I walked down the narrow gorge called the siq that leads visitors through a 1.2 kilometer pathway to the grand entrance of the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, Jordan. The site is regal and majestic in its own right, chosen by over 100 million people in 2007 to be one of the new 7 wonders of the world. But that morning in September of 2017, it felt like the city was expecting me, its rose-hewed aging stones appearing fatigued from keeping centuries of secrets, relieved to unload some of the “burden” of wisdom they have nurtured along the ages. By that point, I had begun my own journey of organic unloading and unlearning.
I was decked out in my yoga regalia: black leggings, a red sleeveless t-shirt flaunting newly-sculpted yoga arms, and a spotless purple Jade yoga mat slung across my shoulder, escorted as chance would have it by two royal badia officers in their ceremonial Jordanian uniforms, their rifles in lieu of a yoga mat, making their way down the same and only path to start their day. I thought I was also starting mine: a photoshoot to grace the 2018 Jade Yoga calendar.
My heart told me something profound was unfolding for me. I made sure to walk deliberately, taking in every detail from the thump of our footsteps, choreographed in unison, to the temperature of the breath grazing my upper lip. But it was the sound of the silence deafening my ears that made my heart skip a few beats. Even the stones stood a little mightier, for they too seemed moved by the moment. In the breeze, a message came to me: you are Khadija.
That was the day I stepped into my name, at the ripe young age of 44.
My mother named me Khadija after my grandmother. Sort of, but not exactly; not in the way the first child is named after a parent or in our case in the Middle East a grandparent. I am the youngest of three children. My sister and brother have perfectly “normal” names, favorite names my mother saved for her children someday. I don’t know if she had a favorite third name, but I do know my name was chosen as a modest protestation against the invasion of Western names —and values I imagine— into our culture. A cousin chose the name “Diana” for his daughter. My mother revolted and vowed —to my father’s utter delight— to name the child in her belly Khadija after his mother, whom incidentally she had never met nor known very much about. I have been told when the time came for them to register my name on my birth certificate, my mother hesitated, fearing the weight of this big name would break my back. The extended family was outraged. My Italian aunt couldn’t even pronounce it. She immediately started calling me “Gigi.”
And that was the day 48+ years ago when I became the proud holder of two names, two vastly conflicting names in equally paradoxical worlds. Until that morning in Petra, Gigi was the apologetic/defensive/confused Muslim woman: “Western” in childish respects, competitive and hard-working occasionally, loud and curious when pressured, and committed to the defensive narrative of proving that Muslims were not violent, misogynist, or extreme.
I remember clearly one large undergraduate class I was in. We probably exceeded two hundred students, crammed in a big auditorium. The university professor came in waving a paper as he asked for “Khadija” to identify herself. He instinctively turned to look for “her” on the right side of the auditorium, where it was customary for more outwardly conservative (veiled is the word) female students to sit. I was at the left side of the auditorium sitting in the front row with my hand up. His gasp not only betrayed his own surprise, but it told me volumes about the weight of responsibility I was carrying. (Thankfully, it turned out well. He was impressed with my work and wanted to put a face to the name. I ended up taking all my American literature courses with him and he became a mentor.)
Khadija’s inner world was spiritual, contemplative, and pious. It was also competitive, hard-working, and equally curious. The contradictions were subtle. Much like my upbringing.
I had no idea until later in my teenage years that our family “situation” was unconventional. I grew up in a home that may qualify as matriarchal today if such family structures exist. My mother was the breadwinner. She worked at the Ministry of Education until her retirement in the 90s. My father was on a trajectory to be chief of the Jordanian Armed Forces but his career was cut short in 1970 after the Black September civil war between the Jordanians and the Palestinian fedayeen. He [honorably] disobeyed military orders to destroy some towns in the north of Jordan where Palestinian fighters were hiding among civilian homes. As a result, he was court-martialed, tried, and convicted of treason. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Eventually, he was pardoned after serving two years in prison. I was the fruit of his reunion with my mother upon his release.
I did not know that outside our modest home, it was not easy to be born a woman. I had no idea women were killed in the name of honor. Education, work, a loving father and brother were gifts I took for granted. There was nothing strange about my father kissing my forehead every sunrise for 24 years while reciting verses from the Quran to wake me up for school, university, and work. I got that same kiss after I delivered every one of my three girls. He cooked our dinners, helped me with homework, prepared my lunchbox for school, and drove me everywhere. When he passed away, I found a briefcase filled with press clippings of every event I was part of that was in the news.
At 13 years old, I asked him to teach me to pray. I haven’t missed a prayer since.
The five daily prayers have undoubtedly been my boot-camp in discipline and anchor of peace. But it was the study and practice of yoga that opened me up to experience Spirit and taste the grace of spirituality. Paul F. Kitter’s aptly titled book Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian resonates whole-heartedly with my experience. “So for me now when I say the word God, what I image, what I feel, thanks to Buddhism, is the interconnecting spirit –this ever-present spirit, this ever-present, interconnecting energy that is not a person, but is very personal, that this is the mystery that surrounds me, that contains me, and which I am in contact with in the Eucharist, in liturgies, and especially in meditation.”
My bubble of privilege burst open at the University of Jordan where I met other “Khadija’s” and finally acknowledged the patriarchal religious roots of injustice and violence. When I started work, I heard from an endless number of “Khadija” refugees about the compounded injuries of wars on displaced females attempting to survive in a sadly wounded world dedicated to hurting them. I was unprepared to learn from equally wounded refugee men forced to “man up.” As I matured, I watched educated, eloquent, powerful sisters around me ridiculed for demanding justice, dismissed for daring to promote “Western” ideals and values like human rights.
I continued to pray. And study. Islamic history books confirmed the same perspective of the story. Women had no place in society except in their male guardian’s home. Narratives depicting the life of Prophet Mohammad served the same message. What stands out to me is the fact that there is much told about his marriage to his second wife Aisha, most likely because it perfectly supports the narrative of female innocence and virginity. Aisha has been exploited endlessly to enrich the misogynist narrative for centuries. His first wife Khadija is rarely mentioned apart from a few lines here and there about her undeniable presence in the early years and the fact that she was the mother of four of his children. There is very little taught about her to young girls and boys. No one highlights the fact that she was already married twice with four children of her own before she proposed to him. He moved into her house. She was already a renowned, successful businesswoman who financially supported him and enabled his prophecy. And she was the first one to tell him he was the prophet and the first to adopt Islam. The first Muslim was a woman.
The narrative of the sacred feminine, or at the very least the feminine narrative, is a disempowering threat to authority. It is no wonder traditional Islamic religious scholars oppose music and the arts, and strictly forbid the companionship of dogs in homes. Their religion is stripped of spirituality. They are right to fear it. It empowers us. We are right to seek it.
My daughters tease me about my never ending curiosity. They think it is amusing that I am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. They are right. I have no clue. But I see the whole picture very clearly. There is no separation. We are all connected, to one another, to Mother Earth, and to all beings. I always share the story of the apple I learned from my whole food plant-based program with Dr. Colin Campbell. (Not the other apple story.) Half a cup of apple contains only 5.7mg of vitamin C. The vitamin C potency of a half cup of whole apple is the equivalent of 1500mg of vitamin C. That is three times the amount in a typical vitamin C supplement. How is that even possible? The power lies in the interactions of tens if not hundreds of individual nutrients in a divinely-orchestrated symphony of chemical reactions to produce the desired effect.
I am Khadija. I am the story and the storyteller of all the Khadija’s that have come before me and will come after me. My purpose is clear. Our stories must be told. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.