Children of Dust by Ali Eteraz is the gorgeous, thought provoking, hard-to-put-down memoir of a Pakistani-Muslim man who struggles to untangle the difference between religious obsession and peaceful devotion.
The writing is carefully crafted, making a scholarly topic that could easily be lackluster, into a literary masterpiece. The stories from Eteraz’s childhood and difficult youth as he walks the line between American culture and strict religious expectations are touching and the imagery transportive. This is a memoir that anyone of any religion who has struggled to make their faith their own instead of an imposed standard, will be able to relate to.
You don’t have to take my word for it. I’ve been authorized to share the first chapter here. Read for yourself and enjoy.
by Ali Eteraz,
Author of Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan
My mother, Ammi, had just returned from Koh-e-Qaf, where women went when they were annoyed with their husbands. It was far up in the heavens, far beyond the world of men, above the astral planes of the jinns, and hidden even from the angels. Upon reaching Koh-e-Qaf a woman became a parri and congregated with others like her. Then all the parris gathered upon rippling streams and rivers of celestial milk. They bathed and splashed and darted around on rich, creamy froth.
I was just a seven-year-old child living in a tiny apartment in Lahore, Pakistan. I couldn’t get enough of Koh-e-Qaf.
“What happens there?” I asked Ammi. “Please tell me! Please!”
“It’s a safe place where I can gather my thoughts,” she said. “When women go there, we don’t take our earthly concerns with us. We don’t even need our earthly clothes. Allah restores to us the cuticle skin we had when He first created Hazrat Adam and his wife, Havva.”
Ammi said that Koh-e-Qaf was created secretly at the time the universe was made. Allah had asked each one of His creations whether they would be willing to bear the burden of free will. He asked the mountains and they said no. He asked the skies and they refused. He asked the sun and the seas and the plants and the trees and the angels. They all said no. But Adam, the first male — “who took too many risks just like your Pops” — accepted the burden. “And he didn’t even ask his wife what he was getting into!” Upon hearing the news, a chagrined Havva went to Allah and told Him that men would make a big mess of things and “then take out their frustration on their wives.” So, for all the wives of the world, Havva convinced Allah to create Koh-e-Qaf, a sanctuary for all time.
“Then she made Allah give long nails to women so they could remember their special place.”
“That’s not fair,” I said, poking a finger through Ammi’s curly black hair. “I don’t have a special place to go to.”
“You don’t need a special place,” she replied. “My little piece of the moon is more special than the whole world.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“No, I’m not,” she said. “Haven’t you ever thought about what your name means?”
“Your full name. Abir ul Islam.”
“So what? It’s just a name.”
“Not just a name.”
I shrugged. Compared to intergalactic travel and teleportation and heavenly drinks, my name didn’t inspire much awe.
“Come on,” Ammi said, taking my hand as if she could read the disappointment on my face. “You don’t believe me? Let’s go see Beyji. She will tell you that you are the most special.”
Beyji was my maternal great-grandmother. She lived in a white marble bungalow in Lahore. She was a saint because she had forgiven the woman who used black jadu to kill Beyji’s husband. Beyji regularly met with the Holy Prophet Muhammad in her dreams. One year, during the Night of Power in the month of Ramzan, she got chosen as one of Allah’s elect and saw a glimpse of the Light.
Ammi led me past my grandfather’s room, where he was busy listening to old Noor Jahan recordings, and toward Beyji’s darkened quarters. We went inside and Ammi pushed me toward Beyji’s bed. She wore a floral print shalwar kameez — loose trousers with a tunic top — and had cast a gauzy blue dupatta over her head. Taking my wrist with one hand and holding my chin with the other, she gave me a smile. Her gummy mouth murmured a series of prayers.
“Beyji,” Ammi said. “This one doesn’t believe me when I tell him that he’s special.”
“The most special,” Beyji corrected.
“I told him that his name is Abir ul Islam.”
“Such a beautiful name, isn’t it?”
“He doesn’t think it’s such a big deal.”
“Is that right?” Beyji looked at me for confirmation.
I made my case. “Ammi flies around like a parri and goes to Koh-e-Qaf. I just sit here.” Beyji looked at me with compassion. She pulled a piece of dried orange out from under her pillow and handed it to me. “Come and sit with me,” she invited. “Then ask your Ammi to tell you the story of your birth.”
“What about it?”
“She’ll tell you,” Beyji said.
Ammi sat down on the other bed and rested a cup of chai on the palm of her hand. With two fingers she pinched the cream congealed on the surface.
“When I was pregnant with you,” Ammi said, licking her fingers, “Pops moved to Saudi Arabia for work. When he was there, he went to the Ka’ba in Mecca and made a mannat. Do you know what a mannat is?”
“A mannat is like a covenant with Allah. You promise to do something if Allah grants one of your wishes.”
“Like a jinn in a lamp!”
“Except God imposes conditions!” Beyji amended.
“Your father’s mannat was that if his first child was a boy,” Ammi continued, “he would be raised to become a leader and servant of Islam. Are you listening?”
“Yes,” I said, orange sticking out of my mouth.
“Then you were born — a boy — which meant that the mannat must be fulfilled.”
“Are you still listening?” Beyji prompted.
I nodded and adopted the serious expression that their intensity seemed to require.
“So we needed to give you a name that reflected your purpose in life,” Ammi said. “There were many options, but Pops said that your name should be Abir. It means perfume. Full name: Abir ul Islam. Perfume of Islam. You were thus born to spread Islam as if it were a beautiful fragrance. Special, no?”
“It’s just a name,” I said skeptically.
“Ah, but that’s not all,” Beyji said, nudging me affectionately. “Keep listening.”
“Then,” Ammi continued, “right when you were born we moved to Saudi Arabia. When you were barely eleven months old, you and Pops and I went to dohajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca. I dressed you up like all the other pilgrims. You looked so cute wrapped in all white. You had been trying to walk for many weeks, but I swear as soon as we got to Mecca you began walking properly. It had to have been that holy sand. You really took to Mecca. Walking around. Greeting everyone. You even ran away from me in the middle of the night. We were frantic until you were discovered hours later with a pair of Bedouins. It was like you were meant to be there.”
“Did the Bedouins have goats?” I asked, my attention momentarily derailed.
“I think they did,” Ammi said. “Anyway. One night I went to circumambulate the Ka’ba and took you with me. The place wasn’t as crowded at night. There was a long row of Africans walking with their elbows locked like a chain. I stayed behind them until they made their turn and I found myself right at the border of the Ka’ba . . .”
“The House of God,” Beyji said, her eyes shining. “I’ve been there twice in my life. It’s the most beautiful thing in the universe. Astronauts will tell you that the world sits right in the center of the universe, and that Mecca sits right in the middle of the world, and that the Ka’ba sits right in the middle of Mecca!”
“There’s a semicircular wall around the Ka’ba,” Ammi continued. “It was built by the Prophet Ibrahim thousands of years ago. I forget the name of that space, but it’s said that if you pray there, it’s as if you’d prayed inside the Ka’ba. It was peaceful there that night. No one else was in the area. Imagine: millions of people wearing the same thing and chanting the same thing — Labbayk Allahumma Labbayk — all around us, and a mother and son just all alone with the Ka’ba. It was beautiful.”
Beyji interrupted again: “Don’t forget! Mecca was founded by a mother and son, too. At Allah’s instruction, Hajira and baby Ismail were left there by the Prophet Ibrahim. They had no water, so Hajira put Ismail down in the sand to go and find something to drink. While she was gone, little Ismail kicked his feet and the Zamzam spring sprouted from the desert sand. A town was built there when some nomads discovered the spring.”
Ammi nodded and continued: “I had you stand next to me and we made a pair of nafal prayers together. I asked Allah to place Islamic knowledge in your heart and make you a true servant of Islam. Then I removed your clothes, lifted you up, and rubbed your bare chest against the ancient wall — back and forth a few times.”
As I listened to the women, my heart beat fast and my face became warm. I felt connected to this distant place that I didn’t remember. The reverence it elicited in my mother and great-grandmother poured into me.
“Then later, when I was resting,” Ammi continued, “your Pops took you with him. He went to rub your chest against the heavenly Black Stone at one corner of the Ka’ba. He wasn’t able to get to it because it’s always so crowded with people trying to kiss it, but he pressed you against the bare walls of the Ka’ba itself. He made the same prayer I did, about you serving Islam.”
“Subhanallah,” Beyji said and put her hand on my heart. “One day you should go back to Mecca and kiss the Black Stone. It will absorb all your sins. But not yet. Go when you are older. Right now you are sinless.”
I nodded eagerly.
“So,” Ammi said. “Do you believe you are special now?”
I felt as if the entire universe was listening to my answer. God. The angels. Even the parris.
“Yes. I believe you. I believe that I’m special.”
“By the way, did you know that when the Black Stone first came down from heaven it was white?” Ammi said.
“What happened to it?” I asked.
“People touched it and it became dirty,” she said.
I imagined billions of hands touching a large, egg-shaped crystal over thousands of years and gradually making it black. Suddenly I pulled away from Beyji and stood up in the center of the room, feeling proud and powerful.
“I will take a towel and make it white again!”
Beyji kissed my hand and told me that I would be Islam’s most glorious servant.
The above is an excerpt from the book Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan by Ali Eteraz. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2009 Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan
Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan, was born in Pakistan and has lived in the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the United States. A graduate of Emory University and Temple Law School, he was selected for the Outstanding Scholar’s Program at the United States Department of Justice and later worked in corporate litigation in Manhattan. He is a regular contributor to True/Slant; has published articles about Islam and Pakistani politics in Dissent, Foreign Policy, AlterNet, and altMuslim; and is a regular contributor to The Guardian UK and Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language daily. His blog in the Islamosphere received nearly two million views as well as a Brass Crescent award for originality. Eteraz has spoken publicly about the situation inside Pakistan, Islamic reform, and Muslim immigration. He currently divides his time between Princeton, New Jersey, and the Middle East, and is working on a novel.
For more information please visit www.alieteraz.com.