In Threading My Prayer Rug, author Sabeeha Rehman takes readers on a journey describing what it's like to be Muslim in America. Starting with the charming story of her arranged marriage that turned into a love match, she tells about her life growing up in Pakistan, the culture, the customs, and what it was like to marry someone she hardly knew. At the time, her husband, a doctor, was performing his residency at a hospital in New York, so she also details what it was like leaving her family behind and moving to America just days after marrying. She only intended to stay for the two years it would take her husband to finish his residency, but she ended up falling in love with this country. After her two sons were born, she realized that she wanted to instill in them a deep sense of their faith and culture, so she set out to learn more about Islam. Until then, she'd always considered herself a devout Muslim, but as she sought to guide her children, Ms. Rehman came to realize that her life in Pakistan had really been pretty secular. Over the years, she began to study and try to understand her chosen faith in more depth than she ever had before. Then 9/11 changed the way many viewed her and her family, which only strengthened her resolve to show them that Muslims can be just as patriotic and American as anyone else. Over the past forty-five years Sabeeha Rehman has been on a long journey from immigrant to US citizen, from new bride to business executive, from wife to mother and grandmother, all while tirelessly advocating for interfaith understanding. Now through her story, she invites us all to take that journey with her.
I was just reading an article last week about how one of the most effective tools for fostering peace, understanding, and empathy for those different than ourselves is through the medium of storytelling. As someone who has been a life-long voracious reader, I couldn't agree more. I've learned so much about other people, their cultures, and traditions through reading. Especially when it comes to non-fiction, I often have a tendency to gravitate toward books that are about people or things that are outside my own wheelhouse, because I have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about things I don't know much about. I've had a few books written by Muslim women on my TBR list for a while now, but I hadn't gotten around to reading any yet. Then a member of a local Islamic group that shares our church's fellowship hall to break their daily fasts during Ramadan came to a service one Sunday morning and briefly spoke. Until then, I had no idea that our Christian Bible and the Qur'an share some of the same "characters" and stories. Finding this out piqued my curiosity even further, so when Threading My Prayer Rug was one of the suggested reads for this month's church book club, I eagerly voted for it. Others in our group were obviously as curious as I was, since it became our latest read. I'm glad it was, because it ended up being a very well-written book that taught me a great deal about the Muslim faith and Pakistani culture that I would highly recommend to anyone who might want to learn about either.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Sabeeha Rehman has a very engaging and conversational writing style that's easy to read and made me feel like I was sitting down to have tea with her while she regaled me with her life story. Born and raised in Pakistan, she entered into an arranged marriage with a doctor who was performing his residency at a hospital in New York, which of course, meant that she had to uproot her life and move halfway around the world within a month of getting engaged and a mere day or two of officially getting married. The first few chapters of the book cover the engagement and marriage, which was quite fascinating. I previously knew only a little about arranged marriages. With our western sensibilities, I think many Americans would find this practice, at best weird, and at worst atrocious. But at least in the author's experience it was neither, so seeing it through her eyes helped to make me see it in a whole new light. For her, this was simply an accepted and normal part of her culture. At each step of the process, she had to give her consent, so it wasn't like she was forced into it either. While it isn't necessarily something that I would have wanted to go through, it wasn't nearly the oddity I was expecting. In fact, there was a certain charm and romanticism to it all that I hadn't expected. As it turns out, the author made a soul mate match that is still going strong forty-five years later. Fast-forwarding a bit, I also liked that the author and her husband, recognizing that their sons had been raised in the US with a different culture, didn't insist on arranged marriages for them as well. She did engage in a bit of matchmaking to help her oldest son, while her youngest ended up completely doing things his own way, but in both cases, they seemed to have also made excellent matches.
Beyond the issue of arranged marriage, I really enjoyed reading about Ms. Rehman's assimilation into American culture. There were many things that shocked her upon her initial arrival in New York, but that over time, became much less of an issue. She came here with the intent of only staying for the two years it would take for her husband to complete his residency, but when that time came, she'd fallen in love with America and was starting to make a place for herself and her family in this country. They moved here way back in 1971, so the climate for Muslims was much different back then. They were able to go back and forth freely to their home country to visit relatives and her relatives were able to come to New York to visit them. How times have changed! Even though they are US citizens, born and raised here, both her son and young autistic grandson are both on the "no-fly" list, simply because they have the misfortune of sharing the same names as suspected terrorists, which the author says are as ubiquitous in the Muslim world as John Smith is to Caucasians. Anyway, back when they moved here, there were no mosques in New York, so it was fascinating to see how she managed to connect with other Muslims and start building a community, not only around their shared faith, but also around some shared culture as well. And eventually, they were able to raise the funds to build a mosque, but until then, they met in smaller spaces for their own version of Sunday School.
I also enjoyed how the author weaves the metaphor of threading her prayer rug throughout the narrative. There are so many things about her that changed over time, and part of what I could appreciate the most are her evolving beliefs. She came to this country with a pretty conservative mindset, which has ebbed and flowed over time. Some things which scandalized her in the beginning have become non-issues now, while she herself has become a much-more observant Muslim in her personal life. In those early years, she thought she had been a devout Muslim in Pakistan, only to discover later in life that she really hadn't been. Wanting her children to know about both their Pakistani culture and the Muslim faith, she set out to learn more about it herself. This led her to begin observing Ramadan and eventually participating in the five daily prayers, and I have to admit that the discipline required to do these things pretty much puts me to shame in my own spiritual life. She became a leader in the Muslim community, which brought her up against some traditionalists with regards to a woman's place and which isn't all that different from some Christian churches I've attended. Later on, when she wanted a better understanding of what the Qur'an said about women's roles, she delved into an in-depth study of their holy book, which included an attempt to learn Arabic so she could read it in its original language. Again, this puts me to shame, because that would be like me trying to learn Greek and Hebrew to read the original texts of the Holy Bible. At each step of her journey she would use the metaphor of the patterns in her prayer rug changing to indicate the ways in which she was changing.
Throughout reading Threading My Prayer Rug, I was struck most by just how many similarities that I shared with the author, which seem to transcend culture and faith. During his presidency, Barack Obama often invoked the idea that that which unites us is far greater than that which divides us. I don't think he was the originator the quote, but it's a good one in any case. And that is exactly what I felt while reading this book. The author and I may come from very different backgrounds and practice different faiths, but at our core, we want the same things and have the same hopes and dreams for our families and loved ones. I also strongly believe that the only way we are ever going to stop classifying Muslims as "other" is to learn about them and their faith, and this book went a long way toward demystifying those things for me. Sabeeha Rehman is just an ordinary woman dealing with some of the same challenges in life that all of us face. Yet at the same time, because of her name and her faith, she isn't always made to feel welcome. I was impressed by how she remains upbeat and optimistic in spite of her circumstances, while also being a tireless advocate for interfaith dialogue, peace, and understanding. I can't begin to express how much I admire her doggedness and the energy with which she approaches life. Being a low-energy, deeply introverted person, I could never do even half of what she's done in her life, but it's inspiring nonetheless. I think we all need to take a page from Ms. Rehman's book and put ourselves out there in the fray of life and fight for what's important with the same vigor she does.
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