We decided to drive all the way to another city to spend the weekend with a cousin of my mother’s who I have very fond memories of having spent time with in my adolescence. He has spent twenty three years in Switzerland, speaks fluent German and takes great pride in being ‘Swiss’. In fact we spent most of the first evening of our arrival listening to him tell us how much he has paid to have the pond in the lawn built, how every room in his house has a functioning TV, how all the blinds on all the windows are electronically operated. He showed us the cinema he has built in his house, complete with sound-proofing, told us about the scores of paintings he has in his basement when we complimented him on the collection he has displayed. I found I could only ever say a few sentences before he would pounce on my story to announce that he personally knew the characters involved, the owners of whatever brand of tea or furniture house or bank I spoke of, or the actors or singers from any TV show I happened to mention. By bedtime, I began dreading the following day and a half we were to spend together. BH grew gradually quieter and withdrawn. I know from past experiences in our marriage how irritated he gets when people cannot stop talking about how wonderful they are. The two of us kept our opinions to ourselves, checked our Facebook pages and went to bed.
The next day was pretty much more of the same. Our host gave us advice on everything, even demonstrating how the kitchen drawers slid into place by themselves at the touch of a hand, while in the middle of a phone conversation. As he watched me walking downtown, trying to juggle my umbrella, handbag and a bag of books I had picked up, he remarked that it would have been more useful for me to have carried a knapsack.
When we returned home, BH and I lay down to rest for a while. BH turned to look at me and asked why people always take us for granted. He wondered why our host seemed to think we knew nothing about anything. When men are confronted by other men who pompously brag about their accomplishments without a moment’s relief, they have one of two options, I am told. They either start bragging louder and drown out the other party. Or, if they happen to be shareef, they sit quietly, feeling more and more miserable and oppressed as time passes. However here is a third one for men to consider: smile, and let the other person have what joy they are getting from boasting of their success. Give them that satisfaction, while at the same time secretly being confident of your own worth, and knowing full well what you are capable of. And the best part in this option is Discovery. When the other party begins, after having established their credentials through relentless trumpeteering, to realise that they are not talking to a bumpkin, it is your turn to gloat. Though I would suggest doing so with the same grace with which you allowed the other party to blow their horn in the first place.
The morning of our departure turned out to be the biggest surprise. All of us had relaxed into each other’s company and there was, undoubtedly for BH and me, the added satisfaction of knowing that we would soon be on our way back. We sat down to eat the omelette breakfast that we had been hearing is a Sunday morning tradition since the day of our arrival. And as we ate, conversation turned towards families and distances. Out of the blue I heard our hosts talk of their ‘isolation’. They left their countries a very long time ago and over the years, a lot changed. People back home, in my uncle’s family, became more religious and less self-conscious about pointing out one another’s follies. Though they do this in what they see as an effort to help their sibling get himself and his family back on the track to Salvation, it riles him up. He resents the fact that they cannot accept him as he is and cannot appreciate his journey to where he has reached. His defense is to declare everyone back home a crook and a liar. ‘Jitni bari daarhi, utna bara jhoot!’ he explodes. ‘In this house,’ he said, poking the table with his index finger,’no one lies. Everyone is open as a book.’ I felt these moments humanise him before my eyes.
This post is not about right or wrong. This post is about how we bumble along life’s highways. My uncle’s family, much like my own, is distributed in all corners of the earth. It is near impossible for them all to be together in one place at the same time. I have visited his siblings in Dubai, Karachi and Sydney. Those who are in Muslim countries believe that their siblings in non-Muslim countries are undeniably headed in the wrong direction and will come to no good. The distances between them help not at all. If anything, the negativity of such sentiment relays itself faster than any affection they feel for each other, particularly because criticism is never withheld in the way love is. There is much to be said for a sweet word – it will overcome anything. Wag your finger and warn all you want about fire and brimstone, it will never have the effect of a smile and a few words of heart-felt affection. Tact and wisdom are disappearing all too fast. Those on the other side have no choice but to defend themselves by denouncing all that their ‘benefactors’ seem bent upon thrusting under their noses. They have no choice but to erect walls. In fact they become more lost to us this way than if we approached them with unending reserves of love, and an understanding and respect for the challenges that they have met on their own, far way from us. We drive them further away. And then what happens? They grow old, away from us, and bitter. They look at the dynasties we build in our home countries, our vast circles of family and friends, and wonder how it is that they seem to be on the outskirts of it. Even if they build their own circles of social influence, we feel their loss, as they do ours. It is like a hole right in the middle of our hearts. It cannot be filled except by each other’s love.
The Quran refers to the kinship between siblings as ‘a relationship from the womb.’ And when you think about these words, you realise the depth of your closeness to your brothers and sisters. Make this relationship a healthy one, based on acceptance, affection and without a desire to alter or correct, and it can be the most life-affirming of all your relationships. It can be the refuge you need, the source of strength you pine for.