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Sufi Snakes and Ladders

Game of Snakes & Ladders, painted on cloth, India, 19th century. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“So, what are we playing?” “Snakes and Ladders. Don’t worry I’ll teach you.” “I know how to play, Şirin.”

Şirin smiled. “Not this Snakes and Ladders. This is Mother’s version.” “Well, it’s not made up by me. I just sewed the words and designs onto the fabric.”

The fabric was dark blue. Square. Thick. Spongey. Yet satin-like. At the top, an Arabic word was written: Al-Nur. The Light.

There are ninety-nine names of God in Islam. Twenty-six of them begin with ‘M’. Three begin with ’N’. To some, this says much about how the Arabic language works. To most, it says nothing.

The names were sewn into the fabric with golden thread. Each inside a box. All of them in English. Snakes and ladders slithered and stood at various angles in between. There was one dice, and three coloured stones. Şirin chose the white stone, gave the black stone to Ayşe, and to Jude, the red stone.

“I’ll start.”

She threw the dice. Six. She quickly moved her white stone to The Forgiving square.

“Why are the names of God in English?”

Ayşe smiled. Batul seemed to have fallen asleep in her lap. She gently placed the child on the bed behind her. If someone were to walk into the room at that moment and see the small collection of beings sat on the carpet, they could easily have mistaken them for a family on vacation. Whilst it was true Ayşe was Turkish, she had been raised in London. Her father worked as a diplomat, and for some reason, insisted they spoke only English, even at home. He also insisted his children learn Arabic. He even found them a private tutor. Deprivation and provision are so often mistaken for one another. Particularly in parenting.

“It’s such a shame, I would have loved to learn Turkish. It’s a genderless language. There is no distinction between ‘he’ and ‘she’. Arabic, on the other hand, is hopelessly gendered. Hopelessly masculine, in fact.” “It is?” “It is.”

The word Nur is the only one of the ninety-nine names that can be used as both masculine and feminine in Arabic. Jude had never noticed this before. To imply that he had assumed the masculine was always used would be to suggest that he had ever given thought to the issue. He hadn’t. To the uninterrogated mind, the masculine version was always correct.

“Only if God is really a man.”

Jude’s discomfort was uncomfortable for him. Still, he couldn’t stop himself. It was one thing for Zina to reinvent Mormonism, but Ayşe’s take on Islam, the Islam he had long dismissed, felt far more personal. Even threatening. For reasons he didn’t fully understand.

“All of this is language, Jude. Language isn’t about God. It’s about us.” “This doesn’t sound like a traditional Muslim position.” Ayşe was as far from being a traditional Muslim as the Dead Sea was from being sweet. “The word ‘Sufi’ makes a lot of Muslim men nervous. Sufis are far too feminine to be controlled.” “But even the Quran refers to God as ‘He’.”

Şirin interrupted. “We are supposed to be playing, not talking boring talk.”

Ayşe threw the dice. Five. She landed on The Wise. A ladder was connected to this box and it carried her all the way up to The Merciful.

There was once a purpose for ‘He’. But whatever this was, it had long been fulfilled.

“There was a time when the masculine was royal and majestic. Now, whenever I think of men, I think of flies.”


An excerpt from ‘The Seduction of Jude’ taken from When Her Hand Moves, by Omar Imady


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