Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
- from “Prayer,” by Carol Ann Duffy
In mid-July, home for the weekend at my parents’, I spent an entire Sunday helping my mother re-upholster our dining chairs. She regaled me with stories as we worked together, but her efforts at entertainment still didn’t make it the smoothest or lightest of projects. There were moments during the re-upholstering when I grew impatient at her stubbornness to fix things that couldn’t be fixed; moments when I was annoyed at the time-consuming task of ensuring the corners of each piece of fabric were perfectly folded without creases; moments I snapped at my mother and then was upset with myself.
By the end of the day, my hand was so sore from wielding the staple gun that I could barely fold my fingers into a fist. “Show me your hand,” said my mother, reaching out with hers. She took my hand into hers, pressed it lightly, and — since she’s been suffering from some minor health problems lately — I thought she was about to make me note yet again how hot or dry or arthritic her hands were in comparison to mine. Instead, she unexpected brought my hand closer and pressed a kiss into the center of my palm. “Make sure you rub lotion on it tonight,” she said, “and take some Tylenol.”
In the weeks that followed, long after the soreness had faded, my fingertips remained chapped and peeling. My nails were chipped, and my skin was rough to the touch. My ummy’s simple, tender gesture made me think more deeply of hands, and how easily I take them for granted. Just as for many other families, hands are the touchstone of my family’s heritage, used for the holy triumvirate of food, work, and prayer. I am most reminded of this during Ramadan.
Munching on deliciously cold cubes and slices of fresh fruit during our pre-dawn suhoor meal the other morning, my father told the story of how, as a child, he was accustomed to eating roti, Pakistani flatbread, wrapped around pieces of cantaloupe and melon. And some days, the bread served as wrapper for slices of raw onions instead. For those who were poor, onions were an inexpensive substitute for a full-fledged meal. His mother used to say, “Pyaaz ey tha niyaaz ey” — onions are an offering from God, a blessing, and worthy of gratitude. With her hands, she prepared special meals for my father, her only child — makkai ni roti thay saron na saag (cornbread with mustard greens), parathhay dripping with oil instead of butter, because they couldn’t afford real butter (ironic, because they owned cows and sold milk and butter, but needed the money too much to keep any of the dairy products for themselves). I think of my patient, self-sacrificing grandfather, whose work-hardened hands toiled in the family fields every day, working alone because my grandmother insisted that their son, my father, attend school and become educated rather than being relegated to a lifetime of harsh physical labor.
My mother’s stories, too, are about hands: her mother, a seamstress for the entire neighborhood; her brother, who hauled rocks in a tile factory until his hands were raw and bloody; her father, who drove horse-carts and then, blind in his old age, must have had to acclimate himself to knowing things by touch rather than sight in his last years.
The morning of my father’s onion stories, I stood with both my parents for the post-suhoor prayer of intention for the coming day’s fast. We huddled together, hands cupped closely so that each touched the other’s hands, loudly reciting the du’a: “Wa bisawmi ghadinn nawaiytu min shahri Ramadan: I intend to keep the fast today in the month of Ramadan.” I was reminded of my childhood, when my siblings and I would join our hands together and then pile our hands over our dad’s, much like those Russian dolls, one stacked inside the other, big to small, culminating in the tiniest one inside. A pile of hands, joined in du’a.
One of my earliest memories is of the 3 of us reciting du’a with our father; I remember looking down at our hands and marveling how like a bowl each pair of hands seemed. Then I looked up and asked, “Daddy, why do we make our hands like bowls when we do du’a?” He opened his mouth to reply but, before he could speak, I answered my own question with childish eagerness, “Oh! I know! It’s so when Allah sends us blessings, they fly right down into the bowl so we can catch them easily and not lose them!” I don’t remember my father’s reply — he probably laughed and agreed with my explanation. But even now, every time I join my hands together in supplication, I still recall the excitement with which I processed that childhood epiphany: hands as bowls, fashioned to receive blessings from God.
One of my favorite lines of writing about hands and prayers comes from G. Willow Wilson’s essay for the New York Times, “Engagement in Cairo”:
“It’s a strange feeling, praying into your hands, filling the air between them with words. We think of divinity as something infinitely big, but it is also infinitely small — the condensation of your breath on your palms, the ridges in your fingertips, the warm space between your shoulder and the shoulder next to you.”
I think of all the hands I know: My father, who cradles geraniums and endlessly waters his vegetable garden, and asks for my help in creating constellations of criss-crossing strings to support the bougainvillea vines outside our front door. My sister, who uses paint to create masterpieces that spill warmth and vibrance into every home. My brother, who gestures widely and theatrically, whether on the stage or at the dinner table. My brother-in-law and my mother, who chop ingredients and mix spices and remove lids from pots to smell the fragrance of home-cooked food that fills our hearts as well as our stomachs. My friends, who hold and nurture babies, perform research experiments, highfive me, diagnose and soothe patients, hold me close on the rare occasions I cry.
And my hands? I’m not quite sure yet what they do. They write a lot (although not as often as they should) in precise, swooping (sometime angular and stabby) lines. They have taken photographs that I frame and proudly display on my walls. They type fast, and insist on correcting spelling mistakes that others would gloss over. They carry the to-do lists I scribble on my skin with permanent markers, and just recently made strawberry shortcake from scratch for the very first time. They know how to wield a staple gun, and caulk cracks in the walls, and hang paintings with the symmetrical, measurements-obsessed accuracy I inherited from my father. On the eve of my sister’s wedding, nearly two years ago, my hands helped hers in hemming silky Pakistani outfits by hand, when the sewing machine stopped working. I knew even then that that would be the sort of moment I would remember forever, once the hustle and bustle of wedding ceremonies and receptions had died down: our eyes tired, our hearts a little aggravated at this inconvenience, but our hands focused on carefully stitching wedding outfits in the middle of the night.
Y laughed at me last summer, “I’ve never seen a human being so intrigued by their own knuckles!” (This may or may not have been after I threatened to stab him with my sharp knuckles.) Actually, I’m most intrigued by my hands as a whole. They are, after all, the same hands that rested on my knees during prayers when I lived in Pakistan. So many things have changed about me in the seventeen years since, but my hands have remained the same: brown skin; raised, blue veins; short nails; light scars; and well, yes, sharp, bony knuckles. Every single time I look upon my hands in prayer, my mind rushes back to those prayers during hot summer afternoons and lantern-lit nights in the village. It comforts me to know they are still the same hands — if I could pray that way then, I still have it within me to pray like that now.
More than anything else, I associate my hands with prayer — which makes it all the more frustrating when I fall short in reaching out to and communicating with God. My prayers are both inward meditations and verbal invocations, often brief and spontaneous. But while I’ve been good about praying for others, I generally shy away from praying for myself. My hands, like the rest of me, are proud and strong and independent. I hate asking for assistance, whether carrying boxes up multiple flights of stairs or lugging groceries in from the car or asking God for favors.
So, while I try to keep God at the center of most of my actions and decisions, and while I like to think I am good at prayers thanking Him for all the blessings I have, I find myself lacking in other types of prayers, namely, those asking for help. Perhaps I over-think it (am I too arrogant, in believing it’s not necessary to ask because God will grant me what I wish for, anyway? Or am I too humble, in feeling I’m not worthy of making requests?). Perhaps I forget that God loves being asked for help, and that I should be humble enough to ask more often. I read somewhere once that Mahatma Gandhi had said prayer is a longing of the soul, a daily admission of one’s weakness. This is something I need to remember.
In these few remaining and most blessed days of Ramadan, I intend to use my hands for asking more for myself.
When He gives, He shows you His kindness; when He deprives, He shows you His power. And in all that, He is making Himself known to you and coming to you with His gentleness. […] When he loosens your tongue with a request, then know that He wants to give you something.
- from “The Hikam” by Ibn Ata’illah