• Rubaab Poonawala

And Now As We Leave

There's a saying about Le Havre- you cry twice; once when you arrive in the city, and once when you leave.

My knees ached from the pressure of sitting on my legs for too long. The urge to adjust was strong, but the social pressure to maintain my position was ever so slightly stronger. Not for the first time, I was surrounded by a large mass of people, all listening to the painful retelling of the martyrdom of one of our ancestors. As grown women unabashedly grieved all around me, I could not help but marvel at this vulnerable and complex activity that my religious community often partakes in. Indeed, mourning our ancestors has become a cornerstone of expressing the faith, and shedding a tear for the martyrdom of Husayn Bin Ali is considered to be one of the most significant and sacred acts a believer can do.


This partaking is an expression of collective sadness, and understandably a driving force behind the unification of an emotionally aligned group of people. Our dominant individual consciousness experienced a shift in the face of these aligned emotions, towards a communal and collective experience. The self/other distinction was reduced; people felt more open and included, and overall prosocial.


Still, I’m not sure if ‘open’ and ‘included’ are the words I would use to describe how I felt, all those times I sat in my masjid and tried my best to look as sad as the people around me. My eyes would glaze over, sure, but not with the tears that I so desperately attempted to shed. Every time they finished shahadat (martyrdom, or the retelling of martyrdom), I simply felt like an imposter. This intense, collective mourning was out of my reach.


The nights didn’t end there, however. Before we all went our separate ways, our mosque would provide dinner, and we would engage in communal dining. Eight or nine people would sit circled around a thaal (a large metal dish), and for the next hour or so, would eat from the same space. With no tears in sight, I would feel myself falling back into the wonders of my community. There was no need for explicit displays of pain, or the synchronized matam (physical display of mourning) that would shake the ground with the passion and resolution that echoed through it. We were joined together simply by the oneness of our actions. It takes a specific upbringing to understand how to eat rice with your hands without dropping any grains, or the order in which you are meant to eat the many dishes that are laid out on the thaal. It is in looking back on these shared moments that I understand the impact of the lowered boundary between myself and my community. To feel so a part of something was a singular experience, one that I did not learn to appreciate until I was on the outside of the whole.


Nevertheless, I was lucky to find another place for myself - not in the throes of atheism but in the winds of Le Havre. I found myself adjusting not only to the idyllic town, but also to the distinct experiences that shape our campus. It was in this city that I found my closest friends, experienced my first heartbreak(s), and learned how to embrace the lowest moments of my life and use them to fuel my journey back to the highest. We all arrived in Le Havre with our own ideas of what life as a college student should be like. But we grew together, took care of each other. Now, as we approach the end of our last semester in this striking city, I find myself once again toiling over grains of rice, picking at this plate with the people I cherish circled around it with me. I think it's safe to say that this city did not fail to surprise; good or bad, I'll let you be the judge of that. Whatever the reflection, we are unified by our actions and the specific ambiguity of leaving our city.


It is no secret that most, if not all of us, have been experiencing an unprecedented range of negative emotions since the beginning of this pandemic. Certainly we were already susceptible to the shift from individual to collective, as we were all uniquely situated by virtue of our position. When January rolled around, it found some of us applying for our 3rd year, some struggling with the onslaught of administrative specificities, and others debating over whether it was even worth it to return to, or stay in, Le Havre. All of these burdens made real for us the truth of our own impermanence.


I think it is this grounding realization that brings us together, now. The distinction between ourselves and each other fades away as we grow in our realization that we are all leaving this place together. The excitement for what is to come, the nostalgia for what is to be left behind, all serve as a point of connection, such that we have started to engage in our form of collective emotion.


When I return to my masjid, I know I will feel the same incongruity in the spaces where I do not fit in. But the moments where we are partaking in something exceptional, I will feel strongly the currents of my culture running through me. In the same vein, the parts of Le Havre that I cherish so dearly will never be separate from me. The most fascinating part of a community is that once you are a part of it, it cannot be whole without you.


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