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'See You Tonight!' 'I Needed This!': How A Ritual Friday Gathering Brought Healing

Commentator Zahra Noorbakhsh remembers when a personal crisis and a tragedy across the world coincided and how community and ritual helped her through.


Other segments from the episode on June 7, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 7, 2019: Obituary for Mac Rebennack; Commentary about community and ritual; Review of film 'Late Night.'



This is FRESH AIR. As a Muslim and Iranian American woman, Zahra Noorbakhsh has a lot of worries about the future. In March, when the Christchurch shooting coincided with a personal health crisis, she found hope in the Muslim tradition of Friday gatherings and learned her love of touring as a comedian may run deeper than she realized.

ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH: Last year ran me ragged. Every comedian feels bad all the time. That's why we do comedy. But this felt different. Nothing could get me out of bed.

It was two months before the Christchurch shooting, and I was checking boxes about my thyroid in a surgeon's waiting room. Do you sometimes acutely believe that people hate you? Yes, I'm Muslim and Iranian. Do you sometimes believe that people are talking badly about you? Yes, I'm Muslim and Iranian. Do you sometimes feel that you are being monitored or watched closely? Yes, I'm Muslim and Iranian.

My surgeon explained that a three-centimeter nodule in my thyroid was pushing against my esophagus. It could also be the cause of some of the anxiety and isolation that I'd been feeling. A biopsy revealed that it might be cancerous. My right lobe and its rogue nodule had to go.

On that Thursday in mid-March, I woke up at the UCLA surgery center to a smiling nurse in blue scrubs. The nurse said that the surgeon was happy with the procedure and that pathology would contact me soon with the results.

Your parents are here. Your mom has your phone. Would you like a popsicle? Yes, I said, testing my voice. I was eager to speak, but I could feel the suture tape grip with any movement of my neck. They told me that in rare cases, the surgery could do permanent damage to the vocal nerve. My voice was unscathed, but I'd have to take it easy on the stitches to avoid a scar.

In the recovery room, my parents kept me company. Mom handed me my phone, aglow with notifications from my friends. It made me smile to know they were thinking of me. But then the muscles in my neck pulled against those stitches.

When visiting hours were over, I thought I'd be scared to be in the hospital overnight, but I was relieved to be alone. The nurse took my vitals, and I had the company of a few machines beeping on cue. I reached for my phone. A white supremacist had travelled from Australia to New Zealand on a killing mission.

I looked at the row of empty beds in the surgery ward and thought about the packed trauma center across the planet. I thought about my friends who texted me, I'm sending you all my strength, while tweeting at the same time about their despair at the loss of 49 souls killed during prayer, killed while playing with their children, killed after greeting their murderer at the door.

The next morning, the discharge nurse helped me change clothes, printed home-care instructions and wheeled me to my parents' rental car. The sight of their concerned but smiling faces reminded me that I was still waiting for news about my prognosis. A few hours later, the doctor's office called. Ms. Noorbakhsh, I'm calling with your pathology report. Your surgeon removed a precancerous lesion - no further surgery necessary.

My parents hugged and cheered and gave me a soft high-five. I wanted to cry with relief, but my sutures singed. As a comedian, I'm always the one buffering silences. But from the backseat of the car, I could only let out a deadpan, hooray. Mom slapped the dashboard and said, I'm making dinner tonight. We were blocks away from Pershing Square in Los Angeles. When my parents parked and headed for groceries, I waited in the car and texted nearby friends.

So much had happened in the last two days, I needed a Jummah - a joyful Friday gathering. I invited about a dozen people, Muslim or not, expecting three. I texted, precancerous - stage 0. We're celebrating. Mom's making Persian food. Come by. Their emojis poured in. See you tonight. I needed this. Yes. Yay, they said. Everyone was coming. I felt my stitches pulse as panic washed over me. I have a 700-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. I own one pot and utensils for two. Just having mom and dad over felt crowded.

Persian parents are somehow always ready for a group of 10 to become 50. All I could do was watch. My kitchen was a Mary Poppins bag. Dad found a colander I didn't know I owned. He chopped and simmered while mom cracked open my insta pot from Christmas and threw in the lamb. Any time I tried to help, they scolded me to ice my neck and take my stool softener. As friends arrived, it was as if each had been whirled through the door by a storm outside. They were so happy to be there.

I watched from the couch as they swapped hugs of relief with my parents and flowed into my tiny living room, making chairs out of anything. Dad turned my cutting boards into tea trays and served Persian tea in my shot glasses and mason jars.

Someone cracked a joke. And for a moment, I forgot I'd had surgery. My face puffed with pressure, and I let out a cackle. The room went silent. Everyone watched as a trickle of blood dripped out the center stitch and stained my bandage. I let my friends do the laughing for me.

We never talked about Christchurch. We didn't need to. It was in every inhale. It wasn't the first mass shooting. It wouldn't be the last. So often, tragedy is what brings us together that it made me appreciate the ritual of Jummah all the more.

Growing up, we went to mosque every Friday, whether in joy, sorrow, grief or uncertainty. I think it's because of that tradition that I love performing live so much, even when it's just with a dozen friends in my living room. Even when it runs me ragged, I love being there with the crowd. And now I might have a scar to remind me just how much.

DAVIES: Zahra Noorbakhsh is a comedian and co-host of the GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. Her new show "On Behalf Of All Muslims: A Comedy Special" makes its theatrical premiere at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco on June 21st.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Late Night." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE'S "DELIRIOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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