“I fell in love with my husband on the night we were married,” the blushing bride unabashedly admitted. She packed her bags and left for the US with her husband, vowing to return to Pakistan after his two-year medical residency ended. Forty-four years later, Sabeeha and Dr Khalid Rehman still live in New York, the city they adore and call home. The “born-again Muslim” intertwines her affaire de coeur with America in a charmingly intuitive book Threading — My Prayer Rug. “My love grew into respect and I ended up marrying America … and ‘these Americans’ became ‘my fellow Americans,’” she writes.
Married in November 1971 at the age of 20, Sabeeha’s innocently-lovable details of a betrothal with someone she’d never met makes the reader her confidant in no time. One day, a card with a generic script arrives at her home from her fiancé in the US. It stirs a wave of excitement all around: “Naturally the card was up for display [on the mantelpiece]. By the evening, family members in town had paid a visit to see the card,” writes Bia, short for Sabeeha. The holographic descriptions of her engagement and wedding in Rawalpindi where her father was a serving Lieutenant-Colonel brings back memories of another day, time and place. The distant war drums of 1971 Indo-Pak war get louder and louder. The New York-bound Pan Am flight of the newly-weds “was the last to leave the country.”
Stepping foot in the US, the bride is hit by culture shock. “Hi,” says the American fiancée of Khalid’s colleague, only to get a “hello” in return. “Hi was too American for the British in me … in Pakistan, we spoke the Queen’s English,” Sabeeha writes. She is offended when a girlfriend of another Pakistani colleague shares his bed. “Pakistani boys don’t do such things … this is a betrayal of one’s culture. How could he?” she complains to her husband. If mature Pakistani men with Pakistani values can veer off-course, what hope does she have raising her children here. The sight of old people’s home makes her cry out loud. “I don’t want to grow old here … what will it be like for me when I am dying of cancer, alone in my apartment in New York?”
Having grown up in a “secular” household in Pakistan, but now smitten with her “handsome husband” and the glitter of her new life, religion for Sabeeha no longer took a back seat. Pregnant with her first child, she buys the Holy Quran and reads it regularly as advised by her mother and gradually religion became a real force for her.
Sabeeha Rehman’s story is a journey to define an American Muslim identity for herself and her family
Eid in America arrives. There is no mosque nearby, so the couple along with a group of Pakistanis ride the subway to the “then seedy Times Square, cluttered with peep-show posters,” looking for Americana Hotel — now Sheraton — where Eid prayers are being held. As time moves on, with their sons Saquib and Asim growing up, the couple confront Christmas and its trappings. The boys demand a Christmas tree. No, say the parents, despite being “Americanised.” After finishing a two-year course in health services administration, Sabeeha joins the workforce, much against her mother’s wishes who wants her to stay at home being a homemaker. She further upsets her mother with her business attire that dictates she wear skirts to work. Even the conservative wives in her small Pakistani community admonish her: “Just stop wearing skirts.”
That’s when Sabeeha embarks on living a “double life.” She wears shalwar kameez at Pakistani events and Western dresses at work. When male friends hug, kiss or shake hands as a form of greeting, she tells herself: “This is their culture. There is nothing more to it. It’s Ok. Relax.” When it comes to drinking alcohol, both husband and wife remain teetotalers. As for eating halal meat, writes Sabeeha: “I dismissed the whole halal meat idea as extremist. As far as I was concerned, one shouldn’t complicate life with do’s and don’ts. I continued to buy meat right out of the cooler at Pathmark [the supermarket].”
Building a Muslim community becomes a passion for the couple as their two sons are growing up. The couple want a mosque and begin in earnest to make their dream come true. They want their sons to attend an Islamic Sunday School to learn about their religion and to practice it. Donations pour in and, hallelujah, within three years a beautiful mosque is erected. “We all have a story to tell, different, but yet the same. We have had our share of disappointments, but I can count more triumphs than failures,” concludes Sabeeha.
Threading — My Prayer Rug was a number one New Release on Amazon in Women In Islam section for several weeks after its release in July 2016. Giving it a starred review, Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, included it in its top ten 10 Religion & Spirituality Books. Kirkus, too gave the book highly favourable reviews. It has recently been released in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 15th, 2017
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