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A Self Portrait

In this self-portrait, I want to trace some of myself to understand with you where I have come from and where I am going. I'll talk about my family, my views on religion, philosophy, and my future goals among other things.

 

I

 

My parents were born in a small town near the city of M. in Pakistan. My mother was born to an imam famous (and infamous) for his anti-sectarian views. My grandmother married my grandfather after she was widowed at fourteen from a previous marriage when she was nine. My mother did not receive any formal education, because my grandfather was opposed to it. She married my father, a few years older than she, when she was around fourteen. She lived in a joint-family system with my paternal relatives for five years before she traveled to Islamabad with my father. My parents finally traveled to Kuwait in the early 80s. I was born in 1986 - seven years after my youngest sibling.

 

A month ago my mother's brother passed away. I didn't know him. He was as distant as the people who die in Iraq or in Palestine and Israel. I felt his death was unfortunate, perhaps untimely. I did not feel what I, as his niece, would have felt if I knew him. My father has eleven siblings; we talk to none of them. I don't remember any of my grandparents. The last time I met them was when I was four.

 

I have four siblings - two brothers and two sisters, all married. I haven't seen my eldest brother for around seven years now. I talk to him over the phone sometimes, but the conversation is brief and superficial. My second to eldest brother is extremely religious, and I recall getting along with him quite well. I also recall being very fond of both my brothers when I was much younger. My sisters are exceptional human beings. Both of them are kind, sensible, and intelligent. Although they have their shortcomings - I sometimes wish they would be there for me as my sisters - I can't blame them; they're occupied with their own grievances.

 

When I was thirteen, my mother decided to move to Islamabad to live with my siblings. She and my father did not get along - at all. It was a relief when she left, because there was no longer any fighting. I lived with my father for the next five years. These years were very difficult. I learned from him what exactly a relationship should not look like. I learned a husband should not expose the weaknesses of his wife to his children. I learned the same from my mother.

 

Apart from their relationship, throughout my school years, I wasn't allowed to go out with friends or even take a walk on my own. It had nothing to do with my parents' religious background. It had everything to do with their failure to permit objection and their desire to wield control over their children. Unfortunately, my culture tends to view children as objects of control -- any kind of sovereignty in their part is perceived as disobedience.

 

In high school, I started reading more. Kuwait has no real libraries or bookstores, so I read books online. I read Suetonius and Alexander Pope among others. I can't say I understood all of what I read, but reading provided me with an escape. At the end of each week -- the weekends that I dreaded for their agitating silence -- I had something to turn to.

 

II

 

I moved to the UAE to study when I was eighteen. Moving away from my father was a drastic change. I was faced with making decisions on my own, something entirely novel. Among the many consequences of this change, the most crucial was the realization that error was something real. I realized now that I was free, what I chose to do would not reflect a choice my parents had made for me, but my own will. What also became real for the first time was the freedom to make my choices and to lead my life as I deem right. I could go out whenever I wanted and do whatever I wanted, but if my choices were wrong I would be at fault. This fear of being in error weighed on me a great deal, so that for a while I did not allow myself a lifestyle any different from the one in Kuwait.

 

My religious inclinations were quite strong up to when I was nineteen. I prayed regularly or lived in remorse when I didn't. I listened to music, as well, but having been taught it is not religious, I felt guilty. I, like most others that surround me, considered the questioning of religion unnecessary and blasphemous. Being free now to think and feeling the pressing need to understand my religion, I began examining it more objectively than I had. Each time I felt I was growing distant from religion, I returned to it with ardor and prayed more, but I couldn't silence a visceral feeling that religion (my earlier conceptualization of Islam, naturally, not all religion) was faulty. The more I prayed, especially while I prayed, the feeling became intense. Underneath my belief existed a sea of unresolved doubt. I had silenced doubt with a faith which was, perhaps, strong when I was with my father. It was consolation. It was nice to think if I can't go out this evening, I'll be able to do as I like in heaven. I wasn't disconsolate any longer, and perhaps that is why my faith subsided.

 

Another aspect about religion concerned me: I did not like pleading and apologizing all the time. I incoherently felt that it was wrong for human beings to supplicate and beg forgiveness all the time. I could not associate mercy and kindness to God when there is little of it on earth, save for what exists in human conduct. In other words, apart from my difficulty with prayer, I did not see a merciful or kind God, because attributes require evidence. I do not mean to say God is unmerciful or unkind, but that he might transcend these categories. I was faced with a God whom I could not pray to, because I could not understand Him.

 

At the same time, I was reading Schopenhauer. His negative outlook of religion came across as jarring and blasphemous, but I read. He gradually befriended me. His pessimism became realistic. His conceptualization of a blind non-rational will as the source of human action and his belief that art is respite impressed me. I became pessimistic and walked alongside him. But this pessimism was not like the pessimism of the adolescent that rejects life solely to fit into the category of the pessimist. It was deeper than that and went back to what I thought of my family, the prospect of human beings to have relations with one another, and the possibility of being happy. I think Schopenhauer was the most important friendship I've had with an author. What became possible, also, was the idea that there could be something other than God. God and religion was not the only conceptualization that existed.

 

It is difficult to explain (but I think it is necessary) what it feels like to lose faith. You don't only lose God; you lose all of that which proceeds from him: God, the prospect of paradise - and, more importantly, the entitlement of being right absolutely. Life becomes less magical. To me, the world became nonsense, and the true consequences of my realization appeared in how uncaringly I dealt with myself. Nothing seemed to matter. I mean to explain here that a turn from religion is hardly a matter of arrogance. To the person losing faith, it is a matter of shame and dread. Sometimes the truth (both a visceral and rational truth) seems to drag you into itself and you can't turn your face away from it, even if it makes you unhappy. I don't deny it would be nice if God existed, and I could live knowing that I had an immortal soul, but I don't see any rational proof and I don't have enough faith. It is not only faith in God that religion asks for, but faith in prophets, angels, demons, miracles, and a conceptualization of life - that kind of faith I can't have. At the same time, I respect religion. I find the Quran beautiful and true in many ways. It's only when religion lacks humanness - when it is a set of absolute rules that do not allow for individuality - that I dislike it.

 

My personal experience with religion has been negative. I was led to believe a paradise and hell existed as surely as the earth did. When these beliefs subsided, I lost faith in more than religion. How could I be happy - what did finite happiness mean - in the face of eternal nothingness? Because of my personal experience with religion, I don't find it has the appeal it did. I admire people who have faith and believe without servility. I wish people would understand religion is not for everyone.

 

When I come back home every vacation from university, I have to pray. I find it degrading to pray like this, but my parents hold me accountable. I can hardly tell them I don't believe in religion. One of the things that struck me about ritual prayer was the fact it was in Arabic - a language I don't speak. I understood what John Stuart Mill meant when he spoke of "dogma" and "formal profession".

 

When I'm around my parents, I become a person they accept. When I am with them there is very little confrontation - none of it is explicit. They're distant, and such distance does not allow for confrontation. They don't know me to the extent that I think it's a little frightening. They have, like my siblings, little idea of my religious inclinations or my general conceptualization of life. If they did, they wouldn't understand me.

 

I would say part of my dislike of religion stems from my parent's inclination to it. But my parents aren't exactly religious. Religion, at times, is almost ignored. At other times, religion is of high import. It would be easier if they were religious, because then I would have a set of rules to work with. Such arbitrariness makes it difficult for me to argue, because the principles are ever-changing. I dislike the fact, in particular, that in my culture parents are deified. They are human beings and just like all human beings, they lie, commit error etc. In my household the errors of my parents cannot be pointed out, because that is considered disrespect. As a consequence, my parents come across as infants -- they have not grown; they could have if they understood the merits of objection.

 

III

 

Let me share my views on philosophy, because without speaking of philosophy, this self-portrait will be incomplete. I have learned a prerequisite to philosophy is respecting yourself enough to think a thought. I have only recently learned how to think thoughts properly without growing impatient or agitated. I know the thoughts that frightened me need not be feared, because God or religion does not need protection from human thought. When I think a thought I respect it by giving it time; I don't silence it before it proceeds. When I allow myself the freedom to think a philosophical text or when I simply thing, and a meaning clicks, I get such a feeling. It's a bit like seeing the face of someone you love, how everything else becomes background. That idea when it is understood makes something coherent, against a background of incoherence. It is like a beam of light. Philosophy, to me, consists of many of these thoughts and ideas.

 

I have philosophy to blame, in part, for my turn from religion. Philosophy spoke to my self, a self that could speak in reply, that could object with equality without feeling infinitely below the argument. Philosophy made progress in thought possible, because I was thinking with human beings and not with God. The latter is infinitely greater, and any progress is always stunted by the thought that the meaning of God cannot be apprehended.

 

As I read over my philosophy papers, I come across a journal entry. In that entry I have criticized the idea that women, given the same faculties as men, should be assigned a lesser role or that human beings should be assigned roles at all. After my criticism, and I can see it now, I apologize, because I felt I had overstepped my mark. I say "But I can't claim to understand God who is infinitely greater than me. That is my metaphysical imprisonment." I should not have to apologize for my thoughts.

 

I can hardly claim I have read a great deal of philosophy, but it is addictive. It saddens me people don't read much in the UAE, Kuwait, or Pakistan, because reading provides you with an opportunity preaching can't. When you read sincerely - there is a difference between reading and reading sincerely - it changes you. I recall understanding incoherently that women were equal to men. If you asked me why, I would give you some reasons, but they would be meager. In a class, we read John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and the Subjection of Women. And he set it out coherently with a tone of equality and argument; I felt like an equal, thinking at equality with him. Religious texts did not provide me with that equality. There was always a limit to my argument.

 

IV

 

Reading, though, does not suffice. I read now, and I realize it more than ever. It's wonderful to read, but it can't replace being around people. It can't replace taking a walk or having a meal with friends. I read most when I'm alone, every summer, and I'm not allowed to do much (I find it degrading to ask permission, so I'd rather do nothing). Three months of being back where I started from undoes my work. Each semester when I return to freedom, I have to understand it again. I have spent my school years here. I haven't lived them as I should have lived them. And these three months I am spending looking out of the window or reading are months I could have spent otherwise. They won't come back.

 

I know when I feel indignation that something is wrong. I have to ask my parents' permission for almost everything. I can even be criticized for drinking a cup of tea at the wrong time. My mother did not like the manner in which I cut my hair recently - it was the first time I cut it in years. I'm not supposed to cut my hair again. When I feel indignation at such things, I know that something is wrong -- that I should not have to put up with this. I also know that something is right, that I have always, even when I was much younger, felt this indignation which comes from some hidden source.

 

There are times when I feel nothing is possible. I want to get my Masters; I think I've been saying that to myself and to others like a broken record for three years now. I don't think my father will let me get my Masters, even though my grades will allow it. It appears impossible. My father, who can't let me out for a walk, is not going to let me travel to Europe or to America alone. The UAE is different. For one thing, the UAE is a Muslim country. For another, Sharjah is an hour's flight away from Kuwait.

 

To me, it's not a matter of getting my Masters alone. It's a matter of my principles. There should not even be the question of permission, because it is unjust that other human beings, even if they are my parents, should wield such control over my will. Apart from principles, I am far too bitter towards my family. At this point, living with my parents is aggravating, because I can't resolve my bitterness, and, additionally, I have to agree all the time - even on matters that don't concern me directly, such as politics. That again involves my principles, because I have the ability to think - I shouldn't have to agree when I don't.

 

I'm emotionally incapable of leaving my parents or of objecting. I quite literally don't know how to argue with them. I have never argued with my father. It might sound infantile coming out of a twenty-one year old, but I'm honestly frightened. Perhaps that is why I try to convince my self there is no such thing as freedom. That even if I am able to do what I want, I'm still not free - I'm bound by time and finitude which are greater imprisonments. In the face of the latter, nothing matters, not even freedom, not even happiness. I spend my time lamenting the fate of human beings in this world - how people love and die, and I am so occupied with this tragedy that I avoid the questions of my own life. I have been trying to deal with this realization for a while. But my mind may play such tricks on me; I know there is nothing more important than freedom within finitude, because of finitude. This is my only chance to live.

 

When I think about my future - a year from now - I grow chronically anxious. I think I would be more active, more studious, more dedicated if I knew with certainty I will get my Masters. I don't feel like working or staying awake. I keep falling asleep to evade the thought of my future. I can say I am not free - but if I decide to stay or leave I know the decision is up to me. I can blame it on my emotional weakness or the fear of confrontation with my father. I can even blame it on his voice when he shouts, because it is terrifying. But I would be lying if I convinced myself that I can't leave. I can leave; I choose, and I dread this choice.

 

I sometimes recall a passage from Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. In the beginning Kierkegaard describes several scenarios of what the story of Abraham and Isaac could have looked like. In one of these, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and presents a ram instead, but Abraham loses faith. Sometimes, I'm afraid I'll lose the will to exist if I keep hoping without any certainty. It is, again, asking too much faith to have to work hard, go to class each day, stay up at night and study, get As and have faith I will be able to carry out my will in the future. Hard work of the present is supposed to have a purpose in the future. After the fear of not knowing what will happen, whether I will get my Masters or not, even if my father says yes, I don't think it will mean what it should. I spent high school afraid, not knowing where I'll end up, and I spent my university years afraid - I could have felt my happiness more if I had not been afraid all the time. I don't like being happy cautiously with something looming ahead.

 

Everything verges on my Masters. My Masters does not only mean an opportunity to study: it means an entire life. Whether I will be able to take a walk without anyone's permission depends on whether I will get my Masters.

 

V

 

When such feelings make it difficult for me to think of possibility, there have been a few times in my life where possibility opened. A trip, a few months ago, with some of my favorite people opened possibility in a strange way. We went to another country -- it could have been anywhere. Everything felt new. I felt new. I had never seen the snow before or sat in a subway. I hadn't seen a bagel except, perhaps, on television.

 

I recall being ill; I had a terrible cold. Most of such colds are incapacitating, so that I can't get out of bed for a few days. But I decided on going to this trip, because I wouldn't forgive myself. After all, my father, whose permission to go anywhere is difficult to attain, let alone to a trip abroad, had said yes. How could I forgive myself if I did not go? My classmates and professors were going as well. At first, I did not care, because I grow pessimistic when I'm unwell. So what if it's a trip? What then? What does it matter? I went anyway.

 

In the airplane I was sick. In transit we would have to wait seven hours or so. My classmates handed me tissue paper, held my bags, walked beside me -- and it irritated me. I remember getting agitated and wanting to snap at them. It was embarrassing being treated like the focus, being taken care of. But then, everyone laid their coats on the floor of the airport so I could sleep. I couldn't understand.

 

What became possible then? People can be unbelievably kind. There is also nothing embarrassing about being taken care of. Another world really existed where there were people, bagels, and subways. The latter meant that there was a great deal undiscovered. And that meant it was possible to be excited, not anxious, but excited. It was possible to renew myself when I was tired. It was also possible that beyond the commanding voice of religion, there was the voice of human beings, my equals, and their faces coming to light in subway trains. God's light, limited to al-Ghazali perhaps, or a chosen few, was not the only itinerary. There was a light in finite things. That light, even if it was as mundane as drinking tea with Manal each morning, was readily available.

 

I think a commanding voice, whether it's a man's or God's, kills possibility. It demarcates how far you are allowed; you are not reminded of your glory as a human being, but of your minuteness and your inconsequentiality against the backdrop of greater things such as religion and eternity and God. What is not a commanding voice is the voice of other human beings at equality with you - people who think with you without condescension - and your own voice. It creates possibility, because you progress and your progress is not an imagined one in some record in heaven, but something you can see and feel through your errors and through how much you learn and change. Your errors are no longer absolute and terrible. You see yourself as good and others as good, but not in a way that reduces the nuances of the human character, but in the sense that nothing is futile and goodness is always possible.