“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails…When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Corinthians 13, The Bible
On Eid morning, a month or so ago, I spread a fresh cotton tablecloth on our kitchen table. I snipped some yellow, white and pink daisies and arranged them in my mason jars. And I put the mason jars, along with some fat tubs of candy – Hershey’s kisses, pink and white marshmallows, chocolate covered peanuts – onto a bright, yellow, wooden tray. It looked lovely.
So, so lovely.
The overall effect was very pleasing to my eye. So pleasing in fact, that I stopped and stared at it for a minute or two every single time I walked past my kitchen. And every time I stopped, I said, MashaAllah, la quwata illa billah. May Allah protect this little spot of color and beauty from my own eye and from the eye of any one who encountered it.
I’ve read the story in the Quran about the man who entered his garden, how he was instructed to say these very words. And wasn’t my home my garden? Hasn’t it become so increasingly so in the past few months of life and living in Karachi – land of very many good things, but unfortunately, so much ugliness. So much that literally hurts the eyes and the heart. So much that forces one to almost cringe and cower from. Ugliness of landscape, ugliness of character, the darker undersides of the human spirit so very present, achingly comparable to the ditches filled with refuse that litter every corner of this sprawling city.
But this story isn’t about that as much as it is about a bright, yellow, wooden tray, a marriage, what it means to stray and what it means to stay.
This is a story about my human heart and how I allowed it to drift towards resentment once and, when the same circumstances repeated themselves in my life, thanks to growing up and the accompanying wisdom, I kept it in reign. How my heart strayed 8 years ago and how 8 years later it stayed.
Eight years ago, we spent over three years without any income.
We lived through, not days or weeks or months but years of scraping by. Of counting pennies. We talk about it some nights now and we ask each other what was the worst, the very worst? For Hums the answer is expected, difficult to express, but nonetheless expected: “You came from a well-off family, growing up comfortably in the Middle East, with parents who could’ve afforded to give you whatever you wanted. It was hardest for me to feel like I wasn’t giving you or my son the same comfort.” I hear him out but, to lighten his burden, laugh it away “Oh, my parents didn’t give us much, don’t worry. They had way too many notions and rules about how to raise kids.” “What about you?”, he asks. ‘What was the hardest part for you?” My answer is less philosophical, more practical. “The hardest moment was always standing at the checkout counter after doing grocery. Of looking at my little purchases…all things I had considered quite cost-effective or necessary while I was in the aisles…all food items…nothing pretty or pointless…but in the moment of truth, when the total figure on the cash register rose higher and higher, $24.99, $32.00, $39.99, of feeling like death. Hating everything I had bought. Despairing this life. I just wanted to run away from it all,” I say.
Not to rehash the past, I say this because I need to be sure that he knows. I need him to see the darker sides of my human heart. How a lack of material comfort so quickly pushed his wife towards resentment and yes, also a desperate desire to escape. I also want him to know that I ridicule my former self. What exactly did I think was waiting for me on the other side of a marriage ended because of financial constraints? I don’t remember if I ever stopped to consider what kind of person that would make me.
I do remember the feeling of want, though. Just naked want. Of pretty things. All for my house of dreams. I was never a diamonds or designer bags kind of person. But a lovely home filled with lovely things, where every nook and cranny spoke of, yes, love and memories and togetherness and all those things that your Mastercard can’t purchase, but please, pretty please also of things of color and festivity and coziness and prettiness that did have a price tag. I wanted Stuff. That you could buy. With money.
Was a marriage not providing financial security a marriage worth keeping?
At the ripe old age of 34, the whole question and idea seems laughable, really. Surrounded that I am by friends and acquaintances who have ended marriages for a multitude of both totally understandable, completely valid and not-so-reasonable-but-ok-fine or omg-you’re-nuts-why-would-you-end-this reasons, I feel completely comfortable in expressing the idea that poverty is one of the dumbest reasons in the world to end a marriage. Right up there with “He doesn’t like the same shows or movies I do.” (I am willing to bet you, right now, somewhere out there, there’s a 21 year old wracked with despair because her fiance doesn’t like the same mindless entertainment she does and she is lying awake at night wondering if there’s a reasonable future with this man. Because that’s how you think when you’re dumb…sorry, I meant to say young. That’s how you think when you’re young.)
When you’re older, you look around yourself. You see lots of good and beautiful humans but you know what you see a whole lot more of? Trash people of trash values and trash notions and trash habits and trash pasts. (Sounds harsh? Shrug. Wait till you’re 34, you’ll probably agree.) And you understand that a good and decent human being who is kind and upright is a treasure. A diamond. He is a gold nugget in a ditch filled with refuse that litters every corner of this sprawling city that is your social landscape. And should said good and decent and kind and upright person be madly in love with you, well, lady you’ve just won yourself a lottery. (attn: self)
When we finally found employment, packed up our bags and moved to Dubai, Hums spent 18 hour days at work. For weeks and months on end, I led a lonely and scared existence at home with two young babies, one of whom was on the verge of an autism diagnoses – the figuring out of which, I would have to navigate entirely alone, given Hums’ working hours. When the diagnosis came in, the bills again became sky high, and if you know Dubai, you know a beginners salary just doesn’t cut it. And so we continued our meagre ways.
Until the day, many months later, Hums got his first performance bonus. He texted me right away and I won’t lie to you, I fell down in sajdah in as dramatic a fashion as the moment called for. Later that evening, he came home with a smile so big and eyes so pleading, it sliced my heart open. Words are not his thing but I always like to imagine that his eyes contain essays for me. “Here you go, thanks for being patient,” I think they said. I think that day his eyes asked for acceptance. A permanent one. A promise that I wouldn’t look for an exit again for something as ridiculous as being poor. And even though words are my thing, the palpable magnitude of the moment did in fact render me silent, and so I like to think my eyes also did the talking and they said something back. They spoke of regret at being so rash and an understanding of my younger self and my current self and of him and of us. They said, “Here I am. Thanks for being patient with me.”
I look at my children now…especially my daughters and I wonder what they will be like when they’re older. What dreams they will have for their spouses, their marriages? What will be important for them? What should be? How will I teach them what very definitely shouldn’t be? We Muslims don’t make marriage vows so there’s none of the “for richer or poorer, for better or worse” business said out loud. But there are, or there should be, some things similar that need to be understood. We should, all of us, on and with purpose, talk to our sons and our daughters about the indefinable, utterly elegant, completely undersold, quality of goodness. Of how to live it and how to seek it out. Of how to recognize it. Of how goodness of character is more important and heavier on the scales, both worldly and divinely, than anything else. That looks, finances, verbal abilities, interests in books and movies are all temporal at worst and chameleon-like at best. They change. Everything changes. The only thing that stays is goodness. Stay with the good one. Stay with the good. Stay.
Marriages are made out of multiples of seasons. Out of accepting the long haul of life, circumstance and destiny. I want to tell my children this.
Today, 8 years on, circumstances are such that the finances are extremely tight again. Some say it is because of the hand of destiny, some say it is because of deliberate (or foolish?) choices we have made as a couple, some sigh it is simply a mix of the two. Despite the conviction with which people around us tend to speak (its a desi thing, I think, to utter opinions as divine pronouncements), a secret part of me delights in the knowledge that whether people admit it or not, there is a sense of uncertainty around all of these viewpoints. That part of me sees that most people have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to what is right or wrong, what makes or breaks a marriage, what causes challenges to present themselves repeatedly to some people and not to others. The 34-year-old me is content with what is and she doesn’t get sucked in to the drama of “why, why, why is this MY life?” so easily anymore.
All around us there is familial and societal pressure to conform, to somehow live up to the expectations of what people think our life should be like and Hums and I, to put it in layman’s terms, couldn’t give a hoot. We’re happy. We love each other and our wild life. As far as this money thing, I know we’ll figure it out. Or, maybe…we already have. Our home is filled with love and memories and togetherness and also, with color and prettiness and festive things in nooks and crannies. Things money can and cannot buy. Because money, it comes and goes. When you have it, you use it and when you don’t have it, you hang on to every tangible and intangible thing you have by the blessings of your Lord, remember that goodness of character, both yours and your spouses, is what matters, and you ride out this season of your life.
My Eid kitchen table is proof that we’re doing okay.
With that first bonus, Hums and I finally, bravely, forayed in to the wonderful world of buying something simply for the pleasure of it. He bought himself a high-end beard trimmer. We bought the kids new toys – a baby doll stroller, a set of foam alphabets.And me? I went straight to Crate and Barrel. I looked for the brightest, sunniest, most festive thing I could find for my house of dreams. In one corner, tucked away on a busy display of kitchen ware, I saw a bright, yellow wooden tray. It was for 129 dirhams. Not cheap. Definitely not necessary. Completely and utterly pointless.
So, so lovely.
MashaAllah, la quwata illa billah
Hiba Masood is a writer, educator and advocate of play. She writes about her work and life daily on www.facebook.com/etdramamama