This text comes as part of a series of texts and articles under the title, “Being the Mother of a Girl in Arab Countries”, written by female writers and journalists living in various Arab nations, who share their experiences as mothers of girls in these countries.
When my eldest daughter, Shams, was about five years old, we sat to eat together in one of the malls in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, while she complained to me about her complicated social relations in kindergarten, and I was showering her with solutions from my experiences of what she was going through. Suddenly, Shams yelled out in the middle of the crowded food court, "Mama, you don't understand life!". And of course she had to yell it out in English, causing a bigger scene, so that people of all races would understand it!
At that moment, I laughed with all my heart, but I also choked a little. I know that Shams is right in what she said, and that if there had been a test about understanding life that a mother has to take before she has children, I would never have given birth. I myself had comfortably adapted to this truth for three decades, and even convinced myself that all other people like me do not understand life, but are simply better than me in camouflaging and disguising themselves. But now, in the presence of Shams, I suddenly felt that I needed definitive answers, decisive decisions and clear positions on most of the issues that I had mastered at forgetting!
If there had been a test about understanding life that a mother has to take before she has children, I would never have given birth.
Of course, needing answers is one thing and getting them is another! It's really not that simple. How can I explain to her what I could not explain to myself? How can I explain to her that God chooses the wishes that He will fulfill and the prayers that He will answer? But that we wish and pray to Him anyway, and that adults do not always know the right decision, but they choose anyway, and that life will inevitably end one day, but we bring our children into it despite this fact.
Until this moment, Shams – 8 years old – does not know much about religions. Every time I tried to choose a god for myself to worship, so many gods crowd my head that I end up expelling them all. So, I avoided talking about it. When Shams showers me with her existential questions about the world, its beginnings and ends, I explain to her the broad list of theories of genesis and creation. I’d say ‘science says this, and religion says that, but I honestly do not know which of them is correct, what do you think?’. I of course do not want to impose answers on her that I'm not sure are true, but I also fear that she will miss out on the magic of creation and the mystery of existence because of my constant hesitation.
I remember once when we had come back to Jordan from Australia after some time had passed, Shams heard the call to prayer for the first time. She said, “Mama, what is he singing?” I replied, "It's not singing, my love. It's calling people to prayer.”
She asked me, "And what is prayer?" I replied, “ To close your eyes and wish for something.” Shams closed her eyes then. When she opened them back up, she said, "I wished for pancakes to fall from the sky on my head!”
But a few months later, Shams woke up to announce that God was dead. I asked her, "Why, little Nietzsche?" and she said, "I wished to wake up as an adult, and my wish didn't come true!"
Until this moment, Shams – 8 years old – does not know much about religions. Every time I tried to choose a god for myself to worship, so many gods crowd my head that I end up expelling them all
I remember once I was driving Shams to school, and she suddenly yelled from the back seat of the car, "Mama! I know who God is!" I said, "Really! Who is it?" I asked, sincerely hoping here that God had inspired her with an answer that would be good for her and for me as well.
She said, "He must be the king!” Here, I of course got nervous and stepped on the brakes suddenly. She continued, "The teacher said that God created everything, and that the king made everything we enjoy today, so the king is God!" I laughed on the inside at this very logical conclusion, but I avoided showing my smile, so that Shams would not repeat what she had just said at school or at the park, as that would be a big risk!
My daughters do not know much about their Palestinian origins either, as I'm afraid to burden them with the thorny legacy of struggle that I know they are too young to change anything in. But I am also afraid that they will grow up devoid of identity, not knowing the songs of the Al-Ashiqeen (also Ashekien) group, the difference between kishk and kishka, and that they have a country that would have embraced them if the map hadn't suddenly become too small to fit it!
She asked me, "What is prayer?" I replied, “ To close your eyes and wish for something.” Shams closed her eyes then. When she opened them back up, she said, "I wished for pancakes to fall from the sky on my head!”
As for the country my mother grew up in, Jordan, my daughters know nothing of it aside from a month of vacation in the summer, full of family and endless fun, and allowing them the things I had forbidden from them throughout the year, such as staying up late and eating chocolate! My daughters do not know that their family is scattered all over the globe, and that we only meet in Jordan one month a year because it is the only place that can embrace our sad passports. My daughters don't know why we chose to leave Jordan, why Mama doesn't let them go to the corner store by themselves, why the streets of their country are so bad and dirty, and why that man in the middle of the street yells at passers-by while another hits or spits on the ground what he had swallowed in pain throughout the ages! They know nothing about harassers and sexual predators, honor killings, financial corruption, and their complicated family history!
It seems to me that I have chosen to leave my daughter Shams and her sister without answers, and to let her live in the bubble of childhood until someone pops it for her or she herself does, because I do not have the courage to pop it for her myself.
I remember once I was driving Shams to school, and she suddenly yelled, "Mama! I know who God is!" I said, "Really! Who?", sincerely hoping that God had inspired her with an answer that would be good for her and for me as well. She said, "He must be the king!”
After Shams's seventh birthday party ended, or rather her “birthday wedding party!” — as is customary in Dubai, from reservations to decoration, a hall, a cake, gifts, a dress, etc.. — Shams fell asleep. But before she did, she asked me if she had played with everyone, and I asked her, “Why are you asking?” She replied that, “Hamdan”, who is of course the most important guest, said she hadn't played with him, and so he was upset and won't be her friend anymore. Here, I immediately recalled my failed emotional experiences over the years, and said, “Shams, Hamdan cannot be your friend one day and then become a stranger the next. If that's what he wants, tell him we're no longer friends for good.” Shams was surprised by my sharp tone, as if I had taken it personally and wanted Shams to triumph over all my defeats. To torment me even more, her surprising response was, “But Mama, I gave him everything!” Here I forgot everything I had drilled into my head from civility and openness, to language and experience, and I suddenly turned into my mother from 30 years ago and inquired, “What did you exactly give him?” Shams said with tears in her eyes, “The crystal toy that I love, and I invited him on my birthday like he wanted!” My heart couldn't contain the amount of innocence, and it pointed the finger at my mind as usual, asking, “Really? What were you afraid of?”
To torment me more, she said, "But Mama, I gave him everything!" Here I forgot all the civility, openness, language and experience I had drilled into my head. I suddenly turned into my mother from 30 years ago and demanded, "What did you exactly give him?"
Although Shams carries my future genes with everything they hold in genetic diseases, psychological trauma, and unexplained contradictions, the urgent need to save her future outweighed all the mental challenges that adorn my brain. Like most mothers, the mixed feeling of responsibility and guilt about bringing a human being to a planet that is already fed up with its inhabitants without any prior thought or preparation, and just because it is the natural order of things, overwhelms me most of the time. I am even more overwhelmed by my desire to prepare Shams to break the vicious circle I inherited from my mother, which I could not break out of, despite all the opportunities I had.
Although I am well aware that children are not a dumping ground for our dreams, nor are we a halo for their expectations, but it is the habit of parents in general to drop all the dreams that they failed to achieve on their children. So I once put her in a French school so she could master the language that I never could despite all my attempts, only for her to return to me devastated following two years of sitting in a class where everyone speaks a language she does not understand, while another time, I pushed her with all my might to learn gymnastics, after my school in my conservative city had deprived me of my greatest dream before I had even reached puberty, just because I was too "tall"! And the claim that me wearing clothes for gymnastics is tempting the young men in the boys’ school across from ours!
Legend has it that the mother's name will inevitably appear in therapy later on, either because she had said something or because she didn't, either because she had made a decision or because she avoided it, either because she had given her children extra freedom or because she had restricted them
The difference between what my mother lived through in her small Palestinian village – Arraba – when her uncle took her out of school in the fourth grade because he had one day seen her flipping and showing off her long hair, and what I experienced between five cities (and twenty thousand jobs!), and between what Shams is now living in the bubble of Dubai's walled communities (similar to the city where the heroine of the famous children's tv show Peppa Pig lives), is not a small difference, but it is also not that vast. The fear that I once saw in my mother's eyes, and the fear Shams sees in my eyes today and that I glimpse in her future sometimes, is not necessarily a justified fear, in the sense that it has no clear reasons that can be confronted. It is an inherited fear that comes from the depths within more than anywhere else.
This does not necessarily mean that the vicious cycle will continue forever, as some studies have shown that the son of a middle-class employee will become an employee and that the son of a businessman will inevitably be more likely to start his own company, and this will continue until a brave son of an employee comes along and becomes the first businessman in the family, breaking the cycle. Women in families like ours will continue to inherit fear until a heroine comes to liberate us all!
Legend has it that the mother's name will inevitably appear during therapy later on, either because she had said something or because she didn't say it, either because she had made a decision or because she had avoided it, either because she had given her children extra freedom or because she had restricted them. I have made my peace with this fact and chose to have my name pass in the future in my girls’ therapy sessions as the mother who didn’t give an answer.