Thursday, March 4, 2010

Growing Up

Really, I don't want to write about my childhood.
Or rather, I want to, but I want to try and remember the good parts.
My childhood rests on my shoulders like a huge load, a burden I've been carrying around with me for all of my fifty-three years, but a short exchange with Frauke yesterday brought back some memories that keep bothering me now.
It was not much more than her mentioning that she had begun to learn Arabic at some time because she was interested and rather liked the "basic tenets" of Islam, and that triggered, with me, the old queasy feeling of growing up with a Muslim father in a Western country.
Now, in hindsight, I understand my father a lot better, and also his struggle to introduce me and my sister to his culture and faith, and the obstacles he must have encountered in my mother's family and his surroundings. How lonely he must have been, having no support at all! And he had come here for the love of my mother, leaving his home country and his family behind, only to meet this uncompromising resistance.
Sadly, my father never was a very patient or gentle man, but rather blessed with a terrible temper and no great understanding on how to treat children.
The one thing he never forgave me was that I was not a boy. His firstborn, and a girl.

He tried to raise me as a Muslim and Arab girl in Germany in the 60s.
SO not an option.
Imagine that wooden house in the forest on the dirt road, the staid German neighbors, my civil servant grandparents and uncles, my headstrong mother (she had gone to Arabia, remember, to marry this stranger!), and one child to fight over, and you have a potent brew.
When I entered high school at 11, I was the only child with foreign roots at a school with nearly 1000 students, and the only one for whom tuition had to be paid.... and the only one who did not have the German nationality. I don't think there is need to elaborate.
The same went for holidays.
Muslim holidays were ignored, but it was expected that my father would celebrate the Christian feasts.
He must have been a truly torn man. He wanted the Western education, and yet he wanted it not. He wanted a perfect Muslim daughter, but with all the trappings of a modern, educated woman. H would tell me how he saw me in a strapless white ballgown, with satin gloves and jewels, a debutante, but he would not let me attend dancing lessons because that would have been immodest. According to his wishes, I would either be a doctor or a lawyer, but I was not allowed outside the house in the early evening to attend a typing course (which would have been useful!), and of course I would "return" to Saudi Arabia to practice that profession.
Where I would always ever be only a doctor for women or children, or a lawyer.... for what?
And we have not even spoken yet about the fact that I wanted to be neither.... ever.
Or that I did not speak any Arabic, despite his efforts to teach me... in grueling, torturous lessons on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights, together with instructions in "faith".
Now if I want to make sure my own kids really learn something and like it, too, I try to teach them the fun of it, first. I try to make them WANT to learn in, and not be afraid of it, or even loathe it
And here we return to Frauke and her interest in Islam. I LOATHE it. With all my heart.
To this day, and now I'm middle-aged and a lot more tolerant, there is this one thing that I loathe and want nothing to do with it at all.
Only now, with my father being 88 and a lot less rigid, we can talk about his life and what he wanted for his family, and for me, and he is able to accept my view of things, and I can see his.
The sadness of it, a life time wasted.
The misplaced love, wasted.
And the loneliness of one man, lost in a strange world because of his love, redeemed at the end of his life.


  1. Mariam, I rejoice to read this, hard as it must have been to write. You help me to understand a little immediately, and to wish to understand all eventually. God bless you.

  2. A very powerful post, my friend, and I now suspect your father is still a very proud man. Wanting the best for his children, he had his own ways of showing his love.

    CJ xx

  3. Even if your childhood was difficult and there may still be issues with your parents, I guess it gets easier if you at least understand them. (You don't even have to forgive them.)

    Oh, by the way: Proper typing is overrated. And if you still want to learn it, try this:

  4. Hi Mariam, I cottoned on to this rather belatedly... I am glad our conversation triggered this post! I am also glad to hear that you and your father share a more common ground now. I went through much the same (though not for religious reasons) with my dad - more some time later on MY blog when I get around to it.
    I just wanted to reiterate that my impulse to learn about Islam came from exactly this stubborn and united front against it. I cannot stand such bovine behavior. AND I was always drawn to the Arab culture; as a child, I wanted to be an Arab princess rather than, for instance, the sleeping beauty.
    My conclusions are that Arabic is a truly beautiful albeit difficult language (not that difficult to learn perhaps, but to retain). And that the Qur'an has as many if not more interesting points to its credit - AND as much gibberish as any holy book.
    Still, were I the least bit religiously inclined (which I am not), and speaking strictly from the basic tenets, I would choose Islam over Christianity. It used to be a much more tolerant and open world view in its day.
    I guess what people forget is that world views and religions must move on. Fourteen hundred years ago, this religion was an, ahem, godsend to women who had had virtually no rights to that point. Nowadays, it can be a prison. Do the maths.
    Lots of love, Frauke

  5. Frauke: This is exactly the point my father and I have had many heated debates over. I must correct myself: It is not Islam itself that I abhor, but what has been made of it through interpretation, and even more than that, the silent acceptance of its abuse by the masses.
    The philosophical content is one thing, and for us Europeans easy to accept, but please think of the many women who are abused and mistreated all over the world in the name of Islam.
    That is were I draw the line.
    And you are right, of course! Women had their first taste of freedom under Islam, and think of what a glorious time Spain had under Muslim rule!
    Gone, baby, gone.

  6. That's was a beautiful post Mariam...very moving and touching. I am glad that you and your father have retained a relationship, albeit with reservations. Tolerance and acceptance is so important.
    Did you happen to read the post by Mrs G on The Pioneer Woman recently about religious education? If we raied all children that way it would be so much more peaceful in this world I think.

    You are an amzing writer my freind...I wish I could express myself as you do so beautifully

  7. Thank you, Sue. What a lovely thing to say! I'm so glad we met.

  8. What a truly brilliant post, Mariam. I think the cultural and religous conflicts of wanting to maintain an identity but somehow integrating into a new world, a new country, are captured so vividly. I can so imagine the "Kleinb├╝rger" attitudes you describe in the 1960s, the Again, great post.

  9. You are inspiring me to listen to what my husband has been telling me to do and try to make amends with my parents. We just recently got into a rather uncomfortable discussion about accepting them for what they are and letting go of the fact that I cannot change their perceptions of how to treat people/their children included. It terrifies me to even consider making a move toward this... You are so strong and a brilliant writer. A gift to us all

  10. In Glasgow, religion has always played a large part in life, in a tribal sense, if not spiritual. If you went to a state school you were seen as being a proddie dog. A catholic school and you were a Tim cat, or pape. My dad's parents were of mixed faith with their sons going to catholic school and brought up in the catholic faith, the girls being brought up protestant.
    My dad never embraced Catholicism and he eventually married a woman who could not have been a more blue proddie. Religion was also tied up with football. Catholics supported Celtic, Protestants were Rangers fans. The anger and violence between the two tribes would often spill over into running battles in the streets and domestic violence in the home. And it is still the same. I love Glasgow, but there are aspects that do make me ashamed to be a Weegie.

  11. You know, you all really knock me over with your comments.
    I had no idea this subject would touch so many on such a personal level, or that religious controversies were so universal.

  12. I think you are so very brave to open you heart like this bit is extraordinarily admiral. Things in *my* head will never ever come out, even anonymously due to fear. You are amazing for conquering that fear. Hugs from you know who. Xxx

  13. Amazing post and as much about "all" fathers and daughters as about yours in particular. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for you. I can share some father/daughter experiences even though there was not the vast cultural divide in my parents' families of origin. The father daughter tie is not an easy one. You seem to be dealing with the old "stuff" well at this time. Deep Peace, Ardee-ann