Welcome to the Stories of Good series, stories of finding the good with the theme of place: written by writers and readers.
Travel, to me, is not just about getting a plane and going to some far away land. Travel is also when are moved into a new of way of seeing, or when we shift gears and push back into the past. An object can often help us travel deeply.
Here, Shawna Ayoub Ainslie writes about finding the good in memory, in a prayer rug, in resonance, and in a carpet from Lebanon. A travel story about a carpet that transports her to the worlds of magic and faith.
The carpet smelled of soap and my father's aftershave.
I unrolled it in secret while he was at work, stepped onto it with bare feet and handled the remains of his packed earth prayer stone. Some days I sat cross-legged on the rug to imagine the earth falling away beneath me and the land my father came from, a land rich with tile rooftops and family who waved at me from bullet-marked balconies. Some days I knelt on the carpet, my face inches from its silky surface, inhaling his scent and gently tracing the beautiful shapes of an archway above a square building with the tip of one finger. Before rolling it back up, I pressed my forehead against the stone worn down to half its original circle from years of use. My father brought both the blue prayer carpet and the brown stone with him from Lebanon when he arrived in Oklahoma for college years before my birth. Always, I was careful not to disturb the lay of the fibers lest my father realize I had pulled it from the place it waited for him while he worked or slept. The carpet was more than a prized possession; it was a tangible link to the family he was inadvertently exiled from due to the commencement of the Lebanese Civil War. It was also a space dedicated to connection with the Divine.
My father is not particularly tall, but in my childhood he seemed a magnificent giant. At the end of each weekday, he would return home to unroll his prayer rug and bend and fold himself over it while muttering paper whispers in supplication to the Divine. He prayed with his hands clapped firmly to the sides of his thighs, elbows locked. He stood, leaned forward, stood again and folded himself neatly on top of his feet, one foot pressed into the bottom of the other. My father was a man of quick temper, but in his prayers, he was never impatient and could not be goaded. I tried many times to distract him, thinking the ritual a game until I was softly reprimanded by my mother, but he would only lift his voice to pray louder. When he stepped on the carpet, he seemed to grow quiet, small and very far away. I wondered if he imagined it flying also, as in cartoons. On that carpet, he was a man of imagination and I was enthralled.
Evenings and weekends I hovered outside his bedroom door until I was certain his prayers were begun. Once I heard the “k” of “Allahuakbar”, I slipped into his bedroom. I lay on my stomach on his bed, facing him. His toes were hairy and his heels dry. He wore light blue scrubs to pray, often with the pant legs cuffed to show black curls on his ankles. I watched him move precisely within the confines of the his carpet, inching closer to make out his whispers. I tried to remain quiet, but there was the calm afternoon light through the window and the soft catching of his heels when he stood on the carpet. There was his voice, normally resonant and loud, now as gentle as butterfly wings. And there was a connection--noticeable in his unusually relaxed state--one I would spend more than a decade searching for. I found it when I travelled to Lebanon off the carpet in 2001 and witnessed my father reunited with his family.
I was a shy and anxious child. I still have a habit of adhering forcefully to rules regardless of my opinion of their use or efficacy. Yet I found in myself, regarding my father's prayer carpet, desire outweighed fear. I lay prostrate on that carpet day after day when he was not home, once waking to find him standing over me, perplexed. He said simply, “Sweetie, this isn't for sleeping.” I dragged myself away.
Eventually, I could no longer bear the separation I felt from the carpet as he stood upon it. It was as though he was transported when he entered its rectangle. I found there was just enough space for me between the carpet and the end of his bed. I shifted from perpendicular to parallel, mimicking my father’s motions and making paper whispers of my own. I ran to join him in the evenings, anxious when he disappeared to prayer without me noticing. Still, I lingered outside the door until he had begun his ritual to circumvent any chance he might say no and send me outside to play with the neighborhood children.
One afternoon, I lingered beyond a prayer's end and my father turned to look at me. His thick eyebrows were like crows diving toward each other. “What are you saying?” he asked. “I noticed you like to pray next to me, and I can hear you making sounds, but what are you saying?”
I told him, “Pss pss pss. I say it just like you.”
A blankness passed over his face, then my father rocked backward and laughed.
I gaped at him, confused but ready to laugh too. My father's laugh starts out like a rumble with a pitch that grows into high, punctuated has. Every time I visit his house, one of my goals is to get him laughing and watch him huddle over his potbelly and shake in delight. It's not difficult. He is quick to laughter. In fact, he's as quick to laughter as he once was to anger, having trained one to replace the other many years ago.
“You really think I'm saying, 'pss pss pss'?”
I nodded meekly. There were words in his breath, but I couldn't make them out. My mother had taught me breathing was a form a prayer in its meditative qualities. That paper hiss of his whispers was controlled breath to me, periodically embedded with the familiar echo of words I had once known.
My father took in my response and laughed longer. “You want to learn to pray?” he asked me. I did. To my surprise, he produced a smaller carpet from my mother's cedar chest and unrolled it on the floor beside his. He took his treasured prayer stone and broke off a corner. He spoke to my mother and she found and altered a slip-on headscarf made from a white pillowcase. I traded my play clothes for clean pajamas as instructed, which I rolled up in my carpet after prayers. I washed my arms, feet and face in the routine he showed me and stood on the tiny rectangle with an image of a mosque woven into it.
For a number of days, my father searched for me when it was time to pray. I unrolled my carpet as he unrolled his and went through the motions of prayer beside him. He took care to speak slowly, his voice a dash louder so I could hear the words. As an adult I understand how awkward that felt to him, speaking loudly your private pleas to God. I shaped my mouth to the sounds he made, but I knew I wasn't getting it right.
It was a Saturday afternoon when he pulled out the silver mini tape recorder. My father used the white of his thumbnail to open a packet of mini cassette tapes. He set the recorder on the standing ironing board and spoke all the words to the prayer, complete with pauses for different movements. He rewound the tape and handed the recorder to me. “Now you can practice when it's not prayer time,” he said. I stared at the object in wonder. My sisters and I listened to it on the foot of his bed. I placed it on my own prayer carpet and pressed play to find my father’s voice steady and rife with undiscovered meanings. I still prayed with him, but I was now free to indulge my own prayers by tacking on a postscript when I completed the ritual alone.
I would rediscover the recording in high school, a decade later, when I began to develop my own religious practice, I remembered how that tape recorder became an extension of my hand. How I once wept in misery when I was certain the prayer had been written over, but it turned out I had forgotten to rewind. I must have memorized the full prayer in a day or two, but I could not stop listening, searching for and attributing hidden meanings. I decided some of the words must be like my father’s prayers: requests for the safety of his loved ones. Aunts, mother, uncles, cousins, siblings all mentioned to the Divine. My father’s peaceful intonation brought me close enough to touch what he had lost when the Lebanese Civil War began.
It was not what he intended. After all, he had given me a carpet as well, but once I had that recording in hand, the use of my own carpet was a forgone conclusion. I took every chance possible to unroll my father's instead, using the intimacy of his humble prayer-voice as an excuse to place my feet in the worn spaces where his belonged and press my forehead into the coolness of the larger stone, trying to hear what he heard and travel where he traveled.
Shawna Ayoub Ainslie is an active creator with mothering impulses. She is currently ensorcelled by yarn she hopes to convert into a hooded cowl in order to prevent Jack Frost from nipping at the neck of her toddler. She holds an MFA from Indiana University, and she regularly writes memoir and fiction on issues of race, place and surviving violence at The Honeyed Quill, where she also publishes a series of recipes from her time in Lebanon.