Umm Janat is by far the fiercest khalto I know. At 55, she carries herself with a dignity that commands respect and attentiveness from everyone and anyone near her.
Umm Janat speaks in poetry. If I used to like Arabic before, now I utterly adore it. She embodies the beauty of spoken عربي. She gives every letter, every syllable its due. Every word sounds a million times more certain when she speaks. Her words are marked and lasting, they are engraved in the air around her as she speaks, listening to her, taking notes carefully, the way I am doing in my mind.
Umm Janat is a storyteller, a scholar, a saint. When speaking, she shares both from personal experience, and draws on proverbs, ahadeeth, Qur’anic ayahs, writers, philosophers–all right on the spot. She can capture the topic I need 10 minutes to explain in just a phrase. For example, when I rambled on and on explaining self-love, making all sorts of disclaimers that this is a love rooted in self-acceptance, self-worth and not a pathological or selfish narcissism (using definition from bell hooks), she nodded and said to the room “Rida with the way God has shaped us is how we come to love ourselves.” Contentment. Acceptance. Gratification. No single word really gets at Rida.
I don’t know how this beautiful word escaped me. It is a reminder of how limiting and verbose english can be. Moments like these from Umm Janat remind me that I can’t translate every word that signals compassion and self-love and dignity because so much of that is already rooted in the beautiful Arabic words Umm Jannat and the women of QUWA speak. Their sentences are strung together by these attributes. Sometimes I stress over the technical terms, of translating and finding the right word in Arabic as close as possible, but then I hear and see and feel traces of self-love and spirituality and collectivism embedded in their speech, and that’s when I realize how silly or redundant it can be at times to try to name or explain these things.
To be honest, I used to be kind of terrified of Umm Janat. Besides being utterly self-conscious of my Arabic around her–infusing fus-ha and Syrian in my speech to try to compensate for my clumsy Egyptian dialect–I was super concerned with what she thought of the content of the QUWA program, what she made of the things we spent hours planning every night. Whenever I would introduce a topic or an activity for the session–for healing circle or self-defense–I anxiously evaluated her facial expressions. Gaining her affirmation meant the world to me. A slight smile or nod sent me flying. But a straight face–or even worse–raised eyebrows or a question of clarification made me want to hide behind the curtains and run away from my foolishness. In our early sessions, sometimes I felt she was skeptical, like she wanted to see what all this collective healing talk from these non-Syrian refugees was about. I had to work for Umm Janat’s approval, and rightfully so.
But now, I know Umm Janat is soft. Now, I can hold her gaze comfortably, her eyes are empathetic and warm. One day, after class, she came to me, reached into her purse, and handed me a wrapped candy. “I wish I could give you more, I wish I could invite you over and host you. One day, God willing, we will. For now, this is for you. It is from Halab.” These were her last two candies from a box of sweets from Aleppo. She gave one to Nour and one to me. She gave me a piece of Halab, of her home. How much left of Halab does Umm Janat carry with her? I felt both honored and guilty to take a part of it.
7abeetik. She told me. I’ve come to love you. My heart dances. I am not accustomed to these straightforward, genuine proclamations of love (because of my reserved and basic “western” perceptions and practices of love). There’s no guilt anymore, just an overwhelming desire to embrace Umm Janat fervently since no words I say will ever suffice. No words can capture the gravity of her generosity.
It turns out I am not the only one who feels this way about Umm Janat. I am not the only one who fishes for her affirmation and opinions. In our last session, we did an affirmation circle. Basically, we sat in a big circle and each person had a chance to sit in the center of it, hearing affirming words from all the people in the circle one at a time, rotating from person to person and listening without any comments or interruptions during the activity. In the end, after the person heard all the affirmations and offered a thank you or her own feedback, she had to end with, “Thank you–I know that about myself.” It was a practice in accepting compliments and not rushing to return or back away from praise (as often is the case with women). During this activity everyone couldn’t wait to get to Umm Janat. Her words meant so much to us. It was like waiting in line to hear our fortune, waiting for someone to figure us out. Her comments for each of us were calculated, accurate, meaningful, concise and oh so affirming. When it was her turn to sit in the center, people spoke of her wisdom. Of how easy it was to speak in front of her despite the wide age gap. Of inter-generational honesty and understanding. Of her powerful voice. Of her killer heel-palm in self-defense. In the end, she smiled. She offered some feedback on the things she heard. “If only you could see you through my eyes,” she starts. We think she’s about to endow us with more wisdom or switch gears and dilute the praise we’ve just given her, but instead, she cracks a smile and says, “Thank you for your words, but I already know all this about myself!”
One day, we discussed stalking, verbal abuse and street harassment. Everyone had something to say, but as soon as Umm Janat spoke we all turned to her–young and old–to eagerly listen to her story. She shared a traumatic experience a few years back during Eid festivities in Aleppo when she and her elderly mother and daughter were followed by a creep all the way home. She hadn’t revisited or told the story since then and it clearly was affecting her to even share it. She stopped a couple of times to drink water and told us she was getting goosebumps retelling it. But she continued and held the same magnificent, storytelling voice.
She shared how she escaped this stalker, how in the last desperate moment when she thought he was about to attack, she told her 20-something year old daughter (who is also with us in the healing circle) to run and escape while she continued to walk as fast she she could with her elderly mother. She finally stopped at the house of a neighbor, of people she had only met once before since they had just moved in. She said she felt embarrassed to do this but her livelihood was at stake, and there’s no time for embarrassment or explanations when you need to survive. Umm Janat’s chilling story of how she escaped the perpetrator carried crucial lessons for survival for all of us. “You have to expect anything. You always have to evaluate the situation around you. You must walk with certainty.” I close my notebook–all the notes I planned to share on assessing and evaluating our surroundings have already been explained by Umm Janat.
Umm Janat’s voice is remarkably authoritative. It captures your attention and flows smoothly, but when she wants to, her voice can paralyze you. She shared the story of a time years ago when someone tried to mess with her and her daughter on the bus. “I looked at the perpetrator,” she said very calmly. “I turned to him. And you know what I said?” All eyes and ears fixed on her. “YA HAQEER!” she yelled in a tone we did not recognize. “YOU SCUM!” Before we burst into laughter, we froze in horror at the roaring sound none of us expected. Did that really come from this sweet khalto? I put away my notes of our voices as weapons, of not forgetting to use our voice forcefully during vulnerable moments out of shock or embarrassment. Again, Umm Janat had explained it all.
The other story she shared was of someone who once harassed her and her daughter over the phone with persistently desperate and flirtatious phone calls. “I started nicely,” she said. “I told him, my son, didn’t your parents teach you how to speak courteously on the phone?” The “my son” was supposed to shut him down, embarrass him, humble him, make him realize that he is a young fool bothering an older woman.
Apparently the fool did not get it, and responded with a sardonic, “No.”
“So you know what I said to him?” And in the same roaring voice we heard moments ago, her face transformed entirely and her voice amplified as though she yelled into a microphone, “Then I will teach you and teach the ones who couldn’t teach you!” Harabeek. I will raise you! Bam. Silence. With her wrath or mercy, Umm Janat is on a roll. And she has no intention of stopping.
These are snippets of Umm Janat. It is impossible to capture all her stories or to try to describe her wisdom and force and influence. I’ll end with this quote that expresses much of what I’m feeling right now (shout out to Annie Q for sharing with me):