By Guest Editor Shaeera Kalla
A Space of Reckoning
As the rain woke me from my deep, stress-induced sleep, I prepared my standard oats and banana early morning meal in haste, almost missing the cut off time to begin the fast before dawn. I ate mechanically, rinsed my bowl, laid it down to dry, and proceeded to make my intention to keep the fast before prostrating for the first of five daily prayers – which I must admit I don’t always make on time outside of Ramadan.
In the month of Ramadan, as we curb our desires and prepare ourselves for what Rumi described as “drinking the wine of the spirit”, our companions become Discipline and Mental Stillness, enabling a commitment to a spiritual form of reclaiming space.
Reclaiming space is an inward journey just as much as it is an outward one. It requires true dignity, defined by Fatima Mernissi’s mic drop declaration: “Dignity is to have a dream, a strong one, which gives you a vision, a world where you have a place, where whatever it is you have to contribute makes a difference.” Everyone has dignity simply by virtue of being sentient beings, but true dignity requires self-respect above all else.
The catalyst for my conceptualisation of reclaiming space stems from my spirituality which I only really began to understand when I was 15 years old and performed Hajj with my parents. In preparation for this pilgrimage, I was given many books to read, but two stood out: Ali Shariati’s The Hajj and Na’eem Jeenah and Shamima Shaikh’s Journey of Discovery – A South African Hajj. Both these books contributed significantly to my conscientisation, politically and spiritually, and to me, reclaiming space is both political and spiritual. This Ramadan has left so many empty spaces or spaces that we define as empty but are too filled with grief to comprehend as the losses of the pandemic are tallied. Jeenah and Shaikh described preparing for Hajj as “this strange feeling that we were preparing for the end – for death – even though Ḥajj is supposed to be the beginning.” Being aware of the limited nature of existence on this pale blue dot, this very small stage in a vast cosmic arena, and perhaps even arenas, creates a feeling of limitlessness internally, and I hold onto this feeling. Crafting better ways of living on this pale blue dot begins with reclaiming space, and reclaiming space begins with knowing that though the ground beneath your feet is constantly moving, you stand for something, it may not be set in stone, it may not be grand, or it may be so grand as to frighten you; whatever it is, it is something you can believe in without consuming yourself with the material outcomes but rather with limitless divine intention.
Hijra, the root word for Hajj, which has its roots in Latin and Arabic, refers to ‘emigrating’ or ‘passing’ or ‘coming’ and historically describes the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) journey from Mecca to Medina escaping persecution. Counterspace’s carefully curated Instagram posts taught me that in Urdu, the term ‘Hijra’ means ‘fluidity of identity’ which transcends gender and culture. Thus, the body is understood as a literal site of transition, “a vessel through which culture and identity journey, a place in which both are housed”.
I made a book of prayers for Hajj, which I took with me and have till this day. In this black hardcover A5 notebook with an orange spine, I carried not just my own duas (prayers) but the prayers of everyone who visited me before leaving on our journey. A friend and artist once referred to dua as creative imagination, and to me, this was precisely what I had to tap into. Some duas remain so abstract, often related to structural changes, that I have made peace knowing I may never see them achieved in this lifetime.
My dua book transformed into a journal, and I noted the complexities and contradictions of the Hajj as it is performed today. “But wasn’t the point to bring people together from all over the world?” “Keep quiet about these things or the Saudis will lock you up and throw away the keys,” was my father’s constant warning. Despite a nationalistic and classist separation of people and ritualistic obligation, it was still possible to experience a multitude of voices and histories in the act of travelling to one place, dressed in the simplest of cloth, without accessories, without any divides between gender, without an identity other than collective humanity, and together in the will to submit to one Creator.
By performing the ritual of Sa’i, one commemorates and emulates the struggle of one of the noblest figures in Islamic and even Abrahamic religious history: Hajar (may peace be on her), or Imamah Hajar as Shaikh called her. Hajar, an African slave who in all systems of humanity at that time lacked recognised nobility and honour, with her baby, Ismail, was abandoned in the desert sun with no food or drink and not a soul in sight. She went to the top of the hill of Safa to search for water, and when she saw nothing, she climbed the hill of Marwah and began to run between the two hills seven times in search of help and sustenance. After the seventh time, she saw water miraculously gushing from the ground at Ismail’s feet. “Zam-Zam,” she said, asking the water to stop, and that is how the well was named. Today Hajar is bestowed with the nobility and honour of being the only human being to be buried alongside the Kabah, the place all Muslims face to pray and millions of pilgrims travel to circumambulate each year.
When I was barely a year old, in 1994, during Ramadan, Shamima and several others linked to the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) in South Africa began to mobilise women to attend the tarawih prayers at the 23rd Street Mosque in Fietas, Johannesburg. This led to clashes between her and members of the mosque committee, with Shamima being stigmatized as “that crazy woman Shaikh”. Years later, Women of Waqf would take on this same struggle, and Shamima’s legacy of gender jihad lives on to this day. Learning about her life, how she challenged patriarchy and injustice on all fronts, and reclaiming women’s rightful spaces in mosques in a community that dared to exclude and render women invisible has lessons in finding true dignity, self-respect and courage.
I am comforted and motivated by Shamima’s recorded reaction at the end of performing Sa’i: “Who are we to assume that we have the capacity to ‘achieve’ anything? Our aim should be simply to strive”. In their book, Na’eem, her husband, describes the joy on Shamima’s face at the end of that gruelling ritual that did not imply that she had found the source of life but that she had a vision and a strong sense of what she would contribute. Her expression said, “I have struggled, I have exhausted myself because that is what I was created for, just as that is what my ‘Imamah’ Hajar was created for. I can tell my Creator that I have striven.”
The constant question I ask myself ever since that Hajj at the age of 15 is: “are you striving?” But what this really means is, “are you reclaiming space”, and if so, “for what purpose”? The answer hasn’t changed much. I am still striving to be what the saints of this unjust status quo would call a troublemaker, and that will always be my space of reckoning.
Long live the crazy ones!
In this issue:
Home for the Holidays — Shameelah Khan
Decolonising Practice — Shayna Goncalves
Artwork by Joseph Aimanesi
Odd Artist of the Month:
Odd Artist of the Month: Gulshan Khan
Odd Music — Church Anthony ft SelfDefenxe
Not a tree, a bud and a flower. Just some thoughts — Radiyah Manjoo
Reclaiming Space Collection — Alun Robert
Punctuating the Urban Fabric — Azra Rajab
MSN to SFO — Katharine Blair
Khalida Moosa — Khalida Moosa
Black People’s Hair Is Not Controversial — Motswalo Manasoe
Odd Journey: Reclaiming Space — Amir Bagheri
The Proposal — Linda Silverman McMullen