The last time that I stood here, I was twenty-three years old.
I can still smell the dusky heat of that auburn summer night. I can still hear the silky silence, punctuated by the frantic thudding of my heart. I can still taste the burn of farewell’s ash lodged inside my throat. I can still sense the hunger with which my eyes memorized this view. The desperation with which this image was seared into my mind.
I can still trace the scar of that collision: incredible elation meeting ineffable sorrow. The way realization dawned upon me like the crest of a tidal wave, striking with the force of a blow to the stomach, flooding my chest with pain, leaving my lungs gasping for air.
I can still remember the way my feet stilled in sudden panic. Unable to step forward. Unable to turn back. Paralyzed by the uncertainty of when it would be, how it would be, who I would be, when – or if – I was ever able to return.
It has been seven years since that day.
Seven years, and the path of my life has finally wound its way back to this courtyard, this view, this city whose every corner is laced for me with memory and longing. I have dreamt of this moment more times than I can count. Yet no dream can compare to the feeling of stepping through this door. Of standing, walking, running, crumbling – a child returning home, collapsing into the arms of her mother.
The last time that I stood here, I was a young girl on the brink of adulthood – undiscerning, unquestioning, unknowingly filled with the naivety of youth, intoxicated by shallow sips from wisdom’s stream. I have returned a woman – altered by the winds of experience, sobered by deeper draughts, and steadied in the face of mountains of knowledge, before which I know nothing, nothing, at all.
I came here once, shaded by the cool boughs of innocence.
I have returned, scorched by the heat of the sun.
The last time that I stood here, I was struggling to figure out who I was, what I wanted to make of this beautiful gift of life. Somewhere in between, I stopped trying.
Grating beneath the wheel of monotony, I slowly began to abandon the battle for my self. I lay down my weapons. I turned from the charge. I shed the armor I had spent countless years crafting to make space for the weight of missions apart from my own.
Quests for knowledge gathered dust on the shelf. Swords of ink ran steadily dry. In ways just small enough to escape detection, I began to break down the fortress of my thoughts – rebuilding it in the image of every other need, desire, and expectation than that of my one, irreplaceable soul.
The more time that passed, the more my mind drifted. I found myself feeling increasingly like a stranger, stranded far at sea. I could hear my own cries for help, my own shouts for aid – yet I felt powerless to grasp my own desperate hands, flailing against the horizon. At a time when I needed myself to stand up, to make noise, to find a way back to the shore – I shrank inward. I grew silent. I looked away, unable to face the teeming depths of my own pain. Numb, I watched from a distance as my spirit wrestled with the wrath of the tossing waves; as my voice faded beneath the fury of the water’s roar; as the light within me dimmed…flickered…vanished.
In this betrayal of myself, the only culprit is me. It was at no one’s behest but my own, with no one’s permission but my own, and through no one’s hands but my own, that I stitched for myself a thousand masks; that I flattened the tenor of my tongue; that I took the basket of my dreams to the edge of the river and watched each singular petal tumble and weep, carried away by the stream.
The last time that I stood here, I came to speak. This time, I have come to listen.
I have come to sit in the eye of the storm of these years and to understand, with your guidance, every moment of happiness more sublime than I thought I would ever see; every moment of sorrow more deep than I thought I would ever know. I have come to drink from and savor each dreg from the cup of my life – to know well each trace of honey, each trace of rain.
Last time, I came to have my mind awakened, my reality shaken, my heart broken, wonderfully, utterly open.
This time, I have come to heal.
To laugh and to weep and to hold each moment close to my bones, and then, in your presence, to let it all go.
The last time that I stood here, my eyes filled with burning tears, overwhelmed by the crossroads before me. This time, they are filled with cool sight, soothed by the clarity of the path ahead.
I know well that I have not returned here by choice, but by invitation. That just as my life has changed, as I have changed, so has the reason for which I have been called back.
Beneath the blanket of this night, beneath the silver of these stars, I have been summoned – to witness the nature of this world, and to learn how to balance my feet to traverse it. To grasp the truth of submission, and to learn how to expand my heart to carry it. To feel the essence of sacrifice, and to learn how to build the spine to withstand it. And to witness the beauty of those who sold their souls for the pleasure of Allah, that I too, might learn to endeavor to earn it.
I have been called to be reminded that the purpose of this life is not to go through it untouched by difficulty or pain. It is to find sweetness in bearing the heat. Joy in conquering the flames. To know that when the fire burns the strongest, that is when my Lord is closest.
“Do you suppose that you will enter paradise though there has not yet come to you the like of (what befell) those who went before you? Stress and distress befell them and they were convulsed until the apostle and the faithful who were with him said, ‘When will Allah’s help (come)?’ Behold! Allah’s help is indeed near!” (2:214)
O’ He who is the origin and the destination! It is Your pen which writes the story whose end we are not yet able to see. It is Your hand which guides to the destiny we are not yet able to know.
You are the one who saved Nuh (Noah) from the oncoming flood, carrying him to a new dawn. You are the one who rescued Yusuf (Joseph) from the darkness of the well, granting him the might of the kingdom. You are the one who carried Musa (Moses) from the cascading river, raising him to the peaks of Sinai. You are the one who delivered Asiya from the palace of Pharaoh, bringing her near, the fragrance of Heaven.
And it is You, my Lord, who, at the tightening of the chains, have released me so beautifully into Your mercy. You have made me gaze into the eyes of darkness so I could see: they cannot defeat me. You have placed me before the jaws of sorrow so I could know: they cannot consume me. You have burnt the dead wood away so I could realize my true mettle – so that by the flames, I could be transformed.
O’ the Source of the strength of Muhammad! Grant me the strength to rejoin my battle; to reclaim my weapons; to turn my horse back to the charge.
O’ the One pleased by the patience of Hussain! Grant me the patience to don the armor of Your Will so that I might become – not as I want – but as You want me to be.
My Allah, let me no longer break but stand firm in Your trials – for I see now, it is through them that You are honoring me, You are growing me, You are right by my side…
And if You are with me? I am no longer afraid.