The Mirage of Home by Muti’ah Badruddeen
I look her in the eye; this woman in the mirror. Dressed in a pin-striped navy blue power suit, African, in her late twenties, she has short, kinky, midnight-hued hair in gleaming locs. ‘At least no one raised objections to the hair’, I tell her, running my fingers through it, catching a faint whiff of adi agbon, the locally pressed coconut oil women in my family have sworn by for generations. ‘I’d have hated weaves.’
It is interesting to watch the snort I give – how does that even matter in the scale of things? – on her face, where she wears the ‘natural look’ make-up I applied so meticulously, tutored by hours of YouTube scouring. Going from years in a strict boarding school to adopting a conservative approach towards religion, I had skipped the entire cultural education on feminine fashion and make-up. Yet, it is imperative that I look good today - my first day of work in almost five years. Any sign of the tethering maelstrom of emotions that I am needs to be kept off this facade.
God, I want to go home!
I close my eyes, imagining myself there. I’d always assumed I would return, after grad school. Technically, I’m American; my mother came to the US for my birth – like many rich, and a lot of not-quite-so-rich Nigerians do - returning home months later with a baby in possession of the coveted blue passport. Yet I have always identified as Nigerian. Not American, not Nigerian-American; Nigerian. For me, Nigeria is home; the US is the country of my birth, somewhere I moved to for college. The plan was, always, to return. Then, in my final year of college, I met him and… plans changed.
‘You okay?’ a voice asked from the bedroom doorway.
Bisola is my roommate – or she would be, once I get my first paycheck. For the past two months, I had been her squatter; living rent-free on her couch, occasionally contributing towards the grocery. What meager savings I had left, from days of squirreling away whatever few dollars I could from household expenses stretched beyond their limits, could barely do more than that. But Bisola was my high school best friend. We survived boarding school together; she is my strongest pillar of support. Despite the years I dropped off her radar, rarely responding to her efforts to reach out, she had taken me in when I moved back; nigh-broke and depressed. Notwithstanding our drifting apart; as the zeal of religiosity and euphoria of early married life dreamily carried me away. Or when the euphoria turned into the unsteady raft of marital woes I nearly killed myself hanging on to; she remained there for me. No questions asked when I turned up at her door, my entire life in a carry-on luggage, all bloodshot eyes and blank gaze. She simply let me in and hugged me, letting me unravel, watching me attempt to pull myself together.
‘Yeah,’ even my grimace is weak, unconvincing. ‘Just trying to get used to the new look’.
The smile she gives me is sympathetic. ‘I’m going to leave. Got an early breakfast meeting. Sure you’ll be fine?’ she asks again.
‘Yes, go on.’ I shoo her away, then I pause and dredge up the genuine semblance of a smile. ‘Thank you.’
‘Yeah. Whatever!’ It is her turn to wave me off.
I listen to the fading tap-tap-tap sounds of her heels and say a du’a of gratitude.
Nothing reveals good friends like bad times.
When my life crashed around me, previous relationships quickly re-aligned along lines I had been too married to notice before. Invincible yet impenetrable lines viciously protected by feminine insecurity. I’m ashamed at how long it took me to get it. Young-ish, suddenly single, attractive Muslim women were apparently, firmly, on the out side of Muslim women friendship lines. Especially pitiful and particularly vulnerable discards like me. As potential prey for husbands’ selective sunnah practices, we’re iced out with brutal efficiency.
I had returned to Nigeria years ago, briefly – to plan my wedding; my father insisted on a traditional one. Contrasted with his family’s less than tepid reaction to our match, it had seemed like a small concession to make. And though they tried to mask it, I felt my family’s unease over the absence of my in-laws, their inability to make it to the ceremony. In Yoruba culture, marriage is a contract between families. But with only a ragtag band of friends accompanying the groom, we held a small traditional ceremony to go with the wedding owambe, before the alfas officiated the nikkah. And as we indulged my family in the frivolities that constitute a Yoruba wedding, my husband assured me that his family would come around. That they just needed to get to know me; no one who did could ever fail to love me. It was easy to believe him, my tummy awash with butterflies as I felt his touch for the first time.
Even when the reality of our return was met with cool dismissal on their part, I tried to be optimistic; empathetic. He was, after all, the first-born and only son, from a culture that valued those the most. Left behind when his parents immigrated to the US, a temporary measure that somehow lasted almost three decades, until he secured admission for MBA. Now that he was reunited with them, I tried to understand that their plans for him might not have included an African, albeit American, girl.
In hindsight, I suppose some would have considered these issues to be portends of what lay ahead. But I’d prayed my istikharah, I’d consulted the Muslims – at the school’s MSA and at his local masjid – no one knew anything of him except good. I chose to trust the emotions I felt. And we both scrupulously made sure our short relationship stayed halaal. I entered matrimony confident and hopeful, trusting in Allaah’s Rahmah.
It had been blissful.
Our first year together had been filled with the type of romantic moments I only dared dream of in the secret chambers of my recovering romance novel addict heart. We were unabashedly passionate, bonded over seeking and sharing knowledge of our Deen, and grew stronger in our relationship with each other and Our Lord. We found refuge in each other, the one we hadn’t known we lacked. Him from being abandoned as a child, me from finding out that my family’s love was conditional when I started practicing the Deen. Undeterred, finally free, we lived the mawwadah and rahmah that Allaah promised in His book. We reveled in it, in each other.
The only dampener – aside from his family's continued refusal to accept me; but they lived in a different state, so we didn’t let them get to us – was that he couldn’t get a job. I had secured a paid internship straight from college, and it came with the strong possibility of a permanent position. But all he got were interviews and rejection letters. And though he kept busy with temp jobs, with volunteering and studying the Deen, I knew the strain was getting to him. I avoided talking about my own career or the possibilities opening up to me. I sneaked in payments of the bills when he was not around. And I reminded him daily that he was everything I wanted in a man. That this was just a bump on his way to the greatness I knew awaited him.
When his family arranged a job for him in their home state, I did not demur. We agreed; he would take the job. I’d work the remaining months of my internship, and we’d do the long-distance thing. By the time the much-anticipated permanent job offer came, there wasn’t really a choice. I turned down the job and moved across state lines to be with my husband. The distance between us had grown, much more than I envisaged. Those months apart had left cracks in the fabric of our marriage that seemed to splinter, unprovoked.
We would hold on for three more years. He would escape increasingly into the fold of his family; their less-than-enthusiastic reception of me growing decidedly hostile. And I would alternatively pacify and lash out – at him, at them, at myself. Fighting to save – or maybe destroying - the dream that was my life as I had made it. When he finally told me, six months ago, about his decision to marry again, I was resigned; too drained for yet another fight. For that one infinitesimal moment, I thought -
- maybe this is better. Maybe if I no longer have to try so hard - to keep a marriage, to simulate a union, to prove something! - I can finally get a life again. I can find a job, go back to school, or both! I can go, or send money, home! On days when he’s gone, I can sleep without wondering “where”, “what” or “with whom?”! Let her worry about him, about his family’s opinions.
Yup, I would have shared him. Less gracefully than I’m proud to admit, but I would have. Except he was still speaking…
His intended was from back home, a cousin twice removed; she would need a visa. To get him his papers, we’d had our marriage registered under US laws. Now he wanted to do the same for his bride, he wanted a divorce. He assured me he’d be generous – that I could stay on in our apartment, that he would continue to provide my allowance – for the period of my iddah. Afterwards, though, he would need to prepare a home for his bride, and really couldn’t afford to keep two homes. Anyway, seeing as we had no kids…
He must have seen something in my eyes then. He stopped and left.
I spent the day crying, cursing his aromodomo, and trashing the endless supply of contraceptive pills he had insisted on. ‘Just until we are settled’!
I got the papers in the mail the next day.
Oh, I know I could have fought him, if not for him. I could have contested his divorce of ‘irreconcilable differences’; taken half of his possessions, fatwa be damned! I could have at the very least, as my incensed lawyer advised, gotten alimony off him; just until I get back on my feet. But I was tired. Heartsore and home-sick. But with nothing, I couldn’t go back. Not as this woman - broken in all but body. The faith I’d held over my non-practicing family was shaken, the marriage I had fought cultural norms for was over, the education and career prospects my parents spent arms and legs to give me a future had languished - while I spent years trying to hold on to someone who never planned to keep me in faith.
No, this could not be my homecoming.
I look in the mirror again. ‘You will not cry,’ I tell her firmly.
There’s been more than enough of that during the iddah. Too many times the sound of my own sobs woke me from what troubled sleep I’d managed, to a reality worse than nightmares. I keep hoping to wake up, even now. Keep hoping that the past months, years, have been a dream. I pinch myself, again, unsure what point I hoped to wake up to. I am here, though. Where I left off five years ago - in this city, with a college degree and an entry level job offer. Alone.
In a national clime that was so bad, no one would hire me with my hijab. Not even after I exchanged my jilbabs for maxi-gowns, my flowing hijabs for colourful scarves. I attended scores of interviews for jobs I suddenly just wasn’t “the right fit” for before Bisola clued me in. The politicians and their tactics have made some people less circumspect. Now, folks can get away with refusing to hire someone for dressing like me.
‘Maybe consider a new wardrobe,’ was her sage, experienced HR advice.
My next interview proved her right.
I eye said-wardrobe now, the clothes hung up in Bisola’s hallway closet. Somber flowing garments of my past pushed to one side, making room for the small selection of suits and pastel-coloured shirts my faithful christian friend helped me shop for. A fitting analogy of my life; representing who I had been, and the certainty I now questioned. And the home that seemed to recede a little farther with every moment I couldn’t afford to go back…
I shut the closet door and, refusing to spare the mirror another look, I step out.
'BismiLlaah. Tawakaltu ala Llaah. Laa haola wala quwata illa biLlaah.'