Since my divorce, I’ve studied and considered marriage carefully. It cannot be dismantled. No wonder marriage is described as an unbreakable charter. How can divorce be allowed to disassemble such an institution, when a nation of people, despite their many differences, has united around the singular idea that a full life must and should include marriage?
After my divorce, I fully trusted that the worst in my life had passed. I left behind the money and the glory and ran out with my children. I can work, I told myself. I am the one who built an empire with my husband. Why can’t I build another on my own? All I wanted was to lay my head on a pillow at the end of the day without someone else’s breath suppressing my own. To be able to wake up when I wanted to wake up. To get up and work or not work or do whatever I pleased. I wanted to breathe freely. I wanted to breathe without someone watching over every single breath.
Was that too much to ask?
For a time, it seemed impossible.
By getting a divorce, I challenged the very essence of a society in which marriage at its best was a marriage like mine. Women conspired against me, even my mother and my sisters. My husband was backed by an army of men dedicated to serving him and distorting me. They formed an entourage that surrounded him and stood by to help him and his family. Then there was me and my children… and God, perhaps. Or maybe He was busy protecting me on the multiple fronts that stretched beyond the horizon.
Each time I inhaled the air of freedom, I found myself besieged. I felt like a cat trying to protect her newborn kittens from encroaching and hungry felines. I forgot myself. I even forgot why I wanted a divorce in the first place—there were so many calamities coming from all directions. The moment I lifted my head, a new calamity appeared, as if the planets had united against me, as if the universe decided to oppose me, as if I were walking against a current each step of the way.
I raised my hands as an invocation to God, seeking sanctuary through my prayers. I started visiting graveyards in search of serenity. I wanted to sit with my grandfather. I wanted to talk to him, to cry on his knees. How I yearned to be consoled in his arms, to feel a kind hand expressing compassion for me. But the graveyard was dreary and fierce and filled with thorns.
There were more family members laid to rest there—more than I even realized—and the cemetery was crowded with the dead. I tried to clear the place of thorns, but they were too thick. The fierce loneliness of the place befuddled me, and I rushed to leave. I was astonished by how overrun the graveyard had become. The graveyards of Jerusalem are much like the city itself, with everyone scrambling for an eternal presence.
I left the graveyard adjacent to Lion’s Gate. I like this place for the way it gathers together the dead who were divided in life— Muslims, Christians, and Jews laid to rest on those different plateaus of the Jerusalem mountains. Our Islamic cemetery on both sides of the entrance to the plateau embraces Lion’s Gate, passes all the way through Via Dolorosa, and takes you from all directions to the Dome of the Rock. Our deaths embrace al-Aqsa from that direction.
The Jews look down from the opposite plateau, and Christians with their Gethsemane Church oversee the location. It creates a strange harmony that doesn’t otherwise exist in this city of collision. I wanted to get closer to God by praying at al-Aqsa. After all, a prayer there is like five hundred regular prayers elsewhere. I don’t actually like al-Aqsa much. It is a modest mosque. I don’t know why I always thought it was for men only. I like the Dome of the Rock more. It is pleasant, with a glorified beauty. There is much about it to observe and admire—its impressive artwork and architecture. It sits amid the courtyards like a beautiful bride that never ages. It only grows more beautiful with time. And maybe, the Dome of the Rock brings back warm memories from childhood.
When I accompanied my grandmother to Friday prayers as a child, other children would gather around me while I led the prayer like an imam. I recited prayers in such an impressive way that women and girls, and even my grandmother, would listen with pride. How I loved those days of my childhood. And how I feel transported back there when I’m within the stones of this ancient city. I don’t understand the charm of this place, and I don’t know if Jerusalem is a beautiful city. I often ask myself why so much fighting takes place here. It is definitely not among the most beautiful cities. Jerusalem is a way station for great civilizations. Its ancient stones affirm its origins. They tell of an emperor who brought with him a stone from his civilization and laid it in Jerusalem. It is a splendid place, however, with the various civilizations that passed through it and blew across it. It has a strange but real charm. It touches me the moment I enter any of its gates. The city is filled with the scent of history and contains a wondrous serenity despite the pollution in the air. It makes me feel warm and contained, despite the harshness of the surroundings and the eyes of the people.
I entered the mosque beseeching, dreaming, crying, complaining. I pretended to forget what was taking place around me—women sitting on the side of the room eating nuts and chatting. In another area, a gathering of women around a man discussing a fatwa or a religious issue that concerned them, perhaps. Children ran and played between other clusters of praying women. It was not yet prayer time. As if everybody were in that time between prayer—talking, entertaining, and gossiping.
I found a spot in a corner and was about to pray when a woman rushed towards me with a surprising attitude that befuddled me. “Some of your hair is showing from beneath your head cover,” she said. I was confused, and I started thinking of my hair, concentrating on what could be seen by others in the mosque more than on the prayer itself. But I wanted to find that certain place within where I could connect with God in His own house. So I ignored the thought of my hair. But no sooner had I bowed down with my head to the carpet than I sprang back up. The smell of the carpet was mixed with the smell of feet. I should have brought my own prayer rug, I told myself.
The odor was very strong, and I could not tolerate it. Sometimes I hate this aspect of myself. All of my senses are weak, except for my sense of smell. It is far stronger than my senses of hearing or sight. How can Islam be a religion of cleanliness? How can people wash five times a day for prayer (wudu) and their bodies still remain unclean? How can a person separate the cleanliness of his body from odors, from sweat in his unwashed clothes? Cleanliness is a part of faith. Why does our faith lack cleanliness? Ablution is mentioned in the Quran many more times than prayer. Don’t Muslims realize that ablution is a very clear demand for cleanliness?
I insisted on using the moment to become closer to God. I silently cried out to Him, begging Him, calling Him to save me. But the place was filled with children’s voices and women’s gossiping murmurs and the stinking odor in the air.
That was the last time I went to the mosque in search of God.
God must have been somewhere outside His own house. He must have left it to the masses over many generations.
I went back home. I don’t know how much time passed—days, months, or maybe years before that moment arrived. I was praying at night, crying and begging to God. At that moment, I was trying to demonstrate my submission so that God might hear me in the heavens and have some mercy on me. I had lowered my head to the ground in prayer, but then felt something pulling me up, as if God were trying to speak to me without uttering a word.