Sometimes, my father takes one of the Qurans that we keep in the library out of its leather case and stands by the door before a family trip. There are two, one that belongs to my sister and the other to me. They both have green covers with gold embossed pages, calligraphy and intricate miniature illustrations surrounding the verses. We touch our lips then our foreheads to the cover and walk out to the car. He never goes through this ritual when he travels on his own, which is often. It is saved for the four of us.
My father used to wear a necklace with the word “Allah” on it for protection. He went to Mecca for pilgrimage and participated in some of the rites several years ago. The first was entering Ihram, a state of holy cleanliness in which you bathe yourself, don white seamless cloth and refrain from any activity that might alter your physical self. The second is Tawaf, walking seven times around the Ka’bah, the building at the center of Islam’s holiest mosque, counterclockwise. It is a cube structure made of granite, with white marble interior walls and limestone floors. Inside the structure is the Black Stone, a meteorite that people will crush others in order to touch, to kiss.
My father did not get too close and he didn’t participate in the “stoning of the devil” in the city of Mina. Pilgrims strike three pillars with seven pebbles meant to symbolically reenact Abraham’s pilgrimage when he stoned three pillars to cast aside temptations and desires. He believed those acts to be too violent and chaotic. He brought water back from the Zamzam Well in two large, clear, plastic containers and placed them in the corner of the kitchen, laughing every time we tried to drink some. A few months later I think he poured the water out in our garden. Maybe he gave it to our housekeeper. She always threw a cup of water after us whenever we left for the airport. It was another superstitious act for good luck, so things would flow as smoothly as the water and we would return home from our trip safely.
When I was little, I couldn’t discern between our habitual superstitious behaviors and those that were determined by faith in Islamic tenets, in Allah. My parents kept wavering in their own degrees of belief, so I began cataloguing superstitions, collecting religious experiences and spiritual thought.
The women in our family, as they watched my cousins and me run around the house when we were younger and now watch us sit together, talking and laughing, always repeated, “Nazar değmesin.” We hope you are protected from the evil sight. They stressed the importance of carrying around evil eye beads on our bodies at all times.
We participated in superstitious acts like standing in between two friends with the same name and making a wish, knocking on wood, or pulling our earlobes for good luck. My sister and I buried the fallen portion of our cousin’s daughter’s umbilical cord on the grounds of Harvard University when Leyla was completing her master’s degree. This was to ensure that one day the little girl, who wasn’t even a year old, would attend Harvard as well.
Some families will sacrifice sheep when a new car is bought and smear the blood over the hood, though the only sheep I remember seeing was a medium-sized gray one being led out our garden gates during Kurban Bayramı, or Eid-al-Adha, Festival of the Sacrifice.
When your left palm is itchy it means you will waste money, if your right palm is itchy you will receive money. The names of girls are written under the shoes of a bride and the girl whose name has not been erased after the ceremony will be the next to get married. My sister and I laughed when she lifted her feet after the ceremony to find that all the names had been erased. If you dream of a loved one’s death, it means they will live longer. If you see a shadow in the corner of your eye, it is your angel guarding you. If you say anything forty times it will come true, because Jesus wandered the desert for forty days, and Muhammad was forty years old when he received the Quran.
* * *
My earliest interactions with Islam were when I was ten years old. I noticed a label stating that I was “Muslim” on my national Turkish identification card. My grandmother taught me the only prayer I know. She told me to close my eyes and raise my palms as if I were holding a book. She stroked my hair and told me to repeat after her. I memorized the four lines she recited:
Yattım sağıma döndüm soluma,
Yattım Allah, kaldır beni,
Kaldırmazsan, imanımla gönder beni.
The lodos winds would slam the window shutters against the frame whenever I’d spend the night in my grandparents’ home. I would stare at the shadows, reciting the prayer over and over, “I lay down on my right, turn to my left/find refuge in my perfect Allah/I lay down, please wake me/if I don’t awaken, deliver me with my faith.”
The first lines resembled my frequent movements in sleep. The rest I couldn’t quite understand but I knew it meant I was safe somehow.
* * *
When I was thirteen, my family and I traveled to southeast Turkey. We shared meals with the locals of the ancient city of Hasankeyf, watched the sunset over the Tigris River in Mardin, climbed Mount Nemrut at sunrise and saw the stone statues of fallen gods and goddesses. Our last stop was Şanliurfa, the hometown of Abraham. We walked up to the edge of a long rectangular pool, thousands of people along the edges with us, feeding the fish frantically swimming in the clear water.
As the legend goes, Abraham angered King Nimrod and was sentenced to death. A huge pyre was built in the middle of the city, and just as Abraham was tossed into the fire, the flames were transformed into water and the logs into fish. The descendants of those fish now supposedly swim in the same water, sacred. I remember watching people toss in breadcrumbs and other foods sold by vendors along the pool. I watched the black and grey carp, their scales shining under the October sun, and tried to spot the white one rumored to hide during the day. Whoever spotted it was blessed.
My mother, my Iranian father and I traveled to Isfahan and Shiraz and saw the tomb of the Persian poet Hafez. We walked around Persepolis and I was young enough not to have to wear a headscarf but kept the hood of my windbreaker over my head. I sat on the sandy ground and looked at the ruins and carvings of Zoroastrian symbols and tales of war and glory. I spotted a Faravahar relief on one of the walls, a representation of the guardian angel, conveying good thoughts, words, and deeds.
We drove to my father’s childhood summer home in the Caspian and sat underneath the mandarin and kumquat trees. I asked my father to swim with me, and he took my hand and told me that men and women were not allowed to swim together. He offered me a handful of kumquats; the inside was sour but the skin had a sweeter flavor, like the dates he’d eat to break his fast during Ramadan.
* * *
When I was twenty, I went to Tehran for my grandmother Faranak’s funeral. We wore black for seven days and sweat under the August sun. Before we walked to her grave, I saw the building where they washed the dead, all the windows and doors open, bodies on the floor, naked in rows. Women in one section, men in another. My mother went inside because my father couldn’t.
We watched as they placed my grandmother, covered in white linen cloth, in the ground. Seven years had passed since my grandfather died and as Islamic law dictated, my grandmother could now be buried with him. The marble gravestones stretched across acres of land, some bearing images of the deceased below, others left with worn petals from stolen bouquets.
The imam’s voice was sharp and painful as he recited prayers. I stood at the back with my mother, sister and aunts, far from the grave. My father slowly descended into the grave, uncovered my grandmother’s face, offered a prayer, and then covered it back up. I was told she looked calm and very small. I only saw her dyed black hair and the skin of her forehead, already ashen.
We began to walk towards the entrance to go home and greet mourners and pray together. You pray after the funeral, then after seven days, forty days, and finally fifty-two days. The Quran says that is when the soul has stopped wandering. That is when the flesh separates from the bones.
Above the entrance to the cemetery, hanging heavily from two trees, was a large portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, who was buried there too.
* * *
My paternal grandfather, Baba Amir, was a soldier from a traditional middle-class Iranian family. He was forced to go to military school, eventually rising in ranks to Brigadier General to the Royal Army of the Shah.
Baba Amir retired six years before the revolution, but Khomeini and his followers went after all officers and generals of the Shah’s army. Every month Baba Amir had to show up in front of the mullahs, the revolutionary tribunal, and as instructed, write his biography from the moment he went to military school up until the time he retired. It was a strategy adopted from China. During the communist revolution Mao would call up officials to write their biographies over and over.
My father was already living in the United States, attending college when he met my mother. He told students he was Persian to avoid the evil connotations of “Iranian.” This has not changed. His younger sister Golnar was living in North Carolina with her husband Abbas, who was sent to prison for nine months when he returned to Iran for working on a military project with the American Navy. The eldest sister, Golnaz, remained a professor at the University of Tehran but the Revolutionary Council forced her husband Bahram into retirement, due to his former position as managing director of the American tractor company, John Deere. Our closest family friends lost their patriarch, a physician named Masih Farhangi, who was hanged for his adherence to the Bahá’í faith.
My Turkish grandfather Asım was like Atatürk in his beliefs. Education was key to everything that mattered to Turkey; achieving a level of civilization and economic development separate from religion.
In 2007, before Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was re-elected to serve for another four years, my grandfather spoke out in a few interviews against Erdoğan and his religious party. Though he believed AKP, The Justice and Development Party, were “hardworking idealists,” he still thought that if fifty percent of the votes were directed to AKP, the “country would be lost.”
Yeni Şafak (“new dawn”), a conservative daily newspaper, printed my grandfather’s phone number and home address, inviting its readers to directly confront the people who threatened their way of life. A few bars of the gate surrounding his house were found bent or tampered with and slogans and slurs were spread across the property walls in red paint. Our parents arranged for a security guard to remain on their property at all times and hooked up several cameras at the entrances. My grandfather would attend Friday prayer at the local mosque every week, but he believed that a democratic government should not be experimenting with religion.
* * *
I walk past covered women in Istanbul, their bearded husbands clutching their wrists, and we lock eyes. They are the politically religious, using beliefs as tactics. They were the minority and now they have the power change the way my country thinks. I want to hate their beliefs and their interpretations, but I rise in anger when outsiders threaten those same beliefs or when they try to tell me what Islam stands for. They do not understand the implications, the intricacies.
Though my mother was not religiously Muslim, she was constantly drawn to spiritual expression. When I was fourteen, a group of my mother’s friends introduced her to Reiki, a form of alternative medicine developed by a Japanese Buddhist in 1922. She learned the technique of palm healing, how to channel energy through her hands to others if they were in need of healing, both physically and emotionally.
I’d wait for her in the living room of her instructor, reading through booklets about chakras, crystals and stones. She earned a certificate and gave me a gift of the chakra stones in a wooden box. There were seven stones: onyx, carnelian, citrine, rose quartz, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and amethyst. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, so I kept them by my bedside. My mother took me to her instructor, Rose, for my own private session. She made me lie on a table as she moved her hands over me. I felt warmth circulating on the surface of my body but I could not keep still. Rose told my mother that I was thinking too much.
My mother moved on to other forms of healing and faith. Once, she took my sister and I to an astrologer, an Israeli man named Gahl with icy blue eyes. During the one hour session, he didn’t express any kind of emotion. I could only see my reflection staring back. He recorded the date and time of our births and created a chart. He gave us suggestions, told us to be aware of the energies in the world at specific times. Our own choices, maybe destinies, are tied to the planets’ alignments at the time we were born. We were free to believe or not believe in these energies.
He told me that I had many past lives, one in which I was my mother’s mother and she my child. I wanted to believe him; maybe it would explain why my mother and I fought so much, and so passionately.
When I felt sick or emotional, she would lay me down on her bed, tell me to close my eyes and I’d soon feel the warmth in the space between her hands and my body. Her palms would remain parallel to my chest, on that spot which feels as if it is being squeezed whenever I am holding back tears.
One day she asked me to do the same for her, when she had one of her debilitating migraines. She told me to breathe, float my hands just above her body and I’d soon feel the warmth. I felt something, but I wasn’t sure it was because I was a healer and these energies were real, or because I loved her and didn’t want to see her in pain. My sister and father weren’t part of these moments. They seemed to be only between my mother and me. She loved to share details from her various quests, and I, in turn, listened, enthralled.
Three years ago, she traded her healing hands for an amber aragonite crystal, and through a close friend, began to learn about the teachings of Quan Yin, a Buddhist deity. Quan Yin’s teachings involve freeing oneself from the hardness of the heart to awaken the compassion we all have within. A part of the process involves understanding why people behave the way they do, why and how you speak and act a certain way, especially in relation to the people around you. She’d clutch her crystal and make it come alive.
She gave my sister and me our own aragonite crystals and urged us to carry them everywhere. “They’re alive, they’ll protect you,” she said. Aragonite is known for the hexagonal prisms that erupt from clusters of the crystal itself. They branch into stalactites called flos-ferri, or “iron flowers.” I keep mine in my bag.
My mother meditates every day, and on some days for extended periods of time. She sends me the mantras and prayers she listens to along with explanations of what they mean to her. She’ll play the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum on her phone in the morning when she visits me in New York, and the living room is cloudy under the smoke of the incense we both love.
Sometimes I light sage when she leaves on the 11pm flight back to Istanbul. The sage sticks I find in a shop by Union Square are dry and cover my apartment in smoke. I blame my tears on the fumes. I stand on my balcony as the mantras play.
* * *
My mother attends sessions with her group every few months at a foundation, located on a hill between a beautiful lake and a mountain in the south of Turkey, a province called Isparta. My father goes to the mosque on Fridays, once in a while. He fasts on weekends during Ramadan or when he isn’t traveling for work. He once snapped at me when I said I didn’t believe in heaven or hell. “What kind of thought is that?” He asked me.
I stared at him and told him I just didn’t believe. It made more sense that heaven and hell were right here on Earth and when we died, we escaped. It was easier to believe that after I had seen the bodies of my grandparents’ return to the very land on which they had been born, as if they were never in those same bodies just a day before.
There are times I fear my mother’s group is actually a cult and they want her money to keep their property beautiful and long lasting. I watch documentaries and television shows about cults then ask her questions, thinking I’m being subtle when she can sense the anxiety in my voice.
Do they let you leave? Come and go as you please? Will they shut you out if you decide to leave? What about your family, do they realize you have a job and children and like to travel?
She smiles and holds my arm. “Miki, you think I’m in a cult?” She says it’s the knowledge that matters, not who it comes from or where. She doesn’t ascribe god-like qualities to anyone in the group, especially their teacher. The information she has received has helped her in life, helped her with relationships, including ours. That is what is important, she repeats.
* * *
My mother’s well-meaning impositions and yearning to share this knowledge with me is evident when we travel. In Peru, as we climbed up the terraces to the top of Machu Picchu, our guide described Inca cosmology as divided into three temporal levels or pachas: Uku-the lower world, Kay-the world in which we live, and Hanan-the world above where the sun and moon live.
My mother didn’t give me a second to allow this knowledge to rest within me. Her excitement took over, her hands grabbed my arms to tell me: it’s all the same, all of these systems of belief. I wanted just a few more seconds to look over the green terraces, the moss covering the edges, the worn carvings, the shadows of clouds over the ruins.
On the train back, I watched the water splash over boulders, never quite making it over to the other side, listening to my mother across the aisle, stating that all mythologies are connected.
In the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Street in Central Hong Kong, I lit incense for the god of literature, Man Tai (Man Cheong). The smoke swirled and met the incense coils hanging from the ceiling and burned my eyes but I offered a little prayer, a moment of my silence. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy; I asked for help with my thesis, and stated how grateful I was for my ability to travel.
My father lit incense beside me, then wandered around the temple. He walked into the other chambers, the Lit Shing Kung, “saints’ palace,” a place of worship for other Buddhist and Taoist deities. He posed for my camera and offered his hand as we walked back outside, making sure to step over the threshold rather than on it. I think he prefers to consider things in solitude. I felt my mother standing beside me, whispering, “These are lesser gods.” Their mother, the female Buddha or Quan Yin, was the highest. It was she I had to invoke. She would always listen.
My mother nodded her head violently each time the guide spoke of rituals and beliefs. She clasped her hands by her sternum and pursed her lips. In those moments, she sees things for herself, confirms some idea or concept previously doubted. Her reverence for the way the universe works allows her not to get angry over little troubles. It still makes her hurt over the state of the world, and though she isn’t a fool preaching that everything happens for a reason, she waits until events play out. She doesn’t make hopeless statements, sanguine prophecies. My mother is no “free spirit.” She is grounded.
Their beliefs have found their way into my home and onto my body. I know how to wrap a headscarf in a few seconds during a prayer. I know how to wash crystals in Himalayan rock salt and warm water. Evil eyes hide in boxes and drawers at my bedside and my personal Quran is safe in our home in Istanbul. A bronze Quan Yin statue sits at the entrance of my New York apartment, an aragonite crystal faces the door, a string of rudraksha beads are draped over my bedside lamp.
The word “Karma” in Sanskrit and the Tibetan mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, that both my mother and my sister have as well, are permanently etched on my skin. My father forbade me from getting any tattoos in Farsi or Hebrew, no matter the meaning. He believes I shouldn’t have any controversial languages on my body.
Perhaps these objects of faith, these markings on my arms, connect me to my parents rather than to a greater belief. They remind me of family.
* * *
My mother offers me knowledge. She etches her beliefs onto me, looking for a way to keep them alive. My father fills me with doubt. He shows me that faith is a constant battle, a private one. This is because he doubts the source of his faith: the violence of the Quran, the way it spreads fear, and the way it creates horror. He thinks he shouldn’t believe in this religion, it does not make sense in our modern world and he cannot claim he is truly religious if he is doubtful. But he can still recite every prayer and the Qurans remain safe in their cases. I know he cannot let go, and there’s a part of me that doesn’t want him to. His faith gives him peace, moments between the long drives to work, or sitting on planes to Tehran, walking over the rubble of what used to be his childhood home, watching as it is rebuilt for a larger purpose.
My mother practices the art of empathy. I can see her focus on her breathing when we fight, when we misunderstand each other. She tries to understand the scenarios I imagine, the feelings and worries I project onto her. I’ve watched her meditate, how she moves her fingers past the 108 sandalwood rosary beads. How she sits on the red chair in my apartment with her eyes closed and back straight, as my cat sleeps peacefully beside her. My mother’s beliefs are not organized into just “one thing.”
I have watched my father too, how his hands are raised slightly when he prays, as if holding something. Then, how he gently glides his fingertips down from his forehead to his lips in the completion of prayer. He tells me his faith is in conflict with his set of values. For him, Islam stands for a set of imposed ideologies by Arabs onto Persians, through force and swords. The Sasanian Empire, the last Iranian empire, was defeated in 651, and then came the rise of Islam. Many nationalistic Persians carry this contradiction he tells me.
My father’s parents were secular; their practice was respecting all faiths, all children of God. My father’s sense of identity derives more from his country than his religion. There are times he expressed a wish to be Zoroastrian, a “true Persian homemade faith,” but I’ve never asked him if there was a possibility he could convert.
* * *
I haven’t stopped collecting experiences. I’ve read diary accounts of the first female Sufi teacher and tracked down the professor who first translated it from Ottoman Turkish to contemporary, just to ask him why he was so drawn to the text. I’ve watched whirling dervishes move their feet in perfect rhythm and balance, arms crossed against their chest then opened, the right hand directed to the sky, the left hand turned toward the earth. I’ve listened to a Christmas sermon in the largest Roman Catholic church in Istanbul, named after St. Anthony of Padua.
I’ve seen Buddhist monks in temples in India, self-proclaimed witch doctors along the Wild Coast in South Africa. I threw coins under shrines in Japan, grabbed fortunes written on long parchment, and hung a blessing contained in a blue silk pouch from my bedside lamp. I’ve watched hot air balloons float at sunrise as a family friend played the ney, thousands of people holding each other in the dry morning air in Cappadocia. I’ve seen the Northern Lights on an ordinary Tuesday night. I’ve felt cold drops from Snoqualmie Falls on my face, giddy. I’ve descended into a volcano and shivered beneath the copper minerals.
Faith extends beyond temples, mosques, and shrines. These beliefs of mine encompass all that my parents have taught me and all I have witnessed, all I have yet to experience. I am an amalgamation of my parents; fears, doubt, the urge to experiment.
I have seen religion practiced in grief, in ceremony, and in ecstasy. I have seen it in friendship, in hate, in the eyes of my cat when she looks back into mine. I have not settled on one path or one way of thinking. There is no order or answer to faith, there is always doubt.