A woman at work

Jan 08 2017


The journey begins. — Dawn file photo
The journey begins. — Dawn file photo

HUGELY contrary to the beliefs of today’s jet-setting Facebook generation, getting married — the arranged way — in the 1970s was an exciting, fun-filled exercise in Pakistan. Of course, there had been political unrest in the air since March 1971, which eventually led to the country’s dismemberment in December of the same year, but Sabeeha Rehman, née Akbar, like so many of her generation, did get married in right royal style and that too to a man she had never set eyes on. Dholkis, ghararas, home make-up bedecked, all veiled and head coyly bent down, she went through the gamut quite unprepared for how the future would unfold. The only certainty was that she was to go live in America with a “handsome” doctor for two years and then it would be back to Pakistan for the rest of her life. Little did she know that America was to become her home and where she was to come into her own in more ways than one. Threading my Prayer Rug is Rehman’s memoir covering four decades of life in an alien, mostly unfathomable terrain where she learned to take everything in her stride as she strove to bridge the chasm between how she had been brought up in the home country and how she was to bring up her own two boys in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society in the melting pot that was America.

Uprooted from her comfort zone, the once-spritely young postgraduate student of Rawalpindi’s CB College reveals the naiveté of her generation as she walks the road untaken of her life’s trajectory. The missed step on the airport walkalator, the merry abandon of the bejewelled young bride on her first solo trip to the post office in New York, the revelation that milk came pasteurised from the supermarket, the un-British vocabulary — everything comes as a shock. Undeterred, Rehman turns it into a learning experience, which is what all Pakistani girls of the time were brought up to do in marriage. Nevertheless, in the early years as she reels from intense culture shock, spinning round in dizzying confusion, there is also the issue of the original identity slipping away. She admits bravely, but entirely endearingly, how — at times with wit and at others in frustration — she survived the unflattering enquiries about her homeland and its culture.

Leaving Pakistan for the United States in the 1970s deepens the connection between the author and her Islamic roots

In Pakistan where she was born and bred, religion had always been taken for granted. You prayed whenever, women covered their heads at the call to prayer and when the Quran was recited, you fasted in Ramazan and you celebrated the two Eids with gusto — more ceremony than anything else. But America was different, and thereupon began Rehman’s quest for Muslimisation. Ironically, it was her husband’s Jewish colleagues and Jewish neighbours, a discovery of sorts to the Pakistani Muslim, who were instrumental in bringing her to this path to self-discovery. Their presence on the scene helped to ease the difficulty in explaining to her boys, who were by now beginning to ask questions, how they were to live by the rules — Muslim rules. Mingling with the Jewish community of neighbours and friends made it easier to explain to her boys why they had to have halal food. The first time the idea of a Muslim school for her children came to her mind was after a casual reference to a Hebrew school. The first time Juma became of consequence was when she knocked on the doors of Jewish neighbours on a Saturday, only to find out that nobody was available on the Sabbath.

Yes, religion, practical religion, began to loom large on the horizon. It had to be taken seriously. But everything took its time. Her husband, Khalid, and she herself would go on to become part of a team to establish a mosque, a Sunday school on Staten Island, and even a summer camp in a Muslim setting for the children. Her children would grow up to be devout Muslims, bridge-builders and torchbearers. She herself would earn respect, awe, and at times disdain, from her milieu as she went about creating an identity for herself and her children as American Muslims. Many a time the urgency to build a Muslim community brought Rehman and her husband into situations not entirely pleasant, such as when, having decided to run for a position on the executive board of the mosque, she lost because of her gender.

“That evening the extended family convened again and had the likes of a round table meeting. The agenda: to accept or not to accept the marriage proposal. He is a doctor. Plus. New York is too far away. Minus. The grandparents know the family very well. Plus. They say he has a very good temperament. Is very responsible. Is very caring. Plus. But we haven’t seen him. Minus. No one has seen him since he went to America over two years ago. Has America changed him? Plus ? Minus?” — Excerpt from the book

A fighter all the way, Rehman nevertheless continued turning to the various issues facing Pakistani Muslims. A time did come when the writer, to quote her own words, “had the religion track in control”. Next came culture; the culture of her roots which both husband and wife wanted to translate to their children. That was when the Pakistani grandparents came in with stories of bygone days. The stories only took her children that far, but the greater achievement was that the Rehman boys eventually grew up to look on Pakistan and its culture not as something foreign, strange, and out-of-sync with time, but as a thing of beauty.

Laced with lovable, witty, and wise vocabulary, Rehman’s book moves back and forth in time between the two worlds of her existence, using italics to voice her own perplexities. For of course, in her life, too, there were personal uncertainties that she alone had to tackle in spite of all the support of her husband. The book makes for a quick, absorbing read as 40 years of a lifetime speed by, bringing a sure wisdom about amalgamation, integration, and understanding — the highs and lows notwithstanding. It is in the last part of the book that the writer turns to discussing and implementing interfaith understanding and dialogue which are very much a reality of the day. That one masterstroke of penmanship and objective thought is the ultimate grand finale to a lifelong effort of understanding not only other faiths, but also her own. Surely the book is, as it says on the cover, ‘one woman’s journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim’.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator, and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development.

Threading My Prayer Rug
By Sabeeha Rehman
Arcade Publishing, US
ISBN: 978-1628726633

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 8th, 2017