In the Name of the Allah, the Most Gracious the Most Compassionate
“Alongside Difficulty, there is Relief... verily, alongside Difficulty, there is Relief” ~from a chapter in the Qur’an, variously known as “The Solace,” “The Expansion” and the “Opening Up of the Heart”
A Personal Pandemic Reflection
dated June 3, 2020/Shawwal 11, 1441.
My name is Yusra and I am a Muslim woman, a single mom, a psychiatrist, an advocate, a collector of words, a sensitive & creative soul. When news of this pandemic first hit us, it was frightening. I experienced it both through the lens of my medical training and in my body, as apprehension & an intense tightening. I was terrified that this pandemic might overwhelm our healthcare system, that we would be brought to our knees and visited by the Angel of Death on a staggering scale.
This is something we are not used to experiencing first-hand. Yes, it may happen over there and maybe sometimes, even here, but we are highly skilled at blinding, bubble-wrapping & sanitizing ourselves so we don't have to confront something as uncomfortable as death here in North America. Now death hangs in the air unabashedly.
I updated my will and spoke to my family about what to do about my daughter's care. I worried about the fact that I might be called to the front lines and I wondered how my daughter would manage without me, especially if she was handed into the custody of her father, a man who has violated me and harmed us both. Alhamdullilah, Allah has protected us from that grim scenario thus far.
So, after the initial fear, I was awash with relief.
As a Muslim, this presented an incredible spiritual opportunity to reflect on my powerlessness, my helplessness, my complete insignificance in the face of a submicroscopic piece of code, invisible, silent & faceless, that has been astonishingly effective in bringing the frenetic pace of human activity to a screeching halt. This invisible & mysterious entity that has been sweeping the globe, coursing through us in waves, wields more power than even the most powerful, influential and wealthy men on this earth.
I was truly grateful for this opportunity for reflection & rest.
Restful agitation. Agitated rest.
Although the initial sense of not knowing what we were up against was unnerving, it wasn't scary for me to enter self-isolation and feel like the walls of my world were collapsing inwards. This was a familiar feeling & space for me to find myself in. The "new normal" had been my normal.
A decade ago, I had taken the bold step to leave an abusive marriage, navigating the personal, the familial, the cultural, the spiritual, the religious, the existential, the emotional, the psychological, the physical, the social, the societal, the legal, the medical and the systemic complexities of doing so. That was a shattering & deeply isolating experience especially when I was compelled to go in to hiding and for many years, even after I left, I was stuck in a jail cell-- albeit with invisible bars-- trying to pick up the shards of my world, holding each one to the light, making sure that I didn't cut myself too badly as I strived to make sense of it all & put things back together again.
I had felt incredibly alone on that arduous journey because with every curve in the road & every new twist of insight, it became increasingly more difficult to fit into a world that did not want to acknowledge my pain & suffering, let alone my existence. Yes, I had the support of countless caring people who individually came through, who supported me with their kind words & moving deeds, but the larger communities and structures in place were morally bereft & hollow. No, that would be too kind an assessment. They were sharper than knives. They actually reinforced those invisible bars.
It was a lot to bear.
And as I worked through things & waded into even weedier water, it became impossible to place myself.
Where did I fit in?
Where did I belong?
Who was I?
Would this world have space for someone like me?
Would it let me be free?
Yes, I am a Muslim woman that has experienced abuse and no, I do not fit that stereotype at all. Yes, I am a consummate professional who helps others work through their trauma and no, that does not mean that I have not experienced my own. Yes, I was less privileged growing up because my family suffered economic hardship when my father lost his job and we were separated by war and migration and no, I was not at all less privileged because I was anchored in faith, my father was super-educated and I was a psychiatry resident and doctor-in-training. Yes, I have tan-coloured skin and wear a headscarf for which I get stopped at checkpoints, on the streets & in hospitals and no, I was not brown enough for even worse treatment & the veil occasionally dropped in people's eyes, because once I actually spoke, I blew people away with my words.
Words are powerful and can chisel & shape in ways unimaginable. They can also help glue together broken shards.
The pandemic came. The questions remain.
Where do I fit in?
Where do I belong?
Who am I?
Does this world have space for me?
Will it let me be free?
I continue to process these questions. Largely in silence. Silence punctuated by my daughter asking me to play Mancala with her ...or give her dinner ...or put her to bed.
Silence punctuated by the deafening cries of the diseased, the deceased and the oppressed.
I never left the zone of self-reflection encircled by invisible bars, but now I feel far less alone because the pandemic has forced a bunch more people inside. Suddenly, the cell has grown larger and more accommodating.
Perhaps, the prison we find ourselves in was there all along. Some of us were just more aware of it than others. Others didn't stand a chance and couldn't conceive of any other way of living. And for many, the bars were never invisible, but rock solid real. Pushed into those spaces because of trauma or because of the blackness of our skin or because of our religion & ways of life or because of the circumstances of our birth. From Palestine to Minnesota.
Now, all of us are inside. Including the prison wardens.
In my case, at this time, through my perspective, the invisible bars are shifting. There is a growing space between them. And the light itself is changing.
I love watching the movement of that light. The scintillating particles, streaming & swirling. Brownian motion at its best. I am mesmerized by all of that colliding, that constriction & expansion, the iridescent colours.
I love the silence too.
Because, it's in these moments and it's within these empty, aching places and it's inside all of this jagged pain and all of those broken shafts of light that I find myself
racing through fields with reckless abandon,
touching the glorious blue sky &
reaching for a world where all people are free to breathe.
"None of you is a believer until you love for others, what you love for yourself."
~Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him
"If one of you encounters an injustice, you must change it with your hand. If you cannot do so, then you must change it with your tongue. If you cannot do even that, you must feel bad about it in your heart, but that, that is the weakest form of faith."
~Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him
“…speak the truth. Do not hesitate to say what you consider to be the truth. Say what you feel. Let your conscience be your guide. Let your intentions be good, for verily God is aware of your intentions. In your deeds, your intentions count. Fear God, and fear no one else.”
~Umar ibn al Khattab in Jerusalem