Treat yo’self

17 Ramadan 1441

Some folks are experts of the treat yo’self concept.

Other folks—my folks—really need to learn how to do this.

Pre-pandemic times, I had to learn how to treat myself. I would say this is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from women who became my family in Egypt, and I continued to work on it when I was in grad school.

I’m not sure what it means that I had to leave the U.S. to learn this lesson, but I’m sure if I think about it long enough—I’ll figure it out.

Or you’ll figure it out for me.

Pre-pandemic times, I treated myself to very, very long walks. I’d get myself all the gelato, preferably from the location where one of the servers gives me extra scoops. I’d get a massage and facial with women of color who don’t hurt me and understand my skin. I’d hang out with friends who are self-assured nerds through and through. I’d wear my beautiful boots and Fenty lipstick that gets all the compliments from women on these streets. I’d eat at Rasa—or graze like a cow in verdant fields, only it’s me, Sahar, in Jackson Heights. And sometimes, I’d go somewhere beautiful and far away where I can breathe deeply, write, and stumble on a few Carnival events.

In pandemic times, I treat myself with a bag of flaming hot Cheetos. Or order in chopped cheese sandwiches and wings or drunken noodles. Or go on a grocery run. Or color in my coloring book. Or ziftar and zikr.

If you are raised by people who are experts in serving others, who transparently do as they truthfully say, who simply do without anyone ever having to ask or say, who never ask nor expect others to do for them what they do for others, you may have had to learn how to treat yourself well, too.

Service is what gives them life, even if it chronically hurts their hands, knees, and backs; even when people take advantage of their kindness without ever reciprocating or acknowledging that kindness; even when others unjustly expect it of them; even when others are paid to do the same job with far less generosity, competence and expertise; even when others are resentful and envious and mistreat them in order to crush their capacity to be so kind.

And now I’m going to pause and ask you to say, Ma sha Allah (I don’t even care if you don’t know what that means. YOU GON DO IT.) after every paragraph. I’ve included it in case you forget. Which you won’t

My mother, in particular, is fueled by sincere, all-in with her heart service. Her service doesn’t emerge from a sense of self-hate; if you know my mother, you know she is fully confident that she is the best one for the job. Her sense of confidence is probably why she was able to raise confident girls who don’t hate themselves.

Ma sha Allah.

The first time I learned about the term “radical hospitality” was 3 years ago when I was applying for a fellowship; when I read what the term meant, I gave a “Oh, that’s what that means?” kind of laugh. I had experiences of that concept from the day I took my first breath in this world.

Ma sha Allah.

When my dad was still a graduate student, my mom would baby sit and worked at a nearby Shell gas station to help make ends meet for their family of four. They did not have family abroad sending them financial support; they did not have relatives receive them and show the ropes of navigating the literal and figurative landscape.

Nevertheless, I used to hear kids in my community talk about my rich parents. They thought we were wealthy because of my parent’s generosity.

Ma sha Allah.

Theirs was an open door policy when we didn’t know such a thing had a name. How we  survived that with relatively few traumatic incidents, God only knows.

Ma sha Allah.

I have very vivid memories of all kinds of people in our home, eating meals my mom cooked with us, staying with us because they couldn’t afford a hotel, or dropping by to ask my parents to mediate marital disputes they were having. I have vivid memories of a bunch of newly immigrated young, single Bangladeshi men going fishing with my dad in the canals surrounding the university or at the beach and bringing back the fish to our small kitchen to cut and clean with my mom, who would then cook the freshly caught fish. I have vivid memories of the many, many parties my mom threw in our apartment and downstairs by the playground with all our neighbors, my dad’s colleagues, and the new Bangladeshi families, single bachelors, and newlyweds (because in those days, there were so few, and we knew all of them).

Ma sha Allah.

I have vivid memories of playing with the Nigerian siblings down the hall; the Egyptian mom who was so very pretty in her headscarf and long lashes; the curly-haired Iranian girl I idolized because she had ballet shoes; the white kid who cried every morning his mom left him with us and then cried every evening because he didn’t want to leave; and my frenemy and nemesis Mehdi who always showed up to snatch my Bengali-Filipino BFF. (Mehdi apologized about that when we reunited seven years later. It clearly weighed on his mind.)

Ma sha Allah.

My dad often says the blessings we receive is all because of my mom.

Ma sha Allah.

My mom always tells us, I do it for Allah; not for people. She also says, When you do for others, they might never return the gesture—but that’s okay. You keep doing—and Allah will send you help from a place or person you don’t even expect.

Ma sha Allah.

When our neighbors reciprocated, I learned to eat Filipino food, Thai food, Nigerian food, Iranian food, Malaysian food, Pakistani food, Cuban food, and American Thanksgiving food (cooked by a Filipino) at a very early age. Of those dishes, the ones that I remember is a bowl of rice and ground beef Mehdi’s mom fed me by hand because Mehdi was being a 5 year old jerk; a pot of curry noodle soup our Thai neighbor sent to us when my mom was sick; and a plate of fish with ginger and pineapple sauce and white rice a Filipino aunty made for me and my brother when my parents had to go somewhere.

Ma sha Allah.

After my dad graduated and we moved off campus to another apartment, my mom would cook food and go with my dad and older brother to serve and feed the homeless at a mosque in Sunrise.

Ma sha Allah.

And a few years later, after we moved again—and for 25 years after—she cooked lunches to sell after Friday prayers and donated all proceeds to a newly opened mosque that was once a supermarket.

Ma sha Allah.

And for those 25 years, she organized free iftars every evening during the month of Ramadan at the same mosque that has now fed thousands of people. In the early years, when her health allowed for it, she singlehandedly cooked those meals herself. Like clockwork, every year, there were certain people the community neglected for the entire year—like folks who were in and out of prison, or homeless, or both—who would show up and only allow her to serve them because they never doubted her sincerity. I get the sense it’s because she never reminds them of her service; she usually forgets and moves forward.

Ma sha Allah.

And once a year, she would “treat herself” by actually selling her food at the Asian Food Fair in Homestead. Her many customers would loyally return, year after year, and tell her to please open up a restaurant, and instead, she’d laugh and say, Or you could just come over?

Ma sha Allah.

Volunteers come and go, get their service hours, get their photo op when it’s sexy to do so, organize a fundraiser for the latest cause, but Mom is always there. Many learned from her service and replicated a similar model elsewhere—sometimes telling her, many times never acknowledging her, most of the time hiring or paying a caterer to do the same work. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Ma sha Allah.

It’s for that reason, my younger siblings have no memories of eating iftar at home—until this year. It took a pandemic for her to take a pause from her usual Ramadan programming.

Ma sha Allah.

And even then, while sheltering-in-place, she is cooking food for elderly folks who can’t leave their homes and don’t have help.

Ma sha Allah.

When people give birth, when people die, when people are looking to get married, when people get divorced, when people get sick, when people feel like they have nowhere else to go, when people are abused, when people are severely depressed, when people have lost everything—she gets a phone call.

Once a shaykh who came over to visit us told me, as we sat together at our dining table to eat, Watch your mother’s hands. The one whose hands serves the table is king.

Your mother is a king.

Ma sha Allah.

But by being king, she often neglected her own well-being. So this year, when you treat yo’self, remember the ones who serve and have served you, too, in your prayers.


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