Wind Beneath My Wings

Yes, I saw the movie Beaches several times. And I cried when Barbara Hershey died. I really liked Bette Midler’s song “Did you ever know that you’re my heroooooooooo? You’re everything I would like to beeeeeeeeeee?” I liked it so much that whenever I think about my favorite show “Heroes” Bette Midler’s voice rings in my head.

I normally don’t watch network television. In fact for a few years I didn’t have a t.v. However when I got back from my first trip from Morocco, I think I sat for three days in front of the t.v. watching the C.S.I. marathon.

Maybe it was about decompressing and the culture shock of being back. Maybe it was about the profound changes that I was going through. But when I got to campus we had cable for a year. Then, it was off and I watched P.B.S. for another year. I’d get all excited about Masterpiece theatre. Then, my roommate got cable, not because she particularly liked zoning out, but because we needed cable internet access. So, there I was with basic cable. I was hooked to HGTV. I watched MTV, VH-1, and of course C.S.I. I preferred the Vegas over the Miami. But I’d watch Miami just because of Alex Rodrigues. Yes, even David Caruso grew on me.

Truthfully, I’m very ashamed of my tv viewing habits. Yes, I saw all of Flavor of Love and I Love New York. I was appalled, but still glued to it. My t.v. viewing habits became the polar opposite of my other pursuits. My writing and research was so intellectually challenging, I found t.v. a time to dumb my mind. Most shows I found stupid or corney. I always had a disdain for network television. I tried to get into Lost. But I found the plot lines far fetched, I wanted to fast forward to figure out the mysteries. Mainly, I felt like they were pulling my leg in order to get me to watch the show for the entire season. So, when I saw previews for Heroes, I had my doubts.

Then, I watched the first episode on Sci-Fi. Yes I watched Sci-Fi and even saw the marathon Battle Star Gallactica. But after the second episode of Heroes I was hooked. Monday nights, I rushed home to watch it. Sad thing was that during the mid season break, I was able to attend the Monday night Muslim Student Action Network meetings. But when the show came back on, I couldn’t deal with the pixelated choppy online version. I couldn’t break away and I don’t have Tivo. I know it is a weak excuse, sigh.

One of the things that made me sad about leaving the states for abroad was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to watch Heroes. My friend said I could get episode on iTunes. But I couldn’t find them. I began searching online and YouTube had them. Of course the connection is slow. So, I’d line up 6 YouTube videos to download and wait. It has become a Monday night treat for me. On my computer, in a room, somewhere in the Middle East, a Muslim American girl is viewing pirated shows. The trade off is that the video quality sucks. It sucked so bad that I was unable to recognize Peter when they found him in the boxcar shipping container. I really didn’t recognize him at all until maybe the next episode. He looks less nerdy and more cut, but that’s Peter Petrelli all right.

Besides Heroes, I go online to watch Little Mosque on the Prairie. Season 2 is better, but it is still corney and kind of funny. Well, if anyone has any suggestions for Arabic Fushah tv viewing hit me up. I really need to immerse myself in this language. That means less time blogging and more time painfully reading Arabic. I have been trying with radio, some internet sites and Arabic t.v. As for Arabic t.v., I’m still waiting for my antenna to be connected. But I’m nearing the end of the Ramadan serial about the Abbasid court, “Ibna al-Rasheed: al-Ameen wal-Mamoon” (Sons of al Rasheed). I like the costumes and some of the messed up historical references. But the lip synching sucks. And I can’t get over the fact that some of the major Arab actresses have Michael Jackson noses. And they really could have worked on getting more extras in the big crowd scenes. I’m also wondering about why the only person who got the beat down was a woman. It was like the director relished in the scene where Aziza’ husband gave her a serious beat down. After 28 episodes, I am really hoping Mamoon grows some cojones and stops crying all the time. I know Arab serials don’t have the same big budgets as shows like heroes. But they can be fun ways of accessing the language. Anyways, I suppose I’m procrastinating. I’ll have to limit my blogging and email correspondence and focus on this Arabic. Maybe I’ll have to cut out Heroes. ohhhhhhhhh the pain. But this year is passing by fast. I’ve already been here two months. That means 10 more months… Can you believe it?

Performance Anxiety

I admit it…I have performance anxiety. Everytime I have to bring it, I fear that I will fall short. I’m not saying I’m an old pro, but I’ve doing it for over 14 years. I learned on my own, self-conscious, stumbling, bumbling, not knowing if I had the right rhythm or flow. I still make mistakes and get real awkward. I’ve read books, watched videos, listened to tapes,and I’ve been guided step by step. Even with all those efforts whenever I have to recite some Qur’an in front of people I get really nervous. Even when I read a regular Arabic text, even if it is voweled, it is clear I’m not a good Qur’an reader. If I was, then somehow I’d read it smoothly, finding natural breaks and random words. Since my first Arabic class, in fact, I hated reading out loud. I’d stumble over words trying to guess the harakat (short vowels).

It took me a while to begin to even wrap my mouth around some Arabic words. When I first converted in Fall 1993, I prayed in English. After I memorized the steps and saying in each part of salat, I graduated to transliterations. I had notecards that I used to hold with color coded text. What helped me through the transliteration was this CD with Abdul Basit. The great thing about the CD was that after each ayah there was this guy with a deep voice reading the meaning. So, as I learned the short Surahs in Arabic, I also memorized the meanings. In Spring 1994 an Iraqi student taught me the alphabet and basic reading. I am forever grateful because she opened so many doors. But sometimes when I’d read along with a text, I’d question my ears. I though I heard an “m,” but the final letter was a “noon.” What used to get me was Ikhlas, I kept hearing “wa lam yakul lahu” but I read “wa lam yakun lahu.” I knew there was some special magic skill of recitation. But I didn’t know that they called it tajweed. I recited my fatihah and my short surahs like Abdul Basit. Well, not quite. My voice is terrible and besides that I kept self correcting from what I heard and what I read.

I still think about my three surahs. I used to work those three surahs. In fact, many imams at that time used to work them too. The thing that used to get me was that immigrant religious leaders know those long surahs. But at that time, many of the indigenous Muslims had a very different knowledge base. They were charismatic, addressed social justice issues, and mostly African American. Many of these imams were well read and their khutbahs covered a wide range of subjects, literary and historical references. Many of these imams blended cultural references that I was familiar with along with Islamic references that I was just beginning to learn. It was clear that they did their homework, dedicated a lot of time to developing khutbahs or dars that were relevant to their communities. And their talks appealed to many second generation immigrants who were born or grew up in America.

In my own newbie stage, I was just becoming aware of the tensions between indigenous American born Muslims and immigrants. There were arguments about who would lead prayer. I heard complaints about African American brothers never able to lead prayer. Enthusiastic Muslims wanted to receive some barakah for leading prayer. Oh but this brother from Syria has tajweed, this other brother from Pakistan memorized more Qur’an. The converts had Abdul Basit, just like me. Sure, I wanted to memorize more Qur’an and how to recite, but I also wanted to understand the Qur’an. That’s when my farfetched dream of learning Arabic began. During that time, programs like Institute for Arabic and Islamic sciences seemed to be just kicking off and there wasn’t a Zaytuna. It was rare to hear of male converts, let alone women, travelling to learn Qur’an, Arabic, Fiqh, etc. I’m not saying that there weren’t Arabic and tajweed classes, halaqas, and attempts at MCA. I remember stepping into my first Arabic class at MCA. It was actually Hamza Yusuf teaching Arabs the intricacies of grammar. It was so advanced and discouraging, I didn’t go back. I went back to my Abdul Basit CDs and for years that was the way that I learned Quran.

It wasn’t until 1996 when I joined a halaqa in Boston that I actually had to read Qur’an in front of someone. That’s when I learned that I was a terrible reader. But the women in the group were patient. And they pushed me, while correcting me. All of the women had grown up in the States. They all had some Islamic education, even if it was only Islamic Sunday school. But that was years of edification. When I was on the East coast, I had few friends. So, I had a lot of spare time to begin to expand beyond the 5 surahs I knew at the time. And my co-halaqists assigned me Surat al-Abasa. I remember thinking that it was impossible for my mind to reproduce something like that. But peer pressure does amazing things. So, I’d spend hours, me and Abdul Basit, and my Qur’an preparing for the D-Day when I’d have to demonstrate that I got another ayah under my belt. Over the years, I’ve discovered my amazing ability to memorize things and promptly forget other similar things. My hiatus didn’t help. But over the years, when I set my mind to memorize something, I’ve drawn on the same technique.

That sort of changed when I took a tajweed class at Middlebury in 2005. Once a week, I’d have to face my worst fears. That’s when I knew I had some serious performance anxiety. My heart would beat harder. My palms would sweat. I’d stutter. I wanted to get it right. There were times I questioned why did I want to do so well. Finally, I learned why I heard my old friend Abdul Basit say one thing and read another. I memorized new Surahs without my old friend Abdul Basit. The most trying part of the class was that I had to read in front of the school. I picked the most simple surah. I had this knee jerk reaction to reciting in front of people. I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t add any of the notes to embellish my recitation. It was dry, dead-pan. The deadpan style that I recited in contrasted with the chaos that was going on in my body. I read as my heart raced, I felt like I could barely breath, and of course my palms sweated. I was relieved to finish and from that time I avoided reading in public.

As I’m trying to piece together a program for Arabic study, I realize that a huge part of my learning process is reading Qur’an. Since I started studying Arabic so many native Arabic speakers have said that reading the Qur’an is so helpful. I have other motivations. It is sort of like your pride is wounded as a not so new Muslim. I mean, when a six year old knows more Qur’an than me (and I’ve been Muslim more than twice his age), I know I suck. I’ve had people ask me how much Qur’an I know. Shoot, not even a juz (30th part). I’m working on that. I’m just hoping I don’t get the surahs mixed up. Make du’a for me, I’m always afraid that I’ll butcher Allah’s book as I stumble through the learning process.

How Am I Doing?

You want an honest answer? Really?

One of the things I hate about my own American culture is the typical greeting, “How are you?” In truth, most Americans don’t really want the answer. In fact, it is rude to answer honestly if things aren’t going so well. The point is that “how are you?” is really a rhetorical statement. The inflection at the end of the statement is really just a formality. Sometimes it isn’t even there. People say as they pass by, “How are youuuuuuuuu.” voice fading as they speed by. Over the years I’ve had a lot of people ask me how am I doing and then get really annoyed when I tell them the truth. I’ve had friends who call me up and get really annoyed or impatient as I talk about things I’m struggling with. I’ve had close friends who have shared their stories, who I have helped work through issues, who I have sat for hour listening and trying to understand, go off on me or shut down when I share my story. But at least I can write uninterrupted. I don’t have to spin my wheels worrying if my complaints will offend someone’s sensibilities before I can fully articulate what I’m going to say.

To answer your question:

Alhumdulillah…Things have been challenging and frustrating. I’m just coming out from some major upsets. Thins are looking better, but I’m still wondering if it will work out just as planned. Things operate differently here. And there are different levels of shadiness and ineptitude. Overall, it is a mixed bag. I’ve already written about boredom and being judged. I have felt homesick, isolated, disoriented, and lonely. It would be far worse if I lived on my own. I’m grateful for my friend and her family. They basically keep me going. But sometimes I feel intrusive and like a burden. There are times when I felt like packing up everything and going back home. And then I realize, I can’t because I don’t have anywhere to go back to–somebody’s subleasing my room for the year. Plus through the past few years many of my relationships and friendships back home had become strained or distant at best. The nice ones were ephemeral, kind of like “hi-bye good luck on your trip!”

Before I left for this trip, I had no doubt that I had to take this step. But I had trepidations. I felt like I was putting life on hold. But then again, I wonder what life? I have spent the past 6 years focused on getting into graduate school and then trying to survive graduate school. It consumed everything. Even my few diversions and leisure activities (including laundry, foot soaks, blogging, visiting friends) were just coping mechanisms for graduate school. Even my leave of absence was full of reading, researching, planning, worrying, re-planning, writing proposals, and preparing for graduate school. This whole leave of absence for French and Arabic study took a huge wind out of me.

Cramming a year’s worth of French in six weeks was a piece of cake compared to embarking on this trip. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy many things about being in the Middle East. But is absolutely frightening to know you don’t have a safety net. By safety net, I mean family members who will send you funds if you get ripped off or stuck in a jam. I know a Muslim woman who was actually stuck, really stuck, in some Gulf country. All our affluent friends did nothing to help her out in her jam. I suppose those car notes and bargain shopping had ran up the bills. There was even one brother all into tasawwuf with a site about sacred knowledge who treated this sister poorly. He ran into her at the house of some people who might have helped her and her children find a safe place to live until she could get a ticket back to the states. But this well known brother sent her packing and told her never visit those people again. I guess he wanted to protect wealthy Muslims from helpless and homeless American Muslim women who are stranded abroad. After a harrowing story full of drama, she finally made it out and eventually made it back home. You can have your passport lost, credit card stolen and personal items stolen, put in jail, or become really sick. I’ve known people who have gone through some tribulations and trials abroad. Some of their accounts speak to my worst fears.

I’m still working on my fears and insecurities. I still get embarrassed speaking Fushah in public. I still don’t understand Kuwaiti Arabic and there are some days when your confidence in your language abilities gets knocked right out of you. I try to motivate and work harder despite the most recent setbacks. I try to think about the overall purpose. Learning Arabic has been a dream for 15 years. Going abroad wasn’t just important for my academic career, but my spiritual well-being. Maybe it was about letting go of some control–even though I finally had taken the reigns of my own life following my divorce. 5 years ago as I prepared for graduate school my adviser David Pinault said that graduate life was monastic. It entails poverty, lonely long hours, etc. He assured me that it was a good kind of poverty. You don’t starve, it is just a modest living. After a few years in graduate school I wasn’t in debt (except for those deferred student loans), I could pay my bills, I was even saving some money. I found history to be isolating. That was just part of the field, the long hours in archives, the long late nights writing, the time in the field. I knew that going abroad for graduate work was looming in my future. And it felt like a destabilizing force.

Two years ago I asked for guidance and support about graduate school and my requisite year in the field. One imam’s wife told me to look at graduate school like it was a prison–I was just doing my time. There are some mind trips about this training and the constant insecurity of graduate school. Academia is medieval in its structure, from the apprenticeship approach to developing your own masterpiece after demonstrating your worthiness to be in the guild of scholars. I haven’t even begun to think about the publish or perish world of tenure. My African American peers in graduate school tell me to keep up the fight. We’re so few, 3% of the graduate population at my university. With more African American men in prison than in dorms, I have to keep trying to make a difference. There are people who don’t want us there. There are people who don’t think I can do it. Jan Barker said that if we felt like we’ve been through a hazing in graduate school, it is because we have. Through the hazing process, my Muslim friends often tell me about having patience and faith. Keep going–it is a test. So, that’s how I’m doing. I’m in the middle of another test. I’m not sure if I’m passing. But I’m doing the best I can.

Why blog as a Muslim, when privacy is so important?

After reading Tariq Nelson’s latest entry and the subsequent critique, I was inspired to do a little search on resources out there for Muslims with problems. A few Muslims have issues with bloggers who talk about problems in our communities on the web. The argument is that non-Muslims who have a deep antipathy towards Muslims and Islam will use that information against us. Or somebody interested in Islam may be dissuaded after reading a horror story. Authors like Tariq Nelson and Umar Lee believe that by talking about taboo subjects we can begin to address issues that are swept under the rug only to fester. For example, both Tariq and Umar have warned new Muslims about the dangers of stranger marriage. Yet, there are trolls who visit sites looking for negative coverage about Islam. My blog has been used in such a way. At the end of August, I wrote In the Muslim World, a brief reflection on aspects of the “Muslim World” that fall short of Islamic ideals. An ex-Muslim site linked to my page. I received so many hits through this site. My entry confirmed the negative views that some people had about Islam, Muslims, and Arabs. For those people, my blog confirmed that Islam was a messed up religion. But they really missed the point.
I opened the blog by asking:

What does it mean being in the Muslim world? Does it mean that a society is more Islamic? Does the percentage of Muslims make a difference? What about the percentage of women who cover and men who wear big beard and long thobes? What happened to all those traits we’d hear about in khutbas about the Ummah being an exemplary community, the best of peoples, etc…etc…

After my little rant of complaints I closed by saying:

Being in the Muslim world means being thankful that you meet up with old college friends who will take care of you and make sure your stay is as comfortable as possible. It means you are thankful for the rare and random acts of generosity from those Muslims in the Muslim world who truly exemplify the beauty of Islam—Sadaqa and Karamah.

On any of the ex-blogger sitesI didn’t find anyone exploring my final line, “those Muslims in the Muslim world who truly exemplify the beauty of Islam.” I found that really dissapointing. But then again, here were people who were once convinced that Islam was the Truth. Now they are convinced it is NOT the Truth. So, the clearly they would disregard anything that I have to say that shows that Islam is still True for me. Besides, I don’t think that blogs are the best forums for debating religious matters, let alone politics.

Over the past few years I have had to think about the positives and negatives of blogging. After brief foray into public blogging, a friend expressed negative views about blogging. She said it opened me up to all sorts of people making judgments about me. Yes, I get frustrated with some of the comments. There are lots of judgmental people. I suppose I am one myself, even though I’d like to say I am more critical than judgmental. I think about the value of writing in this medium frequently. Years ago, I thought I would use short stories as a medium to inspire or explore difficult issues. That’s when I had all the pretentions of an aspiring author. Graduate school really humbles you….

I’m not just trying to gain a platform to air my gripes. I’m not seeking any self-aggrandizement. I’m writing about the struggle of a seeker, the struggle to surrender, the struggle to hold on to the rope of Allah. I didn’t want to wait to write about it once I had arrived at some summit point. Instead, I wanted to write about it from the trenches, the troughs, the lows. Maybe I’m on some slow climb. Maybe I’m going around in circles. I wanted to write because so many people feel alone in their struggle in some isolated paths. I felt alone. But hearing voices out there, even when you are going it alone feels better than struggling, confused, through the silence. Tinding a network of Muslim thinkers made me feel less isolated. And through blogging I found friends. Literally, I found lost friends. They have carried me when I had no strength.
These individuals who have demonstrated the beauty of Islam, generosity and hospitality.

Air Abdullahi

Who says Muslims don’t have talent? 24 year old Northern Nigerian physics student, Mubarak Muhammad Abdullahi, builds helicopter. See report here.

The chopper, which has flown briefly on six occasions, is made from scrap aluminium that Abdullahi bought with the money he makes from computer and mobile phone repairs, and a donation from his father, who teaches at Kano’s Bayero university.

Okay, even though it has only risen seven feet. That’s still something. Abdullahi hopes that the Nigerian government begins investing in homegrown talent, as opposed to relying upon western manufacturers.

Why you all in my grill?

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The majority of women wear hijab in Kuwait. And there is a significant portion of women who wear the face veil. I am often dazzled by hijab fashions in Kuwait. I try not to stare, but I am intrigued by the whole face veiling. I find that face veil does not preclude sexual attractiveness, since a lot of niqabis wear tons of eye make-up and are dowsed in so much perfume. Some of their abayas are form fitting and attention getting also. I’ve already mentioned the ‘ho shoes. Don’t get me started on designer bags and the cat-walking in the malls. Maybe niqab is not about modesty, but about anonymity.
I think this really hit home today. As we left the Friday Souq two stylishly dressed, and presumably young, niqabi ladies were sitting on a bench. They spotted us and broke their neck to follow us as we made our way out the market. It must have been the English, plus the group of seven brown people running amok. Normally staring people look away when you look back at them. I looked up and stared back at them. Neither one broke their gaze. I said in English, assuming a greater than 50% chance that they’d understand me. “I guess niqab allows you to stare at people.”

I have noticed that niqabis will just stare you down–hard. They had the advantage tonight. They were anonymous and we were not. I noticed that niqabis stare down men too. For me, niqab isn’t something new. I have friends who have worn niqab in the states for years. I’ve even tried it on for kicks. But I have not seen as many niqabis as I see here. Nor have I seen the levels flash that is often associated with khaliji style veiling. In my short stay in Egypt, I saw black enveloped and brightly robed niqabis, alongside the many veiled women. In Morocco, I saw the traditionally dressed women in jallabas, with their veils tucked just under their nose. During my stay in Fes, I came to dread encountering them on the street. No matter how smartly dressed, how neat their jallabas were, they’d hit us up for money. If we didn’t have that, they’d take our cokes, if we didn’t have that, they’d take our water. Nothing like a crowd of niqabis begging harrassing you. After awhile, I scoped out the street before heading down the block I saw a old school niqabi lady chillin on a stoop someqhere, I went to the next block. I’d cross the street sometimes.

As a non-niqabi, when I see a striking person, I tend to lower my gaze. I may look a few times just to gain an imprint in my mind. But as for looking at men, as a I follow the proper decorum. I tend to lower my gaze. One, I’m not trying to catch eye contact. Two, I tend to be kind of shy in public. I’ve never been one to stare down a man. Well, not on the street at least. And I won’t talk about the few times when I did try to those come hither looks. But that’s not going down in the Middle East. I lower my gaze. I know enough Arab men to know that one mistaken look and some random dude on the street may think I have the hots for him. I mean, I could have had something in my eye. Maybe his dishdash was blinded my vision in its crispy whiteness. I could have been trying to identify my surroundings or trying to judge the distance between me and him so I don’t run into a pole or something.

I was walking with a friend who wears niqab. After we passed by two Kuwaiti men, she murmured, “I see you two Kuwaiti men looking at me friend.” I told her I didn’t see them looking because I was staring at the ground. She said something like, “Hey I’m wearing niqab and I can look at them dead up in their face.” Maybe this niqab thing is not so bad after all. You can be a bit bolder in your use of public space. I might try this niqab thing. While donning it I can stare at who I want when I want. All the while I can pretend I’m the most beautiful girl in the world. Ahhhhhhhhh, next purchase Kuwait!!

A Good Way of Promoting Extremism: Shut down Islamic Schools

This one really worries me that when the simple Arabic word for school, “madrasa,” has been so demonized.
Federal Agency Recommends Closing Saudi Supported School

Members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom today urged the U.S. State Department to shut down a Saudi-supported Islamic school in Northern Virginia, until the school can ensure the U.S. government that it is not teaching an extremist ideology.

Panel members recently visited Saudi Arabia in an effort to determine the status of religious freedom in that country and the promotion of religious extremism in Saudi schools but did not visit the Islamic Saudi Academy.


The commission charges that the academy purports to be a private school but that its properties are owned or leased by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia.On numerous occasions, the commission charges, Saudi Embassy officials have spoken to the press on the school’s behalf, a violation of the law governing diplomatic activity.

Associated Press has a more balanced and detailed report:

The commission, a creation of Congress, has no power to implement policy on its own. Instead, it makes recommendations to other agencies.

The commission does not offer specific criticism of the academy’s teachings beyond its concerns that it too closely mimics a typical Saudi education.

The report recommends that the State Department prevail on the Saudi government to shut the school down until the school’s textbooks can be reviewed and procedures are put in place to ensure the school’s independence form the Saudi Embassy.

“There is nothing in our curriculum against any religion,” Al-Shabnan said.

He also said he is willing to show the school’s curriculum and textbooks to anybody who wants to see them, and he expressed disappointment that the commission did not request materials directly from the school.

“We have an open policy,” he said.

He also pointed out that many of the school’s teachers are Christian and Jewish.

The commission based its findings in part on a the work of a delegation that traveled to Saudi Arabia this year. The commission asked embassy officials to review the textbooks used in Saudi schools generally and at the Islamic Saudi Academy specifically but did not receive a response.

Commission spokeswoman Judith Ingram said the commission did not request to speak to academy officials because that went beyond the commission’s mandate.

So, I guess my questions for the commission are:
1. If your major contentions is that the privately owned school has links with the Saudi Embassy, why go to the Saudi Embassy to ask for the text books?
2. If speaking to school officials is beyond the commission’s mandate, why is it in your mandate to make such far reaching recommendations about the school?

One way to further alienate young Muslims and promote the notion that there is a clash of civilizaitons is to shut down an Islamic school. Why don’t these people set up a meeting with school officials and interview parents and students? I’m not all that familiar with the curriculum, but I seriously doubt that Saudi Arabia has a hate filled curriculum enciting young Muslims to jihad against all infidels–especially their allies. So, I’m going to watch this one.

Here’s a few blog entries that I found interesting:
Below the Beltway
Okay, I’m waiting for more reputable sources to report on this….