Reading Time: 8 minutes
"Both Sides" originally appeared in Issue 16 of Tahoma Literary Review.
Honestly, I fell in love with the first paragraph of this beautifully structured piece of writing, which strikes me as the quintessential American essay. We contain multitudes. How many of us fit in just one box, in terms of our beliefs, our heritages, our self-identities? The essay also brushes against the specter of cancer, a presence that very few families have the luxury to ignore. Not mine. Still, every one of Shahbaz's sentences accompanies us forward, toward an acceptance of entropy, and an embrace of empathy.
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In a large house on a hill that borders the northern part of Virginia, my aunt listens to a man on her cell phone speaker. Her eyes travel, as the man’s words run in breathless monotone. Her slippered feet shuffle around and around the kitchen island. I think she is looking for something, but cannot find it. She listens, inspects, shuffles—all without landing.
The man, who speaks in a language I don’t understand, doesn’t break for questions. He makes a jumble of sounds in a deep voice, until I recognize Allah, which he punctuates often.
Later that morning, my aunt asks if I’ll come with her to the mosque. “Jan,” she says, which means dear one in Persian and makes me feel precious. “Come with me.” I know she’s waiting for a phone call from a doctor to confirm, or not, the cancer diagnosis—and so I say, “Sure, whatever you need.” When I say this, a fear of mosques kicks up in me—a fear I didn’t know was there. I’ve never been in a mosque. I am not Muslim. Maybe my fear is prejudice; maybe it’s the energy of my imagination, where I sense I’ll be told, through other people’s eyes, that I don’t belong there.
Then I hear birds fly into my aunt’s kitchen window, in a single sweep. I hear death, random, unrestrained. I look over at my aunt who is running her fingers through the grey that is overtaking the brown in her hair. Her hand is covered in dark web-like veins, something I’ve only just noticed. Her knuckles appear sharper than ever before. She turns her back, angles her head down, and then after several seconds comes back around with a half-smile but the same heavy eyes. In her hands are two glass mugs of tea, where I see and smell cardamom. “We’ll sacrifice a lamb tomorrow,” she says and hands me a cup. “It’s what we did in Afghanistan.” The tea is steaming, too hot to be drunk.
“Will the lamb be killed in front of us?” I ask. She doesn’t answer, and instead reaches for an almond covered in hard sugar. When she bites down, I think all of her teeth have cracked.
Within a family, there is often a single chosen faith. I grew up believing in the utility of two religions—Islam and Catholicism—and was told that they can each be half-believed, half-assumed.
It was a logic I could easily ingest because it’s the logic of my identity. I’m half-Afghan, half-Italian—and American. Half-inserted, half-outside of two dense, sagging bubbles, floating in an open sky.
Tree leaves shake with the wind. A collection of international flags flap alongside them: Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan are immediately recognizable. We’re less than two miles from Pennsylvania Avenue, in the heart of Washington D.C, where down the road a man signs another form that shifts history; a woman downs a large soothing pill; a child tries lipstick for the first time. There is motion in the world, everywhere it seems, except here, in front of me, where a mosque stands with the same beauty it had when it was built more than sixty years ago. Its white stones look as if they’ve been washed in milk. Each window is a sculpture.
As we enter the grounds, my fear of mosques whips up again, and I make a second knot on the ends of the scarf covering my hair.
I do not see other people. We travel under the archways, through a furniture-less court, and I only hear the echo of our footsteps, the whoosh of a strong wandering breeze. The hallways have shadows. The floor is smooth, with unbroken patterns—something I’m tempted to run my hands over. Then I hear my aunt whispering prayers. I see her veil fall away from her ears and forehead; her eyes fix on quiet. She appears as someone else, not the member of my family known for her laughs, frenzied actions, bright costume jewelry. Now, her big spirit twists inward, digs into the blood that moves through her.
When we reach a large wooden door, she looks at me, while still mouthing prayers, and points to an empty cubby. I take off my shoes, place them in the cubby, and instantly feel the cold of the floor. She heaves the door open with two hands, and nods for me to go first. When my bare feet step into the prayer room, I feel the warmth of the thick silk rugs, and it rises in me.
It is hard to express beauty. The columns, mosaics, windows—more ornate and roaring than Rome—overwhelm me. My aunt moves slowly around the room, finds a puddle of light, then drops to the floor and cries.
When does peace come? When she cups her hands in front of her face and closes her eyes? Or when she lays her torso down on the rug, transferring all weight onto the soft, warm surface under her?
I watch her and do nothing else because I feel unsure of how to pray. It’s an act I half-know—like cutting my son’s hair. I’ve never felt comfortable doing it. Yet, I want to pray. I want to harness the full breath, find where there is only vibration and a flow toward density of self—a self in network with sea, land, animals. I feel none of this now. I stand by the east wall and watch my aunt fall to the floor, over and over, attempting to assert power over her circumstance.
My grandmother, Bibijan, taught me how to pray when I was young. She told me to find a quiet spot, lay a small rug down, close my eyes and be with a single thought. Once I had that one thought articulated and surrounded by other words that could somehow make it happen, I was instructed to lie on the floor. And in those moments, I remember no longer feeling my body weight. She taught me a prayer too, but I only recall the beginning, or less than half.
I will not be able to teach my sons how to pray. I will have to make up a story about my independence and refer them to someone in my father’s family to explain their connection to Islam.
“It helped Bibijan when she fled Afghanistan with five of her seven children. It helped my dad when he moved to America and waited for them to arrive by air.” That’s all I can really say.
My aunt smiles when she finishes her prayers. She walks towards me, takes my hand and kisses it.
“I have another place I want to take you to,” she says.
Washington National Cathedral is little more than a mile up the road from the mosque. Instead of architecture—which is impressive—I fixate on the crowds of people, the cars parked beyond the lane we drive. Many women are in pastels, their hair brushed. Most men wear khaki pants and shirts with buttons. I wonder if there’s a wedding, something we’re intruding on, until I note the palm leaves. The countless palm leaves, which appear exotic in this setting. Spring. April. Palm Sunday, of course. My aunt comes alive with questions. She loves that without intention, we’ve appeared at this holy sight on a holy day. She wants to find and hold a palm leaf. When she does, she strokes it and waves it up high above her, showing me her belief in the power of objects.
With my aunt’s palm, we travel the nave through dense crowds. There are worshippers in pews bowing their heads in prayer, and others, like us, with our heads thrown back, staring at the eighty or so stained glass windows that line the limestone walls, all while palm leaves flap about. Though I’m taken by the scale and beauty of the cathedral, I remain struck by my aunt’s decision to come here. Does she want to pray in the Catholic way? Does she feel out of place? Do her beliefs extend beyond what I know of her and see?
My aunt and I keep threading through the crowds, until I get caught behind a slow-moving mother and child, and lose her. I shuffle through pews and think I see her gray-brown hair, but don’t. I become boxed in, between a child and an older woman, and consider overtaking them, but because it seems rude, I sit and let my aunt explore on her own. Almost immediately, I worry she’ll need me, that she finds it easier to experience another spiritual home with me— even if I’m also an outsider.
Last year, I discovered I was secretly baptized. I learned that my Sicilian grandmother, Nonna, walked me to her local church and held my infant head while a priest sprinkled holy water on it. She did it knowing my parents didn’t want her to, and she never told them. Like a scene from a nostalgic Italian movie, I imagined myself in sweet white lace, lying still, while a steadfast old woman recited ancient Latin phrases under a dramatic light.
When Nonna’s sister told me the story, my lip shook. I felt more of one identity, less of another. I sensed I was something, but also not that thing—an incomplete being, or, more specifically, one that wasn’t trying hard enough. I thought of how often I sat in rooms, at dinner tables, where everyone around me spoke Sicilian or Dari, and how little I understood of what they said in their most natural words. I channeled those times when my aunt and her siblings would sit on floors of Persian carpets and thin red cushions, eating rice and meat with their hands, and how unable I was to enjoy the act as much as them because of how slimy the food felt on my fingers. An outsider to their experiences—but also an insider. My family does bring me in.
Nonna, like Bibijan, taught me how to pray. When she put me to sleep, she’d recite a prayer, and I would repeat it, in Italian. Over each door in her home was a crucifix. Above her bed was a life-like head of Mary. They frightened me until Mary became a vision of a strong memory.
When I was fifteen, I was told I saved Nonna’s life. I remember it was morning and that I woke up to the sound of cars humming on the busy road outside her home. I heard this and then a high and piercing scream. I followed it and found Nonna on her bed, under the hanging sculpture of Mary, bent over in pain howling for the spirit of the porcelain face to help her. No one else was in the house. I did the only thing I could do and called my mother, who appeared when the ambulance arrived.
The next week, when she moved into my parent’s home, Nonna said Mary had sent me to save her that day. She took my hand and told me Mary moved through me.
My thoughts on religion are not my own—they are formed by being a witness to other people’s religious experiences.
All that are mine are the questions.
I find my aunt. She is standing in front of a large display of candles. Her palm leaf is grazing the floor.
“Can you tell me how to light one of these?” She has been crying. “Yes,” I say. “I read about it, but I don’t feel sure of myself.” “Don’t worry. I’ve done it before.” I recite the Italian prayer Nonna taught me. I say the words I remember, skipping the ones I don’t, but think that’s ok because the act of lighting something feels powerful enough. I watch the flame swell on the white wax stick. It is tender-looking, and then it is ferocious. It roars, and then calms. It feels cyclical and infinite, until a thread of black smoke lifts off the blaze and slowly floats into the air. I step into the half-light that streams out the door, holding my aunt’s hand. I hold it tightly because I fear she’ll fly away. She gives my hand a squeeze back, tricking me into thinking she won’t. On both sides of me, a wind runs and my hair flies back with it, going free and then messy. A mess of constant motion. I try to bring all the strands covering my eyes into semblance, try to pull them back around my ears, but the wind won’t let me. So I go with it and laugh like a child would—my aunt, too.
Nadia had this to say about "Both Sides":
The piece began as a narrative on observing someone else’s pain, but because it incorporated a visit to a mosque, I realized it required me to get personal about my relationship with Islam. After many drafts, it morphed into an essay about the development of beliefs, and in my case, on learning how to half-believe and half-assume different identities and faith systems, which had an American quality that I thought said something broader, or at least hoped it would! The structure was a key part of my finding a way through disparate events and elevations of thought.
Nadia Shahbaz is a writer born in Upstate New York to immigrant parents. You can follow her online at https://twitter.com/nadshahbaz and https://www.instagram.com/