Intelligence and Hair in the UK

I’m back home and I feel kind of dizzy. Maybe it is the jet lag. To took a shower and washed the travels right off me. I have a swollen ankle from nearly busting my ass on the cobble stone streets in Durham. I got to London Friday afternoon an did the 2 hour bus tour. I stayed at a hostel, first time ever. It was called the Generator. It was full of drunk Australians and New Zealanders. They were singing Oasis songs, remember them? Wonder Wall, back in the 90s? Those t two brothers with unibrow who spoke incomprehensible English, didn’t get a long and sang alternative-poppy British songs. The garage is a happening place, I guess. Hostels aren’t so cheap any more 17GBP per night. Times that by two, and you will see why I think a 8 person room and communal shower is ridiculously expensive. Saturday morning, I headed to the airport at a responsible hour. But there was an adventure waiting for me as I caught the Underground to get to the airport. It normally takes an hour to get from Heathrow to The line to the airport was stopped, which meant that I had to make several exchanges. Long story, I’ll get back to that. I was so tired, I have never worked so hard to lift, carry pull climb, drag, stand run, roll, push.. Luckily Londoners are more friendly than New Yorkers and a family helped me carry my luggage on a few of the exchanges. I was stopped by an officer/agent/official after I checked in. He asked where I was going, I said back to the United States. First he said that I was late for my flight, but perhaps it was delayed He then me what was I doing in the UK. I said I was doing research at the University of Sudan. He then took my passport, and I waited to find out how long would the questioning be. I was a little concerned about being held up, I’ve heard some people were held for four hours. When he returned, same line of questions, a barrage of them. He asked me what was I studying. I said at the Sudan archive. He asked what was I studying. I said interwar period Sudan. He didn’t know what that was, I said Sudanese history after World War I and before World War II. He then asked if I had plans to travel to Sudan. I said, if my dissertation topic will be Sudan. He asked if I had plans on traveling to the Middle East. I said I am a student of Middle East history, so I plan to. He asked if I work for any companies. I said no, I am a Ph.D. student at Stanford University. He asked what do I study there. I said study Nigerians in the Middle East. Do I just study? I said I also teach classes. He told me he was interested in people like me, people who travel to conflict areas, hot spots. He works for intelligence and he is interested in information on people like me, you know people like me. Long story, he couldn’t say at the moment. I was allowed to leave and he said, “I don’t know how you do your hair.”

I have had a lot of hair comments since I went natural. So, it wasn’t surprising to get comments from Europeans. “Amazing Hair” on the train. “Big Hair” “How do you do your hair” at the air port “I love your hair” and “Is it all yours?” at the hostel. One woman asked to touch my hair. It is weird, like it is some type of anomaly. Maybe we should gather all the brown women with curly hair and make a petting zoo. We could get young multi-racial children, brown and black babies and the people can gawk and talk about how cute they all are. But I don’t want to blame just our European sisters and brothers. When my hair was straightened, I’ve had African American sistas reach into my hair, asking “Is that all yours?” while feeling for tracks. As if they were going to catch me in a lie. I used to get made fun of for having big hair. They used to call me “Bush!” I have been called a liar about my hair, criticized for bad hair, made fun of for having “fake” hair, I have had girls beef with me over hair, people compliment my hair. I should start singing India Irie, “I am not my hair.” Women’s hair is a crazy powerful thing. Mashallah there is definitely hikmah in hijab.

Race in Andalusia

Heres another bit of history:
Hafsah and Abu Jaffar were celebrated poets in medieval Muslim Spain. Unfortunately, Abu Jaffar’s family worked for the previous Almoravid dynasty which was ousted by the Almohad dynasty in the 11th century. A dangerous love triangle developed when the Caliph’s son who came into town as governor of Granada, Hafsah and Abu Jaffar. Eventually the governor executed his rival Abu Jaffar and Hafsah went into mourning. She gave up poetry and retired in North Africa as a teacher to the Almohad princesses.

Here is a poem she wrote:

O you who used to be the most sensitive of men
Before fate lifted you up to let you fall
In love with a black woman
Who is altogether like the night, which hides beauty
And with darkness obscures the radiance of a face,
Nor in that night can any blond thing be seen,
Tell me, you being so well acquainted
With the connoisseurs of extrinsic beauty,
By God, would anyone ever fall in love with a garden
Where no roses are, nor blossoms of the orange tree?

Hafsah Rukaniya 12th century

So, it appears Hafsah was making fun of Abu Jaffar for being in love with a black woman. Fairness is a standard of beauty in Middle Eastern culture. And in Hafsahs conception of the world as an Arab elite, a dusky, bronze, golden, red, chocolate, or black woman could not compete with a blonde. On the flip side Abu Jaffar told Hafsah, “Do not love that black man. I engage to buy ten better than he in the black slave-market.” The 17th century historian, Makkari wrote that the man competing for Hafsahs attention (the Caliph’s son) “was so dark of complexion as almost to resemble a Negro.”

This little exchange has gone unnoticed by most historians. I find it interesting. It indicates that because the Caliphs son was a powerful man, his skin color or ethnic identity as a non-Arab and [likely multi-racial] Berber didnt matter so much for Hafsah. However she believed her whiteness made her superior to her black rival. Abu Jaffars obvious affection for this black woman, did not stop him from comparing his darker complexioned rival to a slave. By looking at this story this way, we can explore all sorts of issues on identity, power, and sexual politics.

Although in Islam, we have Quranic verses, prophetic traditions, and even a final sermon of Muhammad where he stated an Arab was not better than a black, nor a black better than an Arab. Afro-Arabs experience discrimination in the Middle East and American Muslim communities have a long way to go to integrate immigrant and the predominantly African American indigenous communities. I remember having a conversation with some Muslims sisters about race. She had noted that the preference towards lighter skin was universal. She evidenced Mauritania as an example. I doubt that she studied the society to understand the complex history of a slave raiding frontier, the role of caste in Mauritanian society, and the development of Bidan (White) and Sudan (Black) identities. Often people blame colonialism, but they havent read too much about the ways medieval Arabs picked up racialist and racist conceptions about Africans from the Greeks and Biblical scholars. They also had their own traditions from pre-Islamic days. But Muhammad’s message about breaking down tribalism and chauvinistic attitudes. More sophisticated analysis said that we resided in really hot places that fried our brains and curled up our hair. And we liked to dance a lot. This is what Ibn Khaldun said in the 14th century. Medieval Arabs thought we were shuffling and jiving even back then.

Still to this day, nobody has written about the fate of African slaves in Andalusia. Heres a reply to Hafsah:

Daylight exposes the beauty of extrinsic things.
Darkness does not conceal this woman’s loveliness
Whose beauty is intrinsic in her devotion
And countenance
As the evening approaches the sky celebrates
Throwing on its best attire
Changing dresses from rosy warm shades
To ocean blues of twilight
At night the Moon glows radiant
The sky draped in velvet robes adorned
With diamonds and pearls.
What are gardens? When you have the heavens?

Aziza 21st century

Finger Pointing and Faith

One of my favorite sayings is when you point your finger at someone, you have three pointed back at you. People are always criticizing others peoples beliefs, practices and lifestyles. We like to find fault in everyone, for their mistakes, short comings, for being different, for having a different life style, for not sharing our beliefs. It is one thing to speak out against someone who is hurting someone cant protect themselves, a child, the poor, a vulnerable woman, the disabled, and elderly. But it is another thing to attack another persons personal choices that has little to do with anyone else.

Religion, faith, spirituality, and devotion, is such a personal thing. But we love to criticize people’s beliefs and ways of life. For isntance, many in the West see Islam as this monolithic entity of 1 billion people. Many see Muslims as this homogeneous misogynist, anti-modern, authoritarian, blood thirsty, vengeful, violent mass of fanatics. They see our faith as lacking spiritual vitality, ethical values, humanism, compassion, mercy, charity, or even connection with God. They dont see the beauty in the faith, culture, thought, individual and community expression. Above all, they dont see the diversity of views and the way each individual determines for his/herself how he/she is going to engage with the system of beliefs and practices that we call al-Islam. But then again, that is the fault of many of Muslims who hold that there is only one way–their way. They argue that the others are misguided. This is a dialogue that we Muslims need to address within our own communities, locally and internationally. Muslims are often intolerant towards each other. And our criticisms and attacks of each other are often more vicious and harsh than anything launched against Christians, Jews, Hindus, Animists, etc..

I may not agree with a lot of things that people do or say. I may feel like their beliefs are irrational or do not ally with Truth as I understand it. In the process of looking in the mirror and reflecting on my own faith, I am busy trying to look at myself and better my condition rather than analyze and nit pick the fine points of theology and subtleties of practice with someone else.

I find that intolerance to be really a symptom of insecurity. It makes people feel better to find the fault in others. It makes us feel better to rip into someone else in order to justify the soundness of our views, the correctness of our behavior, the righteousness of our way of life. In understanding that there are many perspectives to Truth, we have to recognize that one view cannot encompass all facets of Truth. Some people operate in a two dimensional world, others are blessed with the insight of a three dimensions. Does it make sense explaining to a two dimensional personal that their flat earth is really part of a globe? Yet at the same time, two dimensional thinking is often a self-imposed limitation. And we have to engage with two and one dimensional people on a daily level. The question is how do we enter dialogue with them? And to what capacity?

Finger pointing seems to be an integral of some peoples faith and practice. These people are often the most outspoken members of our community. Without name calling, I think it is important that we begin to address how destructive this is to ones own personal development and the building of bridges and connections between people and communities. We have to work day by day to battle the limitations of our imagination. For it is through the creative practice that we are able to imagine ourselves in some one else’s shoes. It is through imagination that we are able to have empathy. It is through broaderning our minds that we are able to break through those boundaries and move beyond two dimensional thinking and imagine a unified world.