I am a Muslim feminist from the Fertile Crescent.
I have a tattoo on my right wrist.
It’s of God.
I designed it.
Do you know where the Fertile Crescent is?
One day when we were alone together Shah treated me in a way I didn’t like at all.
Shah means King in Persian.
I don’t remember the details. But it was theatre.
I don’t think it made any difference.
I don’t usually talk about my religion.
Some Muslims might not accept me as one because I sometimes drink alcohol. I don’t keep Ramadan because fasting makes me go hypo, I don’t like polygamy, and also I don’t believe in hell. Some Muslims might call me a renegade.
I don’t accept the charge.
Islam means surrender.
I would like to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
It was late spring. The gardenias outside had bloomed.
My fridge was filled with black cherries I had bought that day.
Back home when the gardenias come out they make garlands out of them and sell them in the streets. Some women wear them in their hair.
Everybody smells sweet and fresh.
My hair is too short for flowers. Too short for him to get a good grip on.
He grabbed the back of my neck.
–Don’t fight me so much.
Part jest, part force.
We met in a Zawya.
This is the Arabic word for the place where Sufis go to hold Dhiker.
Dhiker means remembrance, and it involves meditation and chanting. Sufism is nostalgia, the nostalgia of the heart and the anticipation of its homecoming.
The sweet, sweet journey home.
It was not a very orthodox Zawya, and so men and women could sit and pray together.
Afterwards, they serve baklava and mint tea. Some people smoke a cigarette outside.
Sufis practice Istislam. This takes you a level beyond surrender. It is inner submission, abandon to His will. It is anatomy of the soul stuff.
I went to another, very orthodox Zawya in the suburbs of East London once. I met a couple there. He was from the mid west of the United States somewhere and he had a long blond beard. He was dressed all in white. He spoke Arabic beautifully. I wondered how he had come across Islam.
Or indeed, Istislam.
She told me that they met in Jordan. She was dressed in black.
Some charismatic ascetic mystic had introduced them.
I caught myself thinking, I hope it was not Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
I am sure you have heard of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
She was in a very strict hijab.
Hijab means screen or curtain, but it is more commonly used to describe
Muslim women’s dress code.
The Koran itself is vague about how women should dress.
But you would never guess it from looking around you.
Inside the Zawya we sat on the floor.
I didn’t like being separated from the men by a nylon curtain and having to whisper Ya Latif hundreds of times, whilst the men raised their voices. When you invoke God as Latif, with His grace you draw the divine quality of gentleness down to you, so it can touch the floor.
The men’s chanting behind the curtain is vigorous, martial. They are soldiers, advancing towards God.
The subdued tones of the harem are more of a supplication. We are calling God to us.
The word Harem can be used synonymously for women. It means that which is sanctified, forbidden.
A young woman who had come in the severest outfit, a black Chador complete with gloves and face veil, was having some trouble keeping the volume down. American Sufi’s wife looked at her reproachfully a few times.
Incidentally Chador is a Persian word, not Arabic.
Different language, different civilization.
Afterwards when you finish chanting, you run your hands over your face once as though you were washing.
For more fervour, you can also run your hands once over your neck, chest,
stomach and legs.
His name is spiritual water: you are clean.
American Sufi’s wife did this.
I wanted so much to belong.
I didn’t ask for initiation.
American Sufi told me afterwards that one day towards the end of 2001, someone found the mere sight of him so provocative, they threw a take-away curry at him on the same train platform where the three of us were standing.
And presumably called him a terrorist bastard.
I didn’t get initiated at the Persian Zawya where I met Shah either.
In Persian the word for Zawya is Khanaga.
In English you just say Sufi House.
Afterwards we walked along The Cut behind the South Bank and got something to eat.
I couldn’t swallow any of my Turkish food.
I didn’t like it anyway. Expensive Hummus.
He talked about war, government and evolution.
He is quite Hobbesian.
I should have bolted like a colt on his first gallop.
On the way home I left my scarf and all the reading material I had picked up at the Khanaga Zawya Sufi House on the bus.
It was a Missoni scarf.
But don’t let me get off track. The dark angel poured an exotic elixir, and I drank.
If a man thinks you are submissive, he will go weak at the knees. According to the tradition in which I was raised, you must treat your man like a High
Priest. Worship at the hem of his garment and wait for your reward. But
there are a lot of charlatans out there, ready to take you for a spin. Especially if you are a woman on the constant verge of ecstatic adoration. In that case, then you must be a little vigilant, sweet thing.
Shah lowered his gaze, and whispered gently,
–I’d like to see you again.
–Let’s meet in the park. I’ll need nature.
–Let’s meet after dark. I’ll want walls.
When I’m in love I tend to act a little berserk.
I guess it’s just how my love atoms are configured.
The Berserkers were ferocious, superhuman Norse warriors who donned bearskins before battle.
I think Shah was a little berserk too.
In times of turmoil and times of plenty, I seek His guidance and Mercy.
Emmanuel, Buddha, and the Lion of Judah.
Hook me up with all of them.
But it was no good. I developed a cannibalistic intestinal craving for him.
Monastic consciousness remained far from my reach.
I reasoned: we speak a different language and come from different civilizations but we are both olive skinned.
I don’t think olive skinned best describes the shade of colour of the skin of
olive skinned people.
There are black and green olives.
I prefer green ones because they are more bitter and biting.
I focus on this thought.
The modern Hijab is the most sexually explicit piece of clothing there is.
I know this because every time I see a woman in one I have to restrain myself from running up to her and ripping it off.
That would take some doing.
Still, each to her own.
And despite everything, I sometimes wrap my own head in a scarf.
My urban turban.
For the summer I have one made of brilliant white cotton. It is embroidered with bright red and gold threads. I bought it in an Ethiopian shop near the tube station at Finsbury Park.
When I wear it I feel blessed but I don’t wear it enough.
Some Rasta women wear this scarf.
I will tell you about Rasta another time.
Suffice it to say that it’s a biogenic religion. Rastafari is never forgotten, He lives and He reigns.
It is a ubiquitarian kind of thing.
If you don’t know what this is, look it up.
In the winter I tuck my hair under a long piece of red and black muslin.
I bought it from some nomadic women in the Syrian steppes. They wore it as a shawl that hung from their head all the way down the back of their bodies.
I’ll never forget those undulating silhouettes.
I want to learn to ululate.
I notice that people look at me differently when I cover my hair.
They seem curious and more respectful.
Sometimes I wish I could rub the tattoo off my wrist.
But that’s the kind of woman I am.
I play fast and loose and then regret it.
When I became annoyed with Shah he said he was just an Alpha male.
–How else do I show you how much I like you, girl?
He seemed genuinely at a loss.
Sometimes, instead of girl, he said bitch.
I guess it’s just the way his loving goes.
Alpha is, as we know, the first letter of the Greek alphabet.
It is based on the Alef, which was invented by the Phoenicians around 1200
BC, perhaps earlier.
It was August.
Figs were in season.
I like figs because it is the fruit which is the most delicate to eat.
Some Evangelical Christians associate the fig tree with prophecy, and signs of His coming. They are waiting, remember, for the battle of Armageddon, the conversion of the Jews, and the saviour of all of humanity.
Or something like that.
Shah’s aura is gloomy, even on a bright August afternoon.
Not that I can read auras but if I could I would have said his was inky.
So we were both olive skinned and we were both Muslims.
Don’t get that wrong, we are something very alien and very different from
Let me tell you something blood.
They know but don’t tell.
Islam may have evolved as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but its roots
are deliciously, rock worshippingly pagan.
The supreme deity of the pre-Islamic Arabs was called Al-Lah.
Al-Lah was Lord of the Ka’bah and High God of Mecca.
He reigned with the help of a female trinity, His three daughters. Al-Lat the Goddess of Light and Fertility. Manat the Goddess of fate was represented
by the dark phase of the moon. Uzza the patron Goddess of Mecca was associated with Venus, the morning star.
The crescent moon and star that represent Islam are reminiscent of this astral religion.
But the devil as they say, is in the detail.
Some fundamentalist Christians use this as an argument to prove that Islam is equivalent to idolatry.
More accolades to Islam, I say.
Sometimes, people talk about British Muslims. If anyone ever called me a British Muslim to my face I would be tempted to bash them over the head because that is sloppy thinking.
But then I might come across a little hot.
A little hot-headed.
Which I’m not.
I don’t like prototypes and I don’t like racial profiling.
There is no such thing, sorry to break it to you, as a prototype British Muslim.
If you don’t know, investigate.
Stop looking for our chiefs.
I don’t think “Muslim feminist from the Fertile Crescent” best describes me.
The Fertile Crescent is an area that stretches from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. It includes ancient Mesopotamia, a.k.a. Iraq, where right now, élite gangsters are filling up their piggy-bank with
Straight Cold Theft.
My ancestors came to the Fertile Crescent from the Caucasus.
There is a place called Historic Palestine.
In my tradition, we are honor-bound to entertain strangers, no questions asked.
Everybody’s blood runs through my veins.
This makes me more white than you, more Christian than you, more Jewish
E pluribus unum is one out of many, in Latin.
The spiritual path feels strained at times.
Shah is agonistic, vain.
The quality I deplore most in a man is vanity.
He plays at being an Evolué but he values violence.
He doesn’t rate consent much, can live without the dialectic.
At most he will acknowledge that his needs are complex.
He laughs and jokes a lot.
His voice is deep and soft.
His eyes are brutal.
Where there is Alpha there is Omega.
That’s underdogs on top, if you know your New Testament.
Your Book of Revelation.
I seek solace in the words of the Comforter.
I seek solace wherever I can find it.
When people want to make sure you are not a terrorist, they make facile remarks such as: “surely you must agree with the broad principles of
Yes and no.
I have heard it said it is the dictatorship of the majority.
But never mind that. It is as though they are looking for a fissure in your
Don’t let me remind you of what happened in New York.
Don’t let me preach equality.
The ‘suicide bombing’ endemic pandemic has got to them.
And so you have to talk nice and prove you are not a terrorist sympathiser.
That you are no perpetrator, candidate.
Not a war monger, death peddler, hate hawker.
A bit rich I think.
Anyway Democracy is a Greek word.
And the Greeks kept slaves.
Come on, let us peruse the morning papers.
Seeing is believing.
Cruel and unjust regimes are allegedly falling like dominoes in my neck of the woods.
The last time I was in Beirut, I took a walk to Martyrs’ Square.
Martyrs’ Square has been renamed Democracy Square.
Forgive me if I can’t join in with the buoyancy.
But I feel unrepresented.
A red and white Virgin Megastore in the background blends in with a sea of red and white flags in the foreground.
It provides a seamless visual continuum.
It’s the ideological continuum I’m afraid of.
They’re waiting for world peace to break out in Lebanon.
I reckon it’s too late for that.
We are fully engaged. We are on high alert.
If you’ve ever been anywhere you’ll know the scene.
Papers please. Open the trunk.
But let me take the edge off that chill.
On clear evenings, as the light changes and before the sky slowly fills with stars, Venus, the planet second only to the sun, appears to usher in the
On a warm, wild beach somewhere, south of here, crabs are crawling back
into their holes.
Nature saying Goodnight, it’s been a pleasure doing it to you.
They know, but don’t tell.
There is existential weight in loving.
Nature is the higher self.
His gentleness flows like a river through a mountain.
So bask in the presence of the blessing.
For whatever happens it is written that it was written.
Copyright Zeina B Ghandour, from her story “Omega: Definitions,” in Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women, to be published by Telegram in August 2006. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.