the embers are burning by Rushda N.
Yesterday I was at the park again; you were leaning against the old oak, fiddling with the low-hanging branches as you fought back tears. I don’t know how it happened — one wrong turn on the trip down memory lane and I wound up in the same spot yet again.
There was something I wanted to say, something about faith and freedom and flames of hope, but I’ve forgotten what it was now; a fistful of promises, I think; I can’t be sure because the words lost shape when I choked on them all those years ago. I promise you I tried; I was collecting courage to stash away in a cookie jar, a currency to trade with during bleaker days.
We were afraid, weren’t we, fumbling in the dark, tripping over rosebushes scattered with thorns. Something came tumbling out of our pockets when we fell: loose change, sugar-free gum, anger three years past its sell-by date.
‘So the rosebush stands in as a metaphor for our faith?’ you ask. I don’t respond. How many more failed attempts at conviction before we bleed out from wounds that had never healed? We went looking for answers, but I think we lost ourselves along the way.
People talk about the pursuit of happiness and I wonder what I’ve missed, because I never really went looking for happiness. I didn’t just want to be happy, I wanted to be in the right. To fight the good fight, to do so fearlessly, with small means and big purpose; to spit out my words despite my stutter, to use my pen as a weapon and my faith as armor.
So I left home to study my faith in another land, but then things got murky. My college, it turned out, lived off a curriculum of sectarian prejudice and religiously disguised misogyny, and in its sprawling, state-of-the-art classrooms, I discovered the darker corners of a world I thought I’d loved. When they spoke of our ontological inferiority as women (always in subtext, mind you), I heard the broken edges of the words faith and God ricochet off the walls. Slashed my skin against the shards with each new dictum: resistance is a sin, the Jews had it coming, and we’re the flag bearers of justice. Here’s some doublethink for you; we gift-wrapped it in piety.
The classroom was stifling, but it had nothing to do with the desert sun. My objections were unwelcome. You can’t fight scripture, they said. I wasn’t, but I almost believed I was.
I’ve been so angry. It gets more insistent as you grow older—someone should’ve told me that. I was bursting at the seams—with this quiet desperation, with a purpose that eluded me, with all the words that scorched my tongue when I struggled to give them a voice. Perhaps I should’ve simmered in silence, but silence was one thing I could never pull off. It’s funny when you think of it: I’m so afraid of letting my stutter hold me back that I’ll overcompensate for my fears by never shutting up. Heck, I really thought I could tear down the injustices of a whole millennium if my words were sharp enough.
In hindsight, I was blinded by my own arrogance. They say when you’re fighting a war it’s easy to become the very thing you wanted to destroy. I was a goddamn idiot. I never did have the moral high ground. In a war like this, nobody does.
Yet, I cannot help but wonder if there is a place for me in our weary world, somewhere between self-righteous disdain and selfish disregard, a kitchen table where words are felt more than spoken and sincerity drowns out pretentious bombast. I’m still torn between rage and hollow yearning, still trying to crawl out from under the weight of a guilty conscience. Someone called me smart and I almost snapped at them for mistaking my confusion for intelligence.
My country is burning, yours and mine; our people are dying. And here I am on the other side of the Arabian Sea fuming over the sexist nonsense in my religious coursebooks. It does not change the world to make sarcastic retorts to bigoted remarks in class, but I do it anyway, if only for my own sanity. I wonder if this is what it means to hold on to burning embers.
There is a better way, I know, but this is a war I didn’t want to fight — not ever. There is too much at stake; courage and cowardice reduced to a blur, faith and liberty made mortal enemies under a moonless sky. I have been far too bitter, for far too long, to think clearly; I refuse to admit that my defiance is a thinly veiled plea for help.
But you know this, don’t you; you have the scars to show for it. Burning embers clutched in your palms, fears cloaked in existential humor. You wrap it around you on your grayest nights and walk into the storm with an unfaltering gait. I want to say, don’t give in, don’t let them get you down, but nobody needs to tell you that.
When the storm passes, we will do it again. We will fall to the ground, forehead in the sand, stay there a while, turn our pleas of desperation into prayers of gratitude. Our prayer mats will flutter in the breeze, and your voice will be trailed by birdsong as you recite your favorite verses under a sky full of stars. There will be time for adventure, for laughter and tears, for the journeys you wanted to make, and the battles you were meant to fight.
Because you’re a fighter, a home, a haven, a woman with reckless grit and a lifetime’s worth of undeserved guilt. I promise you, things will be okay. There’s a cookie jar on your bookshelf that you saved for later. I called it courage, you called it faith.
Go on, crack it open.
اللَّهُ وَلِيُّ الَّذينَ آمَنوا يُخرِجُهُم مِنَ الظُّلُماتِ إِلَى النّورِ
“Allah is the protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light.”