Review by Anna Gilgoff
In many ways, Sabeeha Rehman’s memoir, Threading My Prayer Rug, is an immigrant’s story of assimilation including the difficulties and happy surprises she discovers in the process of becoming an American citizen. Early in the memoir, the 20-year-old author leaves her family and everything she knows in Pakistan as the new bride of a young Pakistani doctor completing his residency in New York. Though this is an arranged marriage, she almost immediately begins to love her new husband Kahlid, who is handsome, hardworking, and kind. But perhaps his greatest attribute is his patience with his new wife, who despite speaking English, knows only what she has learned from American movies about her new home.
Rehman admits she is totally naïve about real life in the US. She opens Chapter 11 of the book with the following: “The first time I saw a Jewish person was when I came to America. There were no Jewish families in Pakistan. I had never come face to face with a Hindu either – same reason.” But a few sentences later, the world changes for her when her husband’s Jewish colleague and his wife “take [her] under [their] wing.” Life changes irrevocably for her. “Nancy became my lifeline,” she writes, then later “It didn’t take long for my mind and heart to pop open.” Rehman constantly reiterates moments such as this.
Using the prayer rug as a recurring motif and symbol, Rehman is forced to deal with cultural differences that she traces back to her childhood. Though she admits that what she knows of her faith is more a function of living in a Muslim country than personal belief, she realizes that she cannot be passive or blasé about her faith in America. She becomes a representative, an emissary, an ambassador for the faith while embracing the values and customs of her new country. In Pakistan, being a Muslim was more a matter of cultural lifestyle than strict religious dogma. Though she admits to never having set foot in a mosque or even observing the designated times for daily prayer, the birth of her sons challenges Rehman to raise them with her cultural values while living at their Staten Island address.
As I read this book, I often recalled the stories my mother used to tell me about her leaving a small Italian village and coming to Brooklyn just before WW II. In her town, Catholicism was part of every aspect of life and not just a matter of attending Sunday Mass. Everyone spoke Italian only and had generations of shared heritage. The piasanos innocently assumed that their beliefs and practices were universal. In Brooklyn, they quickly learned the opposite. Those who chose America as their new home have had struggles, and it is no different for Rehman.
In this memoir, readers may bristle at Rehman’s style. Phrases like “stuff like that” and “cut us some slack” should probably be avoided. Slang works best when it’s used deliberately to create a sense of time or place. Rehman’s use of the second person to address the reader feels just plain awkward. Who is Rehman addressing when she says, “Sorry to hurt your feelings, but we were Republicans?” Rehman often interrupts herself and the narrative by inserting brief flashbacks and memories that serves to detract rather than illustrate. Also awkward is her use of italics used to signal stream of conscious or flashback that has a weak connection to what precedes or follows.
In Threading My Prayer Rug, Rehman attempts to educate the reader about Islam. Given that her father was a Shia and her mother a Sunni, she briefly explains why the schism between the two major sects exists around a “dispute of succession that arose after the Prophet Muhammad passed away.” She offers a brief explanation for why Ramadan is literally a movable feast. “The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle,” she writes. “The Muslim New Year begins ten days earlier each year.” Consequently, “one gets to experience fasting in all seasons.” She stresses the importance of giving alms and the Hajj to the faith. All of this demystifies a religion that is often misunderstood or even vilified.
When there is so much misunderstanding about the Muslim world, the tendency to offer an apology or defense is understandable. Rehman may be trying to do a little of both. For generations, immigrants of different faiths and backgrounds have been attracted to this country because of the freedoms we all value. This may be lost on some during this contentious presidential election season, but it’s not lost on Sabheeha Rehman who believes nothing erases preconceived notions about a cultural group more than putting a human face on them.