Last days of QUWA


I want to remember two of the happiest days of my life:

Day One: First Last Day of QUWA

We did an affirmation circle. Every woman had the chance to sit in the middle and listen to every other person tell her something they loved or admired about her.

Bana and Eman said to us afterwards: “Thank you so much for this opportunity. We always wished we had a space where it would be appropriate to express our feelings for others in the group, because so many thoughts come up when you spend this much time with people”. Most people said they’d never done anything like it before.

Arab women are so bold, so honest. Their “compliments” sometimes went like this: “When you first walked into the room, I thought you were so arrogant. But now I know that you are confident and loving and thoughtful.”

 At the end of the go-around, the woman sitting in the middle is supposed to say “thank you, I know this about myself”. When we did it at Impact, it was awkward, but these women made a joke of it, understanding the point completely at the same time. “Khajaltooni”, you’ve made me shy, they’d say. “Thank you so much for your kind words, and I love and admire you all so much more. But to be honest, I know this about myself.”

So many of the affirmations came in the simple form of “min awwal ma shuftik, wa anti qareeba min qalbi”, since I first saw you, you have been close to my heart. I have never heard a phrase that so perfectly encompasses sincere love for another human being as this one does.

The affirmations took longer than we planned for, so we didn’t have time to do the self-defense final test that day (Amo Mahmood, the school’s caretaker, was losing his patience with our overtime). We had a rushed but beautiful graduation ceremony outside. Fatin’s younger sister and her friends–a group of bouncy elementary-age girls–helped me pass out the flowers and graduation gifts while Zeinab read the names on the QUWA certificates. Then the little girls asked me if we had extra flowers and gifts for them, and I silently thanked Allah we had leftovers.

Aminah wrote each woman’s name on her certificate in beautiful Arabic script, she was known for her calligraphic handwriting. We brought two QUWA cakes from MADO cake shop on Istiklal street, and the cake-makers drew smiley faces next to the word, somehow knowing it was a happy occasion.  And the ladies of QUWA cooked the most delicious feast for us, the best pizza I’ve ever had, grape leaves, raw kibbeh. We gave a plate to Amo Mahmood downstairs; Eman took it down and said that would quell his irritation so we could stay in the building later. At the end, we cut the cake on “1, 2, 3 QUWA!”

DAY 2: Second Last Day of QUWA

We met again Saturday morning to do the self-defense “final exam”. Most people were late because they went on a swimming trip the day before and were exhausted, but everyone came. While we waited, Um Jannat told us stories about raising her kids, and we all laughed along, wondering if we would ever stop being in awe of her.

We finally started and the energy was explosive. We recorded the girls on the floor so they could watch their fights later. Even Sumayya, Fatin, Ghada, and Shereen didn’t stop until they kicked us to the floor. The Der’aa sisters were fighting with unprecedented strength–Zeinab and I took turns with them because by the end we couldn’t stand. Bana’s and Eman’s kicks were actually painful but filled us with joy. Masa didn’t want to fight at first, then she kicked ass farther than she ever had before.

After each fight, Z and I lay on the floor and they yelled “Unthuri, Qayyimi, Alnajda Alnajda Alnajda!” (Look, Assess, Help Help Help!) When we first taught them this phrase, I embarrassingly demonstrated it by myself; now, we were all chanting together, our voices hoarse. Every woman did her fight individually, but the line of women standing behind her thundering and clapping, yelling reminders to slap the mat and kick the target, left the room and our hearts trembling with almost unbearable strength.

We gathered in a sweaty circle at the end. They asked us to sit in the middle to do our affirmations since we didn’t have time before. I have never felt my personality so simply and completely recognized, understood and embraced as it was by this group of women.

It was time to go. We took a million pictures and accepted a million gifts. We danced. Fatin really was a beautiful dancer, as everyone had been telling us all month. Um Jannat told us we were her daughters and she wished that we had met in Syria so that she could have hosted us in her home. She said, “wala’tuna wa taraktuna”, you have ignited us and now you are leaving.

We walked to the metro station together; Ghada and Shereen told me they never miss a day of QUWA, that they argue with their mother to let them come. I love Shereen so much; her eyes are magically playful and she feels like an old, old friend.

We talked and laughed loudly on the metro, so much so that the Turkish metro-riders gave us disapproving looks and told us to be quiet. We joked that we were just having too much fun for them. All the QUWA girls were getting off at the Fatih stop, but we had one more stop to go after them. But they pulled us off with them. We took one more group picture. We said tearful goodbyes. With some people, I couldn’t speak. We just hugged.

Aminah, Jenna, Sara, Eman, Bana, Alaa, Shereen, Ghada, Heba, Fatin, Asya, Um Jannat, Serene, Tala, Sakina. These are not their real names, but these women are the realest. They revived me; they gave me life.

I only pray to Allah (swt) what we prayed together that last day: to allow us to meet again, this time in a free Syria, Egypt and Palestine.

With love,



What do you say to Ghorba?


My friend Suha once told me that her favorite Arabic word is ghorba.

Not because it sounds particularly beautiful or is a word we use in everyday talk, but because of the weight it carries.


Even saying it is heavy.

It is a single, smooth word that takes too many sloppy English words to explain.


Alienation. Expatriation. Displacement. Being detached from your homeland. Having a home that is inaccessible to you.

Ghorba is hefty, solemn, wounding, chilling.

Ghorba is an opportunity. A risk. An unforeseen consequence. A last resort. An imposition.

In this last QUWA session, we talked about ghorba. Alyaa* shared how guilty she felt being away from home; from her aging parents who had relied on her most. Ghorba is haunting. It distances and cools people in unexpected ways. When Alyaa* calls home to check on her parents, the conversations are short. Her mother doesn’t like keeping the phone line busy. What if they call and tell us where your brothers are? What if they call to tell us that they’ve found them or found their bodies? I am doing fine. Just take care of yourself. We need this phone line. It is a lifeline.

She feels like a traitor, she says. Why did she get to leave? Why just her and not the rest of her family? Should she have stayed? Would things maybe have gotten better if she had just been more patient? At least she would have been surrounded by her mother and father and those she loves, right? The women in the QUWA circle remind her that nothing would have been guaranteed had she stayed. They warn her of romanticizing what she escaped from. That her leaving may actually be better for her parents–they don’t have to worry about her the way they would have had she stayed in Syria. “Yet it may happen that you will hate a thing which is better for you; and it may happen that you will love a thing which is worse for you…” (Quran 2:216)

Alyaa* knows this. She knows she had to leave and she knows why she did. Her seven-year-old daughter experienced shelling over and over. One time, as they ran and sought shelter in a nearby bathroom, she saw the remains of a dead man. Until this day, her daughter cannot go to the bathroom alone. She says she still seems him. She knows the details of his face well. Every once in a while she asks her mom about him. Why did he die? Who killed him? Was he a regime supporter? Did he deserve to die? She is seven.

Basma* questions herself everyday. She also lives here alone now with her daughter. What does it mean to be disconnected from not only a house or your nuclear family but from a deep-seated, interconnected community that raised you and nourished you and fought you and supported you? What does it mean to lose all of that amid your burning desire for communion and partnership to make it through the worst of days and to celebrate the most thrilling of days?

Fayza* says she feels useless. She is overcome and fed-up with the idleness she experiences. She used to work. She was active and her day was busy. Now, there is no productivity in my day. The women tell Fayza* that her worth is not measured by how “productive” she is. Her significance is not determined by the capitalist scale that tells us you are what you do or you are what you produce or what you earn. If you spend the day taking care of yourself, doing what you love or learning something new–that is a win. If you spend the day supporting a sister in healing, helping her make a stride forward or growing a bond of love between you that was not there yesterday, that is worthy. Fayza* does these things regularly. She is worthy and constructive and valuable.

Um Jannat* says ghorba sucks because there’s nothing you can say to those you’ve left behind. She no longer wants to or is able to call her family in Aleppo. Her genuineness keeps her from practicing fluff conversations of the repeated “how are yous” and “inshallahs” that don’t really serve any purpose besides hearing each other’s voices for a few minutes. Now she just checks in from far away or through someone else–to make sure they are alive. What is there to say? Really, what is there to say? What on earth can you possibly offer to console or empathize when you know what the situation is? When you already know it worsened since the last time you spoke to them? What is there to say to a partner you left two years ago thinking you were saying goodbye to them for just two weeks? Um Jannat’s husband is in Syria. He fears leaving their house because that is all they have left. If they are all gone, and someone takes their house the way their neighbors’ homes have been taken, returning home one day will be impossible, even more impossible than it is right now.

Some women say ghorba is difficult but that as hard as it is, they won’t return until their home is liberated.

It moves me when people make ultimatums like “I’ll never return home until (insert XYZ wish) happens.” I wonder, do they do this because they really mean it? Or do they say that to feel more control over a situation in which they actually have no control? I think of my own baba, how he says this now about our homeland. He says he won’t return until it passes through this fascist stage–even if death strikes a relative. But the truth is, baba probably can’t return if he wanted to or tried to. And that’s so damn sad for someone who just a few years ago thought that his days of ghorba were numbered, and that الإنتماء–sweet belonging–was on its way.

Eid Mubarak. May we grow homes of forests inside us that can never be desecrated or destroyed. That can always rebuild and re-evolve.