Beyond Zones of Comfort
By Rabia Hassan and Sidrah Ahmad
Have you ever heard a story that tested you on different levels?
A story which pushed you beyond your comfort zone of morality, beliefs and your
Beyond your perceptions of right and wrong.
Have you waited to see how you would eventually react to the story?
Will you judge; will you look within, into a pretentious self whom you have just discovered?
Will you learn a lesson?
Or will you just forget?
I heard such a story recently, from Alisha.
“When he got arrested, I was both relieved, and sad. I knew it was a good thing.”
One evening after Alisha’s husband, Faz, had lost his job, she found him abusing drugs. No amount of convincing could make him quit. They loved each other tremendously, but arguments about his drug abuse had become frequent. One evening, she said to him “If you will never change, I would rather you go in. If that is the only way for you to change, then I leave it to God to arrange everything”.
The very next week, Faz was arrested.
After the latest argument, he had felt bad. He told Alisha he would take her shopping. She was pleasantly surprised, and looking forward to it.
As she stepped out of the family’s 2-room HDB rental flat into the corridor outside, Alisha noticed some people out of the corner of her eye. Her heart skipped a beat. Faz, who was still inside the flat, read the expression on her face. He told her to close the door. She knew he was going to try and get rid of the evidence in the house. She closed and locked the door, leaving Faz and her younger son, Faris, inside the house.
Acting as normal as she could, she turned and walked down the corridor, passing the men and women. When she reached the staircase, she turned and looked, her heart sinking as she saw them stop outside her house. She ran down the stairs, her mind racing as to what she could do. Her worst nightmare was living itself out in front of her very eyes.
She didn’t know what to do. She called Faz’s mobile phone. The call was answered after the second ring, but nobody spoke. She could hear one thing – Faris crying in the background. Immediately, she ran back up. The door to her apartment had been broken down. She barged in, past the men, her eyes seeking out her son. Finding him standing on the bed crying frantically, she took him into her arms. All she could think was how frightened her son was.
The men took Faz away. The police officer commented that he had never seen anyone be as calm and composed in such a situation as Alisha.
As I hear her recall this ordeal, I fail to understand why she would leave her son in the house to go through this? Why didn’t she stay with him? How could she leave? Her answer surprises me.
“I wanted to give Faz as much time as I could, to clear all the drugs while they tried to get past the locked door. If I had stayed, the police would have gotten in immediately.”
Alisha’s love and concern for her husband touches me. I cannot help but wonder, what could it be about this man that can generate such unwavering loyalty? Would every wife do this for her husband? Would every wife think that if the best way for her husband to get over his drug abuse problem was to get arrested, then so be it?
Wouldn’t I just leave my drug addict of a husband?
As she shows me her wedding picture album, I tell her how pretty she looks. Seeing her husband, a wave of questions starts inside me – mounting, waiting to erupt like a volcano. He looks much older, and could even pass off as her father. Why would she marry him? An Express Stream student, Class Prefect; she could have gone a long way. Am I judging her? Do I pity her? I question my own emotions. He was 30 years old when they got married. She was only 16.
I cringe inside as she tells me about her 13-year-old self that had a boyfriend. My mind strays to my own daughter, who is 12.
Alisha lived with her parents (both divorcees), her siblings and half-siblings. With some, she shared a comfortable relationship, and with others she did not. Her older sister, who she shared a room with, often had her boyfriend spend the night, in a drunken stupor. Alisha felt uncomfortable and insecure in the house.
One day, at a get-together, Alisha’s boyfriend introduced his god-brother to her; 29-year-old Faz, a divorcee who had been in and out of prison several times for gang-related activities. They got close, and Faz often acted as mediator between boyfriend and girlfriend. Finding out her boyfriend was cheating on her, Alisha broke up with him. Her family, who seemed to be on her boyfriend’s side, reacted adversely. Alisha was shattered. Why did her family trust him more than her? She couldn’t deal with it anymore, and left home in anger and bitterness. It was Faz that allowed her to stay in his home for a week, where he protected her, and believed in her. Even when she returned to her parents’ home, Alisha found that Faz was the support and strength she had been looking for, which she had not gotten from her family, boyfriend or friends.
Feeling broken and hurt, Alisha stopped going to school. She and Faz found a job at the same place, and spent all their time together. At the age of 15, Alisha discovered she was pregnant, and moved in with Faz. Soon after the birth of their son, Faz and Alisha got married in a simple ceremony. Her parents didn’t want anything to do with her, and only met her occasionally.
As I sit there, listening to this girl who had a baby out of wedlock, I am both religiously and morally disturbed; I disapprove, but somehow, I do not hate her. I do not look down on her. On the contrary, I like her. My heart goes out to the challenges and difficulties she has been through. I am surprised at my own feelings. I ask myself why I like her. Meeting her and hearing her story makes me see that there are people who do things that might not fit our moral, social or religious standards, but that doesn’t make them any less normal and human than us. They are not ugly or disgusting; they are not criminals. There is nothing about them that can justify us judging them, hating them or looking down on them.
We live in bubbles of our self-created standards, assumptions and perceptions, not open to painful realities of people like Alisha and Faz. An unwed pregnancy, an imprisonment – is enough for us to sign them off as undeserving members of society. Perhaps, if they had been given support, from the world, from people like you and I, things might have been different for them. Faz and Alisha are lucky – this red dot of an island has systems in place to look after them. Not everyone is as lucky.
After the arrest, Alisha didn’t know what to tell her sons. What she did say to them was “Everyone makes mistakes. If we, his family, won’t give him a chance, then who will?”
Alisha wrote letters to her husband every week, telling him each and every detail of her life. She started taking photographs, collecting them to show him when he is back. She didn’t want him to miss out on anything.
“I used to be a very strict mom, and Faz used to pamper the boys. It was hard to take care of things alone. I reflected on myself – have I been a good mom, have I been a good wife? I blamed myself. We both had made mistakes; we took each other for granted. When I found out he was using drugs, I didn’t do anything, I just got myself busy in things. After he got arrested, it was difficult to open up to the kids – their strong and strict mother had turned into a crying mother. I stopped being as strict. I started talking to them; told them how I was feeling. That is probably the reason they didn’t give me so much trouble. Financially, I was just coping. I worked at the childcare centre my children attended. My mother-in-law was a great help. She would buy groceries for us every 2 weeks.”
Alisha leaves a note next to her son’s dinner-plate, and it says, “Family is the best thing you ever had. Even for ups and down, your family will always love you no matter what.”
It took Alisha 8 long months to accept the reality of her husband’s incarceration, and to stop crying about it. And yet, it was from him that she drew courage. Every time she visited him, he would assure her that she can do it, and that he is there with her in spirit. It kept her going. He would advise her on everything, so she knew she had him with her. This strength helped her start and complete a course on infant-care qualification.
Owing to good behavior, Faz was released from prison a year later on the Home Detention Scheme. This scheme allows an offender to spend a portion of the sentence in a specified location, with electronic monitoring of movements, as well as regular drug-testing. While this was a welcome decision for Faz and Alisha, it meant he had to stay at home, which, given his past, was a challenge for Faz.
“It was like getting to know him again; fitting him back into the family. I had to step down from my tasks and roles, so that he wouldn’t feel useless.”
Faz had to break the ice with the children. Alisha supported him however she could, and would talk to him. When he was worried that she might have seen other men while he was in prison, she had to convince him of her unwavering love and loyalty to him. When he got a very hectic job delivering groceries, she would help him after her own work ended for the day.
I asked Alisha if she would change anything, given the chance. She doesn’t take a second before saying, “No.” As she tells me how much she still loves Faz, the entire picture evolves in front of me. I start to feel she was fortunate to have met Faz. Girls in similar situations to Alisha have ended up raped, forced into prostitution, human trafficked or completely alone with a long line of children to bring up. Faz protected her from that. He married her, raised a family with her, and stayed faithful to her. You read this now, wondering how I can say all this; how I can think this way. This is the impact of this very real story that I heard. A reality I cannot turn away from.
I wonder why she stayed on when she could have re-married and started a new life, being so young, and so pretty.
“I used to be a pampered child, but my family wasn’t there for me. So, now, when I have my own family, I try to keep things together. I cannot bear to live without any of them, or separate them from each other. Even when he was in prison, I wanted him and the kids to be together. I don’t want the boys to hate him. No matter how many friends you have, when you are in difficulty, no one will help you, only your family”.
In every difficult situation, any person – whether Alisha, you or I – always has 2 choices: to become the monstrous environment that causes the difficulty, or to be the change out of it.
Alisha could have chosen drug abuse for herself; she could have chosen prostitution for easy money. These things were within her reach; they were in her environment, in her surroundings.
Instead, at every point of difficulty, Alisha chose to give herself a second chance.
She chose to be the change.
Today, Faz is working full-time as a cleaning supervisor, and has stayed clear of drugs and all gang-related activities for almost 2 years now. Life is a struggle for Alisha’s family, but they are together, and they are happy.
Alisha’s story tested me on different levels.
It pushed me beyond my comfort zone of morality, beliefs and my value system;
my perceptions of right and wrong.
I waited to see how I would eventually react to her story.
For a while, I judged.
And then I reflected on my pretentious self that had always looked down on those not following the same moral path as the one I believed in.
Yes, Alisha had a boyfriend when she was 13 years old. Yes, she got pregnant out of marriage at the age of 16. Yes, she left home to marry an ex-offender. Yes, her husband was a drug abuser. And yet, all she wants, like you or I, is to provide a loving and caring family to her sons, so they grow up to be loving, confident and responsible human beings.
Doesn’t sound very different from you or I, does it?