Modest Style

Reassessing Parental Advice

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Amal Awad makes a startling discovery in her 30s – you really should listen to your parents sometimes.

Her parents may irritate her now, but she’ll understand in about three decades’ time.

Last weekend, in a pre-Ramadan frenzy, a couple of girlfriends and I decided to go out for a night on the town. The plan was to have a ridiculous amount of fun: dress up, stilettos and all, eat well and go dancing.

Okay. I’m exaggerating slightly. In truth, the conversation ran more like this:

Me: I miss singing. I want to sing.
My friend: How about we go to karaoke?
Me: Okay!

Wild, I know. And what actually eventuated was that we sort of dressed up, ate McDonald’s and massacred some of the greatest songs of the last century.

We roped in another girlfriend, booked one of those private karaoke rooms and trawled through a comprehensive catalogue of songs, which featured hits from such big names as ‘N-syng [sic] and Pemper Trap (which quite possibly was meant to say ‘Temper Trap’). Being spoilt for choice, no night of outrageous singing would be complete without something from that superstar Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam – namely, ‘Father and Son’. And I’m not including him because he’s Muslim (though that is admittedly awesome on the Muslim PR front).

It’s purely because I love that song. I love the sentiment behind it. The melody is soft and sweet and you can’t help but sing along, impassioned hand movements and all.

It resonates with me on a personal level, too. I feel like it was written for oft-constrained people like me, just minus the whole being-male thing. One line in particular always gets me: ‘From the moment I was born, I was ordered to listen’. To my ears, this may as well be the catchphrase of my generation of Muslims – those of us brought up by culturally and/or religiously strict parents, particularly in a country where everyone else was allowed to, you know, do stuff.

And although Yusuf Islam has no idea who I am, I must thank him for his highly intuitive insight into the life of the obedient child. It can be conflicting and difficult, even if occasionally you’re cocooned from harm and regret.

I was the poster child of cultural and religious guilt, and I found it a whole lot easier just to follow the rules

Hearing the line on Saturday night – admittedly sung in a very mauled but you-can-still-make-it-out-if-you-know-the-words kind of way – got me thinking about my own relationship with my parents, more particularly as a child-to-young adult. My parents are unapologetically conservative, but not surprisingly, they became increasingly relaxed as my brothers and I got older, got jobs and proved that bail is never required. That and they realised we need to make our own mistakes and learn for ourselves, etc and so on.

Still, what the song made me think about in particular was how I related to my parents growing up; more specifically, what their advice meant to me. I always felt I had to be the obedient child. I was raised in a strict household, with strong cultural and religious undercurrents about what was right and wrong, and what was or wasn’t allowed. Being a girl among boys didn’t make it easier, though my brothers have always been my champions.

All the Muslim kids I knew had much the same experience, although some of them were a lot more fearless in their extra-curricular activities (ie lying about where they went after school, even if it was just to the cinema).

There were no midnight escapes out my window (I’d have absolutely no idea where to go, truth be told), or goth phases (I was embarrassed by my body and frumpy worked well for me). I was the poster child of cultural and religious guilt, and I found it a whole lot easier just to follow the rules.

Perhaps the only way in which I ‘rebelled’ was in my attitude to things. I was sure that, despite my crippling naivete, I knew stuff. I understood what life was about, and my parents just didn’t get things the way I did. Because their responses to so many things were always ‘no’ and ‘haram’, I couldn’t always distinguish between what was conservative, overly strict parenting and what was pure parental advice.

In my adult years, with more life experience (good and bad) under my belt, I can appreciate that there was a whole lot more good guidance than I ever gave them credit for. This mainly becomes evident after the fact, when you’ve screwed up in some way and hindsight overwrites foresight.

Too little too late?

I’d venture to say no. If I can impart anything useful from my own life experience, it’s that every mistake is an opportunity to learn, and to make positive changes. With that in mind, I find I can distil the most useful life advice my parents have given me and apply it in my own occasionally shambolic life. In particular, meaty stuff about trust and fulfilment and doing things alone.

To which I now add my own somewhat fresh advice: Don’t write off your parents because they’re super strict. They’ve seen and understand a whole lot more than you know. As Yusuf Islam reminds us as he sings in his soft, melodic tones, there’s so much you have to go through.

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