‘How do you pour without emptying yourself?’
I ask myself this question several times. The answer I get is always the same;
The first time I felt this way, like I wasn’t doing enough, I hid it behind a smile. I had visited my friend of nine years some years after graduating from secondary school and we spent the entire day reminiscing our secondary school days which is now a decade ago.
“How quickly time flies.” I said, remembering the senior that lost her life a few years after her graduation.
“Yeah.” She replied and went quiet.
It was like we silently agreed to observe a one minute silence for the dead. In the space of the silence, my thoughts drifted elsewhere. I smiled at the beauty of our friendship. How we could walk on the streets, laughing unapologetically at the jokes we make regardless of how odd we looked together, her wearing jeans and me in my long skirt and veil. Quite the pair
“Meema, you weirdo. Why are you smiling?”
“Nothing o.” I replied. Standing up to go as it was almost Maghreb. Anna stood up to see me off.
“You can stop in front the tall building over there.” I pointed to a tall, yellow building right before a big, white mosque. “I’ll get a cab from there.”
“Okay then.” She said
Just then, the muezzin began the call to prayer.
“Why do you guys always do this?” Anna asked
“What they are doing now in the mosque.”
“You mean the call to prayer?”
“To call people to prayer.”
“I know, but why do you guys do it? I thought you all know the time you should pray?”
“Yes, we do. It doesn’t mean we can’t get carried away and forget.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s necessary. We don’t have to do that to remember to pray.”
“You don’t think it’s necessary?” I asked, puzzled.
“Your religion is different from mine, Anna.”
“I know, but it even causes noise. Especially early in the mornings when people are still sleeping.”
“Well then, you can either wake up or go back to sleep.”
She laughed. I smiled. And we changed the conversation.
But even after we said our goodbyes that day, the discomfort never left.
That was over two years ago. Anna and I are still very good friends, but that episode was the beginning of series of questioning that punctuated subsequent meetings. The most recent was about Janet Jackson and Wissam Al Mana even though I know very little about their relationship. No matter what I said, it was never enough and somehow, I felt guilty for everything she had apparently gone through in the hands of Wissam and his family, as if I had a hand in it.
I became disturbingly aware of everything I thought I had escaped in our friendship. The glaring reality of our differences. How exhausting it is to always be put in a situation where I have to explain myself, my actions and the actions of a person I do not know just because he practices my religion. Suddenly, I didn’t want to do that anymore. I was hurt, disappointed and angry.
I am a 25 year old Nigerian Muslim woman who has grown to be angry about many things; the bulk of which I have learnt to suppress for no other reason than the lack of a suitable outlet to vent. I remember when I visited a friend’s house a few years ago and it was time for prayer. Naturally, I stood up to pray. I performed ablution, stood on the prayer rug and prepared to start my salah. Then I noticed that the mirror was directly facing me. I looked for a piece of cloth to cover it. Right then I heard my friend say;
“Ehn ehn, so you even know that you shouldn’t pray in front of a mirror.”
My friend thought that I wouldn’t know that I shouldn’t pray in front of a mirror. I can’t perfectly describe the plethora of emotions I felt at that moment, but one thing that stuck out like a big ugly toe, was the relief. I felt it from the tip of my hair down to my tippy toes.
‘What a narrow escape from a long line of preaching and religious enlightening’ I thought. But for a long time, I would think about that moment and I would regret not expressing my hurt.
Nigeria is a country with a people divided largely by religion and tribalism that is rooted deep in our hearts and manifest in all our actions and/or inactions. But what is most disturbing is the presence of tribalism in religion. Especially the tribalism in our Muslim communities which I am more conversant with and which I have on numerous occasions experienced personally both subtly and crudely.
I could openly talk about religion with my friends, but what bothered me the most, I couldn’t talk freely about. It lay heavy on my tongue, letting its presence known to me in every conversation I have about religion, yet every time I tried to talk about it, my voice always failed me. Looking back now, I realize that it is not the fear of being misunderstood that held me back but the fear of being dismissed. I would often imagine myself interrupting a conversation about hijabs and the misconceptions surrounding it with my ‘minor’ issue on assumptions about my lack of religious awareness. It led me to the term ‘Muslim enough’. And I realized that many of them saw me as not muslim-enough and not because I don’t wear my hijab the right way or because I don’t pray on time, but because I am from a people often assumed to be ‘lacking’ in religious knowledge. I will never forget when my roommate, while I was folding some clothes I had washed, came into the room and narrated the story of her ‘apparently’ defending me in front of her friends.
“How?” I asked, even though the real question I wanted to ask was why.
“They said Muslims from Kogi State are not practicing, but I told them you are different.” She said.
My lips formed a curve even though my heart was far from happy. In my opinion, it was a backhanded compliment.
‘Yes people from Kogi aren’t practicing Muslims, but my roommate is an exception,’ how is this supposed to cheer me up? I wanted to ask her. ‘Take me to your friends so that I can give them a piece of my mind’, I wanted to add. But I said none of those things. And maybe, just maybe, I don’t regret that I didn’t. I have never felt the need to prove myself, I only seek a safe place to speak and ears to listen without judgement. I wouldn’t have gotten that and it would have been a waste of my time effort.
Perhaps that is why I have a bit of my sanity till this day- my ability to overlook certain things and bury certain emotions, but then it is also my weakness because in overlooking, I never forget.
A few months ago, I had a conversation with Asiya, my friend for three years with whom I developed a healthy online relationship with way before we would meet for the first time in late September where we would both be guests at the Yasmin El-Rufai Foundation to talk about our newly released Chapbooks.
“My friends often look down on me because they think I am radical.” she said. And there began a series of outpour of everything I had held in. It is true what they say about talking, indeed a problem shared is half solved. I admitted that for a long time I felt inadequate. On one hand, I was burdened with the everyday struggles of the Nigerian Muslim woman, the assumptions that we are mostly illiterates and oppressed, on the other hand, in the community I should feel safer and accepted, my religiousness or the supposed lack of it is questioned because somehow, my not being from the core North meant that I wasn’t ‘muslim enough’.
As a Muslim woman living in Nigeria, I see a reality play out in front of me. The persecuted in a movie I never agreed to star in. Everything I do is scrutinized and I am forced to double check my words and actions for fear of insulting: 1. The community that feels I owe them my loyalty and 2. A society that expects me to be Muslim, but different in a certain way that does not offend. There is the constant pressure to prove myself to my Muslim community as well as to explain myself to the non-Muslims I live with. And then there is me in the middle, my opinions and emotions disregarded. I had to find a way to break out of the formation, otherwise I risk losing myself.
I have written and rewritten this several times, it almost feels like I have been doing this for years. But this is the first time I have successfully carved my emotions into this conversation that I needed to have with myself. Perhaps this is the beginning of my outpour and I do not know when I will stop or if I can stop. I only know that I am no longer afraid of emptying.