Washes, Prays, Noor Naga. McClelland and Stewart, 2020.
Noor Naga’s novella Washes, Prays is a delight to read — which poses a problem for the admiring reader: the story is the story of heartbreak, and we can not help but respond feelingly to the heroine’s distress. And yet, — it is full of jokes. Two “hijabi girls,” as they call themselves, coocoo and nouf, (the names are not capitalized) have been living in Toronto, (”tronno”) away from their families, taking classes at the university, and looking after each other, for seven years. They maintain their religious and cultural practices: the ritual pre-prayer wash, and the five times a day prayer.
to be a tronno hijabi is to be a body every(and no)body sees
is to feel sexless and elderly something disabled a cable with its head
plugged out of the wall men (even muslim men who
are younger than you with beards two fists in length) will ask permission to
curse in your presence they ask permission from other people stopping
mid-sentence to say she cool? shifting on their sit-bones as though God
Himself did not have ears only a single tin can copper wire descending
straight from His brain to our tongue as though you weren’t salting the
parquet with your face five times a day ha ha as though you were heard. (7)
This is the voice of coocoo, who as a child had practised shaving in hopes she might become a boy, even a hero — who, having accepted the hijab, finds herself racked with “loneliness,” sexual hunger, and a sense of meaninglessness. She has fallen intensely in love with a married professor who, she knows, will never leave his wife — and her caretaking friend nouf fears she may become suicidal.
. . . I entered the kitchen to discover nouf had taken all the knives there were no razors in the bathroom no belts in my closet weeks later my papers were due and I learned she had removed even the staples from my stapler. (16)
The distress is real. So too is the joke about staples. coocoo is aware of her emotional extravagance; at times she almost mocks herself. She does not see herself as a sinner but as a sufferer, but, as someone willing to abase herself in order to continue in the love affair, she knows she is wrong. God, who is always merciful, may help, friend nouf assures her. There is no threat of damnation — what coocoo foresees: abandonment — will happen, and she endures all the pain of foresight and observation. The man for whom she had imagined the elaborate displays of affection — (for one of the wilder examples: tying a pubic hair in a bow knot around one of one’s lover’s teeth — I imagine “open wider dear”) abandons her. She goes to his house and curls up on his doorstep wrapped only in a sheet. He, cowardly, wonders to his wife if they should call the police. The wife says no and goes to the door and looks down:
just her looming over me saying God you are so young
baby enough coocoo can I call you that? coocoo enough. (60)
Clearly the wife has known about the affair all along; her pitying response is almost motherly. And coocoo recognizes this. It is part of the pain — and also, a little, comedic.
In the middle of the novella is a section of poems in the voice of nouf, who is not only the preserving and understanding friend, but who speaks for the ubiquity of God’s presence and mercy. Aware of God in all creation, and not yearning for more than what she has, nouf, unlike coocoo, does not feel alone:
“wherever you turn
there is the Face of God” (37)
She does not reproach, but listens:
and when the dark
entered the kitchen and sat
panting like a good dog
will I ever repent?
and when the ends
of her hair trembled quicker
to the tremble in her now
you cannot be two
places at once coocoo...
if mansur repented mansur repented
because God willed mansur to repent
“and the three who were left behind
to the point that the earth closed in on them
inspite of its vastness and their souls closed in on them
and they thought there is no refuge from God except in Him
then He returned to them so they could return to Him
indeed is Oft-Returning Most-Merciful.” (37)
Nouf’s steadfast love buoys coocoo through her terrible times. The husband lies, retreats, and poor coocoo accepts, pretends (“he knows what he is doing to the future,” 58). The affair is over. The last section in the book shows us nouf and coocoo walking home in a Toronto summer, cocoo’s sense of the ridiculous and nouf’s steadfastness still with them, still admirable.
the winter hermits are summer pilgrims sun-drunk-blissed-out walking west on bloor their shadows blocks long stretching as far back as they’ve come person-shaped puddles pointing home headfirst nouf’s and mine among them we stop at christie pitts to watch asian grannies revolve on each foot in slow motion and it’s over before we know it (the day) our shadows only dusk now it’s time again to wash at the fountain where ballplayers drink where dog owners lift their furred beloveds to lap straight from the spout where nouf and I wash together and together pray (63)
— M. Travis Lane’s
most recent book is Keeping Count, out from Gordon Hill Press.