May 26, 2006


My return to Canada also brought about another significant change in my life: I now live alone. My roommate left for India while I was in France, leaving the apartment all to myself. This is a significant departure for me, as it officially ends my student years. Though I've been out of university for a while now, I've still lived like a student, and would even occasionally spend weekends at the university labs helping my roommate with his project. Now the place is all my own, and I can do with it as I like.

My first course of action was to buy some lamps to brighten my bedroom. An old lady living by the university happened to be selling some lamps that met my needs, so I dropped by her place to take a look.

When I arrived there, I was greeted warmly by the old lady, who appeared to be in her 70's but was actually only in her late 50's. She spoke with a heavy British accent, having grown up there after her parents fled Poland during the second World War. I expected to just take a look at the lamps, perhaps buy them, and then be on my way. Little did I know that I would be there for well over an hour.

The house itself was over 100 years old, the kind of place you might expect to find a kind old grandmother. There were old books stacked up everywhere, dusty and untouched for decades perhaps. The hallways were narrow, dimly lit, and had a 19th century feel to them. And yet, between the creaking floorboards and the peeling wallpaper, there was something distinctly warm and uplifting about the place.

I had only intended to buy the lamps and leave, but she insisted that she introduce herself and tell me about her life, the house, and other stories. She lived in the house with her husband and a number of students who rented the rooms. The couple spent quite a bit of money on renovating the place to accomodate the students, whom she treated like her children. She cooked and cleaned for them, and did her best to accomodate their hectic student lives. She lamented about her own children, one of whom she felt she could not care for the way a mother should. I reassured her that she must have done a great job, and that eventually her children will realize it.

Having introduced herself, it was only proper that I introduce myself. I described my work, and told her I graduated from the university at the end of 2004. She mentioned her son graduated at the same time. "It's a big university," I said. "I probably don't know him."

"No, he was in engineering too! His name was.." She mentioned the name of a fellow classmate, among the top students in the program. It turns out I knew the son, though not very well. He was one of those students that lesser students tend to be jealous of: smart, witty, popular, and annoyingly sappy. I personally didn't know him well enough to have any real opinion.

"I wasn't the mother I needed to be for him," the old lady whimpered. I couldn't understand what mistake she could have made, seeing as how the son seemingly turned out fine. "He's married now, you know. To some Canadian girl."

And there it was. He didn't marry a girl of Polish descent, and that didn't sit well with her. She later went on to explain how her husband was invited to the wedding, but she herself wasn't invited. I couldn't understand that at all; how can someone possibly not invite his own mother to his wedding? The same mother who endured the pains of labour, cleaned up after him for years, fed him with the best foods, took care of him when he was down, and never asked for anything in return? Even if there was a disagreement, the mother is just too important to ignore.

It couldn't possibly be a case of a negligent mother; she treated me with so much kindness that I couldn't imagine that she would treat her own son any other way. She kept complimenting me for being so polite and courteous; I don't believe for a second that she could come off as anything less but a proud, supportive mother for her own children.

Unfortunately for her, the son responded to her shows of affection with disdain and contempt. According to the old lady, the son did not want to be "mothered" any longer, and moved out fairly early on. The only other child went off to another city for studies, leaving her with no one to share her motherly love with. And thus, she had to rent out the rooms to students, which I believe she did subconsciously to fill in the void left by her ungrateful children. The students, however, treat her as no more than a landlord.

I told her about the value of the mother in Islam. Heaven is under the feet of the mother, as the tradition goes.

"Your mother must be very proud of you," she said, holding back tears. She was breaking up, but she did not want to let me leave. She seemed so happy getting the chance to talk to a young man who cared. Unfortunately, I don't come anywhere near fulfilling the rights of my own mother, but I suppose I do better than a lot of people from other cultures.

After an hour or so, I purchased the lamps. She walked out to my car with me, offering a few more bits of advice regarding family life, my beard, housing, and where to buy glasses. I noticed she waited until I had turned off her street before she went back inside; I could see her waving in my rearview mirror. A few minutes later, she would go back to being lonely, with my visit only being a temporary relief.

The most basic structure of any society is the family; if all the families run well, the society as a whole has a chance to run well. But if the family structure has broken down, any social hierarchy built atop these broken families will inevitably break down.

The North American family can only last a couple more generations at it's current rate of decay. When it has collapsed completely, the floodwaters will pour in, and society will be washed away. Only at the feet of the mother, one can stay afloat.

May 25, 2006

Back in the Saddle

On Sunday, May 21st, 2006, I returned to Canada after a five-week excursion to France. It was an eye-opening experience, and I was fortunate to have shared it with some highly charismatic Parisians. I learned a lot from them, but learned more from the disenfranchised youth that make up the most visible portion of the large Muslim population. Most are unemployed or working menial jobs, and were in awe that I, as a Muslim, was an engineer.

Unfortunately, the first escape for most of these angry youth has been drugs. At the very least, many of these youth - largely of Moroccan and Algerian descent - regularly smoke joints and occasionally heavier stuff. The one image that summed up my entire trip was that of a stoned Moroccan in his late 20's, rolling a joint with three four-foot baguettes on his lap.

Which brings us to the baguettes. There are baguettes everywhere. I literally could not walk for more than five minutes, at any time of the day or night, without seeing someone carrying at least one baguette. But they're fantastic - always fresh, buttery, and just plain delicious. I have no idea why the benchmark of all goodness is sliced bread - I'd prefer an unsliced baguette any day. To make things even more tempting, Nutella is cheap and socially acceptable for both kids and adults in France.

During the five weeks, we helped reconnect a son with his estranged father, bridged a decade-old gap between two communities, and spoke with several hundreds of angry youth, among other things. Hopefully, we've at least planted some seeds that will produce some fruit in the long run. From a personal standpoint, I learned a great deal about dealing with specific types of people, a lot about leadership and integrity, and vastly improved my French.

I didn't expect to get a chance to do much sightseeing, but I did spend a day hiking through the mountains neighbouring Switzerland. Prior to this trip, the most naturally beautiful place I had ever been to was the mountains in Northern Pakistan. No longer; the natural beauty around the Cascades du Herisson in the Jura region of France tops it. Rolling mountains as far as the eye can see, with flowing streams dropping into majestic waterfalls... it was absolutely incredible, a true sign of the power of Allah. The same hiking trail also included a brief trek through a cave, which looked just like Faramir's hideout towards the end of "The Two Towers".

I'm back safely, and back to the usual routine now. I'll write more about the trip later; there are thousands of stories to tell.