Zainab In my eyes

All I know for sure is Zainab.

I will rewind. You see, she was my first prayer. I had done something really unacceptable and my mom was exasperated. I remember her flushed cheeks and the thud of my own heart against my ribcage. She was exhausted and I was noncompliant after a day of kindergarten had gone all wrong.

“Go to your room.”

I ran.

I was really young, too young to know the formal routine of prayer that my mother would soon teach me with amused patience. I sat on the rug of my room with my glass doll. I remember there  was peanut butter smeared on her mouth from the last time I had attempted to feed her. I wiped it away with caring caution and brainstormed punishment my mother might inflict. The seriousness of the situation was suddenly apparent to me.

And so in that moment, for the most superficial and selfish reasons, I prayed for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, there would many other superficial and selfish prayers prayed throughout the course of my 23 years but I remember being utterly unaware of how ridiculous I was in those moments. Childlike innocence (not to be confused with my adult ignorance) had me so self absorbed that I felt like the entire world was conspiring against me. To the embarrassment of my parents and Sunday school teachers I prayed in front of a picture of Imam Ali that was hanging in my room. An image I remembered from the majlis I attended flooded my mind. Her name was Zainab .

“Dear Zainab , I really messed up this time. My mom is really angry at me but I swear I didn’t mean to do it. I think she is going to stop me from seeing Mr. Potato Head tomorrow morning. Please Zainab , not Mr. Potato Head.”

My mom came in a few minutes later. She had tea in her hands. I breathed a silent sigh of relief. That magical drink that soothed her headache and the regret of bearing me. She told me to clean up my room and chided me about the peanut butter in the corner of the room. “They are dolls dear, they can’t eat. Stop wasting the peanut butter.”

That was it. No mention of a saturday morning embargo on cartoons.

For years the prayers always “worked.” I had a mother that loved me and a father that worshipped my every sarcastic utterance, and my privilege was often mistaken for good luck. With time, I learned to pray to God. I learned that dolls can’t eat peanut butter. I learned I shouldn’t eat so much peanut butter myself. I learned that books were far more enticing than Mr. Potato Head. I learned a lot of things as I clumsily grew into womanhood. None of it changed the relationship I had with Zainab . Even when I privately struggled with the philosophical framework of organized religion, I never struggled with my faith in her. She kept love in my heart and prayers on my lips.

I know she isn’t important to me alone. As the Muslim world implodes with extremism, there have always been analogies made with Karbala. Every scholar inserts an analogy about a crisis in the Shia world being comparable to Ashura. I get it, every oppression is Zainab . There is something comforting in the narrative.



But I know she sees more than that. She sees the things we miss when we build our own narratives of suffering and pain. Zainab would see the things that I missed as a child. The things I miss as an adult reading about the Karbala Paradigm in op-eds.  Zainab  sees the nuance, the ways in which we can all be more accountable for the suffering we inflict on others and on ourselves. Zaynab sees truths that are inconvenient to narratives about geopolitical realities. She sees truths that are inconvenient to narratives about Imperialistic dichotomies that have overwhelmed our literature.

Zainab sees the truth in it’s entirety. She sees the fallibility and the beauty.

In turn, all I see is Zainab.



Saja Al  is an Iraqi American and has a MA & BS in Political Science. She regularly writes about gender, politics, and spirituality. Read more at Saja’s blog: vivalakhabatha.wordpress.comg