hour time difference discouraging frequent visits. This was among the first images I saw of the fresh coat of paint, new front door and outdoor lamps my mother picked out last year. Celebrating the fact that we had paid off the mortgage for this house a year prior, she decided to renovate the exterior, which had become rundown after more than two decades with limited repair.

How we came to own this house was a something of a miracle, one of those events in life that enhances your faith in God-granted destiny.
It was, initially, the home of a close high school friend of my older sister. Her family had rented the house for years. I remember visiting it the day of my sister’s high school graduation party. Before heading downtown for the banquet, my sister, dressed in an elegant fuchsia-coloured party dress, and her girlfriends had assembled in the backyard of this friend’s home decked in their gowns to take some photographs on a sunny afternoon in June 1996, two years after we had moved to Richmond.
At the time, we were renting a small bungalow about a 15-minute drive away and I recall that day my mom admiring the two-storey house with its well-groomed backyard and rose bushes, quaint wooden kitchen, modest-yet-charming family room, and pleasing separate living and dining rooms. She wished to God she could own such a home someday.
Renting properties was a nuisance we had gotten all too used to. The houses were typically over-priced and poorly maintained. Leasing a house often places you at the whim of a landlord who could decide at any time he wanted to sell the unit for a profit, leaving a parent scrambling to find a new abode in the middle of the school year. Yet buying a property in the mid-1990s in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia was a bit like seeking a castle in Spain for the average middle-class family. Property prices were soaring and supply was sparse.
My mom, tenacious as she is, must have gone through five or six real estate agents trying to find the perfect home to buy: the right place for the right price was her motto. I recall once we made an offer on a recently renovated 30-year-old traditional house with a flat roof on “Mortfield Road” in Richmond. The home’s new decor was impressive and the price, while slightly above our range, was reasonable enough to warrant consideration. In the end, we backed out because of the roof – the rationale being that in a city that rains for what feels like two-thirds of the year, it is probably better to live in a house with a slanted roof so the water does not accumulate on top. I have no idea if any architectural justification supports that assumption. Personally, I was more uneasy about the French word for “death” (Mort) embedded in the name of the street. I did not want to live on ‘death field’.
The neighbourhood at a distance

We had several other near hits in the following years, but circumstances were consistently not in our favour, and transactions would not go through sometimes for the oddest reasons. One house we quite liked until we learned there was an easement on the property which gave the municipality the right of use over part of the land. That made us uneasy. Another time we found a lovely, almost-brand-new and spacious house in a new neighbourhood a ways out of the city centre. On the verge of sealing the deal, we decided against it after a property assessor examined it to find the home was erected at a slant, not horizontal as it should be. We couldn’t very well buy a crooked house now could we?

We even looked at several new town-homes and condominiums that were built in the early- to mid-1990s. My mom was never convinced: they were too pricey for the size and quality of finishing, she would say. Her hesitation proved to be a colossal blessing in the end. In the following years, as a result of poor design and shoddy building, many of these units came to suffer from what became known as “leaky condo syndrome”: a catastrophic failure of the building envelope that enables rainwater to penetrate the envelope and cause rot and mould. Many people lost their savings and their health as they endeavoured to repair the damage.
Welcome in, photo by Mandy Merzaban

So yes, amid all of these mishaps, when my mom saw this charming home of her daughter’s friend in 1996 she was enamoured. Across the street was a gigantic grass field with an elementary and high school just a few minutes walk apart. The neighbourhood was well-manicured, each house was unique yet complementary in its design, and area was quiet, albeit for the ringing of the school bells to indicate the start of the school day, recess, lunch and the end of the day. The street was called “Sapphire Place” in a neighbourhood full of culdesacs named after jewels. It was a 10-minute walk to the river. The home of my mom’s dreams so to speak, and the place that became her benchmark for what to look for in her house hunt.

In the following year, our own bungalow was starting to show signs of mould on and around the ceiling, leading us to start passively searching for something new to rent, having all but given up on the prospect of buying as property prices continued to mount.
Then it happened as these things often do, quite out of the blue. My sister learned that the family of her friend with the charming house on Sapphire Place was moving to another nearby suburb. Their landlord was about to start looking for a new tenant. Needless to say, my mom jumped at the chance to move into the place she had fallen in love with about two years prior. The landlord did not even raise the rent.
It was, however, still a rental – and leasing was far from owning. The carpets were in dire need of changing, as were the bathrooms, tiles, roof, etc. But we were pleased. It became the place that drew us closer together. My younger sister went to the schools across the street, my father worked nearby, and myself and my elder sister went to and fro to university each day.
Migratory rest spot, photo by Mandy Merzaban, Nov. 2007
A couple of years later we came to the moment that every tenant dreads. Our landlord was liquidating some of his real estate holdings in the Vancouver area and decided to sell the house on Sapphire Place. His asking price was $50,000 more than the top price we could afford. Money was a bit tight at the time as my father was between jobs. So, yet again, we found ourselves in a quandary. We were finally in the perfect home for us, yet unable to stay.
Or so we thought.
Photo by Mandy Merzaban

Several potential buyers came and went in early 2001, not too impressed with the lack of renovations on the 22-year-old home. As the months went by, property prices declined, fast approaching their lowest level in years. The landlord kept reducing the asking price, first by $10,000, then $20,000. Meanwhile, the municipality’s valuation of the home was spot on with what we were able to pay — $50,000 below the landlord’s initial asking price.

In the end, he caved and sold it to us for exactly that. When I look back, all I can say is subhan’Allah (glorious is God). Property prices in the Vancouver area have risen by leaps and bounds since that trough of 2001. Shortly after, we changed the carpets and tiles, painted the walls, replaced the roof, renovated the bathrooms and it became exactly as my mom had pictured it several years before.
When something is destined for you, you may attempt to go down other routes and alternate pathways – but you will find yourself circling right back to that road, standing before a home you had only dreamt of a few years before. And this time around the “sold” sign positioned on the front lawn is for you and not someone else.
Photo by Mandy Merzaban

We still had a substantial mortgage to worry about. But that’s the thing with destiny, God facilitates a way to make it work out. With God’s blessings and a good deal of hard work, we were able to pool together enough money in the following eight years to pay off the mortgage two summers ago, a year before my father passed away (God bless his soul). He treasured our home immensely. I know when I next visit, God willing this summer, I will feel remnants of his presence in every room, despite the redecorations.

We laboured, searched and waited patiently for our house, but now all of us work literally on the other side of the world, packaging a bit of home with us everywhere we go. Very little ties us to Canada’s West Coast except for this property. We have on occasion entertained thoughts of selling our house. But something always stops us. I guess it’s that feeling of security, that feeling that this house was a gift placed in our possession so that in the years to come we always have a base where we truly feel, well, at home.

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Look forward to your comments!

The three-letter word that taught me how to respect my parents

There is a brilliant and somewhat amusing line in the Holy Quran where God advises us concisely and clearly on how to treat our parents. Under no circumstances, even if we are entrusted with caring for our parents in old age or illness, should we say to them “uff” – the Arabic equivalent to an expression of annoyance such as “argh” or “ugh”.

I admit that when I read that line for the first time last year, I was humoured to see this colloquialism used in the pages of the Quran, Arabic for “The Recitation” – a series of messages and admonitions from God for humankind recited through the Last Prophet .
“And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as] “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, ‘My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small’.” (17: 23-24)
Mandy Merzaban, “Family Album” 2008, Acrylic on Canvas, 300 x 150 cm

The simplicity of these phrases made me smile, but also served as a reality check. The three-letter-word shook me instantly, changing my outlook on how to treat my parents and familial obligations. Besides worshiping and loving God, very little is more important than consistently acting toward ones parents with warmth and watching one’s tongue.

Family has always been central for me and I was someone who was widely viewed as a good daughter. Yet, many times I would regard financial and moral obligations to my parents as a burden rather than a pleasure. Due to a series of circumstances – including illness and financial strain – I had perhaps more responsibilities than the average child from a young age. I understood the moral duty to care for family and endeavoured my best to perform these duties.

But I cannot say that my actions were always inspired by compassion and understanding. I would at times disagree with my parents, quarrel with them and fail to deal with them in tenderness. I think many of us can be negligent of our parents as we pursue our careers, travel, and search for love and friendship. We can also be unforgiving of mistakes they have made.

Upon finishing university in Canada, I moved to Cairo to work as a journalist for two years and, following a brief return my hometown Vancouver, I have worked in the Gulf region for more than five years. Up until recently, this distance prevented me from seeing my family frequently.
Both of my parents were, in their own unique ways, supportive and appreciative of my success, sacrifice and commitment. They did not expect more. But when I discovered my Islam, my submission to God, I realised I was not doing nearly enough. I intrinsically understood that family was important, but there was something about reading the words of God Himself that impressed upon me that the obligation to care for parents was not simply a matter of performing actions. Rather, it was appreciating the honour of those actions.
Mandy Merzaban, “Family Album” 2008, Acrylic on Canvas, 300 x 150 cm

Last July, I completed my first reading the Quran while on a short holiday in London and Paris. My mom, sisters and nephews were together in Dubai and my father was in Fayoum, Egypt, an oasis city south of Cairo where he was born. I found myself exploring beautiful European cities on my own but wishing instead that I was with them. Understanding that one of God’s biggest tests of us is our success at treating our parents compassionately changed me; I suddenly wanted them around as much as possible.

And We have enjoined on man (to be good) to his parents: in travail up on travail did his mother bear him, and in two years was his weaning. Be grateful to Me and to your parents; to Me is the [final] destination. (31:14)
My mom noticed the difference in me immediately as she saw me pray deeply, fast frequently and treat her with more attentiveness than I had previously. Now when I listen to my mom’s stories of her often tumultuous childhood, upbringing and adult life, I strive to listen to them, to remember the details, her expressions and the tone of her voice. “Heaven lies at the feet of your mother,” Prophet Muhammad is cited as having said.
As fate would have it, it was when I surrendered to my obligations to my parents and truly welcomed them that my father passed away, suddenly, just two weeks before we planned to visit him in Egypt in August during the month of Ramadan (الله يرحمه/God bless his soul). He died on the second day of the Islamic month of fasting, exactly one year after the last time I saw him.
Reaching that moment when you know in your heart that you cannot share another word or embrace with a parent is overwhelming. For me it was particularly so because I had wished to communicate my newfound understanding of my faith with him. Suddenly, all the time in the world became equivalent to an irretrievable millisecond. He died while I was in flight, rushing to see him. I am pretty sure I know the exact moment it happened and I realised I could not delay his soul’s return to its Creator.
Looking upon my father’s bright face and simple grin before his burial moved me. I realised I was not too late but right on time. God had opened my heart in the two months prior to prepare me for this considerable event, priming me to be patient, to pray for my father, support my mother and offer compassion to my sisters.
In the weeks that followed, I browsed through the emails my father and I had exchanged not as frequently as we should have. He always ended his concise messages with a reference to God, something I failed to notice in the hustle and bustle of life. “I pray to God every prayer to make your life very rewarding,” my dad wrote at the end of one message. “I pray every prayer to God to keep you safe and increase your wealth and make every thing easy for you,” he conveyed in another. “God bring you safe to us forth and back.”
This past week, I thought about my father many times as I was surrounded by all of the dearest people to me – my mom is in town, my older sister was visiting with her husband and two boys. Along with my younger sister, my one-bedroom apartment was bustling, full of activity and yet somehow able to accommodate a comfortable order. I treasure these hectic-yet-wonderful times so much more than I did prior to truly embracing Islam.
I have come to realise that being a good Muslim, that is, a person who exercises her obligations to God through prayers, fasting, regular charity and good deeds, is the greatest gift I can offer my parents. The last Prophet said of the deceased: “When a man dies, his good deeds come to an end except three: ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge and righteous offspring who will pray for him”.
It has been an immense comfort for me to know that when I pray and offer optional acts of worship for my father they will benefit his soul. Virtually every day since his death, I have recited on his behalf a chapter (surah) in the Quran known as Ya-Sin, which I had memorised in Arabic years before realising its importance. Ya-Sin carries crucial messages about resurrection and life after death and was described by Prophet Muhammad as the heart of the Quran.
What I do for my father now far exceeds anything I did for him during his life. Recognising this has not only informed my faith, it has drawn me closer to both of my parents.

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Look forward to your comments!

Facing the veil

The debate over niqab currently ensuing as France enforces a ban on face veils somewhat bewilders me, mainly because I live in Dubai, a city of striking contrasts that attempts to cater to the values of many of its varied residents who hail from countries around the world. Dubai has become a “salad bowl” of cultures that strive to co-exist while maintaining traditional practices, including attire. On some occasions, I have sensed that women are more liberated in their clothing choices in Dubai than they are in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

During a visit to one of Dubai’s many malls, one can pass by scantily clad women wearing mini-skirts and provocative tops and, a few seconds later, walk beside a woman of Gulf Arab nationality donning a black abaya (robe) and full face veil, sometimes accompanied by her husband and children, sometimes with other female relatives or friends and sometimes on her own. 
Diverse attire worn in Dubai shopping mall, courtesy Gulf News

Despite warnings in malls about ensuring that people dress modestly, women are able to buy and wear a diverse array of clothing. Some dress in stylish and modest Western dress, others wear decorative abayas with or without a head-covering, some wear Western-style attire with hair covering, and still others wear traditional Asian attire such as the Indian sari or Pakistani shalwar kameez.

I suppose living in this nuanced environment for a number of years has desensitised me to the issue of women’s attire. I am pretty much fine with what a woman wears so long as she is comfortable. In my view, clothing choices to a large degree are not independently reached. Rather, women are conditioned by the familial and cultural influences they were exposed to growing up. Many women believe their individual liberty can be expressed by exercising their freedom to wear revealing clothing. Many others feel they derive liberty from modest attire that distracts attention away from their physical manifestation and forces people they interact with to focus on their intellect.

The face veil is not an exception to this debate. Cultural interpretations of God’s expectations from women practising the Islamic faith have in a limited number of cases idealised this form of dress. My perspective is that the face veil is not rooted in Islamic texts, nor do I regard clothing in general to be among the primary markers of one’s Islam, an Arabic term meaning “submission to God”.
Unfortunately, face veils are in certain cases a misogynist cultural convention that has conditioned some Muslim women to believe that the clothing they wear will dictate their fate after death. However, the motivation behind wearing niqab is not exclusively so; many women wear niqab out of deep conviction that it draws them nearer to God and removes their physical self from the glare of sexual objectification.
One of my aunts began wearing a face veil a few years ago. She was widowed two decades ago, lost a teenager daughter eight years ago, and now lives on her own. She came to the decision as she draws herself more deeply in worship, showing her face only to God when she prays. While I witnessed a number of individuals in the family question her rationale for making this choice, arguing that it does not have a legitimate basis in the faith, I defend her freedom to choose. As someone attempting to embrace  the true spirit of Islam, I am obliged to be kind, tolerant and nonjudgmental. I feel deeply that if a woman is wearing a face veil as an expression of her identity and belief, it should be her right to do so in a society that values freedom of expression.
An outright ban on a garment of clothing only perpetuates oppression and hatred. It demeans the cultural tradition, puts in jeopardy community bonds and can incite an angry backlash, rather than advancing women’s rights and guarding public safety. On the contrary, people understandably tend to cling to their values when they come under threat.
Supporters of France’s ban deem it legitimate because they argue face veils are incompatible with gender equality and pose threats to public safety. If there are legitimate security concerns, then Amnesty International’s proposal last July for “targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations” would suffice. “Individuals may also be required to reveal their faces when objectively necessary, for instance for identity checks. French law already allows for such limited restrictions,” Amnesty, which opposes the ban, continued.
If there are genuine concerns over the treatment and coercion of women by their husbands, these should be addressed through greater emphasis on and funding of cultural institutions dedicated to assisting women who choose to leave abusive circumstances. There should be steps taken to influence the conditioning process, so women who have not been exposed to the variety of viewpoints rooted in Islamic values are able to, over time, make informed, independent choices.
While growing up in Canada and the United States, I came across a number of women of various nationalities and faiths who faced abuse (physical, verbal and emotional) by their husbands. Through community support networks, interactions with women in their neighbourhoods and watching talk shows like Oprah Winfrey, these women found the courage to leave their abusive households. 

As many of these women were reliant on their husbands financially, their means of escape was facilitated by the existence of local shelters for battered women. These institutions offered them a secure environment, moral and financial support to progressively tackle their situations and help them begin new lives. Strengthening and funding such community programmes is much more essential for empowering women than making a blanket assumption that all women who wear a face veil must be brain-washed, oppressed and abused.

France’s niqab ban stems from an intolerant government policy rather than any genuine interest to advance women’s equality and protect society. When France began enforcing the ban on face veils this week, I read pages of anti-Islam comments congratulating the government and encouraging it to follow up with new policies, some going as far as calling for all Muslims to be expelled from the country. 

The ban has, in this regard, unfortunately taken a gigantic step backward in promoting tolerance and freedom of expression. I am doubtful that efforts to mobilise protests against the ban will be effective due to the overwhelming support in government circles for passing the ban in the first place. If I was a woman who chose to wear niqab out of conviction, I would respect the new law and remove it. I would also, if it was in my power, strive to leave that environment as quickly as possible.

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Look forward to your comments!

Matrimonial penalty box

There is a scene in the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary where the single Bridget is attending a couples dinner party at the home of her only married girlfriend and is warned that she’d better hurry up and “get sprugged up” because the ubiquitous ‘clock is ticking’. Bridget is then asked the question that women like her – over 30 and unmarried bachelorettes across the world – dread to answer.

“Why is it there are so many unmarried women in their thirties these days, Bridget?” asks the smug husband of an acquaintance from across the table, with his pregnant wife at his side. Silence falls on the dining room as everyone sets down their utensils and all eyes converge on Bridget, almost expecting her to answer on behalf of every single woman in her thirties, everywhere.

Bridget belts a brief chuckle at the absurdity of the question, and says with a smile, “Oh, I don’t know. Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.”

Sometimes I wish I could respond as she did at that moment when emotions of anxiety and embarrassment come together in piercingly sharp force in the centre of even many a resolute woman’s chest. Yet it is not always easy to take questions of postponed marriage in jest and good cheer. The stigma attached to being a single woman above 30 prevails in various cultures, which is why many of us can relate to Bridget, even if the cultural circumstances may differ tremendously.

Arab communities are particularly unforgiving of women who have not tied the knot by 30, and preferably many years younger. I was dismayed by the marriage question six years ago at 25 and I still wince when it is asked today at 31.

The obsession with marriage has made women view forming a family as the only culturally and religiously acceptable way to live their lives. Under this logic, no matter what she may have accomplished, a young Arab woman is doomed to be pitied and feel incomplete without a husband and kids. Some women are pressured to marry early and, as the years pass, to regard any man who has a job, is single and under 45–regardless of whether he happens to have a complementary personality– as a suitable match.

The preoccupation with marriage has caused many women to focus their happiness and fulfilment on securing another person’s affection, rather than realising peace within themselves beforehand. There is no use in crushing women’s self esteem as they get further into their 20s and enter their 30s simply because they have failed to cross paths with suitable men.

In an extreme example, the poster below, found in a Saudi elementary school, recently did its rounds on Twitter. It outlines a series of threats facing Muslim women, with an ominous image of a woman who appears to be gushing blood after being stabbed. Among warnings against listening to music and travelling abroad, proper Muslim girls are advised against “refusing or delaying marriage”. Rather than engendering a love of God in young girls they are taught to fear the wrath they would face if the pursuit of marriage is not their top priority.

By almost every measure outlined in the poster, I would be doomed – even though I hold family and marriage in very high regard. Family is the cornerstone of society. At a number of points in the Quran God advises us to be good to our parents, treat each other with respect and even informs us that He has created for us mates with whom we should deal with love and mercy. I hope to start a family and, if God wills, have children of my own.

But I struggle to find compelling religious justification for marrying young. Often, I would hear people say that children and wealth are ‘zinat hayat al-donya’ (adornments of this worldly life). This Arabic phrase excerpted from the Holy Quran has been regularly cited in my life as a justification for starting a family as early as possible; building a family unit is the primary purpose of a virtuous life.

As I grow deeper in my faith, the particular cultural emphasis on marriage and children puzzles me. When I read the Quran for the first time last year, I realised that the second part of that phrase was excluded from the popular discourse I had often been exposed to. “Wealth and children are (but) adornment of the worldly life. But the permanent righteous deeds are better in your Lord’s Sight (to attain) rewards, and better in respect of hope.” (Quran, 18:46)

God appears to be advising us to avoid becoming fixated on the pleasures we find in the money we earn and children we have. These things offer us a comfort in life but what endure for God are our righteous deeds, not our pursuit of family or wealth. God further calls on us repeatedly to be tolerant, to accept all of His blessings with gratitude and challenges with patience. So by extension, there is no contradiction in being single and being virtuous.

People’s faith in God-granted destiny (naseeb) often wavers when it comes to marriage. Our communities are prone to placing the onus of blame on the shoulders of the single women themselves rather than trying to address the real challenges facing our societies with meaningful solutions. From the perspective of myself and other single Muslim women, there are a limited number of options available for us to meet like-minded Muslim men. Introductions happen quite infrequently as family or friends take a more and more inactive role in our personal lives.

I am lucky to have very supportive family members, including my mother, who would not pressure me to wed. Nevertheless, there are moments of weakness where I am advised on how ‘a mediocre marriage is better than no marriage at all’. I have had my fair share of experiences with ill-fated love and awkward rendez-vous with men who had little compatibility with me other than that they happened to be single.

Single Arab women are often assumed to be too difficult, too picky, too ambitious or too head-strong to qualify as marriageable material. Quite to the contrary, most of the unmarried, over-30 women I know are considerate, intelligent, attractive, tolerant, family-oriented and chaste. Very little differentiates them from married women and most of us are not going around rejecting every guy who comes by. The point is that ‘the one’ – be he Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, or Mr. Adequate– hasn’t yet come a knocking for whatever reason.

Last year, I was having lunch with an acquaintance, a young Arab woman some five years younger than myself, who told me she did not want to become that girl who is alone at 30 (she assumed I was about 27). She appeared almost terrified at the prospect. I consider myself to be successful, compassionate and more attractive now than I was at 25, and yet so many women fear the cultural marginalisation they would face if they turned out like me.

More and more, I regard such perceptions about the suitable age for marriage as a sign of cultural distortion and oversight of faith. Finding men who are willing to consider choosing a 32-year-old over a 23-year-old has, sadly, frequently turned into a search for the exception to the rule in Arab Islamic circles.

Yet when Prophet Muhammad ﷺ recounted his monogamous marriage to his first wife Khadija, 15 years his senior, he did so with unparalleled reverence. Their 25-year marriage was full of harmony, and he is known to have described Khadija as his intimate friend and his wise counsellor and companion. Responding to one of his later wife’s claims that God had blessed him with better, more youthful brides than Khadija after her death, the Prophet ﷺ has been cited as saying: “Indeed Allah did not grant me better than her; she accepted me when people rejected me, she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me; and Allah granted me children only through her”.

There are simple lessons in this: we must have faith in the spirit of God’s message, and be tolerant, patient and progressive in our expectations when dealing with issues of marriage. If a woman is destined to marry at 40 and have four children, as Khadija did, it will happen. If God wills her to marry at 23 and be barren, that too will come to pass. Just because most women fall somewhere between the two extremes does not diminish the importance of accepting that God tests each of us in different ways. Marriage is not a magic ticket to salvation.

The next time someone asks me why I am not married yet I hope I can come up with as witty a response as Bridget’s, something that will, with any luck, cause the person to pause for a moment and call into question their question.

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Look forward to your comments!

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