Poetry & Fiction

The Idol in the Mirror

http://www.flickr.com/photos/cinziarizzo/2474818505/in/photostream/By Humaira Khan

A Short Story

She hated him when they had disagreements. Adil was a great husband and father—most of the time. He was caring and loving and he helped her with her household chores. He loved the children—he fed them, woke up in the middle of the night to help her put the little one to sleep, and changed their diapers. But sometimes he could be extremely unreasonable and would lose his temper at the slightest provocation.

Like tonight.

Earlier in the evening, she had been running late to get dinner ready because the children were not giving her a break; they were all irritable. She wished Adil would help watch them so that she could get the cooking done, but he was on the phone.

“Okay, enough out of you two!” she said out loud, hoping Adil would hear her.

But five whole minutes passed and he didn’t come.

She found herself getting more and more frustrated. Why wasn’t he coming? How was she supposed to handle two crying children AND cook the food?!

A few minutes later, Adil strolled into the living room.

“That was Abdullah. He is in the area and wanted to know if I could go to the masjid with him for Maghrib1 and play cricket afterwards. What do you think?”

“Whatever you want,” said Aisha, as she tried to clean up the mess in the living room. The children had quieted down and were busy eating sandwiches.

“Are you sure?” Adil didn’t seem to notice that she didn’t exactly approve of the plan.

“Yeah,” she said, carefully avoiding eye contact with him.

“Okay, but call me if you need anything.”

“What about dinner?”

“I’ll eat when I come back insha’Allah2 !”

His smile was dazzling. Countless times, she had gazed at him as he smiled and thought how lucky she was to have a man like him. But this was not one of those moments.

His phone started ringing. It was Abdullah again.

“You sure you will be okay?” Adil asked Aisha.

She nodded.

He hugged them all and left with Abdullah.

Three hours later, Aisha was exhausted. The children had taken forever to sleep and she hadn’t had a break since morning. When Adil came home, she didn’t even feel like talking to him. When he tried to get her to tell him why she was upset, her reply was short and curt. Adil was furious! Why had she let him go with Abdullah in the first place if she didn’t want him to?!

A huge argument followed and Adil stormed out of the room! Aisha was seething in anger. How she hated him!

She sat rocking furiously back and forth on the glider, angry thoughts racing through her head.

How she ended up thinking of Mariam just then, she didn’t know. But her mind went back to a conversation with her best friend almost twenty years ago.

She had been sitting alone on the bench in the college courtyard, brooding, when she was startled by someone’s hand on her shoulder.

She swung around only to come face to face with Mariam. In her, Aisha had found the only person who understood her.

Mariam sat down next to her.

“Why are you sitting all alone over here, Aisha?”

“Nothing. Same old story.”

“Oh. What happened?”

“Just this girl I thought I was getting along really well with. She said something I didn’t like.”

Mariam waited for her to continue. She knew better than to interrupt when Aisha was agitated.

“I don’t understand why these things happen to me, Mariam! I mean, what did I ever do to all these people that they feel they need to be mean to me!”

“Well, what did that girl say to you?”

“I don’t remember exactly, but something about how she didn’t know I was out of town last week. She said she didn’t realize I wasn’t around because she never sees me outside of the classroom or at any events here anyway, and that it was only when someone else mentioned that I had gone to California to visit my sick aunt, that she found out I was away!”

“Poor choice of words, I agree, but—”

Aisha interrupted her: “Well, who is she to go around drawing conclusions about someone she doesn’t know! What does she know about what events I like or don’t like to attend! I wish I could think of the right thing to say when it’s needed and not later when the moment’s gone!”

“So what would you have liked to say to her?”

“I would have told her the truth, of course! That I attend all the events or parties that I am invited to. But that I cannot be there at events I haven’t received an invitation for.”

She was biting her lip.

“But why is that so important for you to clarify?” Mariam asked gently.

Aisha looked up. What was Mariam saying? Her own confused look met Mariam’s steady gaze.

“Why shouldn’t it be important?” she said, almost defensively.

“What I am asking is why do you think correcting someone’s opinion about you is so important? Do you think you can tell me in concrete terms why some acquaintance’s incorrect opinion of you is bothering you so much?”

Aisha was silent. Mariam’s question was important. Why WAS it bothering her so much? And why was she so bent on correcting it?

“I guess I want people to not misunderstand me and not make a monster out of me when I’m really not one?” Her answer wasn’t making much sense to herself either. When stated plainly, it really didn’t seem like it had been that big of an issue to begin with!

“Exactly!” Mariam’s response was a second too fast.

Aisha smiled inadvertently. “You know something I don’t, right?” she said, somewhat relieved to find herself smiling in this situation.

“How many times did you just use the words “I” or “me” in that last sentence?”

“What does that have to do with anything?!” She wished Mariam wouldn’t speak in riddles!

“Does someone else’s bad opinion of you make you a bad person? Obviously not, right? So why should that opinion be so important that it assumes center stage in your life? People have the option to find out the truth, be polite, not jump to conclusions about others but they also have the option not to. What they choose defines who THEY are, not who YOU are.”

Aisha had a look of admiration on her face. Mariam truly had the gift of eloquence!

Mariam continued: “But even that’s not what I am trying to point out to you. Sometimes we have problems not because others are judging us or misunderstanding us but because we are so focused on ourselves that everything else is diminutive in comparison. We then become more important to ourselves than even Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) and that’s where our problems begin.

“So, for example, when someone gives us an odd look, we want to know why and spend hours in agony trying to find out what’s wrong. Or when somebody disagrees with us, we find ourselves infuriated. Or when our mom tells us to do something when we are busy, we get frustrated because we, our work, our time, is more important than everything else! And when we are more important to ourselves than anybody else, our relationships are affected too, by the way we respond to what others say and do. What they say or do is not judged by its own merit, but in terms of how they say or do those things TO US! Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” Aisha said slowly. She was staring past Mariam at some distant point, her brow wrinkled as she let that explanation sink in. Mariam was right. Aisha realized she did judge everything and everyone in terms of how those things or those people affected her. But wasn’t that how everyone else saw things too? What other point-of-view could she see things from, if not her own?

Mariam said: “I struggle with this self-centeredness, too, you know. All the time! I have to constantly remind myself!”

It seemed incredulous to Aisha that Mariam, whose understanding of the issue seemed so clear, could be struggling with it as she said.

But Mariam was speaking again: “Yes, that’s right. I struggle with this all the time! Every time I find myself getting frustrated, I know my focus is me! I know then that I need to stop making myself the center of the universe!”

“But I don’t understand! If you don’t let yourself judge things based on how they affect you, wouldn’t you be leaving yourself vulnerable to oppression?” Aisha finally managed to convey her confusion in concrete terms.

“Actually, if you are not so focused on yourself, you’ll be able to see things more clearly and deal with them more sensibly than if all you can see is you!”

Mariam’s explanation made complete sense.

It had been twenty years since she had had that conversation yet she hadn’t forgotten it. Like Mariam, she too found herself struggling to live it. Every time she found herself getting angry at her children, or mad at her husband, or frustrated with people in general, she realized that it was time for her to remind herself to stop focusing only on herself.

If her son wanted to go the bathroom one more time or her daughter wanted her to play with her just as she was trying to get dinner ready, was it their fault? If she was getting frustrated, it was because she was thinking, “Why can’t they let me do what I want to do at this time?!”

If her husband went to sleep early one day in a month because he had had a tiring day at work, she would be angry with him. “Is my day not tiring?” she would think.

If her mother-in-law didn’t appreciate her, she would be depressed and unhappy. “Why doesn’t she see my good qualities?” would be the thought in her head.

Of course this wasn’t just the case when things weren’t going well. She realized that she was happy when people praised her or spoke nicely to her. It didn’t matter whether they were right or wrong about her then; the only thing that mattered was their approval.

Mariam had been right. It was when her “self” assumed central importance in her own life, over and above everything and everyone else, that her problems really began.

Aisha took a deep breath. She realized that the issue could have been better resolved had her entire focus not been on herself alone, even if her husband’s had been on himself. If only she had let it go at that moment and not made it a matter of ego, saying, “How dare he do / say this to me!”

If she had not lost her temper then, he would have felt bad at his own conduct. And when things had calmed down, she would have had every opportunity to let him know how she felt when he had raised his voice at her. Who could he have blamed then, except himself?

Slowly, she rose from her chair. She knew what she had to do but she hesitated. Apologizing was not about lowering oneself, as she had once thought, but about admitting one’s mistake. And she had made a mistake.

It was time to repair her relationships.

She walked to the door, hesitated again, but then bravely left her room to find Adil. If he had been unreasonable, she had been unreasonable too.

Somebody needed to take that first step to put an end to such situations. And the first to do so would earn the most reward, she thought.

Besides, their relationship was worth saving. Little issues like this could assume larger-than-life proportions if not dealt with sensibly, and she didn’t want such things to stand between her and Adil.

She was sure he was sitting in the living room staring into space. She paused in the hallway as she caught sight of him doing just that. A smile escaped her. He was a good man. Sometimes she couldn’t understand how she could be so upset with him.

She glanced at the mirror hanging on the wall next to her but a thought struck her as she looked. For the next few seconds, she stared at her own reflection, thinking that this was the person who was at the center of her little universe. It didn’t seem right.

She looked towards Adil again and was surprised to find him looking at her. As she walked towards him, he stood up. Leading her by the hand, he made her sit next to him on the sofa.

Before she could say anything though, he looked straight at her and said, “I’m sorry, Aisha. I should not have spoken to you like that.”

“No, I’m sorry.” Aisha’s eyes were full of tears.

She had to explain to him how she felt and he was ready to listen, all night if he had to.


  1. the prayer after sunset []
  2. God willing []

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