That one time when I couldn’t recognize my mother

Nadia is een ervaren audiovisuele journalist. Ze heeft gewerkt voor nationale en internationale tv, mensenrechtenorganisaties en zelfs de Verenigde Naties. Ze heeft interviews gedaan met meer dan 50 mensenrechtenactivisten en hoopt ongemakkelijke gesprekken, die vaak over de rechten van vrouwen, hun lichamen en hun keuzevrijheid gaan, te normaliseren.

Trigger warning: Contains explicit content of sexual and abusive nature.

Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem. Innaa a’taina kal khala (aunt) Kauthar.” 

My brothers used to butcher random verses of the Quran over the phone in an attempt to mimic my father’s behavior who spoke to his colleagues in Arabic over the phone. They also used to compete to have bigger bellies than one another as they saw it as being the mark of a good driver. I, on the other hand, went a different route, looking for role models in books, my teachers and my friends at school. Though, this was no easy task when school kept changing every few years. In Mecca alone, from what I can remember off the top of my head, I had three different schools for my primary education alone.

Observing my brothers as they keep our house line engaged, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (1999)

My very first school experience was rather interesting as my brother (in orange) refused to attend school without me being present in his class with him. This caused me to fall behind as his teachers would have me sit in his class with him just so he wouldn’t be difficult. At my second school, my mother worked as a teacher; which can be a very good or an equally bad thing. Luckily in my case, as I was not any older than 6, I found this to be a good thing. If I ever felt like splurging on lunch, I’d run to the staff room to ask my Mum for some extra cash for batatis (potato chips), my favorite snack to this day. At my third school, I was able to practice more independence given the fact that, a) I was going to my own classes, different from my brother’s, and b) I was no longer under the constant supervision of my mother. At that point in my life, I was a raging nationalist, going to an Indian International School that shared it’s playground with a Pakistani International School. I remember fighting my principle over a holiday, “We have Gandhi day, I want us to have Jinnah Day too.” As absurd as my request was, I am a little proud to say that I was successful in getting the principle to announce the 25th of December, a holiday. Yes, it just so happens that Jinnah shares his birthday with Jesus.

Getting ready for first day of school (I am in the brown outfit), Mecca, Saudi Arabia (1999)

The school wasn’t the only place where I was ‘educated’ while in Mecca. Masjid-al-Ha’ram’s, courtyard was my playground and my other school. When there, my mother never failed to remind us of how lucky we were to be growing up, playing in the courtyards of the Holy Mosque. For a short while, we were even sent to the masjid to attend evening classes for the recitation of the Quran. It was in these courtyards, that I was taught the difference between Sunni, Shia, Diobandi, Hannbali, Hanafi, Sha’fi, Malaki and so on. I was told I was Sunni. I was told I was Hanafi, just because of where I was from. I was told I couldn’t eat with Shias. I was told Shias were worse than Jews. I was told, in secrecy under our school’s staircases, by several of my friends that they were Shia, that they couldn’t control it and that they wanted to remain friends. My online friends asked if I hated them because they were Jewish. I was also asked if I went to school on a camel, and if I spoke any ‘Saudi’.

Naturally then, as I grew up, I grew averse towards labels. During my O’ Levels, I came across a hadith (Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s saying) that stated that towards the end of times, there would be some 70 sects of Islam, of which all but one, would be on the wrong path. This frustrated me immensely. Largely because I struggled to understand the need to divide people into sects when the Quran and Sunnah (actions and practices of Prophet Muhammad (SAW)) were right there, available to everyone for reading and understanding. Why then, did people insist on following someone else’s interpretation? My saying this got me into trouble countless times. My parents worried for my iman (faith).

Masjid-al-Ha’ram, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (2018)

My mother, more than my father, was open to religious discussions. Simultaneously, I was taught to not ask too many questions for doing so could lead me astray from my faith. I slowly began to realize that religion wasn’t meant for being understood, it was meant to feed people’s egos. It was meant to show the other person how their way of thinking was flawed and inferior to what ‘I’ knew and believed to be the truth. That there only existed one righteous path, and as far as anyone was concerned, they were on that righteous path.

I gave in.

I was too young. I gave in and started to hear, not listen. I followed and did not question.

My brother crying in his ahram (religious ritualistic garb worn to perform Umrah/Hajj). We performed Hajj (obligatory religious pilgrimage to be performed once in a Muslim’s lifetime) nearly every year, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (1999).

 

I prayed the way I was told to. I prayed as often as I could, as publicly as I could. “Don’t let your entire arm rest flat on the mat when you do sujudh (prostrate)”, “Stand closer to the person you pray next to or else shytaan (satan) will be the third person standing between the two of you”, “Your toes must point to the Kibla (Ka’aba) as well.” Instead, “Abdul!!!!! Stop stealing my pencils!” I would yell, breaking my prayer half-way to rush after my brother. Eventually, I learned not to do that. “The only time you can break your prayer is when you’re being called by your ammi (Mum)!” my Mum later corrected me.

Me learning to pray as my brother stands on my prayer mat, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (2000)

In the year 2000, I fell ill.

I had been having headaches, and a fairly high fever. All I remember now, is being in the backseat, with my head in my mother’s lap, who was caressing my hair and reciting dua’as (prayers) and Quranic verses under her breathe, willing her hands to heal me. I was being driven to the ER.

My parents were told I had gotten meningitis due to an influx of Hajjis (pilgrims) that time of the year (this was actually an epidemic in the year 2000). They also pointed out that lack of vaccination, had caused a very preventable situation to become a matter of life and death. I do not recall much from that time. When I look at pictures from 1999, I am unable to place them. I remember very little from the hospital too, Al-Noor Hospital I’m told. The one thing, the only thing I can never seem to forget is how I was unable to recognize my own mother. I would kick and scream and cry and beg my mother to leave and send my mother in. I was in pain, I would insist on her leaving, to let me have my mother by my side. I can only imagine how painful it must’ve had been for her to hear me say such things and carry on nursing me in spite of them.

Screenshot of WHO’s report from 2000 on the Meningitis outbreak in Saudi Arabia

When I recovered, the doctors called it a miracle as the fluid around my brain and spinal cord had been infected heavily. I was ‘prescribed’ not to wear heels as an aftermath of this (I struggle to walk in them to this day). People phoned my parents to congratulate them, the Ministry of Health phoned to congratulate them, the national newspaper wrote about my ‘success story’ and my father’s company insisted on paying for all the medical expenses.

My parents began to vaccinate us, religiously.

I had to take a break from school because the doctors advised my parents to defer me. They informed them that I would not excel academically due to the damage I had sustained during my illness. When I finally returned to school, I was allowed to skip a few classes after sitting for an enrollment test first. This allowed me to resume school among my age-fellows and not lag behind. 

Our school used to rent out theme parks for field trips. Initially, up until 2006 (if I recall correctly), this theme park was Jungle Land. But after I entered Highschool, the school changed the field trip location to a new amusement park, Al-Shallal. 

Al-Shallal, was famous for its absolutely bonkers roller coaster track which was the first of its kind in the entire Kingdom. Besides the roller coaster, there were the bowling alleys, bumping cars and the general freedom for girls to let their hair down and take their abayas off. Since the amusement park would be rented out by our school for various days, these days would then be divided among different classes and sections of said classes (that is, different days for the girls of year 8-10 from the days for the boys of year 8-10, and so on). While my peers looked forward to having photo-ops out in the open and hang out, I looked forward to a different thing.

“I think 50 riyal should be enough.” I would tell my mother.

“No. Take more in case you want to get a treat or an extra drink for yourself. Keep your remaining balance safe.”

“OK.”

I had no qualms about accepting more money. I was always looking forward to shopping anyway. On my first trip to Shallal, I was particularly looking forward to purchasing my first CD; Encore by Eminem.

Growing up in an Islamic household was not easy. Most of my class-fellows didn’t have as religious of an upbringing as I did. Music, make-up, and hairdos were all part of my peers’ normal lives. I, on the other hand, grew up being told not to listen to music, believing that poetry was a product of drunkards and intoxicated minds. I was taught not to wear make-up lest I seduce someone unaware. I fought to wear the niqab to impress Shad and because Shad had told me that I would be spared the torture in my grave for starting young. I was even taught that girls cannot be raped.

“Your body automatically tightens and rejects an object that tries to forcefully penetrate you. It’s like a door, there’s a natural door inside your vagina that only tightens with force. Therefore, no man can rape you. Women who claim to be raped wanted it, because if they didn’t, their bodies would’ve stopped it.” I recall my Islamic Studies teacher fervently addressing a packed classroom of wide-eyed girls.

I also recall rumors, “The door to the vagina is so strong it can force a man to not pull out.”

“The door in the vagina could cut a dick off.”

I recall hanging my head in shame.

I had been sexually abused as a child by a distant family member. So, as I sat in that classroom, I felt I had made myself available to such an experience. That it was my fault that it had happened. That the fact that it had happened meant I somehow, somewhere deep down inside of me, had wanted to be abused. If I hadn’t, my body would have stopped it, right? Perhaps, at least once…? I was convinced that my body would have had done its job in protecting me had I not been such a little whore. 

Stones. Stones. Stones. And a hundred lashes too. 

Encore by Eminem (2004)

My sister had introduced me to Eminem. He had an animated music video out for his song “Shake That Ass For Me” that served as my introduction to him. I thought the video was the most hilarious and genius piece of work I had ever seen. My siblings and I were fond of animation (thanks to anime like Yu-Gi-Oh and Naruto) and so naturally, I gravitated towards this new form of animation. This was around the same time as the fully animated band, Gorillaz, was blowing my mind as well. Anyway, with “Shake That Ass For Me” and “Just The Two Of Us”, I was hopelessly in love with Eminem’s music. I would listen to him while cleaning my room. I would sing “Ass Like That” when walking down the street. It was a vibe.  And if I were to ever buy his album, Al-Shallal was my best opportunity. I was going to skip my meal, and instead use that money to buy the CD, giving me the perfect excuse to smuggle the CD into my house without raising any questions about where the money had been spent. As I stepped into the store, to my dismay, there was nothing there but cheap pranking toys that looked like packs of gum  prone to shocking anyone that would reach out to touch them – well that, and slime. Disappointed, I exited the store and later illegally downloaded the tracks from Beemp3.com at home.

It was my love for Eminem and his music that kick started my friendship with an online friend, Jordan, via YouTube. Jordan and I messaged back and forth even after he first asked me what I was wearing. “Hahaha. Just some pants and a shirt. Why?” I replied thinking it was a cultural difference thing. Jordan must be thinking we don’t wear pants like they do in the US, he probably thinks we all wear thobes (traditional floor-length garb for Arab men) or something. 

However, my confusion was short-lived. The next time Jordan asked me what I was wearing, he followed it up with a new question, “And what are you wearing underneath?”

“What do you mean? Underwear, of course!” I remember replying in a matter-of-fact way. Surely, he knows we have underwear in KSA. Surely, he isn’t that stupid, I thought to myself, completely oblivious to what was to follow.

“Ahan,” he wrote. “Imagine me undoing your bra.”

The first time that sentence appeared on my computer screen I froze in horror and stared. He had never seen me. He had never spoken to me. He  had never met me. Because if  he had, he would’ve had known that I didn’t yet wear a bra. I blinked back at the screen, fighting back tears I couldn’t make any sense of. Why are you crying? Instead, I simply wrote back, “What?”.

“Hahaha. Are you scared? Can I kiss you?”

Then adding, “Do you want to unbutton my pants?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe the words appearing on my screen. I couldn’t believe how quickly our friendship had come undone.

My School, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Early next morning, the girls lined up in the shaded area (keeping “one arm’s distance”) for the morning assembly, while  the boys did the same  downstairs in the bigger shaded area. The assembly commenced. Beginning, as usual, with a reading of selected Quranic verses, followed by their translation.

“And We saved those who believed and used to fear Allah. And [mention, O Muhammad], the Day when the enemies of Allah will be gathered to the Fire while they are [driven] assembled in rows. Until, when they reach it, their hearing and their eyes and their skins will testify against them of what they used to do.

And they will say to their skins, “Why have you testified against us?” They will say, “We were made to speak by Allah , who has made everything speak; and He created you the first time, and to Him you are returned.”

-41:18-21, Surah Fussilat, Quran.

As the reciter re-joined his assembly line, our principal took to the microphone and announced the expulsion of three senior boys. Effective, immediately. Just as our principal was about to continue, as our Vice Principal snatched the microphone right out of his hands, making it screech like a banshee. “From today onwards, students of our school are no longer allowed to use the services of Orkut. Students’ online activities will also be closely monitored.” She spoke firmly, her words followed by deafening silence. 

The assembly ended. 

As everyone shuffled to their classes, whispers ran rampant. “What was that about?” “What have those boys done?” “Why can’t we go to Orkut?”

Orkut, as some of you reading right now would know, didn’t remain live for very long. The site was especially infamous in the Middle East for the very reason that got the three senior boys expelled from our school – for misusing pictures of other users on the platform (largely female users). In the particular case of our three seniors, as we later learned, a teacher and her daughter’s images had been used to create content of pornographic nature. Their heads were pasted on naked bodies, where the naked bodies were being sexually performed on.

Our school shut down the website in all of Saudi Arabia.

Due to this incident, and others, we learned very early on to not share our real identities online. Especially not our real names and pictures. My very first email address was gal_inside on Yahoo, inspired by the Intel Inside sticker I saw on my computer, thinking I was being clever with word play. I also made a sport out of trolling people in Yahoo chat rooms back in the day. I would put up pictures of Indian actresses as my profile picture and claim them to be me, throwing the user at the other end into a fit of keyboard rage.

“Fuck you! That’s not you! Fuck you!”

Others would just cut to the chase,

“Show me your wet pussy.”

“I don’t have a cat.”

“That’s not funny, show me your pussy.”

“I am not being funny, I actually don’t have a cat. And why do you want to see a wet cat, anyway?”

My naivety played to my benefit then. When I think back on those times, I can’t help but smile because I genuinely believed I was being asked to present a wet cat…nothing more.