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,



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