Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Sometimes Solidarity Came in Silence"

I'm reading this terrific novel, Sweet Dates in Basra, by Jessica Jiji.

The book starts off in early 1941 Basra, Iraq.

It's written mainly from the point of view of three Iraqi children - Omar (Muslim), Shafiq (Jewish), and Kathmiya (Shia, Marsh Arab).

Omar and Shafiq live along side each other in a house separated only by a wall.  The two families are actually like one despite the differences in religion.

I"m not finished with the book yet to give a proper review, but I am so touched by two of the female characters, Salwa and Reema, that I wanted to share a little about them with you.

Salwa is Omar's mother, and Reema is Shafiq's mother. 

They both gave birth around the same time, so when Reema fell ill, her daughter, Leah, took little Shafiq to Salwa, and she nursed little Shafiq until Reema was well enough to care for him.  "It was one of those when-you-were-a-little-boy stories," Shafiq tells the reader, that he "never tired of hearing ... how he and Omar were christened brothers."

"You were such a part of me then," his mother explained years later.  "Like a little piece that broke off from my body.  All I cared about when I woke up was you.  I was calling out your name even though you were barely half a year old and could never have answered.  My throat was so sore.  I don't know if anyone could even hear me.  But then Leah came over, she put another wet towel on my head and she said, "We brought him to Salwa." 

Omar's mother, the neighbor.

"After I heard Salwa had you," his mother continued, "I could sleep.  I didn't wake up for five days.  The jinn was trying to kill me, trying to get both of us, but it couldn't."

His mother's milk had run dry, but Salwa, who was nursing her own little Omar, saved Shafiq's life.

When Leah first brought her Shafiq, Salwa famously told Omar, "Make some room for your brother."

Salwa never expected Shafiq's mother, without ever having heard those words, to mimic them when she picked him up after the fever broke.  But as soon as Reema scooped up her flowing, sated baby, she said, "Shafiq, you have to leave a little milk for your brother."

So it was that they were and ever would be related.
Subhan'Allah!  In these present days of Islamophobia, anti-semitism, Palestine, Israel, Zionism, and all that - how many Muslim women can make claim to have a CLOSE Jewish woman friend?  How many Jewish women can say they have a CLOSE Muslim woman friend?

How many Muslim or Jewish women can boast of having such solidarity as Reema and Salwa had?  How many Muslim women would so willingly and so selflessly give her breast to a Jewish child?

When Salwa's husband, Hajji Abdullah Abd El Hamid, passed away, it was Reema who was there for her.

For three days following the funeral, the living room in the Abd El Hamid home was transformed into a reception area where visitors streamed in to pay respects. Shafiq and his family joined in bowing their heads and hearing the prayers of the mullah. Roobain (Shafiq's father), who had been to the funerals of other Muslim friends and associates, had explained it all: the special sura they recited from the Koran, the way to bow your head, the chance to reach for the hands of the family. 'But they may not respond and you shouldn't expect them to,' he'd said. 'Sometimes solidarity is louder in silence.'

Reema proved that. Her head covered with a veil, she got up and went to the kitchen, where she stayed for sixteen hours. And returned the next day for longer. And the next. No salt or blue china (for luck and to ward off evil spirits). Just making coffee and cooking meat and chopping vegetables and baking bread and cleaning, cleaning and scrubbing and washing the house so that Salwa, all she had to do was cry.

Sometimes solidarity came in silence. And sometimes in shaking rice in a pan to get all the little pebbles out. Shake, shake, a sound like a rattle, the pebbles separate and the rice is clean.

Shafiq thought of Salwa saving his life when his mother's milk ran dry. She was a widow now, but like Reema, he would never desert her.
I was so touched by that.  I think it's because of what I perceive as the sad and lost relationship between many Muslim and Jewish women today.

How many Jewish women would abandon their own households and families for days to care for their Muslim sister and her family in their time of desperate need? 

Reema did.  In silence.  No one asked her to.  She just knew what she had to do.  For her sister.

Reema and Salwa related to each other as women and friends.  It didn't matter that one was Jewish and the other was Muslim.  Even though the novel is a work of fiction, it wasn't easy for Muslim and Jewish woman in 1940s Iraq.  There was a constant fear that the Nazis would invade Iraq.  There were regular attacks on innocent Jews from certain segments of Iraqi society.  Jewish people were killed and hurt, their homes and businesses destroyed or looted.  Iraqi Jews were voraciously nationalistic and were proud to be Iraqis.  Sadly, as history played out, Iraq eventually did expell its Jewish population.  Today, very few Jews remain in Iraq.

I wonder how the Salwas and Reemas of Iraq dealt with that.  Like their solidarity sometimes came in silence, did it go in silence as well?  I wonder what will happen to Salwa and Reema by the end of this novel.

I read an article not too long ago about a group of Muslim and Jewish women in California who developed a "Cousin's Club."  They meet on a regular basis for sisterhood and solidarity.  During their get togethers, they talk about everything and anything.  They are very close and their relationships are very precious to them.

Our local rabbi is a woman.  This week, Insha Allaah, we are starting a local Cousin's Club.  So far, there's the rabbi, me, and one other Jewish woman.  I pitched the idea to some of the Muslim women at my masjid, and I think some of them may come in time.  But we need to start with just the few of us. 

Well, back to reading ... I'll let you know if the novel's worth the read when I'm finished with it.


Anonymous said...

A beautiful post Sis Safiyyah, I'm going to have to add this book to my reading list now. There's another book I'm reading now that you may be interested in that also starts in the 40s but spans the whole Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It's beautiful and heart-wrenching and I can't put it down...Susan Abulhawa's Mornings in Jenin.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting about this book! These are characters to be proud of, to respect, to emulate. If we all help each other out as we can, then life is easier for all of us.

SN Taylor said...

This sounds like a very good (but sad) story. I think I will try to find it and read it as well. If only we could all be like Salwa and Reema!