I was approached by The Green Room (IFSSA) to share stories of my life at an event called OUTSPOKEN on March 29th. The event was an intimate gathering in a carpeted room of vivid colours, sparkling lights and star decorations hanging from the ceiling. There were four women, including me, gathered on cushions on the floor, sitting and facing a small audience of several dozen. The atmosphere was friendly and informal. It was a safe space – a “container” one woman called it- where words that are said are not be repeated, but are to be felt nonetheless: the residue of our affect being what we carry away with us. The beauty of just listening to stories lived by those among us, our sisters, immediately resonated with me, and the impermanence of it struck me. We just had right now to connect before we were swept into our lives again. The room became a liminal space, equalized and perfumed with communitas where we spoke and were heard: a lost art forged anew.
What follows is the story I told, for the first time, in a public space.
When I was first asked to speak about my story in womanhood, my first thought was “what does that even mean?” I was worried I would be participating in a discussion about normative femininity in which the dictates of some so-called essential female characteristic traits were expected to be invoked when I really only believe that gender is culturally prescribed and performed.
As a Muslim, I have a prescription and I engage with my performance of what “being a woman means” (for me) daily, but I don’t think this has any essential tenets beyond:
-being equal to men (which is an equally performative category)
-and having prescribed roles, but not necessarily traits or ways of being within those roles.
As Muslims, all of us are implored to swallow our anger or pride, to act justly, to seek knowledge and to be examples of peace and kindness for everyone.
So I won’t be talking about softness or intuitive motherhood, or the kinder, more nurturing sex. I will be talking about what happens when universalizing narratives suffocate individual stories of what “womanhood” really means, on an individual level – stories which are the reason we are gathered today.
Naturally, I thought of the moment that most people would associate with womanhood, (if we are to talk of such a thing) – so today, I am going to tell the story of my child’s birth in a series of vignettes and I hope, that in doing so, we see how damaging normative, essentializing womanhood characteristics can be, because for every trauma I experienced in that birth, each event making up the whole event, we can trace it back to what someone else thought my womanhood ought to be.
In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
The bags were heavy, cutting through my fingers as they spun around and around. The sunshine exploded across the dusty street as I carried my groceries down the block to the front of my apartment building. Humidity fogged my glasses, perched over reddened cheeks, and wisps of hair poked out from my hijab, plastered to my temples.
My steps were slow and careful as my floor-length djelleba skirted the street at my ankles and my body lumbered and swayed under the girth of my swollen belly and two armloads of groceries.
Astafirghallah, God forgive me, I muttered under my breath as I stared at the staircase to my apartment building. Five storeys up. I’d have to carry these bags five storeys up, choked by my hijab, trying not trip on my djelleba, trying not to curse my husband’s name too loud for fear my neighbours might hear me.
I had had what some might call a perfect pregnancy, without complications and with plenty of sunny days spent writing in Moroccan cafes on the Mohammedia beach or evenings spent teaching my students at the English Center. My husband had left for Europe at the opening of my third trimester to finalize his permanent residency there.
As I lumbered up the stairs with my groceries, I could hear our earlier conversation replaying in my head, spiraling up those stairs with me.
It shouldn’t be much longer, he’d said.
You said that last week, I replied.
Why can’t you just adapt without me? he shouted.
The question cut through my laboured breathing as I took a break in front of my neighbour’s landing. I rubbed my purple creased fingers while my bags rested on the floor, touching the place where my wedding ring had been before I had taken it off from the swelling.
What did it mean to adapt? Especially to a place not your own, a land of your adopted grace where the language reached your ears in a garbled euphonious mess, the tea was always frothy and nothing ever made any sense. What did it mean to adapt? Especially alone, spending silent days chopping vegetables in the kitchen or singing You Are My Sunshine to the growing stranger in your womb. What did it mean to adapt when you went to doctor’s appointments alone, feigning understanding in three different languages, while this wholly mysterious process you were now tied to (a train you could not get off) would just continue beyond your control in a place where everything else is beyond your control too.
Adapting meant being quiet: accepting exile in stride. It meant exodus, like Mariam (May Allah be pleased with her), reminding yourself not fear but feeling it all the same. It meant swallowing that fear and putting a smile on your face so you mother can hear it on her end of the phone in Canada. It’s telling everyone you’re fine, when you’re not.
It is the triumph of reaching your door after five storeys in oppressive heat, the triumph of making it home again, that you did do it alone, but wishing you didn’t have to.
My doula arrived a few days after my husband returned from Italy. We met her at the airport and drove back to our place to unpack her bags and get her settled in. She’s a bubbly person who wears only black and has developed an anxiety about how many rolls of toilet paper you have in the house. She took our bedroom while my husband and I crammed into the spare, sleeping on two twin beds, only a few feet apart but separated by oceans.
We spent two weeks writing birth plans and going over the process so I could know what to expect. We spent our days watching marathons of our favourite shows, getting her to try the latest tajine at a local restaurant of experimenting with making couscous in my kitchen – a room where the cupboards held the moisture of the ocean and always smelled musty, and where an open window was an invitation for songbirds to snag your bread off the counter.
One afternoon, we went to the beach and she floated me in the ocean, wearing a long blue dress that disappeared beneath the lazy waves, my rounded belly bobbing up over the water line – a growing vessel. Layers of water within water pulling you the center and pushing you out again. The sky was clear that day and the sound of laughter carried over the waves from the beach, where kids (out of classes) played soccer with a broken Coke bottle and you could hear the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves in the sand as a police officer made his rounds, checking the marriage licenses of necking couples along the shore. I had put my head below the surface, my hijab protecting my ears from the cold bite of the water, and a bubble formed. A time of quiet and calm where I could feel the baby move in time to the sea’s rhythm and I wondered when I would meet her.
How could you? I moaned as each contraction brought me up, way up and then crashing down again. I was vocal while labouring, my doula fighting back both laughter and sometimes tears at what came out of my mouth. It ranged from a long hellllooooooooo to proposing marriage to my husband again. Will you marry me? was interspersed with how could you leave me here?
In a chair with impossibly high arms in the spare bedroom, I laboured like a queen on a throne, feeling the shuddering and opening of my body while my husband read a newspaper in the next room. Opppppeeeeennnnnnn, I groaned to myself, wind rushing from depths I didn’t know I had and whistling through my teeth.
Outside the window, we were in a cloud as a fog rolled off the ocean and took over our block, the haze of the streetlights barely strong enough to cut through. The fog covered everything and the walls dripped as my body wrenched itself open in ways I had never imagined. In moments of rest, I thought, “Who has control over this?” And another contraction would hit as I called out to Allah.
I didn’t wish for death or oblivion then, as I knew Mariam (may Allah be pleased with her) had beneath the palm tree. That would not come until later.
The doctor was looking at me and screaming for me to push. I did not know how long I had been there, how long she had been screaming at me, her hands making a slicing motion as she threatened me with a C-section.
My legs were locked into table stirrups. The left one kept falling down and a nurse kept strapping it back in. The same nurse who had kicked my doula out of the room and injected me with Pitocin against my will to speed up the contractions. Everything was in and out after that until this moment of pushing. At some point, I had been cut, a vacuum used on my child’s head, the stomach I had been so careful not to bump into anything – jumped on by the nurse. Snapshots amidst blackness.
And suddenly, my husband’s hand in mine and his voice from somewhere far away: “She’s telling you to push.”
“Oh, I see,” I replied calmly, not realizing I was screaming.
I set aside the images of this doctor telling me to shut up and let her do her job. I put aside her rage when I had ventured to ask what she was doing to me, as if my baby was coming from her body and not mine. I put aside my own tears while her slices silenced me.
I found a tiny light inside myself, closed my eyes and pushed down on it. The first push was exploratory and the light got brighter. I found the place my strength comes from. I snapped my eyes open, locking them with this doctor, hearing her laughter in my face a few weeks back when I said I had a plan and a doula. I pushed down on that light and it got brighter. My eyes never left that doctor’s face.. She would not rob me of this.
I birthed in rage. And the light got brighter and more blinding. I felt the sway of my husband to my side as a nurse caught him and pulled him out of the room, on the verge of fainting. The light filled the room and a sound emerged from it that has no description: animalistic, but musical; the sound of being a part of creation, of ultimate hereness, of right now.
And before my husband’s feet passed the door’s threshold, my daughter let out a cry and the light dissipated across the room.
I don’t know when I laid my head down but the next thing I remember was the nurse massaging where a baby had been, a baby who was now crying across the room. There was a woosh and a splatter at the sound of my blood hitting the floor. It sounded like the ribbons of water on the pavement when the Berber women washed away the evening dust.
The sound of my blood hit the floor in time to my voice, soothing my whimpering child. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you.
Someone asked my husband my blood type.
A negative, he replied.
Allah! was all that came back.
When I woke up, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t breathing. All I wanted to do was take a nice, deep breath. But I couldn’t. I started counting the seconds, trying to track how long it had been, trying to remember how long the human brain could be deprived of oxygen before it became a vegetable.
Sounds of the room flooded into my ears. My eyes would not open. Someone was between my legs, sewing me up.
I’m in surgery, I realized. I’m awake in surgery.
Why haven’t I taken a breath yet? I ask myself, forgetting the breathing tubes down my throat.
Is death coming? Oblivion?
I hear my heart racing on the monitor, impossible to find spaces between the beats.
And in this space, I remember Mariam, leaning against the palm tree, crying out.
I mourn the life my daughter will have without me and in my head, I say my shahadah.
La ilaha ill Allah, Muhammadur rasoul Allah
Someone is holding my hand. I can feel soft hair on the knuckles. It is a strong hand and it keeps trying to let go but I am grasping at it. I have to hold onto it.
What did you eat for breakfast? he asks.
I don’t understand, I reply.
His tone gets more urgent. Just tell me what you ate for breakfast, sister.
Why are you asking me this? I reply in broken Arabic.
He starts firing questions to nurses and looking under my eyelids at my pupils. I realize he thinks I am Arab and can’t understand why I am barely making sense.
Brother, I’m Canadian. I’m not Arab. I’m alive. I squeeze his hand.
He chuckles, You’re alive, sister.
Allahu Akbar! What’s your name brother? Don’t let go of my hand.
Abdul Aziz, he replies as he wheels me to my room to see my daughter.
The slave of the Mighty One.
The One who provides, without discrimination,
The One, who when Mariams leans on the palm, rains dates upon her for sustenance.
As time moves on, each triumph comes to me like the sweet chewy flesh of a date, a hard-earned delight that fills your mouth with joy for a moment in an ever-changing and endless stream of a life that will never be the same.
Like the time I crawled up those same five storeys on my hands and knees, taking an hour to reach my apartment door, shaking. Still triumphant.
Or the time, six months later, I raced up them two by two, skidding through my front door with a bouncing baby on my hip.
What does it mean to adapt?
It means finding that light within you, that space where your strength comes from, and pressing on it, even in the face of those who try to dictate what you are made of, and then letting that light fill the room.
It means embracing the exodus and the resiliency you earn because of it.
In that moment, before the dates fell, when the doctor placed my daughter on my lap for the first time, I closed my eyes, heard the sound of Mariam’s bubbling stream below me, and slept.