Recycling/Reincarnation. There isn’t much of a difference between the two. You take trash, something dead and gone– poof – and give it another life disguised as a beige, heavily textured napkin in an overpriced coffee shop or a metallic solar panel meant to make the world a better place.
I was a third grader, and I had just learnt what it meant to recycle. At the time, my extremely conservative school in the very Muslim city of Dubai installed a recycling center where I dumped everything I could lay my hands on: plastic cups, my daily Twix bar wrappers, books, and basically anything I saw as expired. I told myself, I am a hero. This is how you stop global warming and save the world.
One day during recess I ran to the recycling center as my asymmetrical pigtails bounced with each step, and my extremely uncomfortable navy blue polyester skirt rubbed against my skin. I dumped my old, torn Islamic Education book into the recycling bin, the red one with the PAPER sign on it, and then went along and did whatever third graders do in recess. The next day, as the clock struck 11:15 a.m., my classmates and I abandoned our books, half open on our desks, and ran out of our classes, converging like a panicked herd of sheep. I grabbed my purple Barbie lunchbox and headed out to the hallway. Suddenly, I felt a stern finger poking my shoulder and I turned around to find Aisha surrounded by her stupid posse of pesky kids. Just great. No one liked Aisha, she was a bully, but everyone was too afraid to stand up to her. As soon as I was about to tell her to back off, she held up my torn Islamic Education book. I should have removed that damn nametag.
“You’re going to Jahannam,” 1)"Hell" in Arabic she told me.
“Kafira!”2)"Infidel in Arabic" “Istaghfirullah !”3)“I seek forgiveness from Allah” in Arabic her minions retaliated.
“You can’t throw this away! That’s haram." 4)"Forbidden" in Arabic
“Well, technically Aisha, I didn’t. It’s called recycling. Have you not been paying attention in class?”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re still going to hell. Allah hates you. You’re a bad Muslima.”
“Allah doesn’t hate anyone.”
“You’re a kafira and he hates nonbelievers.”
I told her to shut up and then she pushed me. I fell back and my head bounced against the concrete. I started crying. When she was about to throw in another punch, my science teacher, Ms. Manal, came to my rescue and picked me up, dusted the dirt off my head, and asked Aisha what’s going on.
“She threw away her IE book! She’s a kafira!”
I explained to Ms. Manal that I just wanted to recycle it. She was the one to encourage us after all.
“Ah, I see. OK Aisha, just go on with your friends.”
I cried for another five minutes. Maybe Aisha was right: I am a horrible Muslim. “Am I going to hell?” I asked Ms. Manal.
“No. No you’re not.”
I spent hours with Mom decorating Christmas cards with red and green markers, gold and silver stickers, and doodles of reindeers and Santa. My mom was putting UHU glue on red craft paper while she pressed the phone between her bronze cheek and shoulder, as my grandma, calling from Beirut, went on and on about her beautiful new Christmas tree. “It was on sale at BHV!” she said.
We had glitter all over our faces. It was all cute giggles and laughter until I spilled some on the living room carpet. I never believed in Santa, but Christmas was something I took very seriously. Every year, I wore antlers on my head and a Paul Frank shirt with Julius and Friends dressed in reindeer costumes on a sled. I physically grew out of that shirt, but I still wore it anyway. I knew every word to Wham!’s Last Christmas. The next day in school, I gave the cards to my closest friends, even the Muslim ones. They were all so thrilled. That was one of the few perks of having inter-religious parents: You get to celebrate everything. But on the ordinary days, confusion was a familiar friend that crept up on me late at night. I would lay awake, one leg under the sheet, the other out and in touch with the desert humidity sneaking in through the window. I would aimlessly stare at the ceiling, as if the answers to my questions were hanging from it.
Our Islamic Teacher, Miss Hazar, quizzed us on how to pray. She was a tiny person all right, but when the class pushed her buttons, her voice would echo all the way to the high school section. I was a good student. I mean, I never participated in class but I knew all the answers. But I just didn’t feel like it was my place to raise my hand–almost like I didn’t have the right to. I didn’t belong there. It was the same feeling I had toward church on Sundays back in Beirut.
Miss Hazar once brought us to the front of the class one by one, fastened the hijab and praying robe on us, and ordered us to pray. The night before, my mother made me fake-pray over a dozen times on the living room carpet, and then memorize every single step and word. I always messed up towards the end when I had to turn my head sideways because I still couldn’t tell between right and left. Nonetheless, I prayed “perfectly,” according to Miss Hazar. She paused, looked at me, and smiled, revealing a haunting gap between her two front teeth. Her small eyes crinkled and her unibrow stretched sideways. She told us it’s haram for a girl to tweeze her eyebrows. I instantly thought my mom was going to hell. She tweezed her eyebrows every week.
“Mashallah , you look beautiful in hijab.” 5)A veil traditionally worn by Muslim women
I just smiled. That was the first and last time I ever prayed.
My grandfather sat me down and asked me to recite the five pillars of Islam.
“Faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and hajj,” I answered. I only knew the answer because Miss Hazar made us recite them for weeks on end.
I changed the subject.
Ramadan arrived in the middle of the first semester. My mom still packed lunch for my sister and me. On the first day of the month, during recess, I ate my turkey and cheese sandwich and drank from my orange juice box just like it was any other day. Razan came up to me and asked if I was on my period.
“Then why aren’t you fasting?”
“Why are you?”
“My mom says I have to.”
“Well my mom still packs my lunch.”
“Your mom’s Christian, of course she does.”
On the bus back home, my sister told me she offered her friend, Amal, Sour Punk Candy. Amal told the entire grade that my sister was intentionally trying to break her fast.
Before that day, I never considered fasting, but seeing that everyone around me was made me think again. I was a victim of several guilt trips, finger pointing, and whispered judgments from fickle friends. That familiar feeling of remorse swarmed my insides once again, and I couldn’t help but feel like an outcast.
That night I asked mom to stop packing us lunch. She said she doesn’t want the principal calling midday at work to tell her they found her asthmatic daughter passed out on the floor.
From the bookshelf in my room, I picked up the dusty, olive green Quran with gold calligraphy from right next to all the John Green and Mitch Albom books, and a few Archie comics I once actually found funny. I got my period, effectively becoming a “woman,” and so now I had the responsibility to perform prayers, fast, and read the Quran. I couldn’t avoid my duties as a Muslim forever. I tried reading for about two hours, but I just did not understand anything. Not a single word. None of it made sense. Every calligraphic letter was a mystery I couldn’t decipher. I cried and my cat came and purred on my face until I fell asleep.
I asked my parents to move me to Special Islamic Education class, which was basically the same material taught in English, because my grades were terrible and my Arabic grammar skills worse. Arabic linguistic classes had taken a drastic turn since primary school. The entire class almost failed the first quiz because the teacher, Miss Abeer, had forgotten to explain half of the exam material. “Oops! I forgot to tell you guys about Noah and his arc!” She changed the point distribution to cover for herself, which was basically illegal according to school regulations. A week later, in the middle of class, she received a phone call from the director who told her he’s on the way to our classroom to ask us questions about the quiz. She told me that I should tell him that the point distribution was printed like that on the paper.
“You want me to lie to him?”
“Yes, yes, he can’t know.”
“About an Islamic Education exam? Seriously?”
She looked at me with a puzzled expression, as if I was the one who didn’t make sense.
My grandmother decided to wear a hijab. She had short, curly, blonde hair, the type of hair you point at in those cheesy, badly photoshopped catalogues at the barber’s when you’re picking out a hairstyle. I didn’t recognize her the first time I saw her. I told her mabrouk 6)"Congratulations" in Arabic, but I just missed my grandmother’s golden hair. I could tell my Dad wasn’t happy about it too. He grew up in a strict Muslim household, but ended up completely alienated from the rest of his family when he eloped with a Christian girl from Achrafieh. A year later, she took it off. She said she felt that it wasn’t for her. “It’s just not for me. It made no difference for me spiritually.” That was her excuse to everyone, because she needed to give one.
My grandmother got cancer and lost all her hair. I thought it was karma.
The morning after graduation, my grandmother called my mom to thank her for inviting her to my graduation.
“She looked so beautiful, we’re really very proud of her. Now tell me, who’s that young man who was with her throughout the night?” My mother tried to make my boyfriend at the time sound like a friendly male acquaintance.
“Ah, I see. He’s her boyfriend. Is he Sunni?”
“Um, yeah, I guess. Why does it-”
“Good, we don’t want anymore inter-religious marriages in our family.”
I realized the importance a name bears when I moved to Lebanon.
“You’re from Beit Merri right? I have some family there,” asked my English professor.
“No, I’m actually from the South, from Sheba’a in specific.”
“I didn’t know Christians lived in that part of Lebanon.”
“They don’t,” I answered.
Her facial expression was no stranger to me. I’ve seen it on the guy in the registrar, the lady who did my paperwork for my driver’s license, my friends when I told them my grandfather still gives me money on Eid although I’m too old. “Stephany Mohamad Madi” was a tough one, but I appreciated how misleading it was. People couldn’t classify me just as I couldn’t classify myself. They got over it eventually; there were a lot of others like me. It was different in Lebanon, but good, refreshing, different. I have found myself in this city. A mosque and a church were meters apart and I didn’t feel so lost anymore.
I still fast in Ramadan. I still crack eggs on Easter. I recycle water bottles. I’m a Muslim Christian who identifies herself as an agnostic and I’m dating a Druze guy who claims to be an atheist. I sometimes think I was a cat in a past life. The guilt is still there, but it morphed from a swarm into an occasional little knot in my stomach when I hear the Fajr Azzan early in the morning or in my throat when I don’t know the words to the Father’s prayer in my cousins’ weddings. But religion is greater than any of that, so I claim my own.
Footnotes: [ + ]
|1.||↑||"Hell" in Arabic|
|2.||↑||"Infidel in Arabic"|
|3.||↑||“I seek forgiveness from Allah” in Arabic|
|4.||↑||"Forbidden" in Arabic|
|5.||↑||A veil traditionally worn by Muslim women|
|6.||↑||"Congratulations" in Arabic|