"Ayesha is divorced!" a woman told the cousin sitting beside her, the pitch of her voice quiet yet severe.
"Really?" the cousin responded in a perturbed tone, eyes wide open and lips pursed and contorted in the shape of a frown. After a brief, contemplative silence she added, "No wonder Ayesha was at her parents' house when I visited them last and she never came down to greet me."
"What is she going to do now?" asked the woman in curiosity, with a shade of grimness on her face.
"She has returned to her parents with the child..." responded the cousin, coupled with a following question. "Who will marry her now?"
In the following hour, the two women went back and forth on the potential reasons for the break-up, and devised numerous scenarios in their minds as to what the consequences of the divorce would be for Ayesha, her former husband, the child and the honour of the families involved.
Why do people go out of the way to know intimate details about another's trials, tribulations and financial troubles?
"Show me someone who never gossips, and I'll show you someone who isn't interested in people," is a famous Barbara Walters quote humanizing gossip. Hearing of someone's misfortunes should lead us to compassion, not gossip mongering. News of Ayesha's divorce should summon us to offer comfort and support, and send silent blessings and prayers to her.
All of us have found ourselves participating, witnessing or being victims of such chitchat. When I first read Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale," I was left thinking that only women have the potential for spiced-up, dossier-like conversations about I, you, he, she, they. But I was wrong. While in the midst of the exchange, it may feel harmless, gossip and backbiting have the potential to cause untold damage and injury not only to the victims whose stories are on our tongues, but also to our own selves: "The words of a gossip are like choice morsels: they go down to a man's innermost parts" (Proverbs 18:8).
God explicitly forbids spying and backbiting in the Quran (49:12), asking us in reference to these actions, "would any of you like to eat his dead brother's flesh? No, you would hate it." This grotesque reference tells us just how detested gossip should be in society, and how it should repulse us rather than draw us in.
Yet we are constantly drawn in, often failing to grasp the extent of damage that gossip can cause.
While in Egypt, I came to know a seventh grader who, abandoned by his mother at 2 months old, is now repeatedly beaten by his father. As details of the boy's life traversed their way through the principal's office, teachers' staff room and the school yard, the boy suffered years of added torment and ridicule, prompting him to become aggressive and disorderly. As a consequence of this, he was unable to make friends, except for the odd older female school companion keen only to hear his tales of misery. Tired of denying all the gossip about him, the young boy now gives in; he reacts with claims too harsh for my palette, like "my mother is a prostitute" and "I beat-up my brother so much yesterday that he was covered in blood."
Far from providing this boy with a respite from his troubled home life, school became a breeding ground for slander, mocking and ridicule, inflicting damage that would take years of compassion and sensitivity to erase.
Even among friends, one friend's shortcomings will often become the subject of chuckles and laughs. Some of us don't realize that we're all lacking in one way or the other and that we're all fallible.
"Whoever spread gossip for you, spreads gossip against you," Muslim jurist Imam Ash-Shafi'i has said, adding that "whoever relates tales to you will tell tales about you. Whoever when you please him says about you what is not in you, when you anger him will say about you what is not in you."
We must be very miserable people to take comfort in probing someone else's misery. We are all, after all, tried and tested during our lives. Whenever I find myself whining about worries in my life, I tell myself that God has blessed me with two working feet and hands, as opposed to taking pleasure in identifying the shortcomings of others.
Knowing a person is in pain troubles me at a deep level, even if that person happened to be someone I am at odds with. You never know what the other is enduring. And we all have to face our share of trials in life before we perish in the grave. (For more, read my reflections on death in "Lessons from a Medina Graveyard.") It is also because, over the years, I have heard gossip concerning nearly every facet of life: What led to a divorce, why a couple hasn't yet given birth to a child, why someone ended up in rehab, what life events caused a so called party animal to become devout, why two family members fight so bitterly and so on.
As a young boy, I once had to watch a father sorrowfully attempt to disregard the constant badgering of people attending the funeral of his teenage son, turning a deaf ear to rumours surrounding the circumstances of the boy's death.
More disturbing than the propensity of people to engage in such banter is the gladness I often perceive on the faces of those who gossip when details of a well-kept secret are revealed. And even more disturbing is the grinning faces of those who've investigated details for the purpose of gossip and their pride en par with a torero, in a bullfighting arena, who has gracefully thrown himself over the horns of the fighting bull performing a perfect estocada -- the act of thrusting the sword ensuring a "clean death."
BUT when misfortune strikes those who gossip, they often attribute it to magic or the "evil eye," and they invoke God's wrath on those who wrought it.
Saying "gossip is harmless" was true in Shakespeare's time when the Anglo-Saxon noun "godsibb" referred to spiritual kinship. But in any context when it refers to shallow talk about others who are facing their share of worries and tribulations in life, we really must remember that gossip is not at all as trivial as we may construe it in the midst of conversation.
There is great wisdom, therefore, in shunning the evil that gossip generates and following the age-old proverb we have all come across in some variation: Wish good for others, and good will, most certainly, happen to you.