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Bread and words by guest blogger, author, Barbara Chepaitis

Barbara Chepaitis

When Sherri asked me for a blog about the meeting of different cultures, my first thought was of my friend, Anjum, a Shia Muslim woman who taught me about Islam.
For a long time I’d been saying that though I was well-versed in many different kinds of spiritual practices, I knew next to nothing about Islamic traditions, and I hoped someday I’d learn. Along the lines of ‘careful what you wish for,‘ my wish was granted at the time I was least ready for it.
I was in the middle of writing a novel about the Haudonosaunee Peacemaker, who taught the brutally warring tribes of the great Northeast how to end their conflicts, when Anjum called me. She was seeking a consultant to help her write a book about an important moment in Islamic history. “I must write about Hussain, and Sakina,” she said, and before I could respond she let out a river of words about Sakina, great-granddaughter to the Prophet Mohammad, a five year old girl who died of torture after her father was killed in a terrible battle 1400 years ago.
I recoiled. I wanted nothing to do with the story of a tortured little girl. I was working on peace. But her passion was compelling, and I understood the burning need to tell a particular story. I agreed to meet with her, and we’d take it from there.
Anjum, a Pakistani American, was educated, intelligent, soft-spoken and kindhearted. Yet she had all the force of coursing water as she spoke of what she wanted to do. She’d need all her willpower. She had never written a book, didn’t use a computer, and didn’t even know how to type.
We started with her talking through the story, and at first I was lost in the complexity of political maneuverings, foreign names, strange places. It took a while for me to grasp the basic narrative, which was of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, and the tragic battle he fought against the army of the caliph, Yazid. Hussain and Yazid belonged to different clans, which had been at odds for generations. The conflict grew more intense when Mohammad died and wrangling for who would be caliph commenced. Shia Muslims believe Mohammad wanted it to go to his adopted heir Ali – the first to embrace Islam and husband to Mohammad’s much-loved daughter Fatima. But the Ummaiya clan laid claim to rulership and won.
Both Ali and his son Hassan were later murdered, and his remaining son, Hussain, was commanded to give allegiance to the corrupt caliph Yazid. Hussain would not give his pledge, but neither did he want war, and so he sought refuge. He and a group of about 150 people were pursued by Yazid’s army, and surrounded in the desert of Karbala, near the Euphrates. He spent days trying to negotiate peace, and finally died in battle, along with all the men of his group. His daughter, Sakina, died in captivity. It’s an epic story, and its battles are still being fought today.
Anjum and I worked hard to bring the story alive in a way that was true to history and her passion, and as we did I learned more about Islam than a thousand books could have taught me. The Shia recount the story of Hussain every year at Mohorram, poetically, passionately, ceremoniously, with listeners taking part as if it’s happening to them. It’s written not only in her mind, but in her heart. Etched on her soul.
In hearing it, I bore witness to an ancient grief, acknowledging the tears and rage of those who bore it. That’s never easy. Witnessing the sorrow of others awakens our own. Many times I was angry at the ending, livid at the notion of love being less powerful than greed and hate. I cannot bear to see love lose. As we wrangled through narrative problems and the pain of the past, there were times I wanted to walk away, but Anjum’s fierce need kept me in place. This was a rare opportunity to understand the wounds and strength of a people, refining the ultimate human skill of my own compassion.
And not all of the work was sad. Anjum fed me Pakistani kebabs and breads, and told me about Hallal markets, where I could get the exotic ingredients she used. She talked about her childhood, her favorite dog, and how her grandmother would feed the eagles. I talked about the birds I love, and my dogs. When I told her my sister had breast cancer, we wept together, and she prayed for her in my presence, and I swear I saw angels in the room. By the time our task was done, I knew not only her history, but more of our present, and I could see a more hopeful future.
Though the story of Hussain is tragic, through the telling and the listening, Anjum and I were spinning out a whole different set of possibilities. Is that the beginning of healing, of peace? Only that? To share bread and words, and know that each person’s stories have their own blessings, no matter how different they are from yours?
Perhaps. I do know that in sharing our old stories, we have the opportunity to begin making the new ones.

Barbara Chepaitis is author of 9 published novels, and 2 books of nonfiction. She is faculty director of fiction for Western State Colorado University’s MFA in creative writing. You can find out about her books at


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 17th, 2013 at 3:13 pm and is filed under Clients, Friends and Colleagues. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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