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When I was a kid I wanted to be a lot of things when I grow up: teacher, chef, librarian, world traveler, accountant, archeologist, Egyptologist, businesswoman, you name it. But one thing I didn’t want to be was a writer.
I was in third grade when I first enrolled at Ghana International School in 1999. We’d relocated to Accra a couple of months before from Subang Jaya, where I’d just started second grade, so it was quite a leap to suddenly find myself in third grade at GIS. I could understand, speak, and write sufficient English to keep me out of ESL (English as a Second Language extra classes), thanks to my time at the Overseas Children School (now known as the Overseas School of Colombo) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but two years of schooling in Malaysia did little to advance my English language skills. As a result, I found myself struggling slightly in English classes under the tutelage Mrs. Siddiqui, particularly when we had to write compositions — the basics of which I still had yet to learn.
My initial understanding of the words ‘paragraph’ and ‘indentation’ were slightly unorthodox. One day we had to compose a ‘paragraph’ on something which currently escapes my memory, but I didn’t know what the heck that was so I looked to my Indian classmate sitting next to me for some much-needed guidance. In his book, he had written a block of text which took up seven lines on the page and the first line started with two fingers’ worth of empty space, so I had a brief light bulb moment in which I thought: ‘Ah-ha! A paragraph must consist of seven lines! And the first line must have that empty space in the beginning!’ In my compositions immediately after that, it didn’t matter what I was writing about or how big or small my handwriting was but my paragraphs were always seven lines long, each beginning with an indentation two fingers wide.
At this time not only did I have a huge misunderstanding of what a paragraph is supposed to be, but I also had difficulty piecing words together — both in my mind and on the page. I loathed English compositions with every fiber of my being because I always found that I had insufficient words to fill up seven lines of the page. I remember finding myself on a number of occasions sprawling over my English composition homework in frustration, close to tears and thinking desperately, ‘What else do you want me to say?!‘
Once we were given some mini-essay questions for English homework which I found nearly impossible to do. I absolutely dreaded the thought of going to school the next morning to hand in my incomplete (in truth, untouched) homework so I faked being sick. That morning when my mother woke me up for school I was like, ‘Mooom, I’m siiicck…’ and when she put her hand on my (always warm) forehead she said, ‘Hmm. You’re quite warm.’ She told me to try to go to school anyway and made me wear a sweater when we were waiting for Abu’s van to come pick us up to school.
I was so nervous during the wait that I swear I could’ve peed in my pants. Skipping school was a massive no-no in my parents’ book so I knew I was about to commit a possibly unpardonable crime. For some reason my eight-year-old self had the courage to not go to school anyway and I walked back home that morning with renewed acting skills, driven by the need to protect the secret of my unfinished homework and my perfectly healthy state from my parents. When I came home to my mother I was like, ‘I’m sick, I feel cold, I need to lie down…’ so she made me stay in bed that morning.
But my charade wasn’t to last for much longer that day. Somehow that morning my mother must have checked my schoolbag — perhaps to take my lunchbox out — which was how she found my English homework sheet with the blank lines. When my mother looked at me and asked what that (the blank homework sheet) was, I didn’t know how to answer her. But mothers of course could read their children like a book and she didn’t need me to say anything to understand it all; she just knew. I felt like a deer caught in headlights and I just started tearing up when I thought of what would happen if she told my father about my sick act that day.
My mother didn’t say much after that; she just told me to finish the damn homework and go to school the next day. I don’t remember if she ever told my father about it, but I don’t remember any confrontations with him following this incident either so she must’ve kept this hush-hush from him, much to my relief. I absolutely abhorred conflict resolutions with my father.
Despite my attempted truancy and downright distaste for English composition that year, I miraculously completed fourth grade at GIS with my name on the Honour Roll and another surprise: some time that summer my father received a call from the Principal, Mrs. J. S. Sawyerr summoning him to her office to discuss something about me. My father told us about the impending meeting and I remember him being very displeased about being summoned by the Principal because in his mind the only reason a parent is summoned to a Principal’s office is when their child is in trouble. Boy, was I nervous. I too had thought that I’d done something wrong.
It turned out that my father was actually summoned because the Principal wanted to tell him in person that I was among the three students from Grade 4 annually selected for the fast track, which means that they promote us directly to Grade 6 rather than Grade 5 in the following academic year. I was initially more relieved to be off the hook than I was happy to be skipping a grade when I heard the news, but I think this must have meant that they judged my English writing skills, among my other academic skills, to be on par with the fifth- and sixth-graders. Considering where I was just the previous year, I decided that my writing abilities have definitely seen much progress over the past few semesters. (Side note: Thank you Mrs. Amarteifio and Mrs. Siddiqui for being such wonderful teachers!)
It was much later before I finally found the joy of writing and started writing for pleasure, and when I did writing became very contagious; I couldn’t stop, and I found that I would willingly write seventy, seven hundred, even seven thousand lines if need be. Occasionally I’d take my writing a bit more seriously and participate in writing competitions and submit some of my pieces to magazines. In 2006, a piece I wrote entitled ‘Swing, Swing’ inspired by my grandparents’ swing set my cousins and I used to play with when we were younger was nominated finalist in a national writing competition, and in 2010 an article I wrote about polygamy, ‘Un homme, des femmes: Digging Out Polygamy’s Skeletons from the Closet’ was published in UWA’s Arts Union’s official magazine The Peacock. More recently my PhD proposal won the Wyse Prize for PhD Proposals, much to my surprise; I was absolutely thrilled to receive the letter from Professor Henrietta Moore herself.
Looking retrospectively at my history with writing, I can say for sure that despite its sour beginnings, my relationship for writing has thankfully changed for the better. Now I write, not only to express myself and for all those clichéd sentimental reasons but also because writing is what keeps me on the path of knowledge. More importantly, I rediscovered that as a Muslim I actually have a religious obligation to do so because the very first word from the Qur’an that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was:
The verse then continues:
This verse holds such great meaning for me personally because it highlights the importance of knowledge and intellect. In a hadith (a collection of traditions containing sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)) narrated by Raghib al-Isfahani, it is said that “Allah did not create a creation more noble than the ‘aql (intellect).” * All of us — men, women, children, young or old — therefore have the obligation to learn, to understand, and to seek knowledge because this is an act that honors many things: God’s greatness, the blessing of His knowledge as well as the intellect we have been granted by Him that allows us to understand this knowledge. This is why learning is also considered as an act of worship (‘ibadah).
When I read about young teenage girls getting shot at or thrown acid by the Taliban on their way to school on the news, I feel deeply saddened because these girls were denied their right to not only live, but also to learn in a safe and protected environment. These men should be ashamed of themselves because their ridiculous patriarchal ideas that they rigorously defend in the name of Islam in truth come from the deepest pits of hell and have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. Worse, these patriarchal practices have done enough damage — to their own people (in particular their womenfolk), their own country, and to their religion. Do they even deserve to call themselves ‘Muslims’? Think again.
When I was much younger writing was an absolute nightmare, yet now I can’t imagine life without it. I used to dream of becoming a writer of fiction, but through the research that I have done on polygamy and gender relations in Islam in the past couple of years I have actually found a much higher calling: that is, to write, but not about the works of my own imagination but about real issues affecting Muslim women both in my country and worldwide.
Suffice to say that Life has taken me to very interesting places, alhamdulillah, for today I have found myself in a place I didn’t even dare to Dream of or Imagine when I was ten. And this all happened with the blessing of two of God’s greatest gifts: knowledge, and intellect.
* After much discussion with my brother and doing some background research, we found that this hadith is actually classified as a ‘hadith marfu” which means that it is either narrated by the companions of the Prophet, the generation of scholars after them, or by unknown narrators. As its origins are still unconfirmed for now, it would be best to find more supporting evidence to confirm that this hadith is indeed directly linked to the Prophet before we can wholly accept it.