A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet (PBUH) said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father. (Bukhari, Muslim)
My mother was born August 7th 1968 in Karachi, Pakistan. She was the third child out of eventually eleven and second daughter out of six. When she was only three months old she was given by her mother to her grandmother and raised in Islamabad (Northern Pakistan). She spent the next approximately ten years living there with her grandmother, aunts, and uncles. As the only child there, she was the favorite of her grandmother and was spoiled by her. She was never asked to do any chores, cook food, or any of the other tasks girls would normally learn. Before starting this assignment, I already knew that my mom first lived with her grandmother in Islamabad, and not her actual family. From time to time, my mom would mention it and say how she was her grandmother’s favorite. I was the only one allowed to sit on her bed. It was not until that I spoke to her recently that she revealed how deeply this experience actually hurt her.
When I asked her why her mother sent her, and only her, to live in Islamabad in the first place, she said she didn’t know. When I asked her why her grandmother sent her back to Karachi she again she didn’t know. After a brief, thoughtful pause, she spoke. I’ve spent many nights thinking about that. I don’t know why. When I was younger, I used to get mad. Was I that worthless that they just sent me around like that? What was wrong with me that no one wanted me? I used to get mad at them both. I’d scream and say that on the Day of Judgement (in Islam, the day all of humanity will be brought before God and face judgement) they would both have to answer for throwing me around like that. To this day, I don’t know. But I’ve stopped thinking about it. I never got a chance to forgive them, but it’s passed.
When my mother returned to Karachi after about ten years, only her last three siblings had yet to be born. She had an older brother, and older sister, two younger brothers, and three younger sisters she had never known until then. She said because she was raised in Islamabad, she never really fit in with her siblings until much later. In everything they did she was also always alone, always the odd one out. Once when she was little, she was kidnapped while playing outside. In Pakistan, as well as India, mobsters often kidnap young children whom they then force into becoming street beggars. They will often physically impair them to make them more effective beggars. My mom was alone for three days, locked in cart before one of her uncles, having heard her screams and cries, found and rescued her. She only spoke about this once when we were watching “Slumdog Millionaire” and the scene where the kids are kidnapped reminded her of her own experience. She never mentioned it again. When speaking about her childhood more recently, however, that she believes its allowed her to empathize with others more easily. Maybe that’s why God put me through all that, so that I could feel other people’s pain. Life has a way of moving on. When she was in high school she wanted to go to college to study psychology. Before my mom could begin college however, her grandmother became very sick and so she was sent back to Islamabad again to take care of her. Her grandmother passed away soon afterward and my mom returned again to Karachi
The person my mom talks most about, and I think the most beloved to her, is her father. Not a day goes by that she doesn’t talk about how great of a man, father, husband he was. How despite having eleven children, he had more than enough love for them all, especially his daughters. How when her mother would get angry and beat her for not knowing how to properly cook and clean, because she wasn’t raised with her mother, her father would stop and calm her mom. How when other people in the neighborhood would complain that Naseer’s daughters were too carefree, that they shouldn’t be riding their bikes at night or going to the movies so late, he would say Tell them if they have a problem to come speak to me, no one tells my daughters they cannot do something. Even though I only really met him 10 years after I was born, with him I never felt as if I didn’t belong. When she first moved back to Karachi, her family lived in a large flat in the business district of one of the wealthier neighborhoods. After her father made a bad business deal however, they lost all their money and were forced to move into a one bedroom apartment. Additionally, as his health was deteriorating, he was unable to go out and find a better job. When she was twenty four years old, the doctors diagnosed her father with lung cancer. They said he had only a couple months to live. Before he passed, however, his wish was to see his favorite daughter married. A month later, on New Year’s Day, my mom was married to my father, a distant family friend, ten years older than her. Her father passed away two days later.
My mother had my sister about two years later and me a year and a half after that. My dad was poor and so we didn’t live in our own house. We lived in a single room in his family’s house in Karachi. When I was three we moved to the United States. Here too, for the first three years we lived in someone else’s house. With my father at work most of the time, no friends, no phone to call her family back in Pakistan, no car, and unable to speak the language here, my mom silently endured. Even when we finally moved into our own apartment, not much changed. Sometimes when I am studying really late at night on campus, in the library or in a study lounge or wherever, I get really lonely. I lose motivation and get depressed. That’s when I think about my mom. How truly alone she must have felt those first couple of years. How she must have felt unable to speak to anyone, do anything, a prisoner in her own home.
When my father had saved up enough money, he paid for my mother’s mom to come visit us for a couple of months back in 2003. Although, they never really got along, I guess with the death of her husband and as she herself aged, my grandmother broke to tears when she finally saw my mom after almost five years. After that, my mom returned to Pakistan three more times before in 2012, her mother passed away too. I never got to tell her I forgave her.
My mom often tells my siblings and me that she’s sorry because she’s not brave enough. That if she was braver she could do more for us, maybe get an education and a job and provide more for us. I don’t know how to tell her that she’s braver than I could ever hope to be. That she is the most persevering, compassionate, courageous person I know. Recently, she’s begun asking me if once I graduate I am going to leave her. I am ashamed to say at first it annoyed me how often she would ask that. You’re going to leave me, right? How at a certain point I could not wait to finally be on my own. Now I don’t know what to do. But, I guess that’s just how life is sometimes.
artwork: Mother and child by Ather Jamal