Some call her Mary. Peace be upon her. Muslims know her as Maryam. Peace be upon her. Muslims revere her. The Quran calls Maryam – peace be upon her – the most righteous among all women. She is believed to be pure, in every sense of the word and that is what Azra (my name) means – Pure. I am named in her honor. In my earliest memories, my grandmother speaks love stories of Maryam – peace be upon her – linking us together, forever.
When we return to India from Iraq, I enroll in the same Catholic school where I had attended pre-kindergarten. I am meant to start ninth grade but the school year in India is coming to an end. The adults give me two months to study on my own, sit a national exam and start 10th grade. I am sure that I cannot handle this. AT ALL! The adults’ casual confidence makes my fears more intense … like, I am the only one who knows the house is on fire.
Whenever wisps of black smoke waft out of my ears, I escape the classroom, slip through the convent gate, up a narrow tree-lined path to a shade-dappled opening with a statue of the Virgin Mary – peace be upon her – serene face with a slight smile, right hand raised, open in blessing. I sit with her till a cool calm washes over me, then I go back. I am always careful as I do not have permission to be there. This becomes my ritual.
When the Holiday season comes, Christmas carols fill the air. The nuns smile as they wish each other, “Merry Christmas.” The girls are all smiles, too, but the main reason for our giddy happiness is the sugar in the treats brought in daily by one classmate or another. Every season, in every live nativity scene, I am Maryam – peace be upon her. This tradition starts in Baghdad and continues in India with my mother offering me up to every aunty hosting a Christmas gala. The nuns at school pick up where my mom leaves off. The hardest part is to refrain from scratching my head under the wool scarf while I sit cradling baby Jesus. While I honorably attend to this delegated task, my sweetest joy is the candle-lit mass at midnight on the Eve.
Immigrating to the United States, I leave all ritual behind and become a staunch observer of secular Science. After time, I am on the East Coast chasing a career in medicine. The bullets hail down every weekend from gang fights. The violence worse in some ways than the Iran-Iraq war I grew up in. I am exhausted and worn down. Both from the arduous long hours and from pretending to carry on per usual. I know I cannot survive the grisly medical reality of the urban ghetto where patients are discharged from the hospital to the footpath before they are medically safe because the patients neither have the money nor the power for anyone to give a damn.
I visit Washington State and a friend invites me to a quiet retreat in the woods, near the ocean, on an island. Perfect. As I am settling in, an urgent need sends my friend inland, leaving me alone. The first day is glorious. The first night eerily quiet for an urban girl. The second day is overcast. Nightfall brings a winter storm with rain and high winds followed by downed lines. As I gather candles and find a flashlight, a walnut tree branch falls, shattering a window in its downward spiral. I can no longer pretend equanimity. Fear! Panic! “I want my mom!” “I am a grown woman.” “But, I want my mom!” “No.” “I don’t want to call and scare her.”
I begin to pray – in Arabic and in English. The prayers come tumbling out. I guess they had not been deleted from the memory bank. Hail Mary – peace be upon her – came as easily as the Ayet-el-Kursi (throne verse). Prayers bring hesitant courage. I go up the rickety stairs to investigate the broken window, moving everything out of reach of the wet. There is no lock on this door. I return to my room.This door also does not lock. I angle a chair under the door knob. I am not sure if this works having only observed it casually in Hollywood movies.
Not knowing what else to do, I get into bed, pulling the covers over my head. Shut my eyes tight. The flashlight is under the covers with me but there is a lit candle on the table beside me. I am too scared to blow it out and plunge myself into further voluntary darkness. Stories of tragic fires caused by errant candles begin to flash on the loop in my brain. The lashing rain, the howling wind, the deep darkness, forty acres of wilderness, the possibility of an intruder coming in through the broken window, plus the possibility of burning the house down – all these worries whirl up into a hurricane of fear and despair. Everything is just too much. And just too wrong. My choice of career. My decision to live on the East Coast. My decision to come to retreat.
I recite the prayers out aloud now. Silent prayers are no longer enough. Louder and louder, I go. I am not sure how long I am at this. Suddenly, there is a felt presence in the room. Someone standing near the bed, behind me. It startles my brain into quietude. I don’t open my eyes. I dare not roll over. Feeling into my body, I am surprised to find peaceful love. Undeniable. Real. The constriction in my throat and chest ease up. A cool calm washes over me. Maryam – peace be upon her – is here. I breathe deeply and relax. Eventually sleep claims me. In the sunny morning, nothing is different in the room, except for me.
All those years ago, I let go of the hand of Maryam – peace be upon her – believing that she let go, too. She didn’t. She has always been here. Her love like a sweet water spring in the desert. All I need to do is dip my hand and drink deeply from it.
A few years later, diagnosed with breast cancer, I go seeking answers to Ayahuasca. Beloved Maryam – peace be upon her – comes unbidden and unrequested, bringing with her my grandmother, the first source and teacher of unconditional love in my life. The white light and love they bring is intoxicating. Tears of love, tears of gratitude stream down my face. “Thank you for loving me,” I whisper. Again and again. Afraid that they will leave me, I plead with them not to go. “We are the window, out of which you look at life. We are so a part of you that we can never leave,” I am told. Grateful, I sob.
Three years later, after the unexpected death of my mother, I am fallen into a deep, dark hole clawed out with bare hands from endless grief. No air or sunlight live here, all hope and goodness evaporate from this scorched earth of my existence. My distant heart twined with barbed wire and laced with bitterness. There is no beauty in this, my darkness. I am so sure no one will find me here. So sure that no one will want to. But, Maryam – peace be upon her – does. The halo of her white light tinged with a wash of darkness. I wonder if it was my shadow she was absorbing? Could it be possible that this is how much I am loved? Especially when undeserving of this Grace.
Azra Rahim is a workshop presenter at the SDI Conference scheduled for April 2021. Her workshop is entitled, “Seeking Feminine Wisdom from our Muslim mothers: poetry, writing and whirling as spiritual practice.” Azra has a BSc in Molecular Biology and holds an MD. She describes herself this way: “Muslim Sufi. Spiritual Quester. Truth seeker. Globe trotter. Lover of food, flowers and all things green. Indiscriminate dispenser of hugs. Kisser of all things beautiful.”
More background: “I was born in India, raised in Iraq and immigrated to the United States with my family. Ethnically, I am part Afghani and Indian. Culturally, I am Indian with a love of Hindu mythology. I am a born Muslim Sufi. My parents went on a Sufi pilgrimage in lieu of a honeymoon after their arranged marriage. Growing up, I was steeped in a love of not only Islam but the Saints and Prophets, especially the Women.”