Saturday, 29 March 2014

'mná' or 'fir'...which would you choose?

Baltimore, Co. Cork, Ireland

Even though Irish is not widely spoken throughout the Republic of Ireland, it is the National language and is used on all official documents side by side with English and on road sign posts etc. as well as having a TV channel in the language….with English subtitles.  My older sister and brother both studied in Irish, but by the time I came along this was no longer the case Alhamdulilah!  It is taught from the very beginning of primary school and there was a time when, if you passed all subjects but failed Irish, you failed your exams.  This too is no longer the case, but there is still a big emphasis on the language, and there are quite a few Irish speaking areas throughout the Island, The Gaeltacht, where only Irish is spoken in everyday life.  I never could get the hang of it myself, and I think this was because I never heard it spoken fluently at home, and, by the time I reached Secondary school I was expected to have mastered it quite well…. and I hadn’t.  I remember cycling to a nearby town and my heart would sink whenever I met the local head teacher who loved the language so much that he liked to converse in it as much as possible.  If I was with my best friend whose Irish was very good as she spent  3 weeks every summer in a Gaeltacht area in order to improve her language skills, then I could quite happily let them yap on… little realising that in years to come I would do the same thing in another language in my in-laws home!  However something must have sunk in because some of the guttural sounds in the Arabic language are very similar to Irish and I have no problems with them.

I have enough basic vocabulary to get by so when I was faced with the signs on the toilets in Baltimore in Ireland, during one summer holiday back home, I didn’t have a problem choosing which one to use. The same cannot be said for my husband.

If you needed to go to the toilet....which one would you choose?

I remember thinking, as we went in that I must tell my husband which one to use, and, of course, the thought left my head as fast as it entered it.  It wasn’t until I saw my husband’s face later on his way back from the toilets that I remembered.  ‘Oh God!  Don’t tell me you went into the women’s toilet!!!’ I said to him.  ‘You know’, he said, ‘In most normal countries in the world ‘M’ is for ‘Male’ and ‘F’ is for ‘Female’, but oh no not in Ireland!  In Ireland it’s the total opposite of normal!’  As we all had a good laugh at the ‘poor foreigner’ (of which we have two others in the family before anyone gets up in arms at our warped sense of humour!), my Mum thought it was highly amusing and kidded with him saying ‘and you’re supposed to be a good Muslim, going into a women’s toilet, you should be ashamed of yourself!’ We decided that the Irish with their notoriety for bearing grudges for a very long time, had got some kind of revenge on ‘The Algerian’ for kidnapping their people 400 hundred years earlier.   Later I asked him how did he know he had gone into the wrong one.  ‘I soon found out when I was coming out of the toilet and saw a man coming out of the one named ‘Fir’! 
Baltimore, Co. Cork, Ireland

Friday, 21 March 2014

The joys of food shopping in Algeria Part 2

Fish my youngest son caught with the help of a friend

Fish is sold, more often than not, at the side of the road, and during the summer sardines are very popular and sold as soon as they have been caught, off a little cart that is wheeled from street to street, with the seller shouting ‘sardinas…..sardiiiiiiiiiiiines!’ at the top of his voice, with a trail of cats following in his wake.

Sometimes my husband would ask me, as he left the house, if there was anything I wanted, to which I invariably answered ‘Cadbury’s chocolate, cheddar cheese (hadn’t found it at the time)’ and lots of other foods I missed from England and Ireland.  I spent a lot time during my first few months wondering what to cook for the family.  Now, I did this a lot in England too but there it was what to choose to cook, here in Algeria in 2003 it simply was what to cook, not having some of the simple basic ingredients to which I had become accustomed.  Whenever someone traveled back to UK they were inundated with requests to bring back this or that vital food stuff without which we just could not manage, but as the years have gone by the shopping list has become smaller as I have learnt to adapt, do without and improvise, and also as more and more goods have become widely available here.

When we first arrived in 2003 my husband’s niece very proudly brought us to a supermarket that had…..wait for it…… trolleys and a check-out!  So westernised!  The fact that most of the goods were exactly the same just a larger quantity as in the corner shop was neither here nor there. There were a couple of shops where, in addition to selling Algerian goods you could also find some foreign produce such as Nestle and Kraft imports, biscuits, jelly, custard powder etc.  But these were so far away from where I lived that it really didn’t warrant the time stuck in traffic and effort to visit them on a regular basis.
Figs in our garden
But ‘the times they are a changing’ and little supermarkets, aptly named ‘superettes’ have sprung up all over the place where you can pick things off the shelves yourself and bring them to the cash desk. We have a few in our area and they often sell foreign produce you cannot find in an ordinary corner shop, such as mascarpone cheese, tinned coconut milk, gelatine leaves, even baked beans.  Now, please, don’t tell me that you can make your own baked beans.  If you do I will know with absolute certainty that you don’t hail from the British or Irish Isles, because home-made baked beans are still just glorified ‘loubia’.  You can also find time-savers such as pizza bases and packs of puff pastry as well as frozen vegetables.

Bigger supermarkets have now popped up  throughout Algiers, with even a couple of shopping centers where in addition to a large supermarket you can also find clothes boutiques, furniture stores, book stores, shops selling technological goods and toys all under one roof. In these supermarkets you can find foodstuffs you rarely find anywhere else including frozen broccoli and frozen and fresh mushrooms. I can still remember the day a few years ago when I saw bars of Cadbury’s Chocolate staring at me from a shelf in a supermarket in Ain Nadja and I thought to myself ‘Finally…. Algeria has joined the civilised world!’

The thing that has amused me no end is to receive Tesco and Spar plastic carrier bags for my shopping…. I have even seen Dunnes Stores (a well known Irish retail brand) bags here.
Guess where I did not go to do my shopping
‘Why do I feel as if everyone is staring at me when I go to the market?’ I remarked one day to my daughter, Sarah. ‘Because everyone IS staring at you…. they know you are a foreigner.’  She went on to explain that it probably had something to do with the style of jilbab I wore.  ‘Ok I will get an Algerian one.’  But that wouldn’t do either…..I wore a niqab (face veil) but didn’t wear gloves (usually they were both worn), so I said I would wear both, anything to ‘fit in.’  Finally in exasperation she said ‘they all know you’re a foreigner no matter what you wear…. because of that blooming shopping list you have in your hands!’  And it’s true… I never see Algerian women carry a shopping list.  I remember my husband’s niece moaning about the fact that her Mum often forgot something when she went out shopping but she refused point blank to bring a shopping list with her.  It just wasn’t the ‘done thing’!  Well… I’ve gone one better and not only do I carry one and take it out and look at it every now and again but….when my husband does the shopping for me he brings one too!  So There! 

Who am I kidding?  Even without a shopping list and with all the right apparel I still stick out like a sore thumb because of my gestures, my walk and….my sighing.  I sigh…a lot… when I’m tired, bored, fed up, doing something I hate and… whenever I enter a shop (which usually encompasses all four things for me).  Sarah has reliably informed me that my loud sighing on entering a shop has actually stopped people in their tracks and made them stare at me.  I’m too busy figuring out what I want, where I’ll find it, how much it costs etc to notice but anyone who has the misfortune to accompany me becomes painfully aware of it.  It’s not that Algerian women don’t sigh… they do, but they usually sigh with a few ‘AstaghfirAllah’ s along the way as they run out of breath, I just…sigh.  So now I have to train myself to say ‘AstagifirAllah’ while I release my breath, which has the advantage of asking Allah’s forgiveness which is always a good thing.  ‘But even if you say it they’ll still know you’re foreign’ said Sarah the killjoy – ‘you’re pronunciation will give you away.’  Who wants to fit in anyway!
Grapes in our garden

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The joys of food shopping in Algeria Part 1

Kayble Souk, Tizi Ouzou, Algeria

Many moons ago, in another lifetime, I used to go to get ‘the messages’ for my Mum.  In the rural Ireland in which I grew up, this meant walking the mile or so ‘down the road’ (as opposed to ‘back the road’ which was the opposite direction, something that totally confused my husband the first time he heard the term… ‘but we never went there, so how come we’re going ‘back’ there!’) to Mrs. O’Leary’s shop and giving her the list of shopping my Mum had written, usually on the back of an old envelope (recycling long before we had to be told to do so).  Mrs. O’Leary always knew which flour my Mum liked, what she meant when she wrote ‘marg’ and any other of her abbreviations, and you could buy a ‘vanilla sandwich’ which was a chunk of vanilla ice cream sliced off a block with two wafers placed on either end, and, of course, she would always ask after my Mum and we would always leave the shop with the directions to ‘tell her I was asking for her’.

My own children’s experience of shopping in England was totally different…. coming with me to the supermarket, and walking down aisle after aisle of goods amid bright lights and special offers.  More often than not the scrumptious smell of fresh bread wafting up my nostrils from the air vents above the entrance door had an almost hypnotic effect on me, and I found myself walking dreamily along the aisles looking for things on my list but often getting distracted by products that caught my eye which I wanted without even knowing I wanted them.  I never really liked food shopping unless I was looking for something unusual, but it was a necessary evil, and, at least, it tired out the children a little.  One customer at the cashier’s check-out summed up what I often thought and felt:  ‘You spend ages walking around taking goods off the shelves and putting them in the trolley, then you put them all into plastic bags, load up your car, at home you empty the car, then you empty the bags, and put the goods back on more shelves… only to repeat the whole process again a week later.’

Shopping in Algeria brought me right back to my childhood, but nostalgia is easier to think about than to put into practice. We think we’d like to go back to a life that was simpler, but in reality, it is more difficult and we are just too used to having more choices, as mind-boggling as these choices can be at times, not to mention the time saver foods that help in rustling up a quick meal in no time.  Whenever we went shopping, my husband would often get into conversation with the shopkeeper which gave me the perfect opportunity to have a good snoop among the dusty shelves of the shop and see all the goods that Algeria had to offer…. which in 2003 wasn’t an awful lot.  I soon discovered that there was only one kind of flour no matter how many different kinds of packages it came in, and that was white plain flour, and the Algerian Bimo biscuit may come in different coloured packages, but inside each packet the biscuit was exactly the same.  This was a favourite among children who ate the biscuits soaked and mashed up in hot milk.  There were different makes of Macaroni, but not much else in the way of pasta unless you knew what to do with Bird’s Tooth pasta and your family loved couscous (which mine don’t).  There were tins and tins with pictures of tomatoes on them, but they all mounted to the same thing…. tomato puree.  You can’t find tinned tomatoes here for love nor money….. but why would you, when you can buy soft ones in the market that are the ideal ingredient with which to cook.  And you could not buy chicken in the butcher – he sold meat, both beef and lamb, but if you wanted chicken you had to buy it from the man who sold chicken and eggs… and also home-made bags of richta and couscous.  And as for chocolate and sweets, well the Algerian main brand of the former is Ambassador which comes either in milk or dark chocolate, both of which taste like cooking chocolate, and the main sweets were toffees called caprices which kept little mouths quiet for a minute.  But there were tons and tons of chewing gum, a firm favourite here among male and female, old and young alike….and you could never be too young, much to my horror.

People in Algeria still rely on the corner shop for their basic food needs and there’s a shop on almost every corner.  Here you can depend on being able to buy an egg or 30, a kilo of sugar or flour, pre-packaged or ‘loose’, different kinds of tinned and jarred foods, dried pulses, sweets, bread, milk, cooking oil, baking products and different kinds of soft cheeses and cold meats. You can buy some things here in Algeria not just by the weight but also by the local currency, the Algerian Dinar, so instead of buying 500gms of something you could buy 300 dinars worth.  Most women will send a child out to the shop to buy goods rather than go out themselves, and more often than not if the change is only a few dinars they receive it in sweets.  Many is the time I haven’t had any change or the children are passing the shop and go to buy without having any money on them, and we settle up with the shopkeeper later.  My husband and sons on their way back from the mosque at Fajir time often take croissants which are left outside the shop before it opens and then they pay for them later… a very common practice here.  These shops are open until after the last prayer, which during the summer is quite late, and are also open on the two Festival Eid days when little kids go to spend their Eid money.

You could also pick out a live chicken, have it killed and plucked for you, which gave a whole new meaning to ‘fresh produce’.  The vegetable markets sell all the vegetables I was used to in England with the notable exceptions of Broccoli and mushrooms, but it took some getting used to the fact that sometimes you couldn’t find a particular vegetable because it wasn’t in season.  ‘What do you mean…. there were no onions????’  I exclaimed once when my husband came back from the market empty handed.  I didn’t even know there WAS an onion season… for something so basic and essential to most dishes, I thought it was something available all year round…like potatoes.  But then there was the time when the price of the humble potato went up so high that it became a hot topic on Facebook, and I have to admit that when I found a forgotten potato at the back of the cupboard it made me so happy I just had to share it
(no…..not the actual potoato!) on Facebook.  See?  THIS is what Algeria does to you!  And I really cannot make head nor tail of the pricing…how can something that is grown in Algeria such as the ‘Karmous Ensara’ or Christian fig be more expensive than bananas that have to be imported from Panama?
Karmous Ensara, Christian fig

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Aisha Part 5

One day over a year later my husband told me that we had been invited to a wedding.  I hate Algerian weddings for all sorts of reasons which I will write about another time, so with dread I asked whose and he told me it was Aisha’s husband.  At first I was so chuffed and happy that he had invited Aisha’s old friends, but as the day wore on I became estimably sad, and then…. I felt guilty for feeling sad at what was, news of a happy occasion.  I had such mixed emotions that it was difficult to say exactly what I felt.  On the one hand I was very happy that Aisha’s husband was getting married again.  Both he and she were younger than my husband and I, and I thought it only right and fitting that he marry again.  Nobody could accuse him of marrying in haste as it had been a decent enough time since Aisha had passed away, and it was nice thinking that both he and their son would have a woman in their lives again to take care of them.  But I felt sad….. for her.  I know…. It doesn’t make sense really.  I kept thinking that this woman would have an Algerian style wedding where she would be made a fuss of, in comparison to Aisha’s which, like most of us married in Europe, was a small, quiet affair.  And… at the same time, I knew that Aisha, inshallah, was in a better place, and not a bit concerned with what kind of wedding her husband’s second wife would have.  I prayed a lot that day… for Aisha, and also for her husband and his new wife, that they would be blessed with a long and happy marriage.

The day of the walimah came and I couldn’t eat or drink anything, I was such a bag of nerves.  It was to be held in Aisha’s husband’s family home and I hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t be in the apartment where I had last seen Aisha.  I had this awful premonition that I would enter the room, dissolve into a blubbering mess, embarrass everyone around me and make a total show of myself.... again.  When we arrived I was surprised to see that there were no cars outside and that the light outside the door was off.  When Aisha’s husband answered the door it turned out that there was no walimah that night…. He had told my husband that it probably would be that night but that he would contact him to confirm.  My husband just assumed he had forgotten to ring him!  Algerians! And this was with them both speaking to each other in derja!  So it was agreed that while the boys and my husband went into the house for a while, my daughter and I would go and visit a friend who lived nearby.  I was absolutely dying for the toilet so I rang my friend and asked if I could use hers (you can always tell whom your good friends are by the ones you don’t mind asking to use their toilet at a moment’s notice… and especially by those who are happy to oblige.).  He did get married finally but we didn’t attend, much to my relief, and he is now the happy dad of a little girl, and his son is thrilled with his new sister.

Aisha is gone… but not forgotten, and she is a reminder to me that nobody is indispensable, that it’s pointless to put all our energy in trying to hold on to things and people in this life, because, in the end, we all have to leave and there will be a time when, like a finger dipped into the wide open sea, and then removed again, we will leave no trace of having ever been here……except to the Only One Who Matters… Allah, so it’s best to concentrate on our journey to Him.

May Allah have mercy on Aisha's soul, forgive her all her sins, make her grave wide and spacious and light, grant her Al Firdous..... and make it possible for me to meet her there. Ameen.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Aisha Part 4

At each subsequent visit I could see a marked decline in her condition, as if she was fading away before my eyes.  She had to increase her intake of morphine for her pain and this meant that she would doze off in the middle of a conversation, and eventually she couldn’t even pray without nodding off, waking up, continuing her prayer, nodding off again….It reminded me of the hadith where the Prophet Muhammed (SAWS) instructed us to “Take benefit of five before five: Your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free time before you are preoccupied, and your life before your death”.  One day we settled her in her bed and she seemed to be sleeping so I gently kissed her on her head and said a dua for her.  I didn’t think she was aware of it until my friend who had come with me that day said that she saw a tear in Aisha’s eye.

In the first week of March one of her closest friends rang me and urged me to go and see Aisha as soon as possible as she was fast losing her voice, so I asked her son if it would be ok to come and see her on Friday 5th and he said it would be fine. Her husband had returned by now and had been very shocked to see her condition, and wouldn’t let anyone help him with her nursing, doing it all himself, something I know she appreciated as she spoke of him with such affection and love.  So I drove in along with my eldest daughter, Sarah, and when I saw her lying on the sofa I knew that she was very weak… so much so that she had difficulty trying to remove a piece of couscous stuck between her teeth.  Her voice was very weak, just barely a whisper and she reminisced with Sarah about the time, as a little girl, she had stayed with them, and she had cut her finger.  Aisha was so afraid that she might get an infection that she made her put her finger in a bucket of water and ….. bleach!  As they laughed over the memory Aisha remarked it was a wonder Sarah didn’t lose her finger!  We didn’t stay very long as I knew our visit was too much for her so we left promising to return soon.  And that was the last time I saw her, as she passed away in her sleep the following Wednesday, 10 March, before Fajir. 

I travelled into to her home to pay my respects to her son and his father’s family, and after picking up a couple of friends, one of whom knew her from England, arrived while the men had gone to the funeral prayer.  To be honest I was very calm and was chatting away to the two women and my daughter until I got to the steps up to her home, and then I remembered the last time I had climbed those stairs, and I found myself tearing up.  I really didn’t want to go in and upset everyone so I tried to gulp down my tears, but the more I gulped the more I wanted to cry and I had to stop and take some deep breaths and apologise to my friends for being such a gooseball. I found it very hard to go into the room and look at the sofa where I had seen her last, and the room was full of dry eyed strangers, all of whom were neighbours of the family and none of whom, I’m sure, ever met Aisha and had no idea of the big hole she had left behind.  I just found it so difficult being there trying to choke down my emotions that eventually Sarah had to explain to the women gathered that Aisha had been a good friend of mine.  Eventually someone from the family came downstairs and brought us up to    where they were gathered and we reminisced over cups of coffee and cake.  When Aisha’s son returned from the funeral he came upstairs immediately and sat with us and started telling us all about his life with his parents in Kuwait and all the funny things he remembered.  I found out afterwards that Aisha had asked one friend to ask us all to tell her son about all the things we remembered about Aisha’s life from England.  At one stage Sarah and I were sitting with her son and I remembered Aisha’s mum whom I knew also had cancer.  When she had been to England for medical treatment she had spent some time with her mum who had expressed a desire to come and visit her in Algeria, something Aisha had thought would be too much for her. I said to her son, ‘oh and by the way… how is your mother?’  As soon as I said it I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.  ‘I mean… your grandmother,’ I tried to correct myself.  He looked at me and then burst out laughing and with relief I realised he had his mum’s wonderful warped sense of humour, especially with Sarah saying ‘Oh MOM!  I can’t take you anywhere!’  I learnt some time afterwards that her mum passed away only a few weeks after her.

May Allah forgive Aisha all her sins, make her grave wide and spacious and grant her Fidous, and make it possible for me to meet her there one day.
In memory of Aisha who never did get to come to look at the sea at the end of our road

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Aisha Part 3

After a worrying pregnancy Aisha gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, and I didn’t see much of her after that… I had more children and, living outside London, found it difficult to socialise, but we kept in touch.  I remember her son’s aqeeka in the park near where we lived, and how well she coped with the criticism from some ladies who told her that her son was too young to be on solids at…. 3 months old.

It was some time after that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had treatment after treatment after treatment. Like me she was married to an Algerian, but they weren’t that interested in going to live in Algeria..... at least not yet, so she applied, and was accepted for, a job teaching English in Kuwait.  I met her at an Islamic conference in Leicester after she had acquired the job and she told me of the wisdom of the hadith of the Prophet (SAWS) where he urged people not to publicise their plans until everything was finalised.  She said that everything had gone so smoothly with finding her job in Kuwait, but that, as soon as she started telling people, one problem after another cropped up, and now, when she was only days away from the day she was due to start her new job, she had a problem obtaining a visa.  Alhamdulilah the next day she received it and was gone, off to her new life on a distant shore. She sometimes came back to England for further medical treatment, and we would chat on the phone.  I remember exactly where I was, in my bedroom, the day she told me that the cancer had spread…. to her bone….. in her back, but she was still optimistic.

We moved to Algeria and I remember how wonderful it was to hear her voice on the phone when she came over on holiday once, but she and her husband still weren’t ready to move here just yet.  She said that, once her health had deteriorated, she probably would move to Algeria with her husband and son so that they would have the support of her husband’s family.

In the summer of 2009 I heard that she and her family had moved to Algeria and I felt so, so sad because I knew her battle with cancer was finally nearing the end.  When I received a phone call from her I was so happy, and even more so when she said she’d like to see me.  She had been able to continue working successfully in Kuwait until the previous few months when she started to have seizures and realised that she couldn’t continue her work.

I went to see her in February, 2010 and I struggled to stop my tears as I watched her slowly navigate across her apartment using a walking frame. She said that she had been to England for medical treatment and her doctor had told her to choose the country in which she wanted to die. But her optimism and positive outlook on life was infectious, and I almost believed it possible when she talked about coming to my home so she could be wheeled down to see the sea.  Her son who was 14 by this stage, was helping to take care of her as his father was away on business, and he told us of the walks along the beach he used to have with his mum in Kuwait.  She lived in the ground flat apartment especially adapted for her needs, while the rest of the her husband’s family lived in apartments above her, and her mother-in-law often came down to make sure she was ok.  She started to deteriorate very fast after this first visit, and with her husband being away and not fully aware of her worsening condition, a couple of her closest friends, all of whom she knew from England, and I set up an unofficial rota system where one of us would try to visit her each day.  These two friends had been with her through all her struggles down through the years, and were now very much there for her again, and she felt the most comfortable with them.  One day on my visit she asked me to read something to her from one of her books and, after debating with myself, I picked up the book ‘Life in al-Barzakh’ by Muhammad al-Jibaly, and turned to the section that describes what happens to the believer at the time of death.  The angel of death says to the believer, ‘Depart from the body to Allah’s granted happiness. Depart O good and peaceful soul that inhabited a good body. Depart to Allah’s forgiveness and pleasure; depart in a praised state; and receive glad tidings of happiness, sweet aromas, and a Lord who is not angry.’ He continues to say this until the soul leaves the body.  And I could feel the tears coming again… not just for Aisha but also for myself… I so wanted that to be what the angel of death said to me when it came to my turn…. in the not too distant future as all of us will taste death and yet, none of us knows when.  I saw that she, too, was tearful and felt bad, that maybe it was something I shouldn’t have read, until she told me how much she missed being reminded, and how much she appreciated it. 

Obviously she was on my mind and in my duas all the time I wasn’t with her and I started to appreciate even the simplest of things, like being able to move around my kitchen unaided, freely and without pain. I stopped complaining because I became more acutely aware of my blessings.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Aisha Part 2

Aisha  desperately wanted children and had tests galore but they could find nothing that would prevent her from conceiving.  She used to cry when her period came and then she would calmly accept it.  I was with her one day in the mosque when a well-meaning sister told her about the possibilities for adoption, and afterwards she told me that she felt upset as she really hadn’t yet given up the notion of having one of her own inshallah.

My eldest daughter sometimes spent a night with her and her husband and they became a real aunty and uncle to her.  She and her husband were the first of all our friends to have a computer and my daughter loved not only the computer itself, but also the swivel chair that went with the computer table!  I still have the computer generated book mark she made for me. Aisha loved order and had a set routine in which she did all her housework.  She used to say “I wonder how I will be if Allah gives me a child because then all my routine will have to change!”  She was a spotless housekeeper and loved frills and doilies, and soaps and pot pourries and all things nice and perfumed and feminine!  She often came up with ideas of things to make to sell at bazaars for money for charity.  At one time it was scrunchies and all of our daughters got scrunchies for their hair.  Another time she made these little cotton balls of lavender and hung them on clothes hangers to hang in the cupboards to make your clothes smell nice.  I used one as a mobile over my son’s cot!  Another of her crazes was frilly long pants for girls to wear under dresses, which were so popular it seemed as if every little girl I knew wore them.  And at every event Aisha was the one in the midst of organising and doing things whether it was making tea, serving, selling whatever, she was an activist.

I remember once she came to stay during Ramadan, and I had gone for a nap and woke up totally disorientated panicking and exclaiming that I was so late going to pick my daughter up from school.  Aisha was quietly sitting reading the Qur’an and looked at me as if I’d lost my head.  I remember thinking ‘silly woman… doesn’t understand’, until I found my bearings and realised it was far too early to collect my daughter, and when I told her what I had been thinking, she laughed over me thinking SHE was the silly one!

They had moved around a lot when she was growing up, and when she met a new sister, and asked them where they came from, she invariably had lived in that particular place for a while.  She told me once that anyone would think she was just making it up!

But what I remember most about Aisha was the fact that her deen (religion) always came first in her life.  She went through a stage once, where she would lie in bed at night panicking that each breath she took would be her last, and feeling that she wasn’t prepared for death.  Every morning after Fajir and every afternoon after Asr prayer,  she said her “dhikr”  These were authentic duas that the prophet Muhammad (SAWS) used to say, and at first she read them from a piece of paper where she had compiled them all, and then she recited them from memory.  It didn’t matter where she was, in someone’s else’s home or in the park, she would quietly sit at one side and say her “dhikr”.  And no matter where we went – be it for a picnic in the park or a get-together in someone’s home, she would take a paper or a book out of her bag and read an Islamic reminder to remember Allah in the hope that He would remember us in a group that was better than ours.  We used to call her “Halaqa Aisha”.  I remember the pieces of paper sellotaped to her kitchen cupboards with the Arabic vocabulary she was trying to learn.

‘I love you for the sake of Allah’.  The first person to ever say that to me was Aisha (rahimahallah) and I remember feeling quite miffed and thinking “Am I THAT bad that she can’t love me for myself, and can only love me for the sake of Allah?”  Little did I know then the hadith about the shade of Allah on the Day of Judgement covering two people who have loved each other for the sake of Allah.  And am I the only one that gets totally tongue twisted in the reply coming out with “and I love you for He who....” I mean “And for He who loves you.....” so that I usually end up with “Oh I love you for His sake too!”  The real beautiful reply is “May He, for whom you have loved me, love you.”

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Aisha Part 1

This was my third time in a mosque and my second time in this particular one.  Well, it wasn’t actually a mosque as such, more of a school with a musallah attached, but it was a meeting place every weekend for Muslims to come and catch up with each other’s lives, to learn something about their religion and have their Iman boosted in the process, to learn Qur’an from native Arabic speakers from different parts of the Arab world, and it was a place where us converts could be ourselves in all our Muslim entirety without being stared at, or talked about – it was home.  But I didn’t know that it was all of that on that particular night. I was not a Muslim and the previous time that I had been there, the only sisters there were Arabic and there was a talk for them and I came away having spoken to nobody and learnt nothing.  This time there were a lot of English speaking sisters and they were friendly and welcoming.

One of them sat down beside me on the floor and started firing questions at me as to what were the problems I had with being a Muslim, and if I had read the Qur’an.  I explained that I had always an emotional attachment to Jesus which I was finding hard to shake, but it was becoming easier the more I read on Islam, and I found the Qur’an a difficult book to read as it wasn’t like other books where you just started at the beginning, there was a story and you read it to the end.  She exclaimed, “Of course it’s not like any other book, it’s the Word of Allah!”  As she walked away I wondered what I was doing there, feeling as if my back was up against the wall, when I had come voluntarily, of my own free will.  Then Aisha walked over and sat down beside me and I braced myself.  She started to talk about herself, her own journey to Islam and I felt like a flower that opened up after the rain.  I felt so relaxed and was able to ask her questions, and talk freely of my own feelings.

I saw her many times after that, at Muslim friends’ houses and in the mosque.  When I finally did say my shahada and accepted Islam I asked my husband not to tell anyone for a while as I really wanted to be sure that I was doing this for myself and not to impress these lovely Muslim sisters I had come to know and love.  When word finally did get out, I remember Aisha walked up to me, and whispered in my ear “You were always a Muslim to me!”  She and another sister used to say to me “I forgot you weren’t a Muslim!” and maybe that’s the trick to good dawah (inviting people to Islam) – accepting people as they are and not keeping them at a distance because they’re not Muslim, because non-Muslims are not stupid – they know when they’re not being trusted.

There were a few of them who walked that lonely road to Islam with me, and who were there for me during the first bewildering days of being a Muslim.  And Allah sent me others and we had such good times together full of happy memories alhamdulilah.  We visited at each other’s homes, and met up at the mosque, at weddings, aqueekas, and went on picnics to the parks.  I remember Aisha feeling so bad because she didn’t wear her khimar at work, and I remember well the day she decided to take the plunge and just go in wearing it.  Alhamdulilah Allah rewarded her by making it so easy for her and she got such a nice reaction that she never took it off outside her home again.

Sometimes we sisters would spend the evening in one of our houses and the men would go and stay at one of the other’s, and often they would ring up and say they were staying overnight and would pick up their wives and children in the morning.  The first time that Aisha ever spent a night away from her husband was one such night, and it was in my home and the next day, she made sure that she looked her best before he came to collect her. Another time we stayed at another sister’s house and she went off to put a home-made face pack on and came out of the bathroom looking like…. nothing on earth as my Dad would say.  Once she said to me  ‘will you do me a favour?; and when I told her that I needed to know what it was first before agreeing, she bamboozled me into agreeing before telling me…. that she wanted me to trim her hair, before her husband returned from a trip. I got the last laugh and it was the last time she asked a favour of me…. I made it so uneven (not on purpose….it just came naturally to me!) that when she finally evened it up herself it was much shorter than what she wanted.  Another time I remember her having a coloured thumb for a while where she had decided to dye a garment and hadn’t realised that there was a hole in her washing gloves until it was too late.