Authors: Shelina Janmohamed
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Social Science, #Religion, #Family & Relationships, #Personal Memoirs, #Arranged marriage, #Great Britain, #Women, #Marriage, #Religious, #Self-Help, #Personal Growth, #Love & Romance, #Sociology, #Women's Studies, #Conduct of life, #Islam, #Marriage & Family, #Religious aspects, #Rituals & Practice, #Muslim Women, #Mate selection, #Janmohamed; Shelina Zahra, #Muslim women - Conduct of life, #Mate selection - Religious aspects - Islam, #Arranged marriage - Great Britain, #Muslim women - Great Britain
At that time individuals rarely learned to read Arabic. My great-grandmother, even though she grew to a respectable old age, would rely on others, including her daughter, to read out loud any text in Arabic, never having learned it herself. Slowly this changed, as reading in the original language became standard community practice, and many of the men learned to speak both Arabic and Persian—the latter being the administrative language of India even into the twentieth century.
Within the context of a millennium and a half of Islamic history, my family and my community were relative newcomers to the faith. Even today, our youthful Islam is fresh and hungry. It stretches back for only a handful of generations and is seen through the eyes of India, Africa, and now Britain.
My parents grew up in Tanzania, just as their parents had done. Their communities were mainly Indian, but from across the religious spectrum—Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh. They lived happily as neighbors, sharing values and cultures, supporting each other in their religious practices. In my mother’s family, educating the young women was important. In order to help my mother travel to school, her father purchased a bicycle for her, and she was the first woman in her town to ride to class. It was unheard of and deeply shocking. My grandfather insisted that it was important for her to attend school and that she should be safely transported there and back. Education was part of religion, and one of the great Islamic sayings from Muhammad was “Educate yourself, even if you have to travel to China.” Back then, China was a distant and mysterious empire on the other side of the world. My grandfather’s insistence that religion took priority over cultural expectations had a strong impact on my mother’s faith, because setting faith over tradition still informed her approach to life.
Soon after my parents were married, Tanzania declared independence. My father’s family had long been British Overseas Subjects. The new political situation forced him to choose between Tanzania and Britain. In the late 1960s, at a time of huge global and social change, he had to make a choice between the excitement of a newly independent state that he had grown up in and where his family lived, and a one-time-only offer to uproot himself with his young family and move to Britain, an unknown distant country, which held an unknowable future. Being a British subject, my father felt that this country had been in his family’s blood for many decades. Young, energetic, and optimistic, he took the risk. They arrived on the shores of England with two suitcases and £75.
My parents recall it as a time of forgotten difficulties and magnified excitement. “We overlooked the hardships,” they reminisce, “because we were young and we wanted to experience the world.” They had exchanged living in a spacious modern flat in the center of Dar-es-Salaam for a cold one-bedroom place in the suburbs of gray wintry London, with an outside toilet and a shared bathroom and kitchen. My father was refused jobs because he was of Asian origin. The bank manager insisted on a 50 percent deposit when they bought their first house because he was Asian. The neighbors ran a campaign to prevent them from buying it. They withstood this discrimination and resolved to build a solid life for themselves. They had seen their own families living as minorities in East Africa, and the efforts they had gone through there to build up their wealth and status were still fresh and raw. Now that they found themselves in a similar minority situation in the UK, they got on with the job of doing the same in their new home.
The keys to success, in my father’s eyes, were education and hard work. And by working hard he gave both his children a first-rate education. “Give a man a fish,” he told my brother and me repeatedly, quoting from the well-worn proverb, “and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he’ll eat forever.” Success and material wealth were not to be relied on, he cautioned us. “Did you see what happened to the Asians in Uganda?” he would ask rhetorically. “They were good people living good comfortable lives, and then one day they had to leave everything behind and become homeless refugees. It shows you, wealth and prosperity can come easily and can disappear even in the blink of an eye.” The rise of bloodthirsty Idi Amin was a cautionary tale for migrant Asians who had been exiled with the threat of extermination from their homes in Uganda in the early 1970s.
Modernity has persuaded us that it is essential for us to fulfill certain needs: comfort, style, status, romance. But these are not the essentials. Instead, what the exiles had experienced firsthand was that life at its most threadbare is a desperate scramble for survival.
“How precarious is a person’s position in any country?” My father would pause and remind us with cautionary love: “The most important thing for you always, the thing that we teach you and urge you to always keep, the thing that will always keep you true to yourselves and to be good people in this world, is to ensure that you do not abandon your faith and to always remember God.”
My parents loved to travel. Perhaps it was something to do with the itch of the migrant in their blood. My school vacations were punctuated with trips abroad to interesting and exotic places, despite the fact that we were not wealthy. Every year we went away to see new places and explore their hidden treasures, and I gathered people, places, and experiences in my memory. The visits embedded signposts in my wild, porous imagination and marked out the landscapes of a connected, multilateral reflection of a world that had yet to catch up with my longing optimism.
My first vacation memories are of a trip to Tanzania at the age of four to visit my extended family. We still have old projector film with movie clips from this trip. It’s the kind of film you wind around a wheel and when it ends it makes a funny clicking sound and a white light is projected onto the screen. The scene that most surprised me years later was a vignette of me on the beautiful sandy beaches of Dar-es-Salaam. I am unaware of the camera’s eye and unconcerned by social constraints. I am wearing my favorite red shorts and red
T-shirt. It was only years later that I admitted that the T-shirt was too small for me to wear. I am busy with my bucket and spade, surrounded by a ring of young boys hanging on my every word and obeying my instructions, all of them trying to please me.
When I was three I began nursery school. My parents had deliberately chosen to speak to me only in Kuchi, the dialect of Gujarati that we spoke, and so I didn’t speak a word of English when I first started. Within weeks I was fluent. By the age of four I was reading children’s English perfectly. At the same time my parents began teaching me to read Arabic script. They firmly believed that as a Muslim I should be able to read the Qur’an directly in its original language. Every evening I would sit playfully on my father’s knee and practice reading a page of the children’s manual to reading the Qur’an. I adored this intimacy with my father and I raced through the pages.
The Arabic script was a mystery that I took delicious pleasure in unraveling. It was not something alien in our home but part of who we were. It was like the fact that in my parents’ bedroom the bed was pushed to one side so that there would be enough space for two prayer mats, one each for my mother and father. There were specific prayers that were done early in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening. They combined special movements with words from the Qur’an, and all Muslims around the world prayed in exactly the same way, in the direction of Mecca. I would race to lay out the mats at prayer time and stand next to my mother who would gently direct me as to what to do. At the end of the prayers I would read out loud the most recent chapter from the Qur’an that I had learned.
After I completed reading the children’s manual, I began the full Arabic text of the Qur’an itself. I found it easy because the Arabic phrases had a simple melodious rhythm and the verses often rhymed, almost like poetry. At the age of six and a half I entered a competition at the mosque to give a talk about the Prophet Muhammad and what we could learn from his life. Diligently, and with the innocence and simplicity of a young child, I had prepared a talk about the good behavior and kindness of the Prophet. I admit to some youthful plagiarism—I copied it almost entirely from a book about the Prophet, simplifying some long words I didn’t understand and couldn’t pronounce.
At the end of the speech I added one of my favorite stories about the Prophet. Every day he was forced to walk along a particular street where an old woman would throw rubbish at him because she did not agree with the belief in one God that he was propagating. Each day he would come home covered in foul-smelling litter. One day he walked along the street but there was no rubbish. Instead of being happy at the absence of the woman, as most of us would have been, he investigated why she was not carrying out her daily activity and discovered that she was unwell. He went to visit her to see if he could offer her any help. She was shocked that he would show such kindness after her long-standing harassment. Muhammad advised her that looking after even those who show you difficulties is what being a Muslim was all about. I was convinced that the inclusion of this story as the closing part of my speech would win me the prize.
The mosque was a small converted community center. Some mosques were purpose-built, some were in small converted houses, others were old buildings of worship that had been closed down or in disrepair and then rescued and revived as a place of worship, but this time as a mosque. The floor was covered in large rugs, and as in all mosques, you had to remove your shoes in the cloakroom before you entered. The mosque was the center of Islamic community life. Prayers were held there, along with Qur’an classes for children, lessons for adults, and other religious lectures and events. It was the hub of Muslim existence because it was a center of learning and spirituality, but also a place to meet friends and family and fulfill your social needs.
When we arrived at the mosque, I would normally have joined my mother in the women’s section, as women and men sat in separate parts of the mosque. Instead, in order to participate in the competition, I had to go into the men’s side to give the talk. Since I was only six, this was okay. I felt slightly strange being the only girl in a roomful of men, all staring intently at me, waiting to see what a young child would say. The bright video lights were glaring and the cameras were rolling. I stood three feet tall and confident and reeled off my presentation, word perfect and carefully intoned, pausing at the right moments for effect. I spoke for five minutes and I performed the whole speech entirely by heart.
I was awarded only second place, runner-up to a ten-year-old boy, who was commended for his insight and deep analysis. I was disgruntled and reflected that of course his speech would be deeper and more insightful than mine: I was six and he was ten.
A few weeks later I was asked to prepare a short speech for a presentation day at the end of term at school, which would showcase the religions of all the students. Instead of the enthusiasm with which I had greeted the mosque competition, I was in fact deeply reluctant. There was one other Muslim in my class, a girl whose parents were from Turkey. But it was I who was asked to speak about being a Muslim.
be the one to speak about Islam?” I whined uncharacteristically. I did not want to stand up in front of the whole school and talk about the details of Muslim life: that was reserved for my time away from school.
“Perhaps the teachers think that with your excellent speech skills you will do a good job of explaining what Islam is,” suggested my mother. I envied the confidence of her belief and the way it infused all parts of her life so naturally. Even to her friends who were not Muslim, she never preached, but her wisdom and advice, which were born of her faith, were naturally woven into her words and actions. She never elaborated about Islam but rather of living a good life. The separated worlds that I inhabited were a series of disjointed, uncomfortable hyphens. Her worlds were connected together with content, respectful smiles.
I loved attending religious Sunday school. It was called
, the Arabic word that simply means “school.” The mosque was not large enough to provide suitable teaching facilities for the several hundred students who attended the classes once a week, so a local school was usually hired out for the morning. We were divided into groups by age and had four lessons, each taught by a different teacher, who was normally a parent who volunteered their time to prepare and deliver the class. Each week we were given homework and at the end of term we were given reports, followed by an end-of-term-celebration, just like at school.
As I was still in the primary classes, we spent our lessons learning the basics of religion. First was the declaration of faith as a Muslim, “There is no god but One God, and Muhammad is the last messenger.” It was crucial to being Muslim to understand and really mean these two sentences. If someone wanted to become a Muslim, this is what they had to say. The first part meant taking all other gods out of your heart.
My teacher used to joke, “Someone who says there is no god is already halfway to being a Muslim!” One God meant that this Being had no place, no time, and no physical shape. The belief that Muhammad was the last messenger was based in turn on believing that there were many prophets before him, like Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Noah, Joseph, Jesus, and so on. Prophet Muhammad came to give exactly the same message to human beings as all the other prophets: believe in God and be good human beings. I loved hearing the stories of all the prophets and all the different kinds of people that they lived among, and this was always my favorite part of
We also learned that Allah, which is the Arabic word for God, was kind, compassionate, and loving. God had created the whole universe, and human beings were the best of all creation. It always appealed to me to be the best. I was, after all, the child of Asian parents: only the top grades in any situation were sufficient. Finally, we were taught that the world we lived in was not the End. There was something more to come, and it would be called
, “paradise.” I imagined paradise would be like the inside of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.