The Sealey Challenge: Washes, Prays

a white hand with dove gray nail polish holds Noor Naga's WASHES, PRAYS, a light teal book with bright orangey hands and white and black lettering, against a backdrop of green foliage, yellow flowers, purple flowers, and flowers gone to seed.
Washes, Prays

Noor Naga’s Washes, Prays has sat close to hand for a year now, waiting, patient, for the right day and time to be read. Today, when I expected to read something short, was that day—at least for a first read.

Washes, Prays is divided into three sections: Khadija—Coocoo—gets the first (“Washes”) and the third (“Prays”), while the middle goes to her best friend, Nouf. Coocoo and Nouf are hella different in voice and thought and manner, and they are, always, believable: as women, as people, as friends tight and true. That middle section—”Nouf”—is as much meditation on faith as anything, and I gotta say, if everyone’s faith was as tender and forgiving and practical as Nouf’s, I think a lot of us would like organized religion better.

Washes, Prays is, officially, about Coocoo’s heartbreak: she has an affair with a married man—he’s her professor! the power differential makes consent impossible! he’s a piece of shit!—and, as tends to happen, it implodes, he doesn’t leave his wife (who is kind), and, well. Coocoo’s heart breaks, and Nouf tries to help her pick up the pieces. There is never really any judgement passed, which makes Washes, Prays even more beautiful, and which, I think, requires a hell of a lot of skill on Naga’s part. Instead, we see Coocoo and Nouf as deeply human. (That said, I still hate the married professor who’s milking his power imbalance. Asshole!)

The poet Sanna Wani, in her review of Washes, Prays, goes into some of the religious and cultural meanings that I know I missed in my reading. Now, you don’t need to know all the context Wani provides to find richness and beauty and even humor in Naga’s novel, but it’s a beautiful review, and I’ll certainly be reading Washes, Prays again, more slowly, looking for some of what she’s noted. This book, like ogres and onions, has layers.

It’s hard to decide on pull quotes here: there are so many great ones. Coocoo, who is lost and lonely, speaks of Islam as a “practical religion,” of its laws and stipulations. She is desperately, metaphorically, sexually hungry, and “hungry bodies weigh more than full bodies because need is / heavier than greed heavier than the smugness of satisfaction,”a thread which runs throughout her moments on page.

To Nouf, however, God is a forgiving God, and faith and space and place are all characters. Coocoo might be desperately lonely, but Nouf, reveling in everything around her, says that “joy is also praise,” and is never alone even in an otherwise empty room. (But she’s definitely not a manic pixie dream girl: she takes away everything from knives to staples when Coocoo’s hurtling through heartbreak.)

Washes, Prays is beautiful and funny and sad, and, I think, more than a story of a heartbreak, more than a story of a crisis of faith, it’s a story of two young women, hijabi immigrants in Toronto (aka Toronno), trying to find themselves and their way. I want so much to believe that Coocoo and Nouf have a future together (whatever that may be: I think I may have read queerness into a book which may or may not have it there). I want to believe that Coocoo will see herself and her value, that Nouf’s merciful God will help her return to herself. And, I mean, Naga gives me something close to that hope with her final poem, “Summering,” as Coocoo and Nouf move through Toronto before finding a place where “nouf and I wash together and together pray.”

Washes, Prays is lovely and sometimes outright funny, a meditation on loneliness and friendship (with an asshole professor). I’m definitely going to be reading it again.

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