Illustration by Farnaz Zare
What’s the first memory of your mother?
The smell of fire leaves residue of mine, or at least serves as a reminder of her absence. When I was five, she took off one day, armed with the determination that we’d be reunited. She took with her a familiar scent, her hands that knew no rest, her expressions that were home, and her words of wisdom. She was gone for a year, leaving Bangladesh to secure us a better future. But for some reason, people claimed it was better to conceal the truth of her departure from my two young sisters and me. We waved at a plane in the sky one day and went about with the rest of our lives, our family now one member short.
When I let myself remember, I’m five years old again, being cooed over by my dad after being awoken at the break of day. In my memory, it’s just us. Mum’s still away. I’m back home, where my skin is familiar, the weather kinder, the space safer. We’re in our village, arranging the janamaz outside on the terrace, about to offer prayer. In the background is an almost-invisible burning flame. It’s a poor village; fire is necessary for survival. The smoky fragrance enters a crevice deep within my mind, ready to beckon memories that come with its evocation, and so the act of remembering happens every time I smell fire.
“She was leaving to secure us a better future. But for some reason, people claimed it was better to conceal the truth of her departure from my two young sisters and me”
We’re preparing for fajr – the first obligatory prayer of the day, and due to its post-dawn time slot, the hardest one for a Muslim. But we are reminded that sacrifice is a testament of dedication and sincerity. Dad reassuringly lifts us out of bed, slowly, one by one, delayed by our grogginess. I’m performing ablution, unable to complete each required movement and so Dad steps in, throwing the sobering cold water against our sleepy skin. The four of us begin to pray desperately to feel unbroken again. It’s been a long year without Mum. She’s living somewhere where our names are alien, the weather is harsher and the space a little crueller.
We tenuously cling onto this routine – one small constant in an otherwise slippery future. Thousands of miles away from Mum, every morning, my dad, sisters and I go outside at the crack of dawn to barter with and supplicate God for a reunion. We perform the same ritual the next day and the one after that, just like clockwork, with more purpose and desperation than the day before. The warming fire plays her part as well.
We forsake our sleep and comfort to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, or at least hip-to-shoulder, and earnestly pray for our family to be complete. We miss her. She’s doing all the legwork alone in a foreign land to bring us to where she is. But she performs fajr alone. So we pray with extra vigour, in hopes of ending her prayers in solitude.
“We forsake our sleep and comfort to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, or at least hip-to-shoulder, and earnestly pray for our family to be complete”
Mum doesn’t have to sacrifice heat and sleep. Her heart is left perpetually cold by the absence of her children. For her, every waking moment is a reminder of us. Her hands and legs know no rest. She works fiercely and tirelessly to bring us all to her little slice of home. But God is kind. He places heaven at the mother’s feet.
After what seems forever, we find ourselves together again as a family. It’s partly because Mum completed all the necessary paperwork, but mainly thanks to our sincere prayers. The memory of being pacified by Dad each morning as he woke us from our slumber and separated us from our warm beds is replaced by the memory of the lingering, smoky air.
I remember realising how sacrificing sleep for prayer can provide guidance. That reminder ties itself into a neat little package in the form of a fire being burned at fajr. When I smell it, I’m reminded of how powerful prayer can be. It’s still humbling.
Taken from gal-dem’s print issue UN/REST, on sale now