Mum-mi

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The woman who birthed me
wears around her neck
security, adornment, heirloom

Her freshly-baked softness
is gilded in three places:
earlobes, collar, wrist

In my mind they are part of her
not unlike the raven tresses
which grow from her in waves
gold blooms from her flesh

I have framed the second-hand
memory of my mother
holding her mother in her arms

Together like this they
circled God’s House
aching with a strength
only found in golden women

– zainab d.

Calm down about the hijab: It’s not that scary

One of the first images that come to mind when we think of Islam is a woman in a headscarf, a symbol which Muslims offer to the rest of the world. Now, the hijab is a cause for much debate which I’m not about to delve in to, but suffice to say that the hijab is held up as a symbol of oppression by people who claim that Islam does not respect women. In a way, you can understand why people think this way, it seems that by covering up, a woman blames her own body for the desires of men, that she feels she needs to be hidden from view because she is worth less than a man. For others, the hijab is liberating as it rebels against the notion that a woman is only worth the attractiveness of her body – a revolutionary act considering how much a woman’s sexual allure is valued in the world today.

Veiling of the head is a custom amongst women of various cultures and religions. For some, veiling the head is merely decorative, like a hat, while for others it holds a deeper meaning. In India, many women cover their heads with a dupatta or the pallu of their sari. Covering the head with cloth is a tradition that goes as far back as 3300 BCE, to the Indus Valley Civilisation where women often covered their heads with an uttarya, or upper garment. In modern day India, head coverings are seen more in remote areas and less in the larger cities like Mumbai and Delhi, where Western culture has more influence. Sikh women wear a chunni on their heads when visiting the gurdwara, as it is seen as a way to show modesty and respect before God. In Nigeria, women’s traditional dress includes a gele, a head wrap, similarly to the traditional clothing of Mali. Women in some Christian sects cover their heads when praying in church, and more commonly, nuns cover their heads to show their devotion to God. Traditional Russian clothing for women includes a headscarf and headdress. A headscarf is part of the traditional garb of Romanian women too. The inclusion of a head veil in the cultural clothes of women around the world is evidence that the headscarf is a sign of femininity for many people, and if a woman chooses to dress that way, it is nothing to be ashamed of.

The idea of veiling being synonymous with oppression is not simply a twenty-first century notion either – it has existed ever since Westerners started travelling East and encountering cultures that were new to them. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Turkey in the early 18th century, was known for her letters detailing her travels to the Ottoman Empire. In one of her letters, she describes the clothing of Muslim women, noting that every part of their body but the eyes is hidden, and they are totally unrecognisable, even to their own husbands. She writes that “this perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations, without danger of discovery.” She then goes on to explain how Turkish women were able to have affairs with men other than their spouses, without fear of discovery. As these women had “all their money in their own hands” they relied on their husbands for little. “’Tis very easy to see that they have in reality more liberty than we have,” wrote Montagu. Reading this, I was astounded to see another opinion of veiling – that covering herself offers a woman an type of agency rooted in mystery. Not that I condone cheating, but you see what I’m getting at.

For many Muslim women, the headscarf is worn first and foremost because it was commanded by God. What the hijab signifies is different for each individual, but I think I can speak for all women who choose to adorn the hijab when I say there is nothing more frustrating than when others try to tell us how we should feel about the way we dress. The view that wearing a piece of fabric on your head means that you are oppressed is frankly ridiculous, and is exemplary of an attitude that cannot comprehend cultures other than one’s own. In a world of increasing globalisation, culture shock is inevitable. But by making an effort to understand other cultures and traditions, the response to multiculturalism can change from fear to tolerance.

Thoughts on the eve of my twentieth

This is my last blog entry as a teenager. Tomorrow I will have lived for two decades. It’s weighing heavily on me for some reason. Perhaps because the last year has been so eventful. I’ve experienced new things, created new friendships, felt new emotions. The end of my teenage era spells my entry into an unfamiliar realm of responsibility, which I don’t think I’m ready for – but then, who is?

I had my first driving lesson this morning. I dipped my toe into the pool of adulthood, and surprisingly, it wasn’t so bad. Maybe I can do this. For the past two years I’ve felt parts of my old character falling away. I’m growing a fresh skin and I hope it’s a good one. Here’s to my twenties – may God help me not to mess up too badly.

The Night Theatre

I watched my sister every night

Before the mirror she sat,

Dressed all in skimpy clothes,

Topped with a red silk hat.

 

She stayed out all night

But returned every morning

With food aplenty for the table

And sacks of coal for burning.

 

She told me she was an actress

At a theatre that hates the day

‘The best shows come on at night,’ she said

‘When the wolves come out to play.’

 

Later she found me all dressed up

With rouge upon my lips

Shadowed eyes, shimmered cheeks,

And painted finger tips.

 

‘I’m coming with you!’ I chirped,

‘I’ve tickets for the show,’

‘A man came here earlier,’

‘Said I’d have a place in the front row.’

 

Ready to leave, I went to the door,

But my sister got there first

With teary eyes she turned the lock

As I cried and screamed and cursed.

 

Witching hour: the door fell open,

And my sister stumbled through,

Her clothes were ripped and torn,

And her skin was black and blue.

 

Before her soul departed she whispered,

‘My love, I had no choice.’

‘Let me tell you just one thing, dear sister,’

‘Stay away from boys.’

April 2011

The clocks in my granddad’s house stopped working after he died. I was lying on the sofa trying to make sense of what had happened when I noticed it was a few hours behind. Someone might have noticed it sooner on a normal day but today everyone was in various states of shock. I blinked at the frozen clock face for a moment and almost burst out laughing at the literary significance of it. It was like a real life symbol of how our lives had been paused. The clocks felt it too.

The night before, my grandma, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren piled in the room where granddad lay unconscious on the bed. His breathing was laboured and heavy. It looked like each breath took all his strength. It was hard to see him looking so fragile and powerless, the man who was the centre of our little solar system. We recited prayers under our breath, watching and waiting. The nurse came every so often to check on him and when asked she would tell us he didn’t have long left. Despite all this I didn’t actually think he was going to die. I feel bad saying it but we all thought grandma would go first; after all, she was more ill and had been for a long time. For ages afterwards I kept expecting him to walk through the door and for us to carry on as normal.

After the funeral, around fifty of us piled into granddad’s house and dispersed into different rooms. We were quiet. Sleep-deprived and grieving, no one had much to say. As I lay on the sofa before noticing the clock, I began to sort through my jumbled thoughts. I realised I wasn’t as sad as everyone else because reality hadn’t hit me yet. I kept expecting it to slam into me at some point but much later found that realisation comes piece by piece, until you realise you’re living life with acceptance. At first I went through the motions. I cried when he stopped breathing, I cried at the funeral, I cried when everyone else did. But during those first days I didn’t really feel anything. I kept asking myself: ‘is this what shock feels like?’ But it couldn’t have been because I didn’t even feel shocked. At least that would be something.

In hindsight, lying staring at the clock face was the perfect snapshot of what my granddad’s death did to me. I was living, but without going anywhere. If life is a road we all run down then I was stuck in a ditch on the side of it. Those first few days after his death I was going round in circles, keeping myself busy as the hours went by. Noticing the clock was a few hours behind interrupted what would have been a long train of thought. Of course in that moment I didn’t think that the clock was a symbol for how our lives had been paused. I thought that we’d have to get it fixed, then went into the kitchen to make tea.

This is a personal piece that I wrote for a non-fiction assignment. I was holding off posting it for a while because I wasn’t sure how I felt about people reading something so close to my heart, but today is the fourth anniversary of my granddad’s death and I feel it’s appropriate. So here’s a hazy memory of that period.

Brides and Beasts

She woke to larks chirping on her balcony, sunlight filtering softly through the drapes. Today was the day. The ceremony would take place after midday, when the heat was bearable and the great hall would be at its brightest. Her gown was layers of ivory silk and lace, banded with turquoise satin and embroidered in intricate patterns. She was mainly eager to have her first dance with her prince, under the sunset with guests from all over the kingdom looking on. She had been practicing for weeks, though her instuctor told her it was hardly necessary – dancing was her forte and her passion; she had been dancing for as long as she could remember.

After her breakfast of figs and lemon water (said to bring brides luck), her handmaidens began to prepare her for the ceremony. They scrubbed her with a paste that made her skin soft and supple, and when she was dry they began to cover her face in powders and liquids to accentuate her features. Soon enough, she was ready. She lifted her gaze to the looking-glass. Her dark hair was curled and pinned up, but a few curls were left loose to frame her face.The lids of her light brown eyes were covered in a pale blue powder and her tawny skin was made to glow with a golden powder. She was amazed at how different she looked.

She was taken to the great hall in an ornate palanquin, and when she peered through the curtains she saw servants rushing about everywhere – everything had to be perfect for the princess’ wedding day.The butterflies in her stomach began fluttering as they reached the doors of the hall, got more insistent as her two bridesmaid cousins helped her leave the palanquin, and rose into her chest as she took the few small steps towards the doors. But when the doors opened the butterflies burst into a pulsing heat that filled her body to her very fingertips as she saw her prince across the room, a look of awe on the face she loved so well. One bridesmaid handed her a bouquet of tulips, hydrangeas and garden roses and she started to take the slow steps towards the altar. Sunlight filled the room from the northwestern windows, and glittered on the polished marble floor. She was halfway down the aisle when they felt the tremor that shook the entire hall…

…and suddenly a giant scaled whip the width of two elephants crashed through the eastern windows, launching tiny shards of glass and chunks of rubble into every crevice of the room. Her eyes automatically clenched shut to protect her eyes from the glass and dust. She could only hear the screams of the guests faintly under the ringing in her ears, standing frozen in fear as she watched the whip curl around her prince and lift him screaming almost to the roof of the hall, before dragging out of the hall. She unfroze after what seemed a lifetime, and lifted her head to see that the whip was in fact the tail of a gargantuan dragon, scales the colour of blood and deep black spikes along the length of its back. Flying into the horizon, its beating wings blew dust in her eyes, and when she opened them again, her prince and the beast were gone.

***

She sat on the seat next to her parents’ thrones, staring down at the throne room floor. The High Advisor was speaking. ‘…absolutely devastated for Your Grace, not least for the pain your royal daughter must be feeling. Dragons are mischievous creatures who enjoy nothing more than causing havoc. We must rally our finest troops to hunt down the dragon and rescue the prince, but even at our fastest we will not be able to gather enough men in anything less than a week.’

Her eyes shot up and glared at the advisor. ‘A week?’ she thought, ‘How can he consider leaving my prince at risk of death for a week?’ She looked over at her parents, and was disgusted to find them nodding along with the advisor’s words.

‘…costs of the wedding has depleted our stores, I fear. We have not enough coin to supply our men with the right weapons for  facing a dragon.’

She had heard enough. She swept out of the hall, fuming.

As the moon rose over the castle, she went over her plan one last time with her most trustworthy handmaid, Alia.

‘Now remember, I can only get out if you play your part convincingly. You must have two voices tonight, mine as well as your own. Then I’ll slip out in your cloak, under the pretence of fetching water from the well for my bath. The cloak should hide my face well enough, but the guardsman outside my chamber must be under the impression that I am still inside. That relies on you.’

Alia nodded fearfully. Wide-eyed, she asked ‘My princess, are you sure this is the right thing to do? It is so dangerous, and I fear for your life.’

‘The same way I fear for my prince’s life.’ She replied. ‘This is the only way I can be sure the dragon will not kill him. It is using him as a hostage for gold, that is all dragons desire. The gold we have is too little to save him, so we need to rescue him by force. If we wait for the army to be gathered, he might be dead. Dragons are impatient. Besides, the dragon will never be expecting a single person to come and save him. This way, I have the element of surprise on my side. I will be safe enough in my armour, my father had it made in case I ever come into any harm, so it is the finest quality gold can buy. The sound of it will be muffled under your clothes and cloak, so we need not worry about the guardsmen hearing it.’

That made Alia seem a little more confident, but the fear still showed on her face. They carried it out the plan quickly, and all went smoothly. Now she was outside the castle at the edge of the forest. She was wearing her armour and Alia’s cloak, her clothes she had bundled into a roll and hidden amongst a pile of rocks. Her horse was pawing at the ground, waiting to be mounted. Ranger was brown and white, not a big horse, but healthy and strong from all the rides she had taken him on regularly. She took one last look up at the sleeping castle then mounted, kicked her heels into Rangers sides and set off into the foest. She rode hard and fast for a long time, she needed to gain some distance quickly because when morning came and they found she was not there they would be after her. The moon had begun to lower before she slowed down to a quick trot. She headed east towards the Great Mountain, where the dragon had been seen heading towards by some townsfolk. She travelled fast for two days, sleeping only a little and sustaining herself with hardbread from her pack and water from the stream. Finally, she reached the rocky slope of the Great Mountain.

Sleeping on a high ridge she spied the dragon, its tail curled around it and its wings folded over its body like a blanket. There was a path cut into the mountain which people used to gather minerals from the rocks. She began the ascent of the mountain when it was still dark, and by the time she got close to the ridge where the dragon lay still sleeping, dawn had coloured the sky a soft purple, though the sun had not yet risen its head above the horizon. Stealthily, she made her way over to the dragon, the heavy rumbling of its breathing muffled her footsteps. As she got closer, she noticed a nest of sorts made of large rocks and tree trunks. Within, her prince lay sleeping. Her heart began to pound as she made her way closer and closer to the dragon. She would try and help her prince escape without waking the dragon, but she had her sword and dagger on her belt just in case. Passing round the beast, she approached the nest and saw that her prince’s clothes were tattered and dirty and his face was covered with cuts. She was filled with sadness to see him hurt, and in her distraction stepped on a twig which snapped under her foot. The rumbling stopped. She froze. The dragon unveiled a huge yellow eye, a long black pupil slashed through the middle. It unfolded its wings and turned to face her with a roar. Her prince jumped awake; his movement shook her into action. She unsheathed her sword and pointed it at the dragon while running sideways to the nest. As she grabbed her prince’s hand, the belly of the dragon began to glow orange. It drew back its head, then released a wall of flame, setting the nest ablaze just as she and her prince dashed away, sprinting along the side of the dragon as it followed them to the mountain path. As they ran towards the path, she realised that the dragon would follow them back to the castle and wreak havoc on the town. She would have to kill it.

Whirling round to face the beast, she shouted for her prince to take cover behind some rocks, while she charged at the dragon, determined. The dragon swung its great tail round towards her, but she jumped away just in time. The belly of the beast glowed again, but she was too close for it to get a direct hit. The dragon seemed to realise this too, because the glowing died down and it hit at her with its claws, but missed. She continued to dodge the dragon’s attacks, dancing about the beast, trying to find a spot to stab it. To confuse it, she shouted ‘I’m over here!’ then ran to the other side as it turned towards the sound. She continued to do this until she saw her chance: the dragon’s throat was exposed, its foot placed underneath. She ran onto its foot, jumped and slashed at its throat, feeling the blade of her sword tear through scales and flesh into the boiling blood underneath. She fell to the ground as the dragon let out a screech and with its last strength, whipped its tail round again. This time the knife-like ridges on the tail found its mark: it sliced through the gap in the armour of her left leg, from which blood began to spurt immediately. Her head was swimming. The sun had revealed itself now and had turned the sky above a pale pink, flecked with golden shafts of light. She saw the dragon fall to the ground through blurry eyes and heard her prince running towards her before the world turned black.

 

 

I wrote this for fun after my cousin’s daughter asked me to tell her a story about a princess. Try to ignore the numerous holes in the story, the original was much shorter but this sort of spiralled out of control!  Hope you like it.