What is the word for being homesick for where you used to live even though you’re home?
When I lived in Peshawar, I wore a black abaya and niqab every time I went outside. Indoors, I covered my head and chest with a dupatta (head covering). I wore loose shalwar kameez (traditional south asian outfit) and never strayed from the dress code. Being normcore was an obligation for me since I was one of about a dozen U.S. citizens living in the city. Bomb blasts and shootings were a regular occurrence. At work at a media group, threats from the Taliban, Daesh and corrupt politicians were anticipated and handled.
Electricity gave out regularly and it was hot. Really hot. But, hearing azan (call to prayer) five times a day was transformative. The pre-dawn chanting was hypnotic. The echoes of each mosques’ calls to prayer were cinematic, and eventually came to be spiritual, although not at first.
I was stubborn. When I first moved into my in-laws’ apartment, I didn’t pray. I didn’t know how to pray. I recited the shahada (testimony of faith) by repeating after an imam just before signing the nikah nama (marriage contract) at my wedding. I was new to Pakistan and new to Islam. My faith was questionably shaky.
As time passed, I began to hear things and see things, witchy things, that weren’t there. I became confused, scared, and aggressive towards my husband and in-laws. I was convinced my computer was hacked and my phone calls were being monitored by the ISI. I felt out of control.
Then came the day when my sister-in-law got married. I cried as she walked away — no, I became hysterical. My mother-in-law grabbed me close to her and put sugar into my mouth reassuring me in Pashto that she was my mother.
From then on, I prayed. I shadowed my mother-in-law when she prayed and devoted every Friday to memorizing the prayer. I became calm, and even found a job and got pregnant with a son. My life was changed.
When my sister-in-law was visiting us after she moved out, she saw me pray for the first time. “I believe!” she shouted. My heart swelled. I did believe. I had faith.
Now that I’m back in California where I grew up, my faith has been tested, tried. I’m without my role model, my mother-in-law, who read Quran every morning before chai and taught me the virtue of regular prayer.
Maybe it’s reverse culture shock.
But Ramadan outside of Pakistan had been difficult, and left me incredibly nostalgic for the traditions of my in-laws and Peshawar itself. I was grateful to Allah that my workplace had a room where I could pray, and I can wear hijab without feeling abnormal or strange. Thankfully I wasn’t the only person at work fasting this year, which was reassuring at best, but still sad.
During the last ten days of Ramadan I prayed that I would find the strength to remember the piety of my mother-in-law, even though she wasn’t there to help guide me. She helped me find my faith and taught me that Pashtun women don’t need saving.
Ironically, I needed saving.
Contributed by Carol Khan.