Mariam Quraishi| Longreads | October 19, 2023 | 13 minutes (3,470 words)
This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
When I was little I remember trying to figure out what Allah looked like. There was a cassette in my grandparents’ room, on its cover an image of Masjid-e-Nabwi along with an extremely pious-looking man with a very large white beard. It had a lot of Arabic script on it—naturally this equated to religion. It might’ve been a cassette full of na’ats, I cannot say, but to me it looked Maximum Holy. I asked my Dadi if this man was what Allah looked like. Tobah! is all I got. I was probably 5 or 6, so I hope you’ll forgive my foolishness. Ariana Grande had not yet sung “God is a Woman.”
I was 10 when I declared to my Dadi that my future husband would have to cook meat as I’m simply too squeamish to, and besides, men should do housework too. She looked at me in horror and said I shouldn’t say such things. Dadi didn’t often display shock or anger toward me. I recalled the last shock I gave her was asking about Mr-Cassette-Not-God. I wondered if these two situations were worthy of equal outrage. That men are not gods was my takeaway from our cassette chat and I concluded that men certainly can cook meat. I learned to take her horror with a grain of salt, understanding hyperbole before even knowing what it was. Hyperbole is a particularly desi trait. Religion is filled with it.
At age 4 I was sat down in a gorgeous silk gharara, glitter on my cheeks, and was told to place each hand on ladoos larger than my whole head. Dressed in silver leaf, they glowed like faraway stars. I nibbled bits of sweet, sweet, ladoo even though I was supposed to wait until the ceremony was over. It was my Bismillah, to celebrate that I would now learn to read the Quran. I can find no reason why I had ladoos under my palms. The internet has little to offer on this front, my parents even less so. This might mean it’s meaningless, it might mean I was a monarch for that day and the ladoos my orbs, it might mean that reading would open up something cosmic.
In college I watched a video by Charles and Ray Eames called Powers of Ten. It begins with an aerial view of a couple on a picnic blanket. They are surrounded by books and food, the day is sunny, the weather presumably picnic-worthy (dreamy by all accounts). The camera zooms out, as the name suggests, by a power of 10 every second. We zip past the atmosphere, our entire planet in full view. Eventually we move past our solar system until finally we see our ever-expanding universe at a field view of 100 million light years across. Suspended in this scene I was reminded of little me who often felt like a bit of flotsam trying to understand something about nothing.
As a child fighting sleep, I’d lay in bed and do a mental exercise to try to figure out nothingness. I would begin with images of Earth in my head like the ones you see in National Geographic. Then I would fly outward as though I were the fastest spaceship known to humankind. I would zip past planets, zoom zoom zoom, until I got to Pluto (RIP), and would continue on, past the boundaries of our solar system. I thought that if I got farther and farther distance might grant me understanding, only to realize that this distance packed more information into my field of vision. It was the opposite of nothing. Child me didn’t know what to do with this. I’d move on to picturing eclipsed planets, empty planets, moons with nothing but cheesy craters. This was not nothing either, so I’d move to the textbook definition of a big bang, to gasses. But gasses are things and I wanted to find nothing. Eventually sleep would overtake my musings.
I would try to explain this strange sensation to my mother, of how imagining nothing made me feel like my body might be inside a fun house mirror. Unfortunately for me I am a youngest child and was told to please finish your food now, you are not a fasting Buddha under a tree, finish your roti, eat your boti. I thought if I found nothingness I might understand divine light. I might understand Noor.
Usually my parents left religious musings up to me. Sometimes I’d ask questions and receive vague, often frustrating answers. If my father could use droplets of water to teach me about surface tension on our kitchen table, why then couldn’t he tell me the exact source of Zamzam water and why we drank it like it might cure our every ailment?
My parents never asked me or my siblings if we had prayed or not. They seemed content to simply teach us the words and motions. When I got older, they cared more about whether my shoulders were showing. Head shoulders knees toes. What does divine light care for my silly shoulders? Haven’t you seen telescope images? There are planets that might have cats with feathered wings! Planets where they have no idea what a mango tastes like or have never experienced the delight of a gumball machine! Planets where there are things better than mangoes and gumballs! But your shoulders. This is planet Pakistan. Girls hide shoulders. Girls cook meat.
If humans colonize Mars, is a Ramadan fast the length of a day on Mars or on Earth? And which direction do you pray on Mars? And is Hajj compulsory if you’re on another planet? And if you can’t perform wudu because there’s no water on Mars, do you perform tayammum instead? When I was little and too lazy for wudu I’d do tayammum against a wall. Now that I’m older and lazy I just sit in my bed and read.
Sometimes I wondered if my questions Went Too Far. What does it mean to talk freely about things with one’s family without fear of committing The World’s Biggest Sin? Or without fear of being seen as wanting, gross, or worse, simply receiving unhelpful answers? Imagine being raised learning about boundaries. Such luxury! Imagine no one bothering you about your shoulders, imagine your parents actually giving you “the talk,” the one about sex, not the one about bare shoulders. What an alien concept! Worse still, imagine talking to them about it. Otherworldly, unhinged.
In the Eames’ video we return to the couple, then zoom really microscopically close. We see cells and atoms, the tiniest of the tiny. The strange sensation of being dwarfed by the massiveness of the universe is somehow mimicked in imagining its minuscule qualities as well. A sufi might tell you that Noor exists between all of this. Between the in between in between things, between nothingness. It is in fact something of nothingness and somethingness. Maybe it’s all just mindfulness in a Lululemon set.
Maybe it’s one thing turning into another into another into another. The glass jug I dropped on my foot stopped time: it created a pool of water with blood swirled in, created tears, created a forever scar on my little foot, and a forever anxiety of carrying jugs of water to hard marble countertops. Really anything on a kitchen counter is primed against my feet. I convinced myself that had I said bismillah it wouldn’t have happened. I wouldn’t have needed stitches (just two small ones—melodrama becomes a 9-year-old). And in that moment, I was convinced that I was cosmically (read: comically) predisposed to bad luck. Bismillah! No, we will not let you go. I could have avoided it all by weaving a net of good words around me.
We like weaving words around things. I told an aunt who inquired about the nature of my duas that I was asking Allah to end all pollution, for the climate to stop warming, and for all children to be able to go to school and of course, have sturdy shoes while doing so (don’t mind little me, she was a saccharine do-gooder, a tattletale too). She said this wasn’t what dua was for. What else could dua be for?
When I walk downstairs on Eid and Ammi sees my face and she recites Quranic ayats and blows air at me, up and down, transferring an energy of care (and also an energy of my own vanity). I know that in this moment I look beautiful enough to warrant divine protection, in spite of my curly hair that she has compared to rats’ tails, more coconut oil and brushing is what you need, in spite of my braces, in spite of my glasses, and in spite of my conviction that I look like a frog because a boy I rejected in middle school told his friends to call me that. Ammi loves my hair now. She pretends to forget the bit about ratty tails, bratty tales. I’ve learned a group of frogs is called an army.
Sometimes, when this singular soldier frog walks a street alone at night she whispers duas for herself (increasingly less so—don’t tell!). The later the hour, the more forceful the dua and the more forceful the air phoof phoofs from my mouth. It’s like blowing a wish of safety onto an eyelash. What happens to wishes on eyelashes?
I knew someone with a gray eyelash. We had mirroring moles on the lower lids of our eyes—I doubt he ever noticed. When we were together it felt like bubbles that catch on to each other. He noted that our lives had run in parallel lines; childhood summers in the city, our neighboring college towns, our neighboring neighborhoods in the Bay Area. It felt necessary then that we should intersect. By the end of it I wanted terribly for our lines to overlap. Men shouldn’t say romantic things if they don’t mean them. Men shouldn’t tell their mother about you if they don’t intend that you meet her. Men should cook meat. If I make a wish on a gray eyelash, does that wish come true? If you blow on an eyelash, all it does is blow away. I’m certain he under-seasons his meat.
Planetary conjunctions are fleeting, maybe we are lines spiraling along different orbits. I have always been a drawer of lines. Drawn lines can converge at multiple points—sometimes it’s nice to pretend the universe is at my behest. I also have a degree in drawing, which is a strange thing to say, which is why I like to say it. I tried collaging and I realized I hate collage—forcing swatches of paper into a composition felt like the paper was controlling me—and as a person of a book I have enough paper controlling me, thank you very much. But line? Line is seduction. A line moves so fluidly between points negotiated within your mind. Sharing the things my brain scribbles inside itself feels mystical, where once there was nothing now there is something—of my making no less. Maybe I like lines because I like how easily I can control them and create boundaries, those things you never learn about as a Pakistani child even though our nation’s existence hinges on an imaginary one.
Boundary crossing is a thing my family seems particularly adept at. I mean in the migratory way—of course. From India to newly formed Pakistan, and thereafter to everywhere. Every grandparent I know has a Partition jinn story. Some helped them, some protected them, some double-crossed them. I’ve come to understand that jinns love migrants. I don’t believe any of these stories but the notion is a romantic one, that something of fire might help something of clay, as if we’re all in a great cosmic kiln. When you look through a fun house mirror you can see all sorts of things. Why not jinn too?
It could be that here in Brooklyn there are jinn as well, sitting in trees, tripping you on subways, helping you with directions. If my musings seem indulgent, I hope you’ll forgive me—such is the mess of spring. I have lost my nose to some flowers. And it is Ramadan and I am hungry. The air is warming and I am glad to soon bare my shoulders to all the strangers in the world. Maybe one of them will be a future meat cooker or better yet, a jinn. On a particularly warm day I saw a singular soapy bubble round a street corner, evidence that children were nearby. I watched it float, slowly losing its multicolor sheen and then pop into nothingness. More bubbles followed, swirling through the air like heavenly bodies. But I saw no source. It was the first warm day in months. Brooklyn had brought her shorts out, her summer dresses, her picnic blankets, her corner musicians. I saw no child, no person with a bubble wand. An act of god then? No, it turns out, a public service. I looked up to see an open window above the dry cleaners’ and in it a bubble machine stationed on the sill. No children in sight. Perhaps I am children. Perhaps the window owner fancies themselves a god. Astaghfirullah.
Growing up it was drilled in me that no word should touch the ground. Words are to be revered no matter what those words might mean. Once my Nana insisted my entire room be reorganized because my book shelf was stationed such that when I went to bed the backs of my feet faced the books like an insult. Years later I found myself in a hot yoga studio where our teacher was flanked by battery-powered candles and Hindu deities made of brass (Edward Said would roll in his grave). It occurred to me that when we would transition to corpse pose the soles of our feet would be pointing at someone else’s deities. The warmth of the studio, dank with its silence made me sick, but who gets to stand up for whom in this scripted space of yoga poses? We follow along as told. I learned to keep quiet about some things. Even in this place, one can commit The World’s Biggest Sin.
In Brooklyn people will intermittently fast, they’ll practice manifestation, they’ll grow beards, they’ll experiment with polyamory. They’ll also tell you they won’t date you because you’re Muslim. Irony, it seems, is their favorite form of humor.
In Brooklyn, if you tell someone bi you’re not dating them because you don’t see the world the same way, it’s probably because you’re a homophobe. In Brooklyn, if you tell a Muslim you’re not dating them because you don’t see the world the same way, it’s probably because you don’t see the world the same way! In this scenario you are not another kind of a ’phobe. Lucky for you, even I’m not convinced you’re one. These things, I understand, are not the same but the whiplash of alienation reminds me time and again of the imagined differences that permeate this space.
Islamophobe is a word for the man on the subway who called me a terrorist (to be honest he might have said tourist and, in the interest of honesty, that’s not great either). I somehow imagine he wouldn’t judge me for wondering where the atoms that collided to make the soapy bubbly stuff of us came from. Would he judge me for calling that Allah? Unclear. The ones who would Absolutely Not Think Like That however have judged, even laughed at, and tried to question my logic, as though I may contain some form of scholarship to prove I know what I’m talking about. Sir, do you know what you’re talking about? I’m happy you read the Quran once. I started when I was 4. Do you understand it? I don’t.
On occasion I have been asked by these Not ’Phobes to explain my not drinking. Why it matters to so many what I put into my body is beyond reason—this is not a vaccine, this does not affect you. I’ve fantasized about telling these people that I am some years sober. This seems an easier, less judgmental route, albeit a dishonest one. How does one create an elevator pitch for 30 years of cultural conditioning so that you simply do not want to engage in liquid haram, even though you know with all the rationale you use to break the rules, that you could rationally break this one too? The Not ’Phobes, I have observed, cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. They say they don’t understand this while telling me about Christmas plans at home, but just so you know they don’t actually think it’s his birthday, it’s just something they’ve done since they were kids. I wish eternal flatulence upon them.
Let’s not even start on the most haram-y haram: pork. This will break my brain, your brain, and the Not ’Phobes’ brains. All I will say on this subject is, if I don’t eat any, there will be plenty left for you. I don’t see why this is a problem. Why can’t we let things be? Acceptance is a dirty game, the pretense of it even dirtier. Like a labyrinth one must master, where you’re never sure if it’s the hedges that will devour you or if a Minotaur awaits you at your next turn.
The limits of their imagination draws lines around the fact of me, creates a fiction of me. Modulating their marks only when convenient for them. It adheres to my skin like the piss-thick air of a yoga studio but just like the imagined boundaries of my motherland, and like the lines I draw, these things are only pretend. They prime against me the thing they celebrate me for. The thing I cannot answer for. The thing I barely know; the nothing of my something.
We are in the same fun house mirror but I am seen refracted through images of no connection to me; the domes of the Taj Mahal, the pantomimed shake of a snake charmer, or even more insipidly, the collective actions of entire Muslim nations—every image more on the nose than the last, you’d think I’d made it up but I’ve encountered this and worse. I had no idea I was so grandiose, so stately, so powerful, a marble mausoleum supposedly made for a favored wife dying in childbirth—a ridiculous comparison, I know. What if I told you it reeks of the stench of a thousand naked feet?
Like a good independent woman, I contain multitudes but never the ones I’ve drawn for myself. This pot isn’t melting. This pot is molten.
How does it come up that I am Muslim? Do I force it into conversation? Do I slip in the fact that I am from Pakistan, hoping that someone knows enough geopolitics to guess what that might mean about my upbringing? How do I tell them I come from an ugly place without them thinking something of that ugliness rubbed off on me? But also, it’s not an ugly place, it is just a place. A young place that is still bopping about trying to sort itself out, and hey, so am I. But the frustration of migration is being expected to know who you are at any given moment. And the beauty of it is in knowing that you’ll never know, and from it arises a fluidity of thought, a comfort in not knowing.
For a long time, the label immigrant felt like sandpaper dragged across my brain. Between its little letters lay so much room for misunderstanding. I never thought of myself as one, until I spoke to too many a Brooklyn Male—in contrast to them I am glad to be other.
It feels as though I am regularly confronted with pigments my eye has not yet evolved to see, perhaps it never will. Or maybe it’s that I am the new pigment and they need to learn me but decide they’d rather not. Perhaps I’ll try and track and kern the letters of that silly word—immigrant—ever so closely, so that it stops meaning anything at all. Then my meaning will be obscured into a series of overlapping letters, a seamless unified form. They won’t be able to get me then. I will morph into bubble girl, impermeable to stupidity—until, inevitably, I pop to nothingness.
Mariam Quraishi is an illustrator and writer, based in Brooklyn, NY. She has published two picture books, the most recent book was published with Malala Yousafzai called My Name is Malala (LBYR). followed by One Wish (HarperCollins). She has two forthcoming books titled Breath the Rhythm of Your Heart (Astra Publishers) and Together on Eid (Chronicle Books).