Zahra Suratwala is a co-editor of and a contributor to I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim. Her essay in the book is titled "Seeking the Present."
Sometimes I think I’m still in college. I graduated from college a decade ago, but in my mind, I am still that age, still that person. College was when I became “myself”- it was when I really figured out what I liked and thought, and so I identify that phase of my life with the essence of me.
Yet obviously, I’ve changed. Since graduating from college, I have lived abroad twice, gotten my Masters, gotten married, had two kids. I am not quite the same person, in many ways.
These days, I no longer actively seek out new music to listen to, and then glean from that music lyrical gems that resonate with me. In college, I could spend hours “listening to music.” As in, not doing anything else, not having it just play in the background, but rather only listening to music. When I read books, too, I would copy out passages into journals or my blog. I would come back and read those passages and feel inspired. Now the iPod sits on the counter and when I play music, it’s so that I can dance with my children and husband in the kitchen as we prepare dinner. Songs that meant so much to me are now what we all sing along to together. They mean something else entirely. I now go through books in tiny bites, in moments snatched here and there. I do not devour them whole. The books I do read in one sitting are now meant to be read out loud to young children, and in an entertaining tone of voice.
When I am sick, I do not sleep in, and then wake up, stay in my pajamas, take to the sofa and watch reality TV and sip chai. I knew how to relax when I was in college. I knew how to pamper myself and indulge in a slow morning. These days, when I am sick, pampering myself is pretty much out of the question. I wake up at 6am with my kids, change them/feed them/play with them/drive them around/soothe them/discipline them… I’m a parent. Slacking is out of the question, no matter how terrible my sinus headache is. I have to exercise patience and overcome inertia and resist the urge to just take a break, because my kids are very young and they need me more than I need to rest. And they come first.
My faith has always been something that I considered internal and private; in college, the first time I had lived away from home, I began to take responsibility for doing my prayers on time, acting the way I felt a Muslim should, etc. I no longer had my parents overseeing my religious life, and this sudden freedom actually brought me closer to my faith. I was doing it entirely for myself, knowing that my actions were entirely between me and Allah, with no observers, for the first time. Nowadays, my faith is anything but private. Every time I pray, I am teaching my kids to sit beside me and perform the actions with me. When I attend masjid or say a prayer before eating or do any number of things that fall into the category of religion, I am no longer acting silently, for myself, but rather with the awareness that my kids are watching me. I am internally motivated, but, unlike my college self, I now take two small observers into account as I move within the realm of my spirituality.
You know, the list goes on and on. Creative outfits, exotic travel destinations, journals. There are a lot of things that aren’t in my life the way they once were. But I will argue that I still identify with my college self because, in essence, I am still that girl. My external habits have changed, but being too busy to spend two hours doing nothing but copying lyrics into a journal has not taken something out of my life. I have just learned to seek inspiration elsewhere. And books and music have not left me- I have let their relationships to me change and adapt, so that I can still have them in my life. When I am sick, I still know how to get a little indulgence in during the day. I will feed the kids something easy for lunch, I will put them in front of Dora for a little while so I can put my feet up. And when I pray, although I am no longer solitary, I have included my children in my faith for the same reason I have faith myself: because I am a Muslim. And I want my kids to learn Islam from their parents, organically, as a part of their everyday.
A lot has changed, but internally, maybe not much has changed at all. Interestingly, I think that when I am 50, I will, in my head, think I am still 32. I will identify with this phase of my life. Because in the midst of putting my family and children first and looking for inspiration in the daily moments of life, I am learning as much about myself as I did when I was a brand new college student. I am, in a way, becoming “myself” all over again.
As President/CEO of Zahra Ink, Incorporated, Zahra T. Suratwala writes and does marketing on a consulting basis for a variety of small businesses. She has found a way to combine her love of writing with her desire to pursue projects that can truly affect change; the result is a small business which she takes very seriously and finds intensely fulfilling. Zahra obtained her Master’s of Arts degree in English Literature from Loyola University in 2003. She has lived in Egypt and Thailand but will always call Chicago home: she loves its beauty and its very fickle weather. When she is not writing, Zahra can be found causing a ruckus with her husband, son and daughter. If home is where the heart is, her home is firmly placed in their hands. www.zahraink.com
I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim (edited by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala, White Cloud Press, May 2011) is a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40, all of whom were born and raised in the US. It is a showcase of the true diversity found in American Islam. www.ispeakformyself.com