When I was a child, I thought Arabic was Allah’s mother tongue.


‘..I had no idea when Peer Amirullah’s house—once built in a clearing in a jungle—turned into something like a colony. A number of houses had been built over a large area. The one which was the tallest and painted belonged to Amirullah. Ever since Ma had become his follower, she had stopped referring to him as a relative. Instead, she called him “huzur,” since no kinship term was appropriate for Peer, the spiritual guru. He was above all that.

The first thing Ma did when she arrived at Amirullah’s house was to touch his feet, no matter what he might be doing at the time—sleeping, eating or preparing for his prayer. It wasn’t just Ma, everyone had to do so before they did anything else: light the oven, stand for their prayers, even go to the toilet. Since Amirullah was Allah’s favorite servant—no, he was more than that, he was like a buddy —Allah was said to visit his buddies in person, frequently. No one knew when this happened. Ma thought it took place in the dead of night. It was her belief that they spoke in Arabic. In fact, she thought Arabic was Allah’s mother-tongue. If she could learn it, perhaps she could exchange a few words with Allah in her afterlife.

The idea of learning Arabic appealed to her greatly, so much so that she looked with so much admiration at anyone who could speak it. Almost like a dog with its tongue hanging out. From her tongue dripped the temptation to go to behesht, to heaven. When she thought of her huzur conversing with Allah in the middle of the night, her eyes drooped in deep reverence. If she could please Amirullah, perhaps Allah would show her some mercy. After all, she had sinned a lot, running crazily to the cinemas and thinking of worldly pleasures. Would Allah ever forgive a sinner like her?
Having touched Amirullah’s feet, Ma sat on the floor and broke into loud sobs. Her eyes were like two clear drains, and tears ran freely down her cheeks, falling on her chest, her sari, and her blouse. Aunt Fajli ’s full, pink lips were badly chapped, but she placed a hand on Ma’s shoulder and said calmly, “Why shouldn’t Allah forgive you? Just ask for His forgiveness. He is merciful. He is great. Of course He’ll pardon you. He doesn’t turn anyone down if they raise their hands and beg for His kindness.”

It was not just Ma who was keen on pleasing Amirullah. A number of other young women were interested, too. The minute Amirullah finished his tea in the evening and stretched out on his bed to rest, Ma and the other women began a little fighting over who would take Amirullah’s arms, take his legs and his head, to massage. If Ma got his feet, her face lit up instantly and a smile hovered on her lips. This was because a person’s feet—even Amirullah’s—were bound to be dirty. If she could massage his feet it was a way of proving to him that even the dirt on his feet was holy and pure for her.

This massage went on for a couple of hours. Then the young women began offering their huzur the appetizer: orange juice, lemon sherbet, kheer, then food was served on gleaming silver plates: fish dopiaza, chicken curry made with very tender pieces of chicken, basmati rice. After his meal, when Amirullah belched with satisfaction, he was given paan covered with silver foil. Paan was something of an addiction with him. His daughter-in-law sat on a mat on the floor and filled the betel leaves with nuts and spices. Amirullah put those in his mouth, one by one, chewed them six or seven times, then spat out the red juice into a spittoon. If any of the spittle hit one of the young women, she would lick it happily, while most of the others quickly bent over the spittoon. Soon, a war—like-situation broke out over who would be the first to eat the paan already chewed by Amirullah, or drink his red juice.

When I looked at those women, I felt frightened. They reminded me of the time when Ma used to go to the cinema and get embroiled in similar fights over the tickets. There was always a separate queue for women at the movie theater. When the victorious ones emerged from the crowd their bodies were wet with perspiration, the buttons on their blouses torn, hair undone and totally disheveled like a mad woman’s, but their faces were triumphant and happy and in their fists, tightly clenched, were the tickets!

Now, Ma and the others were fighting over Amirullah’s paan juice as if it was nectar. Ma, certainly, was convinced that although the paan had been chewed, it was no ordinary man who had chewed it, but one with whom Allah Himself conversed secretly, late at night, everyone else slept. He clearly was a man who could speak easily of the supreme powers of Allah, what He had ever said and where, and to whom, what He had hinted at—everything. If she ate the paan from Amirullah’s spittoon a place for her in Heaven was guaranteed. In fact, that was what Amirullah himself had implied with an air of mystery, his eyes twinkling, as if he was playing hide-and-seek with a group of children. “You want a ticket to Heaven?” his enigmatic smile seemed to say, “Then keep your eyes and ears open, try to work out what is going to please Allah. He has given you a brain and enough intelligence.”

Ma picked up a half-chewed paan from the spittoon and put it in her mouth. I sat behind the battlefield—alone, scared, my face going red with embarrassment from time to time. Still, a belief began to take hold that if I clung to Ma strongly enough, I could also manage a trip to Heaven. Aunt Fajli was sitting away from the fray, looking at the women who were fighting. She was making no attempt to clean a share of the chewed paan. She did not need to, since—according to Ma—she already had a ticket to Heaven, All she had to do was somehow pass her time on earth. After all, she had not sinned by going to the cinema. Now, aunt Fajli leaned toward Ma, half-crouching in the middle of the battlefield, and whispered, “Why stop at just the paan? If you touch the spit or phlegm of someone favored by Allah, you will earn a lot of virtue.”
The words sank into Ma’s mind immediately.
Before going to look for Amirullah’s spit or phlegm she gave me a chain with a hundred prayer beads and sat me down on the floor in a different room. I was also given a piece of paper with sallallahu Ala Muhammad written on it and which I was supposed to say five hundred times. This, Ma said would earn me virtue. Her sole aim in visiting the Peer’s house was to add to her fund of virtue, and she wanted the same for me. So she picked me up from the playing field and brought me here. I had to admit that I had enjoyed the ride in the rickshaw, but where had I come? What kind of a house was this? No one was allowed to play, to speak with a raised voice, everyone was supposed to stay fully covered, at all times, from the hair on their heads to the nails on their toes, never allowing their clothes to shift and expose even an inch of skin. I thought it was better to be in a stinking toilet than sit clutching prayer beads in such a weird house.

Just before dusk fell, Amirullah began his public meeting. Ma dragged me to witness it. If my veil slipped from my head, she nudged me sharply with her elbow. On the way to his house she had told me in the rickshaw, firmly and repeatedly, that I should touch Amirullah’s feet as soon as I saw him, and make sure that my veil didn’t slip from my head. When we arrived I made no attempt to touch Amirullah’s feet, and my veil slipped more than once. Having found me a seat among the women in the room where the meeting was being held, Ma sat down next to me. The women were, in fact, sitting behind a curtain, in accordance with normal practice. The men were in the main room. Through a chink in the curtain I could see Amirullah, sitting on a mattress, with two or three open books in front of him. He was leaning over them and muttering something in Arabic, which his audience was hailing with shouts of appreciation. “Aha, aha!” they exclaimed.

Then Amirullah took off his glasses, began polishing them, and said, “Those who don’t believe in Allah, who has slightest doubt about Allah and his prophet Muhammad, who don’t follow all the orders Allah has given, well, do you know how Allah is going to burn them in Hell ? O brothers, You will be burnt in that unbelievable fire. Can you imagine the heat when the sun would descend and hang just one foot above your head? Ya, fire will be that hot. Thousands of snakes and scorpions will bite you. Do you know what you’ll be fed on? Boiling hot water and pus! Nothing else. Allah will pull your tongue out and nail it over your head. He will then throw you into the fire. You will burn, your bodies will be charred, but even so you will not die. Allah will keep you alive so that you suffer more. Snakes will coil themselves around you, scorpions will sting. You will not be able to enjoy worldly pleasures for long, o brothers. Doomsday is nigh. Prepare yourselves. Israfil the angel is waiting to blow the trumpet soon, he is holding it to his mouth, Allah is about to issue His final command.”

Wailing broke out behind the curtain. Among the men, some were to be seen wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs. Others cried more openly, their shoulders shaking. Who knew who earned enough honor, and who didn’t?
“You can gain nothing by thinking of this world, o brothers. Think of the next one. Do things for next one. Try walking on the path shown by Allah. If the great Almighty forgives you, only then you will be saved from the confines of your graves and the pain of being burnt in Hell. Remember, the fire in Hell is seventy times stronger and fiercer than any fire on earth.”

I sat silently beside Ma, the prayer beads still in my hand. I felt very sorry seeing her cry. Her whole body was racked with sobs. It surprised me greatly to see so many people crying in fear of being burnt by a fire. It was exactly like frightening the children , they normally cry when they got threats of beating. Perhaps I ought to cry, too, just like the others. I waited for tears to gush, but my eyes remained completely dry. Having heard how Allah might roast people alive, He began to strike me as someone cruel and heartless.

After his long and terrible description of the torture of hell, Amirullah joined his palms sideways and raised them in prayer: “O Allah, forgive these men, forgive every sin they have committed. You are great, you are all-merciful, you are the savior. I am begging you, on behalf of the sinners sitting in this room, to pardon them, O Allah!”
Amirullah’s voice began rising, and in keeping with it the sound of wailing rose from the people. I sat like a statue, except that my eyes darted everywhere, on this side of the curtain and that. What a strange world it was!…’

(From my memoir ‘My Girlhood’)

Comments

  1. amin says

    Well written but whatever your ma did was against the teachings of Islam and I think deep within, you know this. I also believe that your hatred for God and men are due to a bad childhood experience for which you find no other than God and men to blame! You must ask yourself if you’re being true to yourself or this is just your childhood anger which following you till now?

  2. Stevarious says

    When we arrived I made no attempt to touch Amirullah’s feet, and my veil slipped more than once.

    Such a rebel! I wonder if he noticed?

    What a strange world it was!…

    You ain’t kidding. What a strange world it would be, if all those things were true.

  3. Taru Dutt says

    There are plenty of people like this in the USA too. They believe, firmly, that the U.S. is a benevolent force for good in the world. They are not interested in facts. They have their own imams on Western TV, called newscasters and media personalities, telling them what to think. And they lap up the imperialist, neo-liberal propaganda with the same eagerness that the women in your beautifully-told story lapped up the half-chewed paan.

    One cannot get away from the infinite credulity, selfishness and stupidity of human beings.

  4. Taru Dutt says

    In the entries where Taslimadi sticks to talking of Islam and Bangladesh/South Asia, her critics never say a word. Those very critics who profess to be simply bursting with “respect” for her and her work. Where are they? Why do they only come forward with racist, patronizing criticism? If they truly had respect, why don’t they offer positive comments on posts such as these, affording Taslima’s beautiful, spirited writing its richly deserved meed of praise? They are able to write entire treatises on what she has said that is so wrong, so unseemly for a mere inferior brown woman to comment on. Why not a couple of paragraphs of POSITIVE feedback, if they respect her as much as they profess?

    One is driven to conclude that they do not respect her at all – at least if one bases one’s conclusions not on what people say, but on what they do. Their “respect” is the merest lip-service. What they really feel is quite different. They feel condescending, superior. That is why they only speak when they can spew out reams of destructive criticism, couched in the most patronizing and subtly racist terms. What they actually feel is borne out by what they do. When they feel that Taslima has overstepped the bounds of discourse to which, in their view, a lowly brown woman should confine herself, then they bare their racist fangs and charge.

    Respect has nothing to do with their attitude to Taslima. Western racism has plenty to do with it.

    Hence their silence on entries such as the one above.

  5. F says

    Astonishing. It is almost as if they worshiped the man rather than god. While I don’t think forms of all this behavior are terribly unusual, it must be frightening in the extreme when this behavior is both expected and enforced. Especially when it is also enforced, in a kind manner or not, by those whom you love, and who love you.

  6. lorn says

    This relationship seems to have a lot of similarity to both S&M and B&D porn where the servants seek to defile themselves with their masters waste to show the master exactly how subservient and unworthy they are. Of course this guy seems to enjoy the role and to double down on it with descriptions of hell. Which speaks volumes of how he sees himself and what sort of creature he is by maintaining a life of comfort and adoration from people who actively degrade themselves with his approval. The word monster comes to mind.

  7. Steinar says

    I don’t know whether I would describe the excerpt as scary, sad or just tragic. A very strong depiction of horrid events and self-destructive people. Thank you, Ms Nasreen, even though I haven’t got the right words myself.

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