Palestinian writer Zaynab Rashid writes about how her family, at one time happy and tolerant, became religious fanatics, to the point of rejecting even life’s simple pleasures.

Translated from the French Courrier International No 1017

by Bernard Payeur

Explanatory note:

In traditional Islamic societies believing men are not only encouraged to behave as would the Prophet Muhammad but also to dress the way he dressed and to adopt his grooming habits.

For example, God’s Messenger liked thick facial hair which he decorated with orange streaks using a natural dye called henna. Only his most devoted followers will do this today. However, many men e.g. the cousin in the following story, use makeup such as Kohl , a mixture of lead sulphides and animal fat as an eye-liner and wear perfumes as did the Prophet.

Until recently, my mother swore by her neighbour Oum Hanna. This Christian woman, the only one in our neighbourhood, was dearer to my mother than any other. She loved nothing better then to go over to her place and spend hours chatting with her.

Whenever I did not find her at home, my sister would tell me that she was “certainly with her best friend.” They would get together to cook, and of course, to gossip about other women. As for my sister, she was carefree, laughed a lot, made jokes, listened to music, watched soap operas; she was proud of her lovely hair and would dance in front of her girlfriends during family celebrations.

My cousin would often come over and greeted my sisters and me with a handshake. Sometimes he would kiss us on the forehead. He loved to dress well and to look good. He had a generous heart, which allowed him to have many friends. Surrounded by love, he was always in a good mood.

There was also my childhood friend from school. We were very fond of each other. I was her dearest confidante. She confided in me and would ask for my advice on everything that happened to her. She constantly told me that she had trouble getting through the day without coming over to see me. If we could not get together, we made up for it by spending three hours on the phone.

This was all before my mother began going to the mosque for prayer, and to stay after prayers to get instructions from an imam as to what was lawful and what was not. All this, was before my sister decided to wear the veil at the insistence of a friend; a friend who also eventually got her to attend the lessons given at the mosque. All this, was before my cousin grew a beard, after he too became a regular at the mosque. All this, was before my childhood friend decided to become “virtuous” and to hide her face.

Since then, my mother can not even bear the sight of Oum Hanna. Just the mention of her name upsets her. Whenever she leaves the house on an errand, or more often to go to the mosque, she rushes out the door so as not to run into her.

My sister is no longer the same person; her smile has become a frown. Now, instead of light-hearted conversations, she is into giving unsolicited advice to whomever she is with, beginning with me. Music, she tells me, must be considered a temptation of the devil, and by watching soap operas with its scenes of interaction between the sexes I am an accomplice in sin. She is quick to return the slightest strand of hair, that looking for some freedom dares to peak beneath her veil. If she must join in a family celebration she retreats to a corner, and if anyone asks her why she doesn’t dance anymore, she whispers: “I ask god’s forgiveness for that sin.”

My cousin now only comes to visit on Islamic holidays. And when he arrives, he greets us from a distance with an air of disapproval. He refuses to shake hands with my sister and me, probably because he now perceives us as women who, under Islamic law, he may marry. We have become potential sexual objects, and that is all we are to him now.

He claims to be in a permanent state of ritual cleanliness with a beard that now reaches almost to his stomach; he wears a typical Saudi Djellaba, short, just above the ankle in the salafist tradition; kohlis visible around his eyes; his perfume of oil and amber resin is of dubious quality, of the type sold outside mosques. This does not stop him from casting suggestive glances in our visible around his eyes; his perfume of oil and amber resin is of dubious quality, of the type sold outside mosques. This does not stop him from casting suggestive glances in our direction.

As to the friend who no longer comes over, I have the impression that I am now the furthest thing from her mind. She came to see me only once, and that was to sell me religious books of the type that promise to teach another language in five days or make you a millionaire in ten. In her case, it was how to gain access to Paradise in two lessons and three prayers.

My mother continues to tell me that I am a “good person”, but that if I am to achieve “real perfection” I must accompany her to the mosque. Every time she mentions this to me, I think of what happened to her, to my sister, my cousin and my friend… What could they possibility have told them at the mosque?

Zaynab Rashid