Updated: Nov 18, 2018
#ExMuslimBecause I couldn’t debate or criticize Islam without my parents yelling or screaming at me, and threatening me. ~ @nukacola11
“Please, no! Please, I’m sorry. Mama! Mama! Please!”
I’m lying on my bed as I was ordered, pleading frantically as I’ve done many times before. I’m dreading the familiar scene, even though it’s unfolding right in front of me. He grabs my ankle and tugs me sharply toward the foot of the bed. I have to resist the urge to pull my feet away. I know that it will be worse if I do. I’m crying so hard I can’t catch my breath as he uses my skipping rope to bind my feet to the bed.
He picks up his favourite orange plastic stick. It replaced the wood ones that kept breaking. At first I was glad, as this wouldn’t give me splinters, but I didn’t realize it would hurt so much more. For the rest of my life, I will hate the colour orange. He whips the soles of my feet. I am six years old, and this is my punishment for not correctly memorizing surahs (chapters) from the Quran.
“So, you think you’ll memorize properly next time?”
I plead silently to my mother with my eyes. Why aren’t you raising your voice or your hand to protect me? Why are you just standing there next to him? What could possibly be holding her back? Was she afraid of him? She had asked him to come over. Was she was partly to blame? In the moment, I cannot accept that the only parent I know would willingly give me up to be bound and beaten. He is the evil one, not my mother. That had to be the truth. So why, then, had she phoned him and asked him to come over? Why?
“Next time I come here, I want to hear all three surahs, you understand?”
“Which three surahs are they?”
I hesitate for a fraction of a second, and he raises his hand again, a hint of anticipation glinting from his eyes. When there is no fresh skin for his blows to land on, they fall on my already bruised and torn feet. My body is slick with sweat. My heart is racing. It’s difficult to breathe, but I know this will never end until I find the strength to push on.
“Al Fatiha, Al Kauthar, and … Al Ikhlas.” Three short surahs necessary for the five daily prayers. The words come out of me, rasping, choking, barely audible.
“If you make one mistake — one mistake — I will show you how I can really hurt you.”
Finally, he unties the rope, throws it on the floor and walks out. I lie there waiting for my mother to come and console me. She doesn’t come. I wait after every beating, but she never comes. She always follows him out the door, and I listen to their voices and laughter as they tell stories. I wait breathlessly to hear the front door close. I cannot relax until I know he is out of the apartment. It’s hard to steady my breathing as I watch the lights from the cars on the street below sweep across my ceiling. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. Eventually, I curl up into a ball and slip my thumb into my mouth.
Despite the throbbing in my feet and the involuntary sobs that inflate my chest forcefully, I fall into a deep sleep, the kind of deep sleep that can only follow a struggle that threatens to destroy your very soul.
I awaken groggily in the middle of the night with the familiar cold, wet spot underneath me. One of my feet touches the spot, and the unbearable stinging forces me wide awake. I know I have to make my way to the washroom, but the thought of the pain of bearing my own weight makes my eyes well up with tears again. Carefully, I dangle my feet over the side of the bed. They are swollen with bubbles of blood. I brace myself before stepping down. I know that if I put all my weight on them, they might burst, but I have to move quickly to wash off the pee that stings the open sores. I walk on the outer bones of my feet so that my sores can avoid the carpet. I hobble slowly, steadying myself with every step — first with my dresser, then the doorknob, then the wall in the hallway. The sensation of the squish as the wounds inevitably tear open is one I still remember vividly almost forty years later.
All this pain is nothing, I am assured, compared to the fire of hell if I do not memorize. Before I learn to bite my tongue, I question.
“If Allah burned my flesh off, and then regrew it, and then burned it again, for all eternity, won’t I eventually get used to it?”
“No,” my mom replies. “Allah will make sure that every single time hurts as much as the first time.”
I was terrified of Allah, of the Day of Judgment, of burning in hell — not things that occupy the mind of the average child.
Although these things petrified me, I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t push back. Listening to music, for example, was forbidden. Music is from the devil. Nonetheless, when no one was home, I would turn the dial on our clock radio to LG73 and listen to the pop hits of the day. The Fresh Prince was right: parents just don’t understand. But I feared the wrath of Allah. Singing along to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” I always fell silent when it came to the line “imagine no religion” — too scared even to hum it, lest I apostate myself. Being an apostate, a kaffir (non-believer), is the worst possible sin in Islam. Punishable by death. I remember wondering, how could I love 99 per cent of this song so strongly, but be so completely avoidant of this one line? So avoidant I couldn’t even lip sync it. Could it be that if Lennon was right about the rest of it, maybe he was right about that line, too?
I have quite a few memories like that, of times when the light glinted momentarily through the cracks of the binding cement of Islam that was slathered on me layer after layer throughout my childhood.
According to one of the five pillars of Islam, we are required to pray at least five times a day. Repeating the rhythmic patterns and hypnotically moaning the foreign words during the five daily prayers keep us forever in line. No time to stray from the right path if the next prayer is constantly impending. No time for the cement to chip off before a new layer is troweled on.
The prayers are mind-numbingly repetitive. There is no room for the slightest variation. Every ceremonial motion and every word, is specific and methodic, stripping the ummah (the community of Muslims) of any individuality. Get in line. Follow the herd. No distractions. During Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, everyone is actually stripped of their individual clothing, and all the hajjis dress alike in simple, white cloth.
Preparing to pray was as repetitive a process as the prayers themselves. The first step was a washing up ritual called wudu. Each step of wudu needed to be repeated three times: wash your hands three times, rinse out your mouth three times, wipe your nose three times, wash your face three times, rinse your arms from wrist to elbow three times, wipe your ears three times, wash your feet three times.
My legs were too short to lift my feet into the sink, so I would hop up onto the counter for the last step. After wudu, you were ready to start praying, but if you peed or pooped or farted after wudu, you had to do it all over again.
The prayers were next. They came with their own ritualistic minutiae. You had to be facing in a specific direction: toward the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The boys didn’t need to wear anything specific, but the girls had to cover every inch of their bodies, except for their faces and hands. I hated wearing socks, but Allah didn’t accept prayers from girls with exposed toes, only from boys.
My brother would start with the adhan, or call to prayer. There didn’t seem to be much need for it, considering we were all there in the living room already. He would turn his head to the left and right to make sure his voice carried as far as possible.
Then, we would line up — boys in front, girls behind. In our separate lines, we had to stand as close as possible to each other, shoulders touching, feet touching, so that the devil couldn’t get in between.
The prayers followed a specific procedure, a series of movements. First, you stand with your hands on your chest (right hand over your left hand) and you recite a specific surah in this position. Then, you put your hands on your knees and repeat another specific thing three times, then straighten up again, then go face down on the floor, mumble the prescribed words three times, then rock back on your knees, saying the words explicit for this position, then face down to the floor again, and back up on your knees again – one of these cycles is called a raka. The length of the prayers differed from two to four rakas. And after each prayer, there were extra prayers I was told were optional. They were never optional for me, though.
This entire ritual had to happen five times a day. And in each prayer, in each raka, the same words were repeated, chanted, burned into my six-year-old brain. I never knew the meanings of any of the words that I repeated at least twenty times a day. Their meaning was never discussed. They were just meant to be repeated ad nauseam without thought. Questioning only led to anger and admonishment.
Even though the majority of the day was taken up in prayer, doubt found a way to sneak in. I wished I could just submit — that is, after all, the true meaning of the word “islam:” submission. Good Muslims stop struggling and just submit to the cement drying them in place.
I never did stop struggling, but I was filled with self-hatred for it. How could I ever be a true Muslim if I couldn’t let go and just submit? My sister and brother didn’t seem to have any problems, not that they shared with me, anyway. For this, I earned the moniker “black sheep” from my mother. She said it was the devil making me question.
As I grew older, the questions became harder to answer. I recall a particularly revealing exchange with my mother in my teen years.
“He was over fifty years old, and he married a six-year-old?”
“So? Do you think that you know more than Allah’s prophet? Who are you to question his actions?”
“Was he a pedophile?”
“NO! Of course not! He only had sex with her after she became a woman. After she got her period. Before that he only did other things with her, to prepare her. So she would be comfortable with him when the day came. Subhanallah, Allah’s messenger was always thoughtful and considerate like that.”
“Oh, so she was all grown up …?”
“Yes, in the eyes of Allah she was grown up. You become a woman when you get your period, and all your sins start to get counted. Before that, you are a child, and nothing you do is recorded.”
“So how old was she?”
“She was nine.”
“Nine? That’s not a woman!” By now, I was shouting.
My mother answered my persistent questions with a slap on the face, with nasty, hate filled words and reminders that my questioning was the devil getting in my brain whispering these thoughts to me. Shaytan, the devil, was too strong for me to fight. I tried to swallow my questions, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself. And as the battle raged, I became too scared even to question things in my own head, as Allah would read my mind and punish me for doubting him. Anything positive was thanks to Allah, and anything negative was because of my weakness, because of the devil influencing me. I never felt in control of my own life.
It wasn’t the devil, of course; it was natural questioning and critical thinking.
This was one of the most difficult things about leaving Islam — making decisions, relying on my inner thoughts and voice that had been regularly stifled in the past. Now, I had to conjure them up again and figure out how to hear and trust myself. I was not taught to think. Thinking was discouraged and, in fact, punished. I was taught to do as I was told. Every single aspect of life was prescribed for me. No decision was mine to make: how to use the bathroom, how to drink water, how to cut my nails, how to put on my shoes — and everything in between — was specifically outlined. I was nothing more than a vessel created to spread the word of Allah, and hopefully, to give my life in that endeavor — the perfect life of a good Muslim, no more, no less.
I was never happy with the role I’d been cast in. I remembered a time when I was free of any cement, and so I struggled with each layer that was piled on me. I remembered the years before my mother embraced Islam and started covering her hair and calling everything haram (forbidden). I remembered taking swimming lessons and playing in the park. I remembered not having to get up before dawn to mumble into the carpet. I remembered being allowed to play with my Barbies and with the neighbours’ kids. I remembered celebrating birthdays and eating Oreos. All of these things and so much more were now forbidden.
But these things were not forbidden to my mother when she was my age. Even though she came from a Muslim family, she wasn’t raised like this. I would stare with envy at my parents’ black-and-white wedding photos. My mother looked like a Bond girl in her knee-length wedding gown. She wore her hair in a beehive, and she had dramatic eye makeup with huge swooping fake lashes. A gorgeous and elegant belly dancer could be seen in almost every photograph. I used to look at those wedding photos and be struck with what a completely different world she came from.
So many things in that four-by-six frame were haram. My mother’s legs were bare, her dress was tight, her sleeves only reached her elbow, she wore makeup and her hair was uncovered. Even her hairstyle was forbidden in Islam. There was alcohol, music and dancing: all of those things are haram.
My mom probably never even heard the word haram growing up. She had lived a charmed life. Her uncle was the first president of Egypt, so they were filthy rich and powerful. My grandfather was already married with three children when his brother became the most powerful man in the country. However, he decided to capitalize on his brother’s celebrity and get himself a light-skinned girl. He needed his trophy wife to have European colouring and features, but she still had to be the right religion, so he got himself a young girl from Turkey as his second (concurrent) wife.
When my grandmother arrived in Egypt, she didn’t even speak Arabic, but she was richly rewarded for her efforts. She moved into a huge mansion with multiple servants and proceeded to push out children — seven, to be exact. When Nasser came to power, and my grandfather became persona non grata and was put under house arrest, it all became too much for him. He was already feeling overwhelmed with a total of ten children and two wives, so he moved to Saudi Arabia. From there, he sent money to his two families. Of course, he wasn’t about to be all alone over there, so he married a third time in Saudi Arabia.
He didn’t move away until my mother was in university, though. As the first of seven children, she and her twin sister were the only ones who were actually raised by their father — and there was no question that my mom was the favourite. None of the other kids were as lucky; some of them barely even remember their father. She had nannies her whole life. She never had to lift a finger. The (true) joke was that when she married my dad, she didn’t even know how to boil water. She went to fancy private Catholic schools. In those days in Egypt, people were much more secular than they are now. These were the days before the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
I was angry that my mother had gotten to live such a glamorous life, while I was forced to study surahs from the Quran, not allowed to ride a bike for fear I might lose my virginity or learn to swim because bathing suits showed too much skin. Why didn’t she want me to have the same freedoms she had? She had Christian friends, but I wasn’t even allowed to play with my friends down the hall, Chelsea and Lindsay, because they were kuffar, non-believers. Day after day they would knock on the apartment door.
“Can we come in and play with Yasmine?”
“No, not right now,” my mother would answer. I would stand in the hallway, wringing my hands, desperately hoping she would relent.
“Can she come to our place?”
“No, she’s busy.”
“I’m not busy!” I’d chirp.
“Go to your room!”
I missed my old, normal mom who had no issue with us playing with the neighbours’ children — my old, normal mom the way she was before our lives were ruined by an atomic bomb that went off in our home.
That “bomb” was the man who took my mother as his second wife — “Uncle Mounir.” His entrance into our life was truly explosive. No tremble, no warning, no change of wind — just suddenly there, a violent sociopath tearing through our life. He walked into our home like he owned it, with his disheveled beard and his calloused hands. He rarely interacted with me, unless it was to bind my feet to the foot of my bed. I had no idea my mother was a second wife. We called him uncle, and he had his own wife and children. It wasn’t until I was in college that my mother finally revealed this truth. Polygamy was against the law, and so she didn’t trust us with that damning information. So, even though he was technically a stepfather to me, we never had a father/daughter relationship. He was just the man who would beat us up, and (I would learn later) occasionally have sex with our mother.
Sometimes, I would come home from school to find him in my home.
“What did I do?” As far as I knew, the only purpose of his visits was to beat someone.
“Nothing. Just go play in your room.” My mom would shoo me off.
One time, I went to use the bathroom and I heard them both in the shower. No biggie. My brother and I used to bathe together in those days. Later, in front of his wife — I can’t remember why — I happened to mention that they were in the shower together.
“What? That’s not true!” They both vehemently denied it.
“Yes, you were. I heard you both in there.” They inexplicably kept insisting that I was mistaken. And I couldn’t figure out why.
It’s a weird feeling to know that your mother is lying. I didn't think she was capable of it. They kept insisting that I was wrong. Eventually, I found myself agreeing with her, even though it contradicted what was right in front of me. I didn’t see what I saw, or hear what I heard, because she told me differently. And I wanted to believe her. She was my mother, after all. I trusted her over myself. So, I relented and accepted that they weren’t in the shower together. I must have been mistaken.
I got the same feeling when she told me that she would talk to him and ask him to stop beating us. And I believed her. Even though he would be right back there again the next day. How could he have known if we’d missed a prayer? He wasn’t even there. Somehow, the words she said had this power to override reality.
Before he invaded our home, we lived a much calmer life. We had an outdoor pool in our building. I had just learned to swim underwater — I wasn't yet confident with a front crawl, but I was determined to learn. We also had a playground in our building that I would play in for hours. I would ride my bike, and play Barbies with my friends. My siblings and I had a lot of freedom. We were too young to recognize that the freedom was actually neglect; we just thought it meant we could stay out and play for as long as we wanted. When all my friends had gone in for dinner, and there was no one left to play with, I would go back upstairs. But there was never any dinner waiting on our dining table.
“Don't you have to go home now?” my friend’s mother would say.
“No, I can stay for as long as I want.”
“When is your bedtime?”
“I don't have one!” I’d reply proudly.
“You're so lucky…” My friend would respond.
My mom spent most of her days watching soap operas and eating sunflower seeds. I would leave for school in the morning and return to find her in the same spot, the only difference being that the mounds of shells were higher. Every now and then, she would holler for me to come and change the channel.
In hindsight, it’s likely that she was depressed at having been stuck with three children after her marriage fell apart. She was desperately searching for community, a support network, and-unfortunately-this search led her to the local mosque where she found that monster who offered to marry her, to make her whole, and to financially provide for her three children. She must have felt so alone, so abandoned. And without any belief that she had any agency as a woman, without any confidence that she could be a successful human being on her own, that she did not need a man, she saw herself as a parasite looking for a host, she clung to this man who was beneath her-as per the Egyptian class system-and who beat her children, but she felt like her only option was to shrug and accept what she could get.
In her depressed and confused state, the simplicity and order of Islam must have been so enticing. It offers a structure that is so rigid it outlines how you should cut your fingernails. There is a precise order in which to cut them, followed by a specific manner in which to dispose of the clippings. Nothing-no decisions-are left up to the individual. Every single aspect of your life is clarified for you. For someone who is scared and confused, such a system, designed with military-precision, would be a saving grace.
She jumped in head first. Akin to born-again Christians who ‘let go and let God’ who proclaim ‘Jesus take the wheel’. She didn’t want to be responsible for making decisions. She wanted Allah to make all the decisions she felt unqualified to make. There is a lot of peace in that. She wouldn’t have to weigh the myriads of options to determine the best course of action in any scenario….the work was already done. All she had to do was follow and obey. Walk along the straight and narrow path provided by the religion. What a literal godsend. She was intoxicated by the prospect. It allowed her to cope with not only a strange country with no support system...but with three noisy, needy children in tow as well.
She told me many times that she didn’t like children. She would tell me how others would ooh and aah over babies and she found it so strange-she could not figure out what they were all excited about. A blob that drools and cries? But the culture she grew up in did not allow her the option of having children — it was just what was expected. I never felt she actually wanted any of us, though, or even had a maternal bone in her entire body. Her culture also made it impossible for her to exert any power over her life. Quite often, unfortunately, in misogynistic societies, mothers are vicious to their daughters. Exerting power over their (female) children is the only domain where it is acceptable. Her disinterest in children, even her own, allowed her to drop my brother and sister off in Saudi Arabia to be raised by her in-laws who were expats there. My siblings were raised by our grandparents for two years. And then she got pregnant with me.
She told me later that she only got pregnant with me hoping it would keep my dad around. She didn’t like that he was enticed by the free-love hippie ways of San Francisco of the 1960s, so she made him move to Canada. Once they got here, though, he continued running around on her. She lied to him and told him she was on the pill. But when he was about to leave her, she told him she was pregnant again-hoping it would prevent him from leaving her as it did before. But he didn’t care this time. He still left her. I had failed to serve my sole purpose for being brought into this world. I was superfluous, useless, collateral damage.
Maybe, after struggling in that marriage for ten years, he finally recognized that she was selfish and manipulative. He decided to save himself. He went off and remarried and had three new kids. And we were left to be raised by a narcissist who allowed a monster into our lives because it served her ends.
I used to dream that my dad would come and save me, but I never really knew him. My parents were divorced before my second birthday. Before he left, he had wanted to name me Philistine — I even had a birth certificate in that name before my mom legally changed it. Philistine is the Arabic word for Palestine. Though my dad had very tenuous ties to his native land, he sought to make a statement, make amends, by naming his daughter after his country. The only problem with that was “philistine” in English is a derogatory word, its closest synonym being “barbarian.” Not a very nice name to give your daughter.
Before remarrying and having three new kids, he used to come to visit periodically. He would take us to McDonald’s and the aquarium. I remember going to his girlfriend’s house and playing with her Russian dolls. But he was never a father to me. It was easy for my mom to make up stories about how evil he was- because he was never there to defend himself. He was never there to prove her wrong. Throughout my life, I saw him, on average, about once every decade.
With no dad to save me, I used to imagine that I was adopted and that my real family was out there. I fit with them. I wasn’t the black sheep of that family. Until we were reunited, I had no choice but to endure this horrible man who was becoming more and more a part of my life. I had to endure whatever aggressive, violent or humiliating things he chose to do to me on any particular day.
One of the first things he did was break all of my mom’s records and destroy our record player. He broke her Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Fat Albert and Kenny Rogers records with savage anger as we looked on confused. Why wasn’t our mom stopping him? Why was she allowing this man to break her things? She stood sheepishly off to the side. She was so different when he was around. Suddenly, she was meek and quiet and incredibly accommodating. She was all I had to protect me, but she was nothing like WonderWoman on TV. I understood in that moment that she would never stand up for me. She would never defend me from his beatings. She wouldn't even defend her records.
He encouraged us to get in on it, but I had no desire to destroy the albums. I didn’t realize it then, but that was the very first coat of cement. It had not yet hardened, and so I didn’t hesitate before questioning. I picked up the sharp, shattered pieces of Bill Cosby’s stand-up album and asked my mom why he was doing this.
“Because these are all haram!”
Haram. How that word would grow to infuriate me! To this day, I have an issue with denying myself anything, because of all the years I was denied practically everything.