February 2020


Post 362.

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Sunday was my dad’s birthday. He would have been 77 years old. Under blue sky, I visited the family cemetery plot, where his grandfather and both parents are also buried, and wondered about what kind of relationship one should have with the dead.

I hadn’t seen him on his last birthday and wasn’t sure if I regretted it or was at peace with my reasons. Now, here I was on this birthday, six feet above him and unclear whether it mattered, whether he knew or what to feel.

Such mixed feelings extended to the grave itself. My dad wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered on his mother’s grave. Cremation is forbidden in Islam, and was unthinkable to us, creating a persistent sense of discombobulation that I’d failed to fulfil his last wishes.

As I stood looking down, I considered whether he felt suffocated by soil and trapped in the dark. I wondered if he feared the angels, Munkar and Nakir, who interrogate the deceased and accompany the soul on its journey to Jannah or Jahannam, or the dimensions of Heaven or Hell.

One late night, a few weeks after his burial, I stood looking across heavy rain to the cemetery fervently hoping that my dad’s sense of justice, his contribution to the region, and glimpses of his generosity, love, goodness and humour would have transformed his grave into a luxurious space for his spirit to await an afterlife beyond our comprehension.

If not, the angels would have beaten him brutally, as they do sinners and disbelievers, in what is feared as the torment of the grave. It’s not for the faint-heartened, for the dead is struck a blow with an iron hammer which could turn a mountain to dust, the grave narrows and compresses until the body’s ribs interlock, and the soul is torn from the body by cutting veins and nerves like a skewer ripping through wet wool. I was surprised one could worry for the dead. I chastised myself for not doing what he asked.

I had selfish reasons justified by the merest of fleeting memory. I had stood next to my dad with my hands cupped at his mother’s funeral, at that very grave, when I was four years old. It’s a vivid, slightly blurred and instant image, like a polaroid. Something about it rooted in my heart. I held on to it like an old, precious photograph. He seemed so tall then. I was so little, loyal and adoring.

Forty years later, I couldn’t let him go without the same cupped gesture. There was inexplicable solace in this repeating image, for I was a child then and it was the child in me burying my dad now, connecting to him almost as the four-year-old I was at the time, imprinting another layer on memory.

My dad had also fasted for Ramadan, and was praying in the masjid, built on family land where he was born, the day before he died. The cemetery was close by; it was an unexpectedly small circle of life. He had returned home in both belief and location. He would be able to answer the angels’ questions. A Muslim burial was without question.

So, on Sunday, I found myself at his grave while my brother pulled away overgrown grass, and I contemplated whether the three generations buried below our feet ever conversed, whether they quarreled and forgave, or shared each other’s sighs, whether their spirits intermittently roamed, or whether the stillness and silence was peaceful.

With Ziya nearby, I told myself that being buried in your mother’s grave is the most profound kind of return. It must be more comforting than returning to one’s religion, childhood home, or perhaps entering Heaven. There is no closer relationship with another human being for, once, two were only one. The thought seemed to quiet the blurry four-year-old hovering in Sunday’s heat, and her imprecise worry.

One night, my sister and I both dreamt my dad. It felt like he came to visit, appearing from nowhere, returning nowhere. I learned that to dream those who are gone is a gift, and sometimes it makes you grieve.

This time, I left without significant emotion, but deep exhaustion. The afterlife is a whole world to be constructed in one’s imagination. It takes time, remembering and realization to find the right pieces to give it solidity and harmony.

Relationship with the dead also requires nurturing grace and forgiveness along the way.

Love lives on, Dad, happy birthday.

Post 361.

Basketballers like Kobe Bryant become larger than life icons even for those who don’t  follow the sport or its athletes. At school, Ziya had an assignment on basketball requiring her to draw a court, map the positions, and profile a player. She got in the car talking about Kobe Bryant. I was certain that she had no idea who he was, but he was a name that she sensed was popular among the children, so she had a personality to describe that carried pop cultural cool.

Does it have to be a male player, I asked. No, it doesn’t, she responded tentatively, like thought of any other kind never occurred to her. Will any of the children focus on women basketballers, I ventured. No, she said, definitively, as if horrified. I think you should focus on players in the WNBA, I volleyed back, launching, as feminist mothers do, into a whole explanation of why.

I’m always concerned about androcentrism – or male-centredness – in children’s hidden curriculum. For the little class gazette which Zi and her classmates started, we had repeated conversations about why the sports section shouldn’t only focus on men’s football leagues. Your whole editorial team, both boys and girls, should make reporting inclusive and fair, and not let women in sports be less visible or valued, I’d encourage her.

In an age with Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, news about women in sport reports on athletic excellence, worth knowing by all. That boys don’t instinctively know this and that girls have to be pressed into even raising it tells us much about gender socialisation and its early normalising of gender inequality.

Tears burst out at my suggestion of profiling a woman basketball player. Kobe Bryant, she insisted, everyone else will be doing players like him. You can’t have a class where no students choose any women at all, I persisted. Why does it have to be me, she wailed. You have a responsibility, I said, we all do.

After so many readings of ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’, where she could see how so many women scientists, architects, inventors, athletes and activists are never taught to us, appear to not have made the vastly significant impacts they did, and seem to never have existed at all, this was a moment bringing home how knowledge matters.

Tears and quarrelling from the backseat. The teacher wouldn’t allow it. No other children would have women players. No one would know her player. Everyone would say she is weird. They would make fun of her. She was terrified of being different and not fitting in.

You’re a lioness, not a sheep, I said. I’m an amoeba floating in the ocean, she grumped, a reference to a different rant I have about being too passive, becoming dominated and bullied, and understanding her capacity to control what happens to her.  Every time she protested, I made baa-ing sounds. I said all I am hearing is sheep. You are a lioness. Roar. The baa-ing made her laugh despite her hysterics.

At home, we looked up women basketball players. Just look, I said, then you can do Kobe Bryant, it’s fine. As we searched, she discovered how many of these women have amazing stories, how they are as ambitious about winning as they are about being team players, and how many won Olympic gold medals. One of them is only five feet six inches and her team boasted about her playing like she’s 6’5. Ziya’s tiny and that caught her eye. It was like a world of inconceivable achievement opened up for the first time.

Then, as a cool evening breeze circled around us, she quietly chose a player and copied her biography. No fuss. No self-doubt. No fear about being weird. I’m proud of you, I said.

We have a similar struggle with adult media. It shows why norms are so hard to change, why those pursuing change are derided for being the odd and difficult ones, why girls are so likely to conform and boys so likely to consider gender equality a struggle which isn’t theirs, for nowhere are men under-represented in sports, politics or business nor is their over-representation even noticed.

Some may think that nine years old is too young to confront these issues, but these issues are already socialising children before they have the capacity to recognise they should resist. In the end, it wasn’t Kobe. It was Dawn Staley. Zi coolly finished her homework like a small, tentative roar.