I love memoirs. There was a time though, when it was hard to find good memoirs by Muslim women. More than ten years ago, the memoirs I read would disappoint me because they would leave their storytelling project to defend Islam. Long paragraphs and pages of exposition would begin with the words “Islam has five pillars”, or “Islam is about peace”, or “my hijab is about being judged for what is inside my heart” and as a reader, this got old fast. It felt like even by Muslim writers, I wasn’t being centered, I wasn’t seen. I wasn’t their imagined reader.
Now, there is more choice, but my reading preferences are the same. I like books that are not striving to explain Islam, to justify it. I avoid books that are about escaping conservative Islam, about domestic violence, or that include strident paragraphs about how Islam isn’t a violent religion. I rejoice when I come across well written books where I can delight in the prose, be surprised by the reflections, and learn how other Muslims are living their lives. I want Islam to be there in the background, quietly. When I read the novel “A Place for Us’ it felt like home for that reason.
So many years later, while there is still lots of work to do in publishing, there are so many more books and memoirs by Muslim women and it is possible to gravitate to stories that call out to you. I am glad for this. Ibtihaj Muhammed’s book “Proud” for example, made me more motivated to move my body and revel in its gifts. Zarqa Nawaz’ book “Laughing all the Way to the Mosque” made me think about the grit and determination required to create television. While before the publication of any book by any Muslim female in the Global North felt like it warranted purchase because we were in a desert of representation, now I don’t feel compelled to like or read every book. I say all this to say that when I read Professor Ayesha Chaudhry’s memoir “The Colour of God” I entered my reading reminding myself that this is one book, one story. It didn’t have to be all things and it was okay to not like it. I am glad to report though, that this book is a gift, and I am glad I took the effort to read it. I read it slowly over the course of a week, savouring it in early mornings and lunchtime reads and reflecting over its contents.
A lot of my background matches the experiences described in this book. Not the niqab, not being part of the particular religious community described, not starting the hijab young. But when it came to stories of battling over haircuts as a child, being insistently talkative, seeing beauty as Anne of Green Gables, being told with great enthusiasm by white women in my political science classes and summer jobs about their discoveries that Muslim women are human, commuting during undergrad but never really exploring the broader city, I found a lot that resonated. The truth that I could have technically done anything I wanted once I left the house, but I didn’t because I upheld my rules, that resonated. I went to U of T for graduate school, and seeing descriptions of the college where I was a residence advisor, the building where I had classes in a book was lovely. The truth that deep grief can shift the way the pieces of you fit together, that resonated. This feeling of recognition, of saying “you too?” is a rare sensation when I read.
I was nervous (hence the reminders before I started reading) though, because it is a book in which the author goes from being covered, to taking off her hijab, and it is difficult to tell that story without it sounding like liberation. This book addresses this, challenges the reader by identifying those tropes and then goes beyond them. It resists easy stories. It is not a tear down of Islam, and the author is clear to point out that there are many Islams, some more egalitarian than others. This book stresses that for the author’s family, stricter interpretations of religion were a response to racism, and a response to the failure of the promises of assimilation. This book tells an important story about going from an environment that privileges a very strict interpretation of Islam (the book uses words like fundamentalist, puritanical and cult) and finding one’s own path. Those reflections, and the reflections that even when we try to reject scripts, we are never totally away from them, are valuable points. Where the book sings however, is when it discusses and delves into the humanity of one’s Islam, and explores what that rich heart can look like. The last chapter reflects on the Islamic teaching on what it means to be a traveller or a stranger in the world and connects that to prayers of birth and death and rituals done at birth. This chapter about building and living in the here and now is stunning and I read it more than once. I found myself as a reader wanting more of those moments, because I found the most powerful part of the book were where the redemptive and beautiful parts of Islam are described, when the vulnerability goes a bit deeper. The children chapter stands out for this reason as well. While the book as a whole is loving, conversational, as a whole, the mercy of the book shines through at these points.
Where I struggled with this book though, is that I found myself wishing that there were more of these moments. Rightfully so, there is anger and grief in this book, but I wanted to hear more about that space between dogma and valuing certain epistemological frames of Islam. There is a story for example in the book about the Prophet Sulayman being upset about the power of the Queen of Sheba, and being unable to handle the power of a woman, and I struggled, because the description of Sulayman didn’t match other (more mainstream) stories and other understandings of Prophets. The stories, in other words, I grew up with. I wanted the mercy and loving eye in other sections of the book to be applied here. To find the space to talk about Islam without justification or defense, but curious exploration. And while I do not hold the belief that Muslims should speak and behave in particular ways (I agree with Noor Naga in her brilliant essay “Muslims Should be Mistresses Too”) the swearing in the book distracted me at times, and detracted sometimes from the point at hand.
The book also struggles at times because of its structure. The book is in three parts. Part one – Anguish, is about the death of the author’s nephew at age 4. The name of the book comes from his name. Part three “Please Water Me” is a continuation of that story. Part Two, is the bulk of the book. It comprises thirteen chapters, all with titles that hint at the stories in those sections. Many of the stories are about young childhood, or about the author’s family, but there are also stories here as well of university, not having children, travelling, marriage. It is a non linear memoir, and this structure works more successfully at certain points than in others. There are times when it is distracting to not have certain things described or explained further, or to have the jump in narrative, or it is sometimes confusing about why a chapter covers one thing, where there are so many other things alluded to that could be explored further.
All in all, this is a memorable and beautiful book. Not a perfect book, not a book that tries to do a everything, but a book that makes an important contribution to the landscape of Muslim stories.