Updated: Nov 18, 2018
Without warning, I was released from my mother’s servitude to attend public school the following September. One day, I was her drone, the next I was a high school student. It made little impact on me initially — my overarching memory of that time is of feeling empty.
Many years later, I learned that my hero was a family friend who noticed how depressed I was — I suppose it was pretty evident, if not immediately obvious to those closest to me. He had two daughters around my age, and he had watched us grow up together. He threatened to tell the authorities about my parents’ illegal polygamy if they didn’t allow me to go to school. There was a huge hullabaloo over this, and it caused their decades-long friendship to be severed. To this day, I have no idea why he did that for me. He never spoke to me about it. I barely spoke to him at all, as men and women were always segregated. My mother was as perplexed as I was. She expressed it with characteristic venom.
“Why would anyone care about you?” She looked at me with suspicion, squinting slightly. “How could anyone be willing to give up a friendship for you?”
The fact that her safety was being threatened — again, because of me — only seemed to give her more reason to hate me. I was an unearthly scourge that was the unending cause of trauma in her life. She never recognized or accepted her part in creating all these situations for herself. And so, under threat of legal ramifications, I was allowed to go back to public school in September.
That year, grade ten, was a tough one for me. The darkness that filled me was omnipresent. I made one friend, Amber. She and I would mope around singing sad Enya or Sinead O’Connor songs and getting lost in historical romance novels. I didn’t actually enjoy the music or the books. I just followed along with whatever she wanted to do. I had no personal preferences or desires. I might have been released from the physical prison, but I was still imprisoned in my mind. There was no need to want anything, as I would never have it anyway, so it was easier to just be.
It had been two years since I had been betrayed by that judge, and I didn’t even consider the possibility that I might heal ever heal. I just accepted my new, empty life. One day, I would be married off to some stranger, and we would make babies, and I would teach them to pray if they wanted to avoid burning in hell.
That summer between grade ten and grade eleven, I took a handful of Tylenol, hoping to end my misery. I was really scared that I might actually die, as suicide was a direct path straight to hell, so I thought I would “accidentally” take too many. But Allah can read your mind, so he’d know I actually wanted to take the pills. I was so confused and stuck. I hated my life, but I couldn’t end it. Every path led to hell, either on Earth or in the hereafter. But I took the pills anyway. If Allah wants me to live, I’ll live — I’ll leave it up to him.
Hours later, I woke up groggy and sweaty. I was disappointed that it didn’t work. I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or not. I decided that, one way or another, I had to figure out a way to get out of this darkness. I found an old notebook with some leftover pages and I started to write. I wrote out all the possible paths and all the barriers that restricted me. Eventually, after coming at my dilemma from every angle, I realized that the only way out of this was to just get through the next few years. Adulthood was a lifetime away, but it seemed to be the only light at the end of this tunnel.
To lull myself to sleep, instead of imagining myself cutting him open and spilling his blood, I would force myself to envision the home I would have one day. I would imagine walking in the front door; there were stairs to the right going up and a living room off to the left. When I turned to look into the living room, I saw the back of the couch and the TV facing me. I would always be sitting on that couch eating popcorn or ice cream. I would imagine getting up and walking to the kitchen. Sometimes, I would go up to my bedroom and I would decorate it the same way every night, adding useless but pretty pillows and a throw blanket. There was a bay window in my bedroom where I could sit and read a book in the sunlight shining into my room. I could hear children playing on the street below.
I never did get a chance to live alone, but those fantasies kept me alive, ploughing through one day at a time, for years.
As grade eleven started, I had no expectations. I assumed that joy was something other people felt, and I just accepted my fate: this is what Allah wants for me.
That was the year I met Tiffany. She helped me discover that a few warm embers still glowed in my internal fire. She enthusiastically threw lighter fluid on those small sparks and jolted me out of my grey depression. There is no way I can write about Tiffany without covering my keyboard in tears. I lost her a couple of years ago, and I will never be the same.
Although I had been an atheist for years by the time it happened, losing Tiffany was the very first time since leaving Islam that I wished I still believed. To ease the pain momentarily, I would imagine that it was all true, that there was a Heaven and that I really would see Tiffers again. But that’s not how it worked in Islam, anyway. We would both be burning in hell. I wanted to believe in the Christian ideal of heaven, but as much as I wanted to believe, I knew it was all comforting lies. Tiffany would be the most disappointed in me. She would likely come back to haunt me to tell me how stupid I was being.
She was the first person to tell me that there was an option to not believe. I had no idea that was even a thing. She was curious after watching me pray and gently asked questions about why we did weird things like rest our hands on our knees as we knelt on the floor, then rhythmically lift only the index finger of the right hand up and down and up and down and up and down. You never realize how absurd something is until someone points it out.
“Why did your finger just have a spasm at the end there?”
“Oh … I don’t know. That’s just what you do.”
“I have no idea.”
“It’s kind of weird, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I guess it is.”
She changed my life. She opened my eyes. She awoke a spirit in me that was shriveled to almost nothing. For a person who was “physically weak,” she was actually the strongest woman to walk this planet. Tiffany had a congenital heart defect. Every year she lived was a miracle that perplexed her doctors to no end. But she was fearless. She was brave enough for the both of us, and then some. I remember reading about Salman Rushdie, at age 15, who ate a ham sandwich and then realized, “hunh, look at that … nothing happened.” He was so courageous to do that on his own! Even with Tiffany as my surrogate strength, though, nudging me to do similar things, I was still too deeply indoctrinated.
“How about, just this once, you don’t go into the bathroom with your left foot first and come out with your right foot. Let’s see if anything happens.”
“No, I can’t. You don’t understand …” This was why I didn’t like to tell people about my life. Now I had to deal with this pressure.
“Okay, just humour me.”
“Oh my God … no, I’m too scared …” I wished I had just lied to her and never answered her questions truthfully.
“And don’t mumble any prayers either. Just go into the goddamn bathroom, Yasmine. It’s not hard.”
“I’m gonna get possessed, and it’s gonna be all your fault,” I whined, only half-jokingly. I was taught that people who entered the bathroom with the wrong foot or without reciting the short dua (prayer), would be possessed by the demons that live in the bathroom.
“You know how many shits I’ve taken in my life? Do I seem possessed to you? Do you think all these people who don’t say a little prayer before going into the bathroom left foot first are possessed?”
“I don’t know,” I said. But I couldn’t deny that she made a very valid point.
I cautiously entered the bathroom right foot first, scared stiff the whole time. Heart beating like a drum, I finished my business as quickly as possible and finally ran out, exhaling loudly.
“Are you possessed?”
“Okay, let’s go get some lunch.”
It seems so ridiculous to write these words down now, now that I’m not brainwashed anymore. But Tiffers and I had multiple conversations that I am absolutely positive I would never have bothered to have with other people. She was so careful with me. I don’t know how she did it. I would have walked away from this basket case girl and just joined some sane friends, but she stood by me. And she tried to get me to realize that there was something going on between my mother and my “uncle.”
“No … no, he’s just a family friend.”
“A family friend that she’s fucking.”
“No, no … he’s married.”
“No woman would let a man do these things to her children unless she was getting something in return.”
“No, Tiffers, trust me. It’s not like that.”
It never dawned on me how obvious it all was. I never suspected my mom of being a homewrecker, not once. I honestly believed all the lies she told me.
But Tiffany had planted the seeds of doubt. Seeds that took many more years to finally sprout.
After about a year of friendship, the cement had loosened to the point that I could wiggle my toes. Tiffany was my lifeline. I rode on the coattails of her strength and courage, but I was still not whole enough to walk on my own.
It should come as no surprise that Tiffany devoted her life to animals in shelters. Her home was filled with all the animals that she refused to let get euthanized. And once neither her home nor her garden could fit anymore, she passed all sorts of misfit animals to family and friends. She had passion, patience and an ability to rehabilitate abused and neglected animals. I might have been her first case.
Grade twelve, my final year of high school, was a bittersweet year. I knew it was my last chance at having a tenuous connection to reality. I knew that once school was over, I would likely be married off, an ever-looming threat. My mother had told me several times that once I was finished school and away from the clutches (and support) of my kaffir friends, she would get rid of me. Tiffany offered to let me move in with her. They had a huge three-story house with a swimming pool that overlooked the ocean. But I couldn’t take her up on the offer. I was sure it was just a polite gesture. No one could really want this piece of garbage living in their home. I tried to enjoy my final year as much as I could. I knew it would be my last taste of freedom.
That year, my real uncle came to visit from New York and he convinced my mom to move out of the basement. He admonished her for raising children under such conditions. He helped us to pack and we finally moved out.
My mom always complained about how much everything cost and would threaten to move back again. I finally persuaded her to allow me to take a job answering phones at a pizza parlor to help out. I gave her all my cheques, never kept a dime for myself. I was happy to be out of the house; that was more than enough payment. And if it helped to ensure we would never go back to living in that basement of horrors, I was happy to oblige.
Our rental home was a fair walk from the school, about 15 minutes past Tiffany’s house. So, Tiffers and I would walk halfway together, and then we would separate to walk the rest of the way on our own. On one of these walks, she told me she’d heard a lyric that reminded her of me. She was hesitant to tell me, lest it hurt my feelings, but eventually she let it spill. It was a line from Bette Midler’s song, “The Rose”:
“It’s the soul afraid of dying, that never learns to live.”
Well, that just described me, if not every Muslim, in a nutshell. We were perpetually scared. Fear Allah. Fear hell. Fear damnation. Fear the kaffir. Fear the Jews. Fear the devil. Fear the Day of Judgment. Oy vey! It was never-ending. It was a constant fear that spread like a cancer through my thoughts all the time, prohibiting me from doing anything, leaving me too scared to move.
And no, we would never learn to live, because that’s not the goal. The goal is to die, and that’s when we start living. This life is but a test. It’s an illusion. Nothing matters. The real life that matters happens in the hereafter.
Every time I hear Bette Midler sing anything, I burst into tears. That was “our song.” Tiffers and I would sing it loudly to each other as we walked opposite ways home.
“Some say looooove …”
“It is a riiiiveeeeer …”
As other graduates were chattering away about college, going away to university or planning out their gap year, I answered all queries about my personal plans with “I don’t know.” Because I really didn’t know. I had no idea what plans my mother had for me. I was never notified or consulted, but it wasn’t like I had any say in the matter, anyway.
I wanted to go to my prom very badly. I actually had plans for a friend to come and pick me up, but the night before, we went over to a family friend’s house in a neighbouring city and had an “impromptu” sleepover that lasted two nights. I was heartbroken. She’d ripped away my chance at having a happy ending to my time with my friends.
I have earned three universities degrees since then. Yet, I’ve missed out on each one of those ceremonies, too. What would be the point of walking across the stage if there were no one in the audience to care, no one to take my picture? To bring me flowers. To say congratulations. It would just have been a heartbreaking reminder that I was all alone in the world. So, I never went to any of my convocation ceremonies.
After high school graduation, Tiffany went to Africa, followed by Europe, and I went with my family to Egypt for the second time in my life. In Egypt, everyone also kept asking me what my plans were, just like the high school friends I’d left behind in Canada, and again I would respond that I didn’t know.
“What do you want to do?” It was such a silly — and commonly asked — question. What difference did it make? I never stopped to think about what I wanted. That would be absurd. Would you ask a slave where she was going on holiday that summer? I never even realized I had a choice. I would just have to wait and see like everyone else.
My (now married) sister was in university, and my brother was in college, so I asked my mom if I could go to college, too. She said, “Insha Allah,” which literally means “God willing,” but really meant “Dream on.” She gave me no indication that I would be allowed to go to college, but she also gave me no inkling of what her plans actually were.
This time in Egypt wasn’t nearly as fun as it was when I was seven. It was hot and dirty. I barely understood the language. I knew I should feel some connection with the world around me, but I didn’t. Nothing felt right to me. I was born and raised in Canada. Even though I attended Islamic schools, and my mother tried her hardest to raise me in a bubble, I was still Canadian. Egyptian culture was very different from what I was used to in Vancouver, and completely different from the way my mom had described it.
She always went on at length about how much better Egypt was and how much better Egyptians were, but I saw no evidence of this. Even her constant jabs at the kaffir way of life were totally unwarranted. In this “Muslim country,” there were women not wearing hijab, Amr Diab music blaring all the time, parties where men and women were in mixed company. I even had the very first birthday cake of my life in Egypt. My eighteenth birthday was celebrated with an ice-cream cake and all my cousins singing an odd rendition of Happy Birthday in their adorable, barely coherent accents.
None of this was what I was used to. I found the customs confusing. I found the superstitions overwhelming. I couldn’t make sense of the cultural norms. I have an uncle who is a “jinn hunter,” like Sam and Dean Winchester, basically, in the television series Supernatural. People would contact him if they thought their house was possessed by a jinn, if their child was acting strangely or if they couldn’t get pregnant — all sorts of reasons. There was an earnest belief that jinn were everywhere. Jinn are mentioned in the Quran as spirits that live among us. Some of them wreak havoc and cause trouble. Others just hang out. Some fall in love with humans and act like stalkers. One woman felt her daughter had a jinn inside her that was preventing her from being impregnated by her husband because the jealous jinn was in love with her.
These were grown adults, educated people. They were successful in their lives, and completely sane, but they believed this as strongly as you or I would believe that we need oxygen to survive. It was an unquestioned truth. Jinn possession and exorcisms are as common there as the common cold. Once you start to talk about your jinn story, everyone has a remedy for you.
“Oh yeah, my grandmother had that problem once, turned out a jinn was possessing her.”
I walked around feeling like there was something wrong with me. It never occurred to me that they were the ones with issues. But that all started to change. It was slowly dawning on me that adults could say or do or believe stupid things.
My uncle was eating a chocolate bar one day.
“I wonder what these crispy things in here are ...”
“That’s puffed rice,” I said.
“What?” He bellowed it out.
“It’s puffed rice. Like Rice Krispies. Do you guys have Rice Krispies cereal in Egypt?”
“What are you talking about?” he scoffed. “Rice? I suppose there’s also some vegetables and roasted chicken in here, too?” He was laughing so hard, he was barely able to chew his chocolate.
“Read the ingredients,” I said.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Read the ingredients!” I said again.
“Don’t be stupid. I don’t need to read the ingredients. I know it’s not rice.” He continued to laugh as he rolled his eyes and threw out the wrapper.
That is the mindset of Muslims in a nutshell: I don’t need to learn the truth — I already know it. I don’t need to read the ingredients. I don’t need to read science books. I don’t need to learn anything more — I already know. And once you say you know, you’re finished learning.
One morning, as I went to get dressed, I couldn’t find my clothes anywhere. I kept them in a blue suitcase, but the suitcase was nowhere to be found. I started asking. Eventually, I found the suitcase in the room my mother was staying in. I was relieved — now I could get dressed! But when I opened it up, nothing in it was mine.
“Where is all my stuff?” I asked my mom.
“I needed the suitcase.”
“Ok, but where are all my clothes?”
“You don’t have any clothes.”
“What? Yes, I do. They were all in that suitcase!”
“I gave it all away to your cousins.”
“Why? How? What am I supposed to wear?”
“You can buy new clothes. They all looked ugly on you, anyway. You are so fat, and you look horrible. I am embarrassed you’re my daughter.”
The tears just welled up. Tears of anger. Tears of confusion. Tears of humiliation. Tears of indignation. I started to argue back, but as usual, she would whip out the most vicious things to say to shut me up.
“I pissed you out. You hear me? You are my urine. You are nothing but my bodily waste! I excreted you! You are just a turd that I should have flushed! You have no right to question me. You are nothing.”
I was not used to being treated like a human being by her. But, even for her, this was an all-time low. I had no idea how to reconcile it.
“So, we’re going to go shopping for all new clothes that fit me when we get home?” I barely managed to steady my voice.
“Yeah, sure. Insha Allah. Get out of my face.”
“What am I supposed to wear today? Or on the plane?”
“I don’t care. I said GET OUT!”
I was so infuriated that my cousins came to me — sheepishly, embarrassed, apologizing — and tried to give me back my clothes. I took back a few favourites, but I left the rest. I would feel ugly and fat in them now, anyway, since my mother had poured vinegar on that old wound. I knew I just wouldn’t feel the same wearing them again. Besides, I could go on a shopping spree when I returned home. I looked forward to that. But I was suspicious of her promise, since most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my sister. I had very few that had been purchased just for me. So, I was hesitant to fully believe that all of a sudden my mom would be willing to buy me a whole new wardrobe.
But what did it matter? We were leaving tomorrow. I couldn’t wait to get back home and see Tiffany and hear all about her travels. Maybe I could push my mom to let me go to college. I could work to pay my tuition; she just had to agree to let me out the door. I went to bed that night exasperated, sad, excited, confused and exhausted. It had been a whirlwind of a time in Egypt, and I was really looking forward to going home.
I woke up to a very quiet house the next morning. I thought it was strange that the sun was shining. Oh my god! Did we miss our flight? We should have left for the airport hours ago!
Heart racing, I darted around looking for my mom. I couldn’t find her. The suitcases were gone. My sister was gone. My brother was gone. What was going on?
The familiar tightness in my chest, difficulty breathing, cold sweat, blurred vision — another panic attack was taking me over.
I found my mom’s twin sister. And even though I already knew the answer, I rained questions on her hysterically.
“Where is everyone? What’s going on? Did they leave for the airport without me? Where is my family?”
“They left,” she spat out.