During my graduate studies in philosophy and religious studies, I received a fellowship to go live and study Urdu in Pakistan for a year. My home-stay Pakistani family consisted of a Muslim couple with two teenage boys living in a poor Shiite village outside of Lahore. When I arrived, my Urdu was very bad but my ‘father’ spoke some English to help me get started. My ‘mom’, however, was uneducated, spoke no English and made little eye-contact at first.
But I eventually spent a lot of time with “Mom”. I would rise early every morning and joined her in the “kitchen” where she prepared the family breakfast comprised of chapatis ( چپاٹی : a pancake-sized flat bread) and some curried vegetables with a little goat meat.
The kitchen looked much like this picture — a dirt floor with no furniture and a little clay oven. It was dark and smokey. At first I would only watched my Pakistani Mom work efficiently as she got water boiling for tea, make breakfast and pack lunches in tiffins. I would occasionally interrupt and point at things asking what they were called in Urdu. She patiently trained me in a few of the kitchen duties, like getting the little wood stove started and rolling out the chapatis. It took about a month before she actually made eye contact with me and we could share basic conversations.
I was a great source of fun for Mom as she made fun of my lack of skills in both rolling out chapatis and speaking Urdu — both of which improved slowly until we were able to have simple conversations and make great breakfasts. Remember, this was unusual for my mother, for she was the sort of Pakistani woman who work a full burka when she went out in public.
Our conversations progressed and we grew closer. And when I left Pakistan, she stood at the doorway tearfully saying,
“I remember when you could not roll a round chapati and all we could talk about was “What time is it?”. Now you can roll a perfect chapati and we can talk about life in this town. I will miss you.”
I miss her. She was generous, thoughtful, funny and sweet — a great person to wake to each morning.
One of the many things my Pakistani mother taught me was humility toward the future. Well, actually, Islam taught me this through her. For in Islam, one should not speak about the future with certainty but must admit that one’s fate is in the hands of Allah and not in one’s own hands. To show this attitude, a Muslim says the phrase “insh’allah” (if Allah wills) after any future tense statement about oneself. Examples may be:
- “Tomorrow I will visit my sister, insh’allah.”
- “Next week I will finish repairing the roof , insh’allah.”
My mom taught me to say “insh’allah” in the exact same manner Pakistani mothers taught their little children. Whenever I left “insh’allah” out of the appropriate sentence, she would gently slap me in the back of my head and remind me with a whisper, “insh’allah!”. Such training was very effective. For even to this day, I often feel my head tipping forward under the kind reminder of my Mom’s hand when I say something predicting my future actions — even when I speak in English. And so sometimes, under my breath, I finish those sentences with “insh’allah”.
Sure, I don’t believe in gods, spirits or ancestors who reward or punish our actions, but over time I came to feel the beauty of a heart which admits uncertainty about the future. I learned to relax into my tenuous position in life. On a similar note I wrote here about how thankfulness-before-eating is useful even without needing to focus on a god, and thus likewise I can culture a humble attitude in life without deities.
Ah, writing of chapatis, makes me miss them. Next week I will teach my daughter to make them, insh’allah!
Note: See Qur’an Surah 18:23 “And do not say of anything: Surely I will do it tomorrow.”
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