My college students were talking about shopping for Christmas gifts on Black Friday during a break in our English class.
“I don’t have to worry about that,” I said smugly. “I don’t buy Christmas gifts.”
“You don’t celebrate Christmas Miss? Never?” a student asked looking at me as if I was a green creature from Mars. My class had many Dominican and African- American students for whom Christmas is a major holiday.
“Well Muslims believe in Jesus Christ as a prophet and the virgin birth. Maryam is a very common name in Muslim countries. I celebrate Christmas culturally, I go out for dinner or to a friend’s house but not commercially. No presents, no shopping,” I said hoping that explanation satisfied them. “Anyway, break is over, let’s go back to work and finish our essays.”
The Quran describes the birth of Jesus as follows:
(Remember) when the angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a word from Him (God), whose name is the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, revered in this world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near (to God). He will speak to the people from his cradle and as a man, and he is of the righteous.” She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child when no mortal has touched me?” He said, “So (it will be). God creates what He wills. If He decrees a thing, He says to it only, ‘Be!’ and it is.” (Quran, 3:45-47)
The conversation reminded me of the last Christmas I had with my mother. I was visiting Vancouver in December 2011. My mother had bone marrow cancer and was now on palliative care. She had become thin and weak, but still enjoyed going out for her caffe lattes. She looked forward to my brother and bhabi’s visit in a few days.
As she did every year, my mother’s cousin Burgees invited me over for Christmas dinner. Burgees and her sisters Mobina, Nimet and Jenny got together for a gargantuan Christmas feast complete with turkey and all the trimmings. With their children and grandchildren they had about thirty people over.
“Will you come Mum?” I asked already knowing the answer. She hadn’t come the year before.
“They make so much noise, so many people talking and talking.”
“They have a big family. You can sit in the sitting room where it’s quiet. Please come mummy.”
“Now even Gulbanu Maasi isn’t there. No, I won’t go Shela, but you must go.”Burgees came up to say hello to at about six. She chatted to Mum who was sitting up in bed, bright eyed.
“Will you come Gulzar? You’ll enjoy it, you and Lanie come. We can drop you home as soon as you get tired. It’s no problem. Even after one hour we can drop you back,” she asked.
“No beta, I’ll stay home. Just take Shela,” she said.
At Burgees’s house Jenny was in the kitchen supervising a hive of activity while her husband carved a giant turkey with a buzzing electric knife. The sisters had been cooking all day while the younger generation had baked a variety of Christmas cookies. As we ate we reminisced about their mother, my great-aunt Gulbanu Jaffer who had died in Kampala that year. She had been an amazing woman who was the first Ismaili social worker in Uganda. It felt strange to be at their house without her.
After dinner, dessert and chai we sat down to watch “Bridesmaids” on the large screen T.V. in the basement. But I decided to go home wondering if mum would still be awake. Burgees packed a heaped plate of food for me and suggested I take some home-baked cookies. Knowing my mother’s sweet tooth, I chose a variety including gingerbread men, oatmeal raisin cookies and star-shaped butter biscuits as well as brownies.
I got home at ten and tiptoed in quietly putting the plates in the kitchen but my mother’s bedroom lamp was on.
“Is that you Shela?” she called out.
Mum was sitting up in bed listening to music with Lanie.
“How was the dinner? What they did they make? Who was there?”she asked.
“It was fun but we missed you. I brought you food and cookies.”
“Cookies? I am coming.”
“You are not tired?”
“No I was resting all evening. Let’s go,” she said waiting for Lanie to bring her her walker.
She came slowly to the living room in her nightgown and sat at the table while Lanie warmed up milk for her. “So many cookies,” she marveled.
Finally she chose a star-shaped butter cookie covered with sprinkles and munched on it slowly. Lanie and I joined her at the table sipping tea. Mum smiled contentedly. After finishing her cookie, we sat in the living room and chatted for a while before she went back to bed at eleven.
I held her hand as she drifted off to sleep. “Go to sleep now, Shela. No staying up reading till two on the morning,”she said drowsily. I sat there holding her hand for a long time, wanting to somehow keep her presence with me.
“Okay mum, I love you mum.”
“I love you beta,”she replied softly. A few minutes later she was asleep.
Nairobi Days: This diaspora novel is a celebration of Indian and African culture seen through the eyes of a young woman. As a member of an Indian minority in a small African country, Shaza’s life is complicated. She lives in a lively house full of relatives. Later, she meets Idi Amin, the bloodthirsty Ugandan dictator and has a narrow escape…
Shaza goes to a convent school. Despite the strict rules, the girls are beginning to discover the opposite sex. Shaza is part of a Muslim family that emigrated from India, the old ways still rule. No one in Kenya dates, they just sneak around.