Write Or Die

I dreamed of writing, of telling untold stories, but never knew it would become like a state of emergency. I can flow on some paper, but my way of life depends on the mastery of some other type of beast. Writing becomes the mastery of devices, the mastery of structures and constructions, of excluding and of ordering.

I just heard a poet say that he was writing for his life. It just came to me at that moment that I’m in that same position, it’s write or die. The primary way that I convey my mastery over material and make an argument is through my ability to write. I have to produce, and master their language their rhetorical style, their mode of conceptualizing the world, their way of conveying reality. It is publish or perish and write or die. I write to eat, to travel to dream, to earn respect, to pay my rent, to clothe myself, to earn my place, to make my mark. I write to learn, to make sense of what I’m doing. Through the construction of words I convey to the institution that I am a worthy apprentice. This year, I hope to attain that document that says I am a master. I would have mastered something, entered that elite sphere of masters. Master, but not a slave? And mastery over what? Incomplete knowledge? I write to become a candidate, to take that next step!

Right now, in this mad rush, I have deadlines that is screaming “write or die!” I learn, I think, I analyze, I express, I argue, I fight. Write or die. Publish or perish. And we make a living ripping each other’s carefully crafted words apart where we undermine each other’s assertions by exposing their fallacies, irrationalities presuppositions, and underlying assumptions. Any closed society has its rights of passage and rituals to protect the ranks. And academia has all the trappings of a secret society with all its rites of initiations. Trial by fire, works lined up for summary execution. I’ve seen ideas come to life only to bleed red and die under the editor’s pen.

I write to wrap my mind around complicated thoughts that spill over thousands of pages and carry over in countless conversations. Recorded and lost in vocalized reverbations, stored on servers in cyber space, published in journals, resting in library basements, scribbled on scraps of paper, scanned, shredded, photocopied, handwritten, collecting dust in book shelves, pondered, dismissed, disputed, refuted, adopted, accepted, and transmuted. I write to make my intervention in this conversation. Here is my own contribution. I will show them something they did not see, do not want to see, and often want to remain blind to it. Pick one idea, inshallah, maybe it can be transformative. That alone will give this work meaningful.

Cat Lady

So, I’m writing this brief blog at the behest of my roommate. I went to the Mo’Rockin Project’s record release show at Yoshi’s on Monday. I came in about a 1/2 way through the first show and stayed for the second. I had a great time at a fabulous show. After the show, I was out in the lobby. I ended up there way too long. There were a lot of nice people, but my encounters were strange, if not at times strained. Men are a lot more aggressive in the East Bay than the Peninsula. I will just one word of advice for the fellas, be upfront and try to avoid pretentious or overly creative pick up lines. Maybe, “I’d like to get to know you, are you available?” or “I am interested in you…would you be interested in getting to know me?” Simple stuff no need for

I was waiting for the rain to slow down because I didn’t have my umbrella. And one of the guys comes up to me and strikes up a conversation. So, he asked me where I was from. I tried to stay as vague as possible. Then he started talking about ancient Egyptian art and that I reminded him of some piece of art that he saw in a book. He was like, “Your eyes and the hair….I’m not trying to say you look like some animal…but this picture was so intriguing….it was a picture of cat…”

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What do you guys think? Do I look like this? This isn’t new, I heard the cat thing before. I’m not anti-cats. In fact, I used to have two cats, one with a tail and one without. But, I had to give them up so I gave them to a good friend who has taken absolutely great care my overweight babies. My friend knew some guys who used to live down the street from my mom’s house. Everyday going to highschool I’d walk by their house. We never spoke, but they gave me a nickname. They used to call me “cat.” Yeah, they thought I looked like one too. Hmmm…

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Well the Egyptian cat goddess thing didn’t work. I told him that I’m a monotheist and am not really into the whole Rosicrucian-Egyptology stuff. Eartha Kitt was great in Batman and all, but I ‘m still not quite sure how I feel about being nicknamed after an animal that licks itself all day.

Mediterranean Wraps

I’m hosting a newly admitted Stanford student this weekend. Asya is young, vivacious and absolutely adorable, plus we have a lot in common. Having a million things to do (many of which I am procrastinating on right now). She is a vegetarian, so I decided the restaurant to take her is Mediterranean Wraps. Another history grad student, Megan, who was also vegetarian joined us. The restaurant has lots of Veggie stuff, plus the meat is halal and I’m trying to eat halal (although I fall off often especially if my mom cooks). The owner is friendly, always giving his customers extra tea, falafel, something. This is the restaurant on California Ave next to the rug shop that is downstairs from the Mosque. We pull into the front of the store, and I saw Ibrahim! He was getting food to go, but Asya, Megan and I sat down to eat. We ended in some radical conversation about food production, globalization and development schemes. But Ahmad and his friend Abdullah happened to come in and they lightened up the conversation. So, while we were all chatting, Khaleel from the history department dropped by. Funny thing is that Jamal from across the Bay introduced me to the place a few months ago. So, for a year I didn’t know that Mediterranean wraps keeps it crackin on Sunday nights.

**All names have been altered to protect the identities of the persons involved.

Who’s Plan?

The day before Yesterday I had my day all planned, I had a schedule full of work: take organized notes on 2 books and three articles, pound out some letters, outline my next paper, and get some structured pre-writing done. But then I woke up to some real bad news. I mean, like real bad.

I felt my stress level rise, even though it was sort of checked by my recent regimen of stress relief (meditation and prayer, exercise, cutting back on caffeine, healthier eating, pro-actively solving problems, and finally leaving everything up to God). I can think of countless times when would nearly fall to pieces when hit by the big whammies in life. I should be grateful though, I’ve had some hardships (and who hasn’t?) but nothing unsurmountable, nothing so painful as the challenges faced by some people I know and love. I spent years not in despair, but frustrated. I would stare at obstacles, sometimes for years, trying to figure out ways around them, over them, under them. Sometimes I would look at hurdles and run the other way. Yeah I suck at track, and I never did well in PE class during the obstacle course. But yesterday I was sitting there all numb, just on the verge of old patterns. But as far as the course I have taken, I’ve had lot of coaches, trainers, cheerleaders, and sponsors along the way. Some even carried me when I was too tired. I’m just glad to be back in the race even after I punked out and sat out for a few laps of the race.

So, yesterday, I was dealing with one of the gravest debacles with the silliest movie “Anchor Man” playing in the background. Did I want to cry, or laugh, or just pretend the problem would go away and continue with my originally planned work routine? I needed to figure this all out and I was mad at myself because I needed to catch up on school work as opposed to dealing with the problem.

It turned out that the solution to this problem was letting it out of my hands. I just opened up with sincerity to my friends, family and community. I learned something bigger, something not in books, something they don’t even study in rational choice theory, Weber’s notion of charisma, Marx’s theory of capital, or any understanding of informal networks in network analysis. You learn the power of love, just people feeling you and wanting the best for you. Nobody makes it in this world alone. We all have them, but sometimes things are out of our control. Sometimes those who care can’t help us. Sometimes all they have is kind words, understanding, well wishes, prayers. Often, we overcome problems that are much bigger than us by somebody else who cares, who gives us strength, and gives us a lift. Problems explodes the myth of rugged individualism. Anyone who thinks they are self sufficient is arrogant and really mistaken.

My accomplishments are not my own (they are a product the labor of the people who came before me and supported by numerous people who have supported me), my talents are not my own (they are given to me by the Creator). I didn’t chose this, my timing, my parents, my skin color, my talents, or those opportune circumstances. So I can’t do this academia thing for myself. Prestige? There are millions of people who are more talented than I am that deserve the shots I’ve been given. But now that I have the privilege of being here, it is about getting into the grit of it, rolling up my sleeves and and doing the thing.

I have learned so much yesterday, what friendship, family and community is about. I can’t even begin to pretend that I can cover all the wisdom I heard today. I can only hope to absorb 10% of it. I don’t know, I feel inspired. Everybody I spoke to yesterday made me want to be a better person, to keep striving, to stay open, and be sincere. My day did not go as planned. I planned to study and produce for my advisors a paper demonstrating my mastery of certain materials. But in living and sharing I am beginning to understand and know what is beyond the pages of those texts. Jazak Allah kheir yall!

Spring Break Like Whoa

I was a non-traditional student. I spent years in community college which meant that I didn’t move out from mom’s house to stay iin dorms, join a sorority, do the whole spring break thing, and come home for the summer and intern. It began twelve years ago…and now I can’t believe I’m buying this ticket.

I worked my way through school, sometimes too broke to even afford books or a bus pass to get to school. I was a student activist, down for the struggle, but not that many people understood my struggle. Even in community college there were a few quarters I couldn’t pay tuition. During those times I’d spend my time studying in Santa Clara University’s library. I was lucky to meet some Muslim sistas at a MSA event, they gave me a ride and we’ve been tight since. One of the sistas lived by me and she’d pick me up and take me to campus just to hang out. There were two amazing Iraqi sisters at SCU, one began teaching me how to read and write Arabic. I wanted to travel so I could learn to speak and read Arabic and understand what I read and recited from the Quran. Likewise, a bachelor’s degree was a dream but I was just happy to be able to learn and be in that environment.

But there were people who believed in me even when I was ready to walk away from the whole academic thing. Spring Break was the farthest thing on my mind. I was just trying to break in. Life circumstances positioned me in a place where I finally got my foot in the door. I went back to community college and was accepted into SCU. But that door shut closed on my foot and all a few quarters later. No Spring break, just a three year break paying off tuition bills and learning how valuable education was through my bull %*& jobs. I did visit my family in Jacksonville Florida, which coincided with Black College Reunion, so maybe that counts. During that Spring break I didn’t know a single student at BCR.

Three years later, I wasn’t thinking about Spring Break. Debt paid off, I finally received a decent financial aid package and went back to school to finish this time for reals. Finally I did the damn thing, graduating with honors. I had my Kente cloth and my three sets of honors ropes, and even a phat medallion from an honors society. So I applied to graduate school, I loved this stuff. They would pay ME to study? What? I would get to travel to cool places? I could write my books and teach? Two things I loved to do. But Spring break was not on my mind. Break? Give me a break, I was riding on some high achievement high.

I got into grad schools, 5 fully funded and two in the Bay Area. Who would have thunk? In the bidding war, Stanford offered more funds. I loved Cal, spent a summer there attending Arabic classes. I always loved the East Bay more than any other place in the Bay, and Cal offered me a really nice financial aid package. But Stanford offered to send me to the Middle East to study Arabic for the Summer. I felt like I was walking on clouds. 12 years before, I used to ride the bus from the East Side of San Jose to Cupertino, just hoping to make get out of junior college. So, getting into these programs was kind of wild. A former college drop out, who used to get picked up by TABS for skipping class and get kicked out of of Mt. Pleasant for scrapping now becoming a scholar?

Fast forward to my first year in the program. Grad school kicks everybody’s butt. Especially if a program commits 5 years to funding you. Spring Break last year? Man, I was just finishing up incompletes, praying that I’d pass. In my department, B is failing, B+ means you’re wack. A- means you’re scraping by, and an A means you are okay (maybe). I’ve been working my &^%$#@ off since I got here in Summer of 2004. This last summer, I went to Vermont for nine weeks and Morocco for a Month, both times to study.

Spring Break? I wish….academics don’t break. A few weeks ago, my advisor gave out the command that I needed to hit up some archives. “What are your plans for Spring Break?” I wanted to say, “Sleep without guilt” but of course I had nothing to say. Great! So then he said I should find some Arabic sources in Chicago or at the University of Durham in the UK. I’ve never been to either place. I had to look into it and see if it was worth my while. I also had to find friends and family who would front me until I was reimbursed by my department.

Today, I just bought my ticket from New York to London, leaving on March 25 and returning on April 1. My job is great right? It is amazing, I should be super happy. And a huge part of me is. I just purchased my ticket and I’m like “Whoa! London for Spring Break” (Well actually Durham which is a few hundred miles away) Nobody in my family has been to Europe nor North Africa. I am about to see the London Bridges yall! But I’m too tired for all that excitement. Maybe it will hit me as I cross the Atlantic. I’ll sleep on that flight, maybe even on that train. Until then no sleep for Aziza. But on the real tip, this is better than Spring Break. I hope I come back with some good stuff from those archives, inshallaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!

Like Water for Chocolate

I am not normally a big fan of holidays, but I was sad to hear that my mother wasn’t cooking anything for fourth of July. I love my mother’s cooking. Her recipe for potato salad is simple but so scrumptious. Her chicken and beef ribs are crazy delicious, marinated slow cooked. She makes homemade barbecue sauce, I can almost smell it simmering over the stove. She’s been stressed out lately and cooking a lot less and the meals have been less extravagant.

Everybody loves their momma’s cooking. But I’m telling you my momma and grandma cook some screaming food. I, myself, have spun off into my own realm of ethnic food. While my grandma has that good ole Georgia style of cooking, my mother adopted some influences from her loved ones and neighbors. There are still some smells, tastes and textures that bring me joy. I grew up eating a mixture of soul food and West Indian flavors. Greens, salt fish and shredded cucumbers, plantains, slow cooked pot roasts, black eyed peas, fresh fish, fried chicken, curried goat, red beans and rice, pallau, macaroni and cheese, rich sauces, spicy crab boils, candied yams, sweet potato pie, barbecues and chicken dumpling soup. Each dish has a special memory of home.
Some things I learned to master, with my own flair. When I lived at home, each one of us became my mother’s apprentice in the kitchen. She would tell me her cooking secrets, add this, brown that, thicken this, stir that in. As a kid, I would experiment in the kitchen, but it wasn’t until I was about 12 that I really started to put an effort into learning how to cook.

Before my sister was born, my mother had just me and my brother. But she would cook up a feast on holidays. I think she cooked to remind herself of her mother, sisters, and brother who were still in New Jersey. Certain things we craved from New Jersey, things I remembered by smell and taste decades before. Like Hoagies and cheesesteak sandwiches. But mom’s cooking was always around in abundance during Thanksgiving and Christmas. No one cared about the holiday itself. My brother always begrudgingly left his room and ate. We always had leftovers for days. But every year I learned more about my mother’s techniques. She spent hours in that kitchen sauteeing, simmering, basting, mixing, braising, and baking. When I became Muslim, I had to alter the family secrets. I couldn’t cook with the pork, I found smoked turkey, turkey sausage, beef bacon. I learned to make the soul food that reminded me of holidays when our small family came together.

When I went over friends’ houses, they introduced me to new dishes and types of food. I fell in love with mid-eastern food and experimented nearly daily on the family that I worked for as a nanny. At the same time, I fell in love with Creole food and the flavors of New Orleans. I cooked for friends and family, gatherings, and all of those smells and tastes are part of my memories.

I read “Like Water for Chocolate” and the passion that went into each prepared dish in that novel. I think of the sweet passion and love that went into some of my best culinary creations. I haven’t been able to replicate those same tastes and textures because I haven’t been able to put my whole soul into preparing a dish. I remember in my early twenties, after preparing a dish with love, he looked over the table and said, “This reminds me of my grandma.” Single and living by myself, I stopped cooking like that. Food was a communal thing. Loved ones had to be there when I cooked. I had to see the enjoyment on their face as they enjoyed the textures and complexity that went into each dish I prepared.

This year, I had been bragging about my culinary skills, but began worrying that my skills were slipping. I remember practicing one day, in preparation that I would be called on it. In a poorly equipped kitchen, I attempted to reclaim my glory. Not my best work, but not bad either. Like my momma’s, he said. But, I’m going to go visit mine this summer and work on making some dishes like my momma’s.