Merry making is a common human trait. Regardless of culture, creed, religion or ethnicity, we all have our own celebrations.
Eid in prison is like building a sandcastle with the tide approaching. Even when you are having fun building it, you know the impending doom. The reality of disappointment washes over as fast as the waves level the sandcastle on the beach.
Usually on Eid days, as soon as the doors are open at 6:30 am morning count, Muslim prisoners rush to take their ritual showers and get ready for Eid Prayers in the big visiting hall. After that we get to enjoy a few refreshments, courtesy of the NJDOC. The affair is a simple one, some cake, donuts, coffee, milk, and juice. For an hour or so, we get to play and make believe that this is normal somehow. It is not. After that, we are unceremoniously kicked out of the hall to return to our housing units.
Once on the unit, we do try our level best for some sort of normalcy. For example, brothers on the unit get together to make a meal for everyone, this comradeship is something that kindles the semblance of family, and for that much I am truly grateful.
However, for me the actual festivities start when I get the phone on my allotted time. That is when I get to call home and talk to my family and loved ones, and for the duration of that invisible telecom link I am in heaven. Usually, I will call home and speak to different members of my family who gather at my aunt’s house. Hearing their voices and knowing that they all got together helps me, for a briefest of moments, to enjoy the Eid vicariously. For that too, I am truly grateful.
After the customary call, I usually sit next to my slit of a window and look outside feeling rather blue. I reminisce about the good old days of freedom when I was home. It was a time that now is a very, very distant memory. Actually, now it’s more of a yearning then memory, a longing, a hope in this dark place. Disregarding the futility of my situation, I would then remind myself and find comfort in an old Urdu proverb: “The world rests on hope!”
Alas, COVID-19 restrictions placed all of the usual out of the window so to speak. This year there are no gatherings in the big halls for Congregational prayers and we had to pray alone in our cells. But, we did try to stay with the normal routine of showers in the morning and meal preparation among ourselves on our units.
Anyways, coming back to my main subject of Eid Holiday Blues, over the years, there has been a gradual shift in my accustomed ‘tradition’ of calling and talking to everyone on Eid. I started to notice some changes in the people. I noticed it today as well.
When time passes and something changes in relationships there is an awkwardness that hangs heavy. I guess time is like gravity in a sense that it places an invisible pressure on all things and the result is different for everyone and everything. Time heals; it makes you forget, it makes you indifferent, and makes you a multitude of things. Some good, some bad, some ugly, and that too perhaps depend upon the person, place, or thing. So, overtime, as with all things, people and their attitudes change as well.
In the beginning of this journey I had family and friends present for some support. Over the years some would fall off the ‘contact-list’ and would then come back. Yet, it was the Eid Day calls where we would get in touch and rekindle our ties of kinship.
Later on, it was work or this engagement or that meeting that kept some missing on those Eid calls. I chalked it up to the busy highway of life with all its exits and off ramps, firmly holding on to the hope that sooner or later we will find our way back home. But, in reality, there was more than I had unfortunately inferred. You see ‘wishful-thinking’ cannot marinate in the pot of reality.
The CoronaVirus pandemic has been teaching a lot of lessons all around. It taught me one on this day as well. COVID-19 restrictions sort of made almost everyone available. So, the regular excuse about you just missing him or they left already or she is at work didn’t really materialize. And speaking to my extended family, I realized that some spoke to me not with ‘want’ but with more of ‘charity’ in my mind. Others did so to appease someone who actually did care, and some avoided speaking at all. I almost felt as if I was a stranger among my own. But, then again, as I said about ‘wishful-thinking’, I have known this reality for a long time.
A friend once asked me how it felt to be locked up for such a long time. I told her that it is like being frozen in time. I was locked up at the age of 25, and for me the time stopped. All of my points of reference for the life outside ceased at that very moment. Every perspective I had was defined by the perception of that 25 years old Tariq. I only knew life, family, and people, from that angle. To me, nothing ever changed.
But, of course, everything has changed; time doesn’t stop for anything. I feel like a twig that was floating on a river, and I got too close to the riverbank when the winter came in perpetuity. A 150 year sentence winter, a never-ending, everlasting, amaranthine of a slow death. Yet, the reel of my life didn’t stop, and my family and loved ones are flowing by in the center of the river-run. I can see everything but being frozen I can’t say anything. I am not part of that free flowing life. Over time I have seen many changes in my family. At times I am screaming but no one pays mind to a frozen-in-time twig. It feels cold, and blue.
It is hurtful as it highlights my loneliness and a sense of being abandoned. Being invisible and irrelevant is not easy to swallow. It is beyond humbling to realize that I am not who I used to be. I am a shadow, an abstract thought, a concept of a bygone era, a very, very distant memory.
A close family member once told me, in a not so subtle manner, “We have to prioritize in life!” – I got the message then. But, with COVID-19 pandemic, as a prisoner, I find myself dropping steeply on the ‘priority list’ of both family and society.
Yet, even in the midst of the cold winter it seems, hope in God’s Mercy prevails like sunshine for me. Like all storms, hurt, sadness, and heartbreak, this feeling shall pass too. I am blessed; my parents gave me the best gift in life, a brother, a friend, a mate for life. I top his ‘priority list’. For me, his closeness above all shall suffice. His love and loyalty are also never-ending, everlasting, and amaranthine. And on this holy day, thinking of him, his wife and two beautiful children, with a smile on my face, I am feeling a lighter shade of Eid Holiday Blues.
–By Tariq MaQbool