Protection

Hijab and covering has been coming up quite a bit this week. My friend’s husband admonished me for not covering, he said that the angels curse me everytime I go outside. He said for my own protection I should cover.

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You said: cover up
That is not for everybody.
I ask: Why you didnt see me then?
It was not until I was like this that I got your attention.
You say: It should be treasured.
I say: Why when you devalued me from jump?
You send mixed messages
What should be,
Chasing what is not
While that which was under your nose
And loving you from jump
You sleep on.
You say: cover up
I say: Oh no love, it is you that has left me exposed
Although we are supposed to be each other’s cover.

Commencement 2006

This is the first time I’ve reached an important milestone and it just crept up on me. Tomorrow morning friends and family will join me to celebrate my Masters Degree. Before I thought about graduate school, I never thought I’d be at a place like Stanford. Schools like Stanford were for really really smart people, the over-achievers, the perfectionists, and people who had never failed. I remember the voice mail informing me about my acceptance Spring of 2004. I was on cloud nine for months before I came here. A month into my program, I realized I embarked on one of the hardest journeys of my life. The past two years has been two of the most difficult and stressful years of my life. A few months ago, I felt like I was drowning in this academic lifestyle. Just as I was about to give up, I realized that I qualified for my masters. In a way it seems anti-climatic. I am not done with my work, I still have to haul ass to qualify for candidacy. I still have to prove that I can write a dissertation, I still have to prove I can adjust to the culture and workload here. But, I have something that they can’t take away now. I can walk away from this university, take my knowledge and teach students in community colleges. I can change careers. I can say I took advantage of an opportunity and worked hard to get this piece of paper that says I have mastered something.
For years I felt like I started a lot of things and finished few. But when I recount my little journey, I am beginning to think I’ve managed to set out an extraordinary journey. Sometimes this climb seems endless and most days are tedious. I’m not done yet, but I passed this milestone. I’ve gained wisdom and set an example for those to come after me. Importantly, I rediscovered what was important to me. Through all the pomp and ceremony, I have to remind myself that this degree does not make me better or smarter than anyone else. Instead, it affords me certain opportunities and carries responsiblities to the communities that I belong to. From this point on, I will commence to work my hardest to fulfill the role that God has intended for me to play in this world. I don’t have a clear idea what that is, my path unfolds with each step I take. I have to keep striving fisabillah. Perhaps I will feel different tomorrow, perhaps it will sink in at the black graduation ceremony. Perhaps this weekend will rejuvenate me and I will feel more at peace with my struggles in this institution and that peace may give me comfort to face the challenges on the road to a doctorate.

Dark Heritage

Yesterday was surprisingly gloomy for a June. I woke up in this introspective, my mind whirling full of thoughts that wouldnt go away. There were so many issues unresolved and unexplored. These were things that have come up in random conversations, as me and my girls ramble in long conversations that meander on random tangents:

My faith,my race, my skin tone, my relationships, my family, my privilege, my oppression, all that I achieved, every failed endeavor, lost opportunities, my conditioning process in academia, my personal connections, my isolation, my memories, all that I have forgotten, holding on, letting go, everything that I have disclosed, all that I cant say…

My mood shifted into a deep melancholy as I prepared myself for my errands, my heart beat extra hard against my constricted chest. A memory, I let out two sobs, pulled myself together and I went about my day.

Sometimes I feel as if my chest is pulling away from my heart. I become slightly light headed and feel as if my mind disconnect from my body. It is hard to keep balanced. This is when I want to sit something out. Or my longing for a particular state is becoming unbearable. Other times, I feel as if my chest is constricting my heart. And each beat is painful and exhausting. I try to ride this out, breathmeditatework through my thoughts. Sometimes I just sleep it off, drift off into a world of dreams with the hope that my subconscious will work it out. With every difficulty comes ease.

A lot of it comes from stress. But often it is rage against the injustice of a global caste-structure, a pervasive world view that has seeped insidiously into so many mindsets.

Sometimes I feel a primordial ache. I know I inherited some of these feelings while I was in my mothers womb. When I met my father 18 years after my parents divorce, he told me that he knew when I was conceived. He said, Were going to make a baby. I was a love child. My parents fell in love at first sight. They were married for several years and divorced after a series of tragedies and violent conflicts. My father always loved my mother, but was unable to truly love my mother, till the day he died. My mother told me she was very sad when she carried me. She also spent a lot of time reading and thinking. Her sadness and fear was a product of a so many forces, a society that circumscribed her, a community that rendered her without a voice, her love for a broken and wounded man who self-medicated and inflicted his rage on her, her constant striving despite all the obstacles to take care of her son and daughter while making way for her third child. With my brother, she hustled and was always on the move to make a living as a teenage expectant mother; my sister who passed, she was deeply spiritual; with my youngest sister she was emotional. We all carried my mothers imprint.

I think this sadness passed on generation after generation in our mothers womb, our grandmother, her mother, on back These women in my family tell me stories of the rapes and murder at the hands of officials; kidnapped child; death and violations by neighbors, strangers, and friends; the exploitation of professionals and civil servants; the beatings and abandonment by the men they love; the betrayal of their sisters and neighbors; the loss of children to the prison industrial complex or drugs; then all the secrets that have been left unspoken….

Each One Teach One

Today, I had my debut as an aspiring professor. I gave my first lecture on African History to a class of super sharp and highly motivated Stanford Students. Standing there in front of some of the brightest minds, even with my podium and powerpoint, was so intimidating. I gave the lecture at 10 this morning with less than 2 hours of sleep. I started out extremely nervous but as I began talking I became a bit more comfortable. As with any first time, it was clumsy and I was self conscious. It was by no means the best lecture given on campus, but I got through a difficult topic: “Structural Adjustments, Oil Shocks and Persistent Poverty in Africa.” My professor/advisor said I did a good job and my students were encouraging. To me that was enough. Afterwards, I had a series of meetings with my students. One of my favorite parts of teaching is discussing their ideas and helping students develop their writing. I had no time to eat, there was seminar where my peers presented their most recent research. We discussed the works in depth, and I was surprised that I wasn’t just about to keel over. Creativity excites me, ideas excite me. I think thats what drove my day.

I stumbled across this path of the educator and intellectual. It sounds really strange to imagine myself as an intellectual. But it is really exciting to think that my whole career is built upon the development of ideas and knowledge creation. I stepped onto DeAnza community college fairly clueless. At the time of my high school graduation, university dreams were over. But they were once again rekindled as I discovered my first true love. I discovered my love during the summer before my first year of college. I was a little timid at first, afraid to make a commitment. But I fell in love with this whole world Islam as a way of life, a civilization, a history, a world view. I began to read voraciously, devouring every book in the library to understand my relationship with the ideas, the texts, and community. I then made my commitment and for years I embarked on a path of self-education and activism.

My mom told me the other day that I better go find the family who I stayed with after I graduated high school. My friends mom told me that in order to live there, I had to go to school.

I didnt know it then, but thinking back now that is when I first began enjoying teaching. I believed in sharing knowledge. I would just build with people all day long about African history and Islamic legacies. There were plenty of causes to fight for, plus we were all hopeful. The intifada was just ending, resulting in Peace talks between Palestine and Israel. The year before, the Algerian government annulled elections. Bosnian Muslims experienced ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. I remember horrified as news stations showed footage of the Rwandan genocide. I remember how angry I was about the lack of concern for black lives. Black bodies were on display like road kill. I remember the numbers rose exponentially. 100,000, 200,000 500,000 800,000,…nearly a million. There were plenty of protests, talks, lectures, rallies. I discovered my love of activism and teaching during this unsure and exciting time. And I was fully engaged in that academic world. But even then, I didnt know I would become a teacher. I had no idea where my life would take me or the ups and downs.

For years, I thought I didnt have the patience to teach. How could I coach somebody through the learning process? What would be my reaction if they didnt get it? After teaching an elderly couple the complex Muslim prayers, I began to consider my gift for packaging information in a way that was understandable. I came back to California knowing I wanted to teach. I re-enrolled in community college and began the long circuitous journey to get my bachelors. Initially I thought I would teach highschool. But I wanted to teach students with a strong desire to learn. I always had a desire to work on text books and education reform. But tens of thousands of dollars in student debt made me reconsider that.

I took some time off from school, well it was more forced because of financial and personal circumstances. I couldnt attend a university or college for three years, when I finally paid off my debt to SCU. I finally received a financial aid package that allowed me to fulfill my dream of getting a university education. For reals, there were many times when it was just a dream. It was fall 2001 and the first day of classes was September 17. A week before, three airplanes crashed into those buildings. Years before, I put away my student activist coat and kept my religious and spiritual life very personal. I was pretty much disengaged from community life. But as discussion opened up in my classes, I was often the only person with knowledge about Islamic world views, the middle East, and Muslim countries. My professor took me aside one day and asked what did I want to do when I graduate. I told him, I wanted to be a writer. He said he considered me an intellectual and suggested that I consider a career in academia.

After a lot of meditation and contemplation, I began to see that as an academic I could make the greatest impact. I loved teaching, I loved writing, I loved activism and community work, I loved watching people learn, I loved the world of ideas and discourse. Getting into graduate school became my singular focus.

Teaching today reminded me that I have been making progress. All the hard work, sleepless nights, and lack of social life are paying off. It seems like I am one step closer to my goal. I have to finish this quarter strongly and write this last paper to become a true Doctoral Candidate. I am beginning to plan my next year. I have worked on designing my own course on Race and Slavery in the Muslim world. I have grant proposals, dissertation proposals, I have to prepare for my oral exam which will test my grasp of my field. It is scary and it goes by at a demanding pace. I pray that I can continue to develop and meet those important milestones. I hit some stumbling blocks, but Im gaining that momentum.
There are so many people who I have leaned on for their support, both materially and in their prayers and kind thoughts. I hope that I can step up to the task. I keep them in mind as I continue this work.

In Touch

A few days ago, my friend told me he got an email from our mutual friend. Hes been abroad for some years, wandering around in some ancient land. I asked how he was doing and the reply was that he was fine. My friend said “That brotha is real special.” I agreed, “Yes he is.” This is not the only time I heard this. Several people have made the same remark upon meeting him. I remember my bosss first impression, when she said that he looked at you in the eyes and you could feel his warmth. And his mind operated on this unique level, he didnt try to conform to how society defined the way black men should act or think. Hed say things like, “Asalaam alaikum dude” in a cool Cali skater boy accent. When we were young, he wanted to be a park ranger. I always thought that was cool. And this brother was really beautiful inside and out. I think a lot of people were really caught up in his physical beauty, as opposed to truly appreciating his unique soul. No, this society doesnt offer a space for some special people. It displaces them, decenters them, makes unreasonable demands upon them, and marginalizes them.

Three years ago I began looking for my boy, I had heard he still lived in Oakland. I just wanted to know if he was doing okay and learn more about what he had experienced in the past ten years since we talked at length. I found out this past December that he was abroad again. I had only seen him once in that decade, after both our lives had changed so much.

It was awkward asking around for him because in my circles it wasn’t really proper. I remember asking a sister and she was like, “Why are you trying to get with him?” I answered “No, I just want to know how he’s doing and to tell him he’s been in my thoughts and prayers.” I also wanted to tell him about my trip to the Tafilelt in Morocco. The Tafilelt is in southern Morocco and was the ancient trading outpost between the ancient kingdom of Ghana and North Africa. You can see a thousand years of blending between North Africans and sub-Saharan Africa in the faces of the people that lived there. They often considered people from other regions of Morocco as foreigners. To me, this region of Morocco was the most beautiful and heart breaking. When we first arrived to one of the towns, I couldnt hold it in and I said “Look at all the brown people, they are beautiful!” Sheepishly, I realized that I was in a van full of white women and I said, Awesome!! (Later on, I got some heat for saying that. Why people had a problem? They could kiss my bootey cause they always commented on their white-ness)

The first night we arrived the girls and I headed to the market. I was absolutely shocked because I saw a spitting image of my long lost friend. I knew he travelled but what was the liklihood? But something in the young man’s stare told me that it wasn’t my friend. That warmth was missing.

On the second night in the Tafilelt, I was really sick had to be rushed off to the pharmacy/doctor to get medicine for my fever. I experienced so much frustration and isolation there. My heart ached as I saw the crippling poverty of this once prosperous region. All these brown children, so beautiful, would follow us with bright eyes and smiles. The women constantly begged us for money. We saw the beginning of the locust swarms devastate these poor date farms. The young men tried desperately to chase the locusts out of the trees by burning acrid smoke. Those locusts swarms started there and would later sweep across Africa causing the 04-05 famine.

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The above image is the Tafilelt Oasis Valley

When I got back from Morocco, I began asking different people if they had seen him or heard from him. On day online I ran into one of his friends. I tried to reach out and sent a message. I briefly told my Morocco story and wrote, “Send the brotha my salaams.”

I have always wanted to talk to people who, like me, had gone some place in search of knowledge and understanding. I remember jealously watching the brothas go away years ago in search of sacred knowledge. And I felt constrained. But after returning from Morocco, I wanted to reach out to that group. Maybe they could build with me and help me get my bearings.

This brings me back to my friend. We became friends when we were children on the cusp of adulthood when we were close. There was a tight little group of Muslim converts in the South Bay and we existed in this interconnected but dispersed network. Some of us knew each other from DeAnza, or as friends two well known brothers. When I was young, I had a lot of male friends. I think I spent an equal time building with my male friends as I did my female friends. A lot of my more conservative friends would admonish me for mixing with men and having too many male friends. Sometimes the intentions were clear and my relationships remained platonic. Other times it was fraught with tension. But all in all, I miss those largely innocent times. Im glad to hear that the brotha is doing alright. I asked my friend to send him my salaams. I am sure it will get to him this time.

Sunnah is Sexy

All day, I kept hearing this phrase. At first I tried to shut it out. How can sunnah be sexy? How can ritual, daily practice, etiquette and cultural traditions be sexy? In this day and age Muslims are considered uncool. I found myself praying in my office worried that my officemates may come in and see me draped in my black prayer outfit. It was not that I’m ashamed of it. But I’m sure it would freak them out. I remember in my first Arabic class, we had a field trip to the mosque. This sister in the class said she thought my classmates didn’t believe I was really Muslim, until they saw my transformation as I went into the mosque. When it comes to ritualized worship, I like to represent for Allah. I know I have a ton of stuff to work on, so I am not going to pretend to be self-righteous or anything. I just really dig that transformation. But clearly my non-Muslim classmates didn’t know what to do with that.

I used to wear hijab and fully cover my hair and body for five years. During that time I developed my intellect and character. When I used to cover, the sisters would dress up for women-only gatherings. It was like a miss America pageant. In fact, a lot of my friends used to joke and say I looked like a contestant. Underneath the abayas (outerwear), we’d have formal and semi-formal dresses. My hair would be whipped, make-up on point, jewelry blinging, yeah enough to catch the evil eye. Wearing hijab, however, did not mean that I was truly a modest person. Years ago, my boss told me that I was a full of contradictions: modesty and flamboyance wrapped up in one. It was something I struggled with everyday. I still do.

A lot of women I know are ashamed of their bodies. They are self conscious of some socially constructed flaw. Although I dont consider my body perfect, I enjoy mine. This is what Allah gave me. I find it aesthetically pleasing. I try not to be narcissistic but I have a healthy dose of self-love. I enjoy clothing that works with my curves, that highlights my strengths, that is appealing for either its shape, texture, and/or colors. But even as I love clothes, I like to be out of them. If I lived by myself, Id probably would walk around naked or maybe just in a thong and bra (Not very sunnah-like, I know).

Even when I did try to cover it, my sexuality was always apparent. Somebody told me I would have to conceal it all by making myself look overweight or wearing a burqa. But as much as the burqa is a symbol of oppression, my prayer outfits have a similar form (but bare-faced) offers a break from my sexuality. It is in that moment of transcendence, that I experience something extra-cool. It is an acknowledgement that embodiment is real and that in order to appreciate it, I must take a step back. That physical self is not really me, but the real me is my spirit. What people see is not really me, that is only my material self. Going through the process of self-negation in ritual worship, I find myself closer to myself. That process I find is intriguing and remarkably beautiful. Yeah, I find sunnah sexy.

Just as quickly as the thought came into my mind, it shifted into my tension filled love of Muslim men. I remember going to see Cornell West and Zaid Shakir, and my gaze was all over the place (Yeah, I have a problem lowering my gaze). It was a sea of beautiful faces. I’m close to a some brothas and I tell them they are beautiful. Their daily transformations, that process of self-negation and self-realization is inspiring. I pray for their success and hope to follow their progress and development. It is amazing to see someone grow and blossom. There’s so many beautiful brothas, and something is so captivating to me about them. It was something about the composure, the style of dress, the grooming, their smell. Maybe this is why I dont go to jumah (Friday prayer) much. Years after my divorce, I avoided being close with any Muslim men. But as time went along, I began to see them as the Other. I wanted to know what made them think, what made them tick. I wanted to know why brothas were so difficult. Why was it so difficult, when we shared the same love and worldview. I didnt want to see them as adversaries, as an Other. My friendships have helped me see them as an integral part of my identity. There is no Us and Them/ but only We. We meet our counterparts. After eight years, I miss having a counterpart, I miss being led in prayer, the late night discussions of this issue and that, the debates over fiqh (Islamic law), and working for the same cause. I look through the pain and I see how much I grew. Yeah, I love the way the brothas follow the sunnah it is sexy I’ll leave it at that, mashaAllah.

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