That is how I woke up, on the morning of my first visit, after arriving in my husband’s home town of Oued-Zem, Morocco.
The voice grew more intense, then furious, and downright shrill.
And then again…
Not exactly a melodic call to prayer; the third time got me out of bed. Because I was in my very early twenties, and college educated to boot, I was knowledgeable on a range of subjects. I knew, therefore, that jihad meant ‘violent holy war.’ I looked out the screen-less open window from the second floor bedroom, onto the alley below. There weren’t any blood-thirsty, shouting men or American flags on fire, just a grown woman in flip-flops. Her hair was tied up in a bandanna and she was holding a bucket of shallow, murky water. My husband, who was half asleep, mumbled from his side of the bed, that Jihad was her eight-year-old daughter’s name. By the sound of her mama’s voice, I thought that wherever Jihad was headed to, she ought to keep on going. In the south that kind of hollering means a butt-whipping is on the horizon.
I put my head back down on the sheep-fur pillow and thought to myself, what kind of a mama would name her daughter, Jihad? A southern mama would never name her little girl, Violent Holy War. Then, I tried to go back to sleep, but laying in beads of my own salty sweat, I gave up.
Many mornings I woke up, sweating, to this mama’s pleading for “Jihaaaad!” That girl was always running off when she ought to be doing something helpful around the house. I imagined her at a creek somewhere, like Lulu creek where I grew up.
Come to find out, Jihad’s mama did not name her Violent Holy War. In the Arabic language, jihad, means struggle. However, not the kind of struggle you endure when you are determined to open a can of baked beans without a can opener, and end up in the crowded ER, smelling like brown crud, with a three inch bloody slice in the palm of your hand.
Jihad is the kind of struggle against one’s lower desires. These lower desires stem from nurturing the ego (nafs), as opposed to a relationship with God (Allah), built on the firm understanding and experience of God as One, without partners (tawhid). To wage jihad, as it is traditionally understood, is a commitment to achieving one’s personal goals; so, it is a sweet struggle toward contentment on earth and everlasting peace. Jihad, I came to understand, is a wise choice for a baby girl, whose mother wants her to mature into a young lady desiring of self-sacrifice, over the fleeting pleasure of running off to some God-forsaken place- that only leads to a butt-whipping in the end.
When the marginalized and outnumbered Muslim nation of the Prophet Muhammed’s time (peace be upon him) returned from an early battle, after fighting off a siege, launched by the pagan Arabs of Mecca, there is a statement, some attribute to him, wherein he cautioned the believers:
“We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad,” meaning, the struggle against the ego which leads to disequilibrium and eventual ruin. A good article on this subject is by Seyyed Hossein Nassr and is found here.
Last spring when I was in Oued-Zem, a woman stood in the same alley at dusk, where that mama in flip-flops woke me up with the sound of her daughter’s name every morning. The woman smiled at me, and a quick dimple appeared just above her full, smooth cheek and below the corner of her mahogany-colored eye, where a teardrop might otherwise be. She looked at me as if she knew me from a dream I once lived.
“This is Jihad,” my sister-in-law said.
She was carrying her baby brother on her high, bony hip, and she was on the way to the corner store to pick up some things for her mother. Jihad had just graduated from high school and was planning to attend the University. I struggled to find words to complete all the niceties a southern girl is bred to afford, when she meets someone again, especially a young woman all grown up.
The streets were full of chatter that evening, but their voices sounded in my ear as a low-pitched muffle. The alley was still. I longed to have the silence interrupted by the endless call of “Jihaaaad!,” ringing in my ears.