Today…

…is the day my mother was born.* You know how kids always say their mom is the most beautiful mom in the whole world. Well mine is, really. The last time I saw her was Christmas eve. It was the videocam when we skyped. And she was absolutely radiant. It is not easy being so far from family. I’ve been away six months. Nothing I miss more than my mom’s voice and of course her cooking. In fact, I miss us cooking together and our long talks in the kitchen. I just wanted to share today, how much I love my mom. Please keep me and my family, and especially my mom, in your prayers. 

*And a few other very special people. 🙂

The Condition of a Thinking Muslim…

…is a lonely condition. That seems to be the overriding theme of all the thinking Muslims I’ve encountered over the years. It is not so much that we have withdrawn from society to stacks of books and hours of reflection. Instead, it is that we are in intricately linked in a global society that seems to lack human connection. Some scholars have pointed to the break down of communities as a result of western modernity. The growing isolation due to modernization, urbanization, break down of traditional family and community structure has actually given rise to fundamentalist (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and everything else beneath the sun) and New Age movements. Despite their allure, many of us have not abdicated our minds and free choice to join some organization or community that imposes group-think. Even though others like myself have chosen to be autonomous thinkers, we still feel the absence of real communities and suffer from various degrees of loneliness and isolation.

A lot of people I have spoken with have a general sense of disconnection from this thing that we call Ummah. I have had lengthy conversations with some Muslims where we all questioned the meaning of community and even Ummah. Some went so far to say that the concept of Ummah was now a pie in the sky. As for the American Muslim community, we didn’t see community, instead we saw a mass of lectures, meetings, boards, committees, and numerous individuals imposing their views on the ways in which we should live our lives. The complaints about the lack of community remind me of another friend’s insight. He used to talk about a tension between the individual’s desire to feel connected to others in a community and a desire to be free from the social censoring of the community that robs you of your individuality. It is some food for thought. Being that I love words, I decided to look up community to reflect on its most solid and agreed upon meanings:

1: a unified body of individuals: as a: state, commonwealth b: the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself c: an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location d: a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society e: a group linked by a common policy f: a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests g: a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society
2: society at large
3 a: joint ownership or participation b: common character : likeness c: social activity : fellowship d: a social state or condition

Reflecting on these definitions of community, it is not entirely clear that being part of one will actually rid us of loneliness. For some people, the only way of assuaging the loneliness is by getting involved in real change. I’m happy about some initiatives that are aimed at solving problems that affect Muslim communities. They are social problems and I believe that they will help a number of individuals. But at the same time, all this work obscures the fact that the people who are disconnected and socially isolated will likely be the ones most tapped to do this work.

I used to attend one of the largest multi-ethnic communities, but at times experienced intense loneliness. In fact, these feelings have erupted in the middle of crowded rooms in gatherings or talks. In fact, I used to be extremely active in the Muslim community and at the end of the day, retreat to my isolated corner. I felt like I was doing meaningful work, but at the same time I suffered from the lack of real human connection. Even when I met and spoke to amazing people, I got a sense of the ephemeral quality of my relationships.

I have witnessed a general mood shift occuring within a growing number of Muslims over the past few years. Perhaps it is due to age, changing life phases, increased responsibilities, or even disillusionment, but many of my friends have phased out of going to Islamic events, like lectures, halaqas, conferences, and for women, even jumuah. Most of my friends graduated from college nearly a decade ago. The days of dawa committees and MSA conferences are long past. Our circles have tightened, often drawn closer to family networks and long time friends. Even those with families and who have maintained childhood friends experience loneliness. Perhaps this is the fate we face in the post modern age-increased isolation and disconnection. The only way we seem connected is through facebook where I read their favorite quotes, see links to youtube videos that amused them, and look at pictures of their kids. While my married friends seem to have busy lives, producing the next generation of American Muslims, my single friends are juggling a lot too. Many are overworked in their careers or in some demanding academic program.

The general sense I get is a growing isolation, especially if you don’t fit into one neat category or box. I personally don’t think that the solution this condition is in building more community centers or some initiative. Rather, I think it is in individuals. What people desire is fellowship and companionship. And that is developed over time as we create ethical friendships of mutual exchanges and trust. I think it is important for our spiritual and religious leaders to teach us to be better companions and friends. We can foster a sense of fellowship and through that, have actual communities that address the spritiual need to be connected, as opposed to being purely based on political and social interests.

Am I Just a Muslim?

While my heart is at home, some things right now seem more real to me than some of the things that are preoccupying my friends and loved ones.   I am not saying that I’m not interested in this historic moment. There is something amazing about a Black man making it this far in a presidential election.  But, the lack of nuance in media representations of race and gender in the presidential election is not as real to me as making sense of being a Black woman in the Middle East. I know everyone is a buzz in the US. But being in a predominately Muslim society puts a lot of Muslim issues to the forefront. I am constantly wondering if there is a spot for me in this imagined community of ours, as a Black American Muslim woman.

There are times when I felt like there wasn’t room for me and that my experiences were dismissed. Two recent pieces have reminded me of the pressures I experienced as an early Muslim. But at the time of the articles, the country’s internet was either down or I was in transition. Since these pieces were published, I have had some time to reflect on how a Black American Muslim identity causes a lot of dissonance in an Arab Muslim society. Abdur Rahman wrote a very insightful and historically grounded piece called, I’m Just A Muslim Muslim Tariq Nelson also contributed to the discussion with his take on, Just A Muslim. He wrote:

It is this understanding of being “just a Muslim” that I reject. You must – like the brother in the meat store – become a pseudo-foreigner of some type and adopt a hodge-podge of immigrant cultures rather than adopting Islamic values. Being “just a Muslim” has essentially come to mean running away from one’s family, and history in some attempt to “pass” into “non-blackness”. In addition they adopt a parochial and reactionary attitude and a paralyzing suspicion of all things American or Western.

Years ago,  a young Arab American woman was pretty upset with me. She was mad because of the paper I wrote in a sociology class on inequality and social stratification. The paper was about multiple identities. Much to my suprise, the title upset her.  I had felt it was a pretty inocuous title. I don’t even think she really read too far into my paper. Besides at that time, I was still pretty new to the religion. I was naive and wet behind the ears. So, my paper definitely didn’t have the sharp critique you might find in my writing today. But still, the following bothered this young woman enough for her to tell me how much I sucked:

“My Multiple Identities as an African American Muslim Woman”

It got under her skin. To her, it showed where my loyalties were. “You didn’t put Muslim FIRST!” She said in a distressed and judgmental voice “The Most IMPORTANT thing is that we are MUSLIM!” This kind of bothered me. Because at the time, of almost all the Muslims in this little circle, I was the most identifiably Muslim Muslim. I wore hijab at the time. I participated in the Muslim Student Association, as well as the Black Student Association. Despite my efforts, my loyalty as a Muslim was constantly called into question by my Arab and Desi peers.

Someone called me a nationalist because I still participated in the Black Graduate Student Union. When I used to point out that they go to ethnic picnics, Lebanese iftar, Egyptian Day, Libyan picnic in the park, Bangladeshi dinner, Pakistani gathering, not to mention the ethnic after-eid-after parties. These were places I was never invited to. I pointed out that they all these ethnic functions. The argument someone made was that the people in their closed ethnic gatherings were all Muslim. For them, their ethnicity was intrinsicly tied to being Muslim. They were preserving their culture and language because one day, they hoped to go back home. Their functions or fundraisers could be completely secular and or for some nationalistic. But they were helping other Muslims.

Me, on the other hand, I was encouraged to divorce myself from the Black community. At the same time, I was told to give dawah. In fact, I was encouraged to give dawah. But dawah basically meant repesenting some Muslim issue overseas in some campus event. I’m not saying that no immigrant Muslims cared about African Americans. There was one who took an active interest in supporting the cause of a young Black man who happened to be Student Body president was arrested for showing up to a Senate meeting on campus.Many of the people who put those pressures have since changed their views. In many ways they too had utopian visions of what the Ummah looked like. Their own cultural practices were illegible to them, because for them they operated within an Islamic cultural matrix.

While some Muslims were mad because I didn’t claim I was just a Muslim-Muslim. I was never really allowed to be just a muslim-muslim. I was constantly referred to as “The Black” sister in a community that was diverse, but Black American were underrepresented. I was sort of relegated to Black things, like marrying ex-cons and being broke all the time. I was even told that I wasn’t just a Muslim indirectly in some not so nice ways.

Perhaps I felt pressures more intensely because of the relative isolation. But the pressure I experienced raised some important questions. Does participation in a community entail that you give up who you are? Should we end our participation in other communities, our ties with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, associates, sorority or fraternity brothers and sisters. Do we give up affiliations, inclinations, cultural tastes and affinities and adopt others? How do we talk about who we are? What are we? Can I be just a Muslim, while holding on to those descriptors that make me unique? I think my stance on some of these questions is quite clear. I also believe that these broad communities and categories do not make a human. But they are a part of who we are and our being in this world. At times I feel like a composite of many different things and experiences. Some of them intersect and and reinforce what I feel is the true person inside. At times my experiences and things conflict. But never once have I felt like a Muslim divorced from my cultural context as a Western woman of African descent who became Muslim as an adult. Once I become Just a Muslim, I lose my voice and am lost to some authoritarian dogma.

You’re Invited

As I was cleaning out my hardrive, I came across a number of old documents that included reflections, poetry, and old articles that I downloaded. One document that popped up was the once anonymous poem called “The invitation.” It once circulated in every email box, up there with those notorious chain letters and obnoxious friendship emails with animated graphics of cutesy animals and blinking hearts.  Unlike the other “Chicken Soup for the Soul” stuck in the office cubicle type emails, this one actually stuck.  I must have read this poem sometime in 2000, before I went back to school. At that time, I was trying to get my life together. I was definitely in the self help mood myself, literally I was trying to pick myself up from my boostraps. So,  I went and bought the book by the author of the poem,  Oriah Mountain Dreamer. Often, I run across things in self help and spiritual books that make me cringe. But sometimes I just stomach the cheesiness and try to get through to the meat. So, just bear with me and read the prose poem here:

IT DOESN’T INTEREST ME WHAT YOU DO FOR A LIVING.

  I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing. It doesn’t interest me how old you are.  I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive. 
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.  I want to know if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.  I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine our your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true.  I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see beauty, even when it’s not pretty, every day, and if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have.  I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here.  I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied.  I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

Okay, shouting at “silver of the full moon” and dancing wildly in ecstasy (probably meaning without rhythm) is a little corney for even me (and I can be a sap at times). And I’m not quite sure about the faithless part, that really doesn’t fit within my paradigm or world view as a believer. But, this poem clogged people’s email boxes and sucked up bandwidth for a reason. There is some truth in it that people need to be reminded of.  Personally, I really liked the poem because it emphasizes authenticity and a genuine longing for real people and real friendships. Some Muslims have talked a lot about authenticity, as in authentic Muslim culture and institutions versus Western systems of thought and westernized institutions . Authenticity even has a philosophical meaning (which I won’t go into here). Despite self centered new agey forms of spirituality and self-actualization that tries to pass itself off as authenticity, I still think that authenticity is important.  However my version of it bears little in common with  existentialist writers like Sartre and Camus. I am concerned with the human experience and a real interactions. I get turned off when a conversation or interaction shifts from an exchange to an ego driven competition or show. I don’t have a problem with people’s egos. I am happy to share with others their triumphs and successes. I really want to know who they are. But insecurities,  resentments, preconceived notions and unsubstantiated assumptions, and false posturing that gets on my nerves. It is so easy to  fall into these traps when meeing others or even in day to day exchanges with people we know.  This poem reminds me that the importance of being around people who are striving to be complete and whole. That, in itself, will improve your quality of life.

The other beautiful thing about the poem is that it emphasizes the full range of human experience–pain pleasure, fear, hope, and joy for life. Our true friends should be able to stand with us when we are in pain and hurting. Or at least, they won’t be fickle and tell us that we should always think positive thoughts even though we may be going through our our personal hell. I also like the fact that the  poem recognizes that in order to be true to our purpose, we may have to do things that go against other people’s wishes. Pleasing everyone (an impossibility btw) will only stymie our efforts to become whole. The other aspect of the poem that I liked is that many of these qualities are things we should look for friends and life partners.  Many of these qualities I aspire for myself, and I hope to be around others who inspire me in the same ways. Anyways, I thought I’d share the poem and the reasons why I liked it. It helped me realize some things at that crucial moment when I had to make some tough decisions and choose what my lifepath. I think this poem is very timely, as I think about living my life authenticly as a Muslim and human being.

Back, Well Sort of…

It’s been over a month since my last entry. I know a few people have been wondering how I’ve been. I was glad to hear that people were concerned. It can be a bit lonely and isolating being a stranger in a strange land. But my friends and family have kept me going and I’m grateful.

I have a lot of writing to catch up on. I’m now in Egypt and I have a lot more day to day contact with people on the streets. Contrary to what some Egyptians say, ‘Amiyya Masriyya is not close to Fushah. After about three weeks, I am beginning to understand Egyptians more. That’s even if many like to mumble or swallow their consonants. Let us not begin to talk about guessing whether it a word included the “qaf” (which becomes a hamzah stop in ‘Amiyya) or if it was an actual hamza.  

Egypt is not the best place to polish up your fushah. Most Egyptians refuse to speak fushah and you will get laughed at. Unlike Morocco, where many educated Moroccans will know fushah and try to understand you, Egyptians will act like you are talking nonsense. Even if you are fluent, in their mind if you are not fluent in ‘Amiyya, your Arabic is poor. Sometimes you have to remind Egyptians how terrible their English is as Zay say sings like zis. The most positive things about not fully comprehending ‘Amiyya was that I couldn’t really understand what men said to me on the street. As my comprehension increases, I have to work harder to not be annoyed.

As usual, I’ve been following events both internationally and in America. People have asked me about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is intersting to see how Egyptian media covers it. Speaking of that, the whole country went nuts when Egypt won the Africa cup. Lots of honking and fire works.

I’m learning a lot about life in Egypt. Things I’ve learned:

1. That my lungs are filling up with cab and mini-truck exhaust, soot, and dust. Meaning that I have to take claritan everyday just to feel like I’m not dying.

2. what Hagga tani means.

3. How to play the extreme sport of crossing crazy Cairo traffic. Such an adrenaline rush

4. Be really silent in cabs so that the cab driver doesn’t think me and my friend are foreigners and rip us off.

5. How to not fall while someone is pushing me from behind into a mob of Egyptian women rushing at me getting on or off the metro

I have so many things to write about. I’ll continue to write about the same themes. I still have a few series to finish up, such as “maids in Kuwait,” ” if you don’t know,” now you know, and “diseases of the heart.” There are of course other series I’d like to start.  I’m hoping to make my writing a regular part of my routine. But as I said, this blog is hopefully about quality over quantity. It is not a travel diary and I don’t plan on putting my personal day to day interactions in blogosphere. So, if you’re looking for updates on my travels or want to know how I’m doing,  I’d appreciate it if you ask me personally. I’m open for email correspondence.