Something you and I share in common is having two families. The circumstances are different, but somehow I feel that both of us came away with a similar sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere at once.
You were given to a Bedouin wet-nurse as an infant: not only so that she could feed you, but also so that you would absorb something of the traditional tribal ways as your mother’s milk: their sense of honor and dignity, even the poetic Arabic they spoke. Also, I think, you were meant to learn self-reliance, a certain independence of mind, from those nomads of the desert.
Halimah was your nursemaid. I imagine her as a small woman, and kind. Her face might have been aged by the sun and wind, but she would have remained young at heart: singing a song, no matter what else she was doing. You two made an instant connection, I imagine – the moment she took you in her arms, you looked up solemnly into her eyes and knew you were safe there. Although leaving your mother Aminah, you had found another home.
I was “adopted” too at a young age. My childhood best friend and I met when we were toddlers, and soon her mom became my mother too: MomJ. She kissed me and hugged me and fed me, and the first thing she said when I came into the house was, “There’s a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge!” because she knew I was always more thirsty than hungry. She had a mother’s intuition. One summer afternoon, something made her look out the window of her kitchen door. She saw me lying in the street, lassoed by a loose shoelace that still held one foot fast to a pedal, while the rest of my body lay pinned under my bike. It’s possible that I could have been run over by a car had she not rushed out at that moment, so in that way I credit her with saving my life.
Whether or not she rescued me in such a dramatic way, she saved me many other times, with a thousand small acts of kindness: cleaning my face, giving me haircuts, telling me to stay for dinner and then spend the night. She made me part of her world, her family’s world, giving a child who felt so out of place a bedrock sense of belonging. She insisted that her mother was my grandmother, her sisters my aunts, her daughters my sisters.
And for you, I think it must have been the same. Losing your father before you were even born, your mother at six and your grandfather not long after, you also lost the sense of security and predictability that other children take for granted, like an invisible container surrounding them. When those supports drop away, there’s a shock that comes with the awareness of one’s exposure, and vulnerability. But the other realization that arises, at least in my experience, is seeing things as they are, not as adults say they are or would like them to be.
For example, you could see that the relatives and guardians who were supposed to look after orphans did not always keep their best interest at heart, but sometimes abused and exploited them. You could also see that despite not being of the same tribe or kin, other people could be loving and trustworthy. You had your early memories of being part of Halimah’s family to look back on – and inside, you would always remain part Bedouin.
I don’t know why the biographers don’t mention that; maybe because all of our settled civilizations, East and West, have a bias against nomadic people. But to me this seems such an important part of who you were: not a city dweller, worried about real estate, nor a farmer, tending crops. Even when you lived in one place for a while, you weren’t bound there. Your world moved with you. And that world, rather than a place in space and time, was an awareness of greater laws and conditions, operating beyond the material.
One other detail that strikes me is that you didn’t have your own home, in the sense of the private dwelling we usually think of. Even in Medina, once you were established as the Messenger and leader of the Muslims, your house was one part mosque, one part town hall, with your wives’ huts built around it. The biographers say the sleeping arrangements were for you to take turns spending the night with a different wife – except when they quarreled amongst themselves, and you slept on the roof. To me this suggests that it wasn’t such an orderly rota system, but that you spent the night where your heart drew you. Probably each night was different. I imagine that often you would have also kept vigil with the sick or the troubled, or stayed awake until qiyam, sharing silence with the Companions.
My dear, it seems such an irony that, you went from being first a child without parents and then a man with the barest of tribal ties, to becoming a figure whom everyone wants to lay claim to. (We’re still fighting over those supposed allegiances.) And yet the essence of your being is that you were a universal gift of mercy, sent for the benefit of all the worlds.
That is the only way I can explain the extraordinary blessing of my own connection with you; how else could it be that someone so “undeserving” – an American woman, new to Islam, and still struggling to tame her nafs – would be afforded a hint of your sweet, sweet fragrance?
Maybe part of the gift lies in showing me what I need most. Just like it says in the verse of The Bright Morning Hours: I was given shelter when I felt like an orphan. And being reassured even now, despite my own fears and doubts, that I can be claimed; that this little “me” is more meaningful as part of something bigger. Though it’s not necessarily a place, or even just one group of people. Where I belong – and where I want to belong – is with you.
Gathering my things for the journey, counting the moments…