There For You

And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and they establish worship and they pay the poor-due, and they obey Allah and His messenger. As for these, Allah will have mercy on them. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise.
Quran (Pickthal Translation)9:71

In his beautifully written post titled, “What is Friendship?” Tariq Nelson shares the pain and disappointment he experienced when his friends weren’t there for him. Tariq shows us a lesson about the process of forgiveness. He then asks us to be real with ourselves so that we can begin to develop and establish authentic relationships.
Tariq wrote:

As I reflect on the past 14 years of my life, authenticity is the exact opposite of what I have found in many of these relationships. Rather than environment of honesty and humility there is pretentiousness and shallow conversation. A real friendship should be about giving and receiving, sharing responsibilities, and helping each other. Engaging in a friendship requires courage because it means facing our fear of rejection and being hurt again.

A number of people, including myself, have related to and have been moved by his post. I am really grateful that he shared so openly and honestly. It was a conversation that we needed to have. Inspired, I decided to write something on friendship myself. I doubt that I’ll be able to do the topic justice. But since this is a timely topic, that has frequently come up time and time again in conversations, I thought I’d engage with the idea of friendship. For over a year I have wanted to write about friendship, exploring the real meaning of the word and how should we as Muslims really develop authentic relationships. In order to begin to explore what it means, I’ve decided to first focus on the meaning of friendship. Then I will begin to point to new possible ways we can develop better relationships with others, and as a result become more human.

As I have stated before, I am a stickler for definitions. So I went to Marriam Webster online to find a working definition of friendship.

Main Entry: 1friend
Pronunciation: \ˈfrend\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English frend, from Old English frēond; akin to Old High German friunt friend, Old English frēon to love, frēo free
Date: before 12th century
1 a: one attached to another by affection or esteem b: acquaintance2 a: one that is not hostile b: one that is of the same nation, party, or group3: one that favors or promotes something (as a charity)4: a favored companion 5capitalized : a member of a Christian sect that stresses Inner Light, rejects sacraments and an ordained ministry, and opposes war —called also Quaker

I then went to the primary source for Muslims, the Qur’an. I was interested in what the Qur’an said about the purpose of friends, and as the above verse mentioned, “protecting friends” is what believers are supposed to be for one another. I also looked at the Qur’an database search today to see how many times friend was mentioned in the Qur’an. The answer is kind of tricky, since the database was in English (call me lazy, but my time commitments didn’t allow me to peruse an Arabic/English definition. Just to be clear, I do not think that the English word for friend encompasses the true meaning of the spirit of friendship and companionship in Islam. In the Qur’an and Islamic texts such as the Hadith (Prophetic traditions), Seerah (biography), and exigis ,here are several Arab words that correspond to the English word “friend.” These include (الوالي)wali, (الصديق)sadeeq, (الصاحب) sahib. I used the Hans Wehr dictionary to outline the basic meaning of these terms as they relate to true authentic friendship.
wali (الوالي): helper; supporter; benefactor; sponsor; friend; close associate; relative; patron; protector; legal guardian
sadeeq (الصديق): friend; friendly; connected by bonds of friendship (the word also derives from truthful)
sahib (الصاحب): associate; companion; comrade; friend; adherent; follower

All three of these definitions encompass what we really need out of at least one other human being to feel connected: someone who will join us, someone who is kind to us, and someone who will help us look after our affairs. We need a someone we can trust, who has our best interest at heart. Someone we can be honest with, someone we don’t have to put on a mask to be around. We need someone who will listen to us, protect our secrets. We need someone who will share what they have when they can. We need someone who will stand by us when the world seems against us. We need someone who will lift us up as the world is crashing down on us, someone who will hold our hand to help steady uneven steps. We even need someone to believe in us when we don’t believe in ourselves. We need someone to be there for us, as Damian Marley sings, “even when I’m not there for myself.” We have to learn how to be that for someone else. We cannot demands the three aspects of true and deep friendship without being willing to give up a bit of ourselves and our whims. The reality is that we have a really deep model of friendship from our Prophetic tradition: Muhammad’s (s.a.w.)relationship with his companions. Now this is the model of true and authentic relationships that we should strive for.

I believe it is essential that we began to reassess the importance of connecting with other human beings and learning how to develop authentic and intimate relationships based on honest exchange and mutual understanding. Through this, we transcend our narrowness. We have to get beyond the slogans like, “I love you brother/sister, for the sake of Allah.” We have to really interrogate what loving someone for the sake of Allah means. As a Muslim, you’re not going to love every Muslim, but if you are disconnected and unable to love anyone, what does that say about your mental, emotional, and spiritual state? I am now reflecting on my own friendships, how I have failed as a friend, how I have been failed as a friend. I am trying to take the lessons from my 33 years and trying to become a better friend, companion, and helper. I am working on letting go of the pain, of forgiving, of reconnecting with old friends and forming new friends. But like Tariq said, first I must do some self reflection and refining of my own thoughts and inclinations. I have to be there for myself, in order to be there for you.

Just to leave you with some uplift, let’s turn to my boy Damian Marley:

“There For You”

[Indiscernable voice message]

Tra la la…Tra la la…
La la la…la la

[Verse 1]
Hey!
Vexation of spirit is a waste of time
Negative thinking, don’t you waste your thoughts
Verbal conflict is a waste of word
Physical conflict is a waste of flesh
People will always be who they want
And that’s what really makes the world go round
Unconditional love is scarce
(“Till shiloh I shall not forsake thee”)
Now and forever more
Forever more, forever more…
YEAH!

[Chorus]
You see, you gave precious life to me
So I live my life for you…You…
You see, you’ve always been there for me
And so i’ll be there for you…You…
(“Till shiloh I shall not forsake thee”)

[Verse 2]
Bless your eyes and may your days be long
May you rise on the morning when His kingdom come
Good deeds aren’t remembered in the hearts of men
(…..Oooooooh)
Bless your eyes and may your dreams come true
May you rise on the morning when Jah kingdom come
Good deeds aren’t remembered in the hearts of men
(“Till shiloh I shall not forsake thee”)
Now and forever more
Forever more…

[Chorus]
You see, you’ve always had faith in me
And so i’ll have faith in you…You…
You’ve always been there for me
And so i’ll be there for you…You…

Hey!
You’ve always been good to me
Even when i’m not good to myself
You’ve always been fair to me
Even when i’m not fair to myself
You’ve always done right by me
So I will do right by you…You…
(“Till shiloh I shall not forsake thee”)
You’ve always been there for me, mama
So i’ll be there for you, papa
You’ve always been fair to me, brother
And so i’ll be fair to you, sister
You’ve always had faith in me
And so i’ll have faith in you…You..

You’ve always been good to me
You’ve always been to kind to me
You’ve always stood up for me
You’ve always been there for me
You’ve always been…oooooh
You’ve always been…oooooh
You always did care for me…yeh
You always did share with me…yeh
You always been true to me
And so i’ll be true to you…

White Privilege, Office Culture, and Subversive Black Identities

I’m pretty late in posting this. Samah2007 has some pretty insightful and thought provoking articles over at Jamerican Muslimah. She’s one of my favorite writers because she’s honest, funny, and smart. Not long ago, she posted an article that got me thinking about what I’m going to have to deal with when I come back to the states.

Yesterday I was struck by a profound thought. I realized that I have taken classes related to race, ethnicity, White privilege and institutional racism but haven’t given much thought as to how strongly White privilege features in office culture. In the ten plus years that I’ve worked in office environments I’ve certainly seen my share of overt and subtle racism; it’s been reflected in pay grades, promotions, firings, in a supervisor’s decision as to whether a person is a “good fit” for the organization etc. I asked myself, what about the day-to-day interaction in the office? How does White privilege operate and in what ways? As a person of color, how am I am at a disadvantage? What survival techniques must I employ/adopt in order to stay afloat in today’s office environment?

Not that I’ve escaped the world of White privilege in academia, instead it plays out in different ways. But at least there are some presumptions of merit in academia and a few departments about their positions of power and responsibility to the intellectual and broader community. As a Black woman, I have spent most of my life in multi-cultural and majority white environments, so I know how to deal with a diverse set of people. You become a chameleon of sorts, trying to find a common ground to relate to people with widely divergent backgrounds, beliefs, and preferences.

Eventually my demeanor and to some degree- persona- is transformed once I step into the office. I tone down my Jamerican culture (as much as I can any way) and become someone else for 8 hours or more. You may say, all of us transform when we’re at work. All of us “play the game to some degree.” While that is certainly true, people of color who have not fully adopted mainstream White culture must go the extra mile. We must work hard to ensure that we are not perceived (by White co-workers or managers) as threatening, angry, loud, uncooperative, and (God forbid) uneducated or unqualified in any way. In a nutshell, we must work our asses off and at the same time make the White people around us feel comfortable.

Samah then goes on to explore the ways these accommodations can cause fractures in a Black American’s identity. Some individuals have striven so hard to be accepted and to succeed in majority white environments may find themselves transformed with little vestiges of their original self. Others, I know, feel disingenuous as they wear different masks for different people. It is interesting how this plays out in many different environments. Even in the Muslim community, whether on college campuses or in my local area, I find myself shape shifting make people comfortable with me as a Black woman. It is something I do almost instinctually, because this is how I’ve been able to survive in the broader society, in both the corporate world and academia. When I do fall into my normal speech patterns or topics of conversation, I am either very aware or made aware that what I say and how I say things has made my others uncomfortable. This reminds me of the backlash against PC (often by privileged white males). They are often resistant to making accommodations to make others comfortable or even relate to different groups by changing their speech, patterns of behavior etc. Very few white Americans, outside of those who have assimilated into either Black urban or rural culture, will have to make many accommodations to other people’s culture. They can be successful without having close relationships with Blacks, Asians, Hispanics/Latinos/Chicanos, or Native Americans. Nor is their material success in this society predicated on their ability to move comfortably in majority non-white environments. Just something to think about…
More thoughts on this to come…

Brown Sugar Fine

Call me an old head, but I can’t call songs from 2002 old school. Just can’t do. For me old school is mid 80s to early 90s, when hip hop was at a creative golden age. But still this track by Mos Def brings me back. It was released on the soundtrack of Brown Sugar, a film I’ve seen more times than I can count. I’m not sure why I kept watching this movie, maybe it was all the hip hop references, maybe it was Taye Diggs being, well masha’Allah, maybe it was to see Sanaa Lathan play the same role she always plays. The other day, a friend mentioned that a lot of Black Americans are just angry. We need something to lift us up, and this film was a light hearted romance that did just that. But really this blog entry is not about the film. No, it’s about how I’m really vibin’ off this song right. It’s definitely in my iPod and plays in the background like the soundtrack to my life. Brown Sugar, along with some tracks by Jurassic 5 and Talib Kweli, really have me jonezin’ for home. By home, I mean the States and all the places I roam in the Bay, my grandmother’s house in New Jersey, brown people I see, the love that I feel when I’m around friends and family. Loved my stay in Egypt, but they are not even really feeling brown sugar like they do in the States. And I have lots of love for my peoples. Ten days left, and I’m about to set it off!

So, here’s to Mos Def:

Mos Def
Brown Sugar (Fine)
2002

(if you invited me)
yeah, Cav Love, brown sugar
Bout to set it like, yeah yeah y’all (uh huh)
yeah yeah y’all (uh huh) yeah yeah y’all (uh huh)
(if you invited me)
Adjust my mic so I can touch it up right quick
Show ’em how Brooklyn do, you know what I mean? (no doubt)
Listen, yo

Let’s start it up (start it up)
Let’s get it flowin (get it flowin)
Let’s make a move (make a move)
Let’s get it goin (haha)
I know it’s feelin like everything you want, don’t it?
And you been waitin your whole life for one moment
Well baby here it is (here it is)
You better step to it (step to it)
I know you ready right (ready y’all)
Then baby let’s do it (let’s do it)
Put your neck to it, put your arms and legs next to it
Then put whatever else is left to it
See you’re all in (all in) now you about to rock ’em
Got your focus man, now they got a problem
Who you talkin to? son right there
The man in the mirror, I see him quite clear
Do your thing Cav (yeah son)
Work it out dog (work it out)
Open up their minds (open up)
Be about yours (bout yours)
Silence everyone who ever try to doubt yours
Get your mind right (mind right)
Keep your sound raw (sound raw)
Heavy bass man (bass man)
Make it bounce more (bounce more)
Make ’em feel it from to the ceilin to the ground floor
(if you invited me)
How it sound y’all? I know it’s crazy, right
I know it’s crazy tight, don’t ever take me light
It’s Cav Love y’all (Cav Love y’all)
And that’s what’s up y’all (sup y’all)
I peeped in, I know exactly what you want y’all
I make it jump y’all (jump y’all)
So put ’em up y’all (up y’all)
Brown Sugar, Brooklyn, it’s bout to jump off

[Hook: Mos Def and singer]
You got to (give it to me)
You need to (give it to me) (uh huh)
You better (give it to me)
(give it to me) ha ha, brown sugar
Leave the ground shook up (uh)
Got the world sweatin like fiends without cook up
Come on, you know you really wanna (give it to me)
You better (give it to me)
You got to (give it to me)
(give it to me) brown sugar, ha
Lick your lips to it
Work your hips to it (ha)
And steady rockin like this to it

[Mos Def]
It’s like one, two, three, and to the four
The brother Cavvy Cav is here so let him know
This for my hustlers (my hustlers)
This for my scramblers (scramblers)
This for my sexy mamis (sexy mamis)
This for everybody (everybody)
Bang it at any party and watch ’em rock to it
Bounce some pop to it, this here’s hot music
Duke I’m not losin, you need to stop foolin
I know the game very well boy I’m not stupid
Sharp and smart movement, applyin a heart to it
Came here to get the ghetto blocks movin
(if you invited me)
And after rockin in the porch and backyards movin
Keep it crackin cuz I love the way that y’all do it

[Hook: Mos Def and singer]
You got to (give it to me)
You need to (give it to me)
You better (give it to me)
(give it to me) ha, brown sugar
Leave the ground shook up
Observe the way how we make it sound hit up
Like you got to (give it to me)
You need to (give it to me)
You got to (give it to me)
(give it to me) Brown Sugar
Lick your lips to it (huh)
Work your hips to it (yeah)
And steady rockin like this to it like

damn baby, damn baby, damn baby, damn
ooh ahh, ooh ahh ooh ahh
ooh ahh, ooh ahh ooh ahh
damn baby, damn baby, damn baby, damn baby
ooh ahh, ooh ahh ooh ahh
ooh ahh, ooh ahh ooh ahh
damn baby, damn baby, damn baby, damn baby
ooh ahh, ooh ahh ooh ahh
ooh ahh, ooh ahh ooh ahh
damn baby, damn baby, damn baby, damn baby
if you invited me
if you invited me

U Go Gurl: Traveling as a Black Woman

Most travel books don’t prepare Black Americans for the experiences they will have abroad. Ever since I first traveled abroad, I have been bemoaning the lack of resources for Black women who want to see the world. I receive frequent emails from Black women who are either planning to go abroad or are already abroad and looking for resources. Last year, I suggested that someone should compile our stories so that I could support other sisters who want to travel abroad. That’s why I was happy to find this web resource,
U Go Gurl and the book, Go Girl
Go Girl Cover

FINALLY A TRAVEL BOOK FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN.

A rich collection of fifty-two stories covering the globe. Sister-to-sister advice on everything from destination selection, to traveling solo, to saving money on airfare. Exploration and discussion of issues of particular concern to black women; dealing with racism, overcoming fears, claiming entitlement, etc. The book also includes a planning guide and a resourceful guide.

Maya Angelou tells the story of arriving in Africa a stranger but leaving claimed as a member of the Bambara tribe. Evelyn C. White writes about finding new pride in being black after visiting Egypt. Opal Palmer Adisa evokes the sights, sound, and aromas of urban Ghana where she traveled to meet her lifelong pen pal. Lucinda Roy brings alive the year she spent teaching girls in Sierra Leone and talks how the villagers’ friendship overcame her loneliness for home.

Alice Walker offers a quite meditation on how the beauty of the country stirred her imagination. Audre Lorde captures her experience of being refused entry to the British Virgin Islands because of her dreadlocks. Gwendolyn Brooks recounts the camaraderie and tensions of a trip to Russia with a group of American writers. Gloria Wade-Gayles explores the complexities of being both an American and a woman of color as a paying guest in a Mexican home.

“Whether traveling for escape and relaxation (“Sailing My Fantasy”), on a spiritual quest (“Red Dirt on My Feet”), in search of a mind-expanding, life-changing experience (“The Kindness of Strangers”), as a “going home,” finding one’s roots (“Before I Was a Bajan”), to find relief from racism (“Why Paris?”), to celebrate black culture (“In Search of Black Peru: Christmas in El Carmen”), to honor black history (“Visiting Nannytown”), to reach for understanding across cultural barriers, (“Japan of My Dreams”), to help others (“Seeing Things in the Dark”), or to open up new possibilities in one’s own life (“Genesis of the Traveling Spirit”), the travel experiences chronicled in Go Girl! will delight, enlighten, and inspire.”

I’m very excited to read the articles, as well as make a contribution to the site. This is especially true in light of my many awkward social encounters while abroad that have somehow involved race. I’ll try to outline some of them, as well as stories my friends have recounted. When I went to Durham England to do research for a week, I really felt like things were going pretty well and I was not confronted by awkward racially charged moments. I was satisfied with my research experience, the staff at the library and archive were very nice. I had many quiet walks through the half empty town and along the river. Nobody really talked to me, except during breakfast at the dining hall. On my last day in Durham, I had a conversation with a British man who either worked at the library or in the dining hall at the castle/hostel where I was staying in. I commented on the city’s quaintness, the beauty of the campus, my pleasant stay in a castle, and of course the library and archive. I was also interested in the Sudan studies program and getting a PhD in the UK is much faster then the unbearably long, endurance test that passes itself off as a PhD in the US. Light heartedly I said I might return to Durham as a student in in a PhD program. The man said, “well that might be hard for you being that you’re black and people aren’t used to seeing Blacks in these parts.” I felt like saying, “Thanks for reminding me that I’m Black, for maybe drawing attention to all those awkward exchanges in stores or in restaurants, the extra looks I receive, all the things I ignored just to make the trip more comfortable. Thanks for highlighting that I can never fit in or fully comfortable in your country.” But I didn’t. Instead I tried to be pleasant and we ended the conversation shortly after. I liked Durham a lot less.

Traveling while Black in many parts of the world can expose you to some amazing experiences that help you put America’s racial dichotomy in better perspective. In the Aswan region and Nubia, the Nubian vendors would call out, “Nubian! My cousin!!” In Marrakesh, some vendors pumped their fists, shouting out, “My sista!” Little kids would come up to me and ask if I was Moroccan. If traveling with Egyptians, I can get Egyptian or Moroccan rates as long as I don’t open my mouth and say something. Traveling incognegro can be beneficial. Sometimes people are even nicer. Egyptians, for example, love Barack Obama. They will talk endlessly about him. Sometimes there is solidarity, and that can be nice. Most of my travels have been in the Middle East, so there is often a Muslim solidarity that helps bridge the racial and cultural divide. When I was flying from Alexandria, Egypt to Kuwait, my carry on was way over the weight and size limit. The clerk at first was going to charge me, then he said, “OKay, you go! I like American Black Muslim!”

At the same time, you will find that racism is a global phenomena and that you may get a different reception than your white, Asian or Latino/Hispanic/Chicano counterparts. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes not so subtle. My friend who traveled to Spain said she would get approached by men who assumed she was a prostitute. One young man who went to France said that the French treated him like he was stupid until they found out he was American and then they just treated him like #$@*. When I traveled to Sharm al Shaikh, I was constantly stopped asked what room I was staying in. My roommate who was a stunning brunette with bright blue eyes, on the other hand, was never stopped and asked. She was the one to notice pattern.

At airports and security checkpoints, guards take extra time examining my passport, in disbelief that I was really American. In fact, most people find it hard to believe that I am just plain ole Black. I often say in broken Arabic, no may family has been in American min zaman (for ages). Also traveling in the Middle East, you may get anti-African sentiment due to illegal immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa. n Europe, people can think you’re illegal. This is why I hold on really tight to my passport. Try to get on a flight to Heathrow with all those stickers from the Gulf, Morocco, and look phenotypicaly North African or from some “Moozlem country. You may just get detained as they run some background check, miss a flight for r no particular reason except you look like a possible terrorist. Don’t travel to all the “hot spots,” as the British intelligence officer who interrogated me as I was running late for a flight, called them.

People can say racist things also, especially the brats that run the streets. I was in Kuwait in a Bedouin neighborhood with my friend and her daughter on my way to a Mawlid. And these Bedouin boys were staring at my friend’s daughter and she at them. They made faces at her, she made faces at them. And I heard them say withing like “….Abeed!” My friend seemed to ignore it, and my friend’s daughter said, “They’re rude!” I was pretty hot, but at that time, they were really tired of my anti-racism tirades. So, I just made a mental note that bedouin kids who live what basically amounts to Kuwaiti projects (even thought the projects are much fatter than you’d ever have in the states), are racist little #$*$!! In Egypt, depending on how you look, kids and ignorant people will say rude and racist things. A European student studying at AUC said her friend came to visit and people would make monkey sounds. My friend’s husband has a Black British friend who was always asked the time. The thing was they would get a kick out of him lifting his shirt and still being really dark. And they’d go and laugh and laugh. Also, in social circumstances, you could have some awkward conversations where people say things that wouldn’t fly in America. People may not pay any attention to you, while they fawn over your paler friends.

Further, Europeans and Americans can assume you are just part of the landscape. You’re that native that needs to move out their way as. One time I was traveling with my friend from Bahia. We look very similar and people often assumed we were Moroccan, maybe from somewhere in the South. On our way from Casa Blanca to Fes, we found some British people were sitting in our seats. So, we were looking at our tickets and them. Mariah said, “Umm, these are our seats.” I was trying to speak to them in my clear American diction. The young couple just looked at us blankly and the crusty old man blurted out, “Doo Youu Sbeakk Frrrench?!” I said, “No, I speak English!” What really pissed me off was that he didn’t hear us because we were brown. He assumed that our non-British accent meant that we weren’t fluent speakers. Our brown skin rendered our language incomprehensible, as well as our rights to the first class seats that we purchased with our hard earned money.

Like the Sharm experience and the train, people may assume you are a migrant worker, refugee, or just have less money than your paler counterparts. Or they may doubt that you belong. I find it troubling that sometimes I have to talk in extra loud English to get some attention. This works wel in Kuwait because they love Americans. While your friends may be able to get their American privilege, you have to assert yours. “You better respect me, my country rules the World!” sometimes to get some your needs met. One of my friend advised dressing to the nines all the time. She said she dresses almost like a princess and spends lots of money. Then people treat her well. I’m not saying that you want to flash your passport or a fat stack of local currency. But really, you have to keep in mind that how people see you in the lands that you are visiting can shape your experiences in that country.

I definitely have to follow this up with a traveling as a Muslim woman, that’s a whole different trip.

Walk On By….

…right out of our lives and into the next. As Tariq Nelson pointed out, many of us were saddened by the deaths of Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes. Issac Hayes especially hit me hard, being a child of the 70s, having seen him in concert and even briefly spoken to him. After the concert in San Francisco, my friend went up to Issac Hayes and told him that Isaac Hayes responsible for his birth. His parents got down to one of Isaac’s grooves on the night of his conception and those rhythms and melodies continued to inspire him through out his life . IH’s music continues to touch me, remind me of my childhood and youth. My life was full of soul, love, and heart break. And here is one of my favorite songs, his rendition of “Walk on By”:
My condolences go out to their family and loved ones.

New Look?!

I decided to update my blog with a cleaner and brighter look. I also wanted to make some changes that, I hope, will be reflective of the direction I’m going in with my writing and my life. Initially, this blog was a personal reflection, a kind of “I am Black Muslim woman, hear me roar!” I started off with a controversial title, playing on the stereotype of angry, aggressive Black woman, to raise eyebrows and draw awareness. My pictures drew the ire of many of Muslim merely because I had pictures posted without hijab. My reasons for public pictures were numerous. As I am also a researcher and wanna be scholar with the dubious distinction of being trained in the west, both my identity and stances to be transparent. I often find that we are motivated to do things multiple, often conflicting, intentions. I also displayed pictures on the website for more nafsi reasons. Reflecting back, my self portraits can be linked to my envy that many brothers could be stylish and attractive in the public eye while maintaining their legitimacy within Muslim circles. There was an undercurrent of a public protest. I am not saying that sisters in hijab are not stylish or attractive, by no means no!! But we all know what it is intended to curb. At the same time the reality is that many Muslim women do not wear hijab. Many women who do not wear hijab are just as concerned about our faith and the Muslim community as our sisters in hijab. And unlike some claims by my a few commentators, Muslim women who do not observe hijab have every right to call themselves Muslim. But having pictures online brings up numerous problems, from online stalkers, to people recognizing you from a distance in countries as far as the Khaleej, to flame wars and endless lame debates on my blog. As it stands, I’ve decided that I my writing will speak for itself. I hope my blog continues to explore the social, cultural, and spiritual struggles of Black American Muslim women in particular and Muslims in general.

Resetting the Moral Compass

Jamerican Muslimah wrote a thought provoking piece recently titled, Morality and Black Americans, Morality and Black West Indians. For me, the article raised some important questions. AbdurRahman also wrote a piece, One Word on CNN”s “Black in America”: MORALITY further highlighting the importance of this topic in regards to the Black community. Drawing on JM and AR’s articles, I will explore some of the major questions surrounding morality and its relevance to the Black American Muslim community and its engagement with the broader social mores. First, I think we need to get a clear sense of what morality is. I argue that even for many practicing Muslims, concepts like virtue and ethics have been largely ignored, at the detriment of making morality an empty concept. I hope to touch upon the reasons why people in the beginning of the 21st century face particular challenges to becoming moral human beings. I hope to end this brief article with possible directions to go in resetting our moral compasses as individuals.

Jamerican Muslimah’s article points to the reality that morality is becoming a largely outmoded concept in the Black American community. She writes:

I’m just concerned about the direction my people (non-Muslim and Muslim alike) are moving in. I am concerned about HIV/AIDS, broken families, fatherless and motherless children, drugs, senseless murders and so on and how they are affecting the BA and BWI community. And I am even more concerned about the fact that people seem comfortable in their immorality.

Jamerican Muslimah offers useful solutions, including a paradigm shift and mentoring. Importantly, she also pointed out that this general moral climate effects Black American converts. Many converts continue the same negative patterns, but under the guise of a religious cloak. This includes the exploitation of women, backbiting, discrimination, and idleness (I don’t mean that in a Benjamin Franklin type of way, I’m talking about brothers who won’t work but hang out in mosques all day talking while allowing their wives to collect welfare).

If even our co-religionists fail to heed sound advice, then how do we expect any practical solutions or call for righteousness to reach the broader society? Would the call to morality fall on deaf ears? Aren’t people turned off by the judgmentand moral indignation of the righteous? They are also turned off by the inconsistencies of many religious people. Many people relish in the scandals which expose the cracks, fractures, blemishes of others. Above all, they enjoy the fall from grace of any religious or high principled person. It is affirming that we’re not so bad. By our own actions and shortcomings, we inspire others to turn away from being moral and follow their own whims regardless of who it hurts.

Muslims are frequently concerned about public acts of immorality and encourage concealing sins and wrong doings over airing them out. Within the Catholic community, confession is private. Some Protestant traditions, however, encourage testimonials as a cathartic moment releasing the guilt from the hearts of prodigal sons and daughters. But the secular testimonials on day time talk shows have encouraged airing all our dirty laundry. Initially it was cathartic for a society where so many suffered shame and stigma. But then the confessional society spun out of control. We are now celebrating licentiousness, consumption, greed, and pettiness. Our television beams the pornographic gaze of violence and sex right into our living rooms. Watch groups point to the increasing vulgarity and violence in music, television, film, and video games. Religious groups are often linked to these watch groups, making a call for morality. I believe that for a large part, most religious leaders are truly concerned with the pain and hardship that people are suffering. I think they are also concerned with the growing materialism that makes people less human to each other. As JM points out, the need to change our condition in even more pressing in the Black community because of the dire consequences of the social breakdown that is linked with the loosening social mores. I agree with JM, we need to reset our Moral compass. And the first person I’m going to start with is me.

Being a stickler for definitions, I decided to look up the term morality, to come up with a clear definition of what I’m talking about when I speak of resetting the moral compass. First, I turned to Webster Online:

Main Entry: mo·ral·i·ty
Pronunciation: \mə-ˈra-lə-tē, mȯ-\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural mo·ral·i·ties
Date: 14th century
1 a: a moral discourse, statement, or lesson b: a literary or other imaginative work teaching a moral lesson2 a: a doctrine or system of moral conduct bplural : particular moral principles or rules of conduct3: conformity to ideals of right human conduct4: moral conduct : virtue

Main Entry: 1 mor·al
Pronunciation: \ˈmȯr-əl, ˈmär-\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin moralis, from mor-, mos custom
Date: 14th century
1 a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical b: expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior c: conforming to a standard of right behavior d: sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment e: capable of right and wrong action 2: probable though not proved : virtual 3: perceptual or psychological rather than tangible or practical in nature or effect

I then turned to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition. The article opens stating that the term morality can be used descriptively or normatively.

1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or,
[a.] some other group, such as a religion, or
[b.] accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

So according to the the definition, morality is either a code of conduct, such as the ten commandments. It can be defined by a society, such as the concept that discrimination based on race is wrong. Or we can take a more concrete example of morality discourses during modern times, such as slavery.

Morality is a guide to personal conduct. Is it a sense of fulfillment? The sense of security we derive from abstaining from things that are pleasurable but can have some serious drawbacks? Sense of self worth from abstaining from ephemeral pleasures, harming ourselves or others? But what motivates us to moral individuals? A desire to be a good person It is a sense of shame and social censure? Is it religious belief, such as the sense of divine punishment and reward? For us Muslims, we are taught that we should be moral because of divine reward and punishment. But what about those Muslims who are struggling with faith? What happens when people aren’t motivated by threats of fire and brimstone or by over flowing drinks without the hangover and the houris? I’m not trying to make fun of Qur’anic descriptions of the hereafter, since I believe what Allah has in store for us is beyond what our feeble minds can imagine. But at the same time, how can we talk about concepts that seem so distant when most people feel like they are living in hell?

While morality is often linked to religious values. Virtue has been an important trait for spiritualists and materialists alike. The Greeks often thought about virtue. So once again, I turned to good ole Webster:

Main Entry: vir·tue
Pronunciation: \ˈvər-(ˌ)chü\
Function: noun Etymology: Middle English vertu, virtu, from Anglo-French, from Latin virtut-, virtus strength, manliness, virtue, from vir man — more at virile
Date: 13th century
1 a: conformity to a standard of right : morality b: a particular moral excellence2plural : an order of angels — see celestial hierarchy3: a beneficial quality or power of a thing4: manly strength or courage : valor5: a commendable quality or trait : merit6: a capacity to act : potency7: chastity especially in a woman

Skipping the definitions based on a man’s virility and a woman’s chastity (seems like that leads to some other social contradictions), I think it is important to focus on commendable qualities or traits. This is what I think is important to teach young people or anybody who is looking for peace of mind and self development. We have to begin emphasizing the importance of virtue and ethics.Some Muslim thinkers criticize ideas introduced during the Enlightenment that shaved away at the foundations of religious doctrine as the basis for encoding moral behavior and Postmodernism which demolished any claims for universal moral codes and even Truth itself. While many people place the blame of our social ills in the hands of materialist philosophers who helped spread Enlightenment ideas, many of these materialist philosophers lived more ethical, consistent, and austere lives than many of our flamboyant leaders who call people to morality under the Church/Masjid/Temple. When I brought up ethics and virtue to a brother, he mentioned that they were lacking in the Muslim world. While I do see virtuous conduct, along with lots of moral browbeating and shaming, in the Middle East and Muslim communities in America, it is clear that we have failed to develop a system of ethics. I had heard that some scholars from al Azhar were responding favorably to the idea of developing a system of Islamic ethics.

I believe the concept of virtue and system of ethics is an important starting point to resetting our moral compass. I don’t have a complete road map for reforming a broken spirit, let alone an entire community. But I know that we’re not going to get there by only using codes. And we have to start with the individual. We need to teach people to take pride in developing themselves as whole persons. We need a growing awareness of where we are, what voids are we trying to fill when we engage in negative behavior. We need to provide people with the tools to break destructive habits. We have to teach people to take pride in self conditioning, in goal oriented behavior without a sense of superiority over others. At this day and age, we have to take holistic approaches to developing our communities. Our community leaders have to become equipped to engage with the social problems that effect our spiritual development and the spiritual growth that can help bolster us as we face the challenges of our times.

The Lonely Planet: The Middle East and Beyond

For many years I considered traveling to the Middle East and Africa to some kind of far fetched fantasy. It was only after my circuitous journey through college and finally after being admitted into graduate school was able to realize my life-long dream of traveling abroad. Honestly, I truly feel blessed to make this journey. I wouldn’t trade my travel experiences for anything, however my travels abroad have marked some of my darkest, loneliest moments. I’m not alone. I’ve talked to a number of travelers and many have told me that loneliness and isolation is something you have to ride through when abroad. Even for those who haven’t been abroad, many of us have experienced the loneliness of the modern world. I have had many moments that I realized that so many of are living in our own lonely planets.

But back home, you can shout in the streets something and at least be understood. You can get in a car, bus, or train or easily pick up the phone and find someone to talk to. Sometimes you just want to call a friend and tell them a funny story about something that happened that day. But then, because of the cost of the call, the bad connection, and time difference, its so much harder to feel connected. It’s not only the language barrier and difficulties with communication, the time zones that separate you from everyone you know. It is the feeling that you could drop off the face of the earth and everything continues as normal, as if you didn’t matter. In reality, that’s how the world is, and we occupy such a small space in it. But feeling disconnected from the rest of humanity is the unfortunate side effect of traveling. Sometimes you can feel the pain when you’re reminded that life is going on without you back home. You realize that people are changing and you are no longer in the loop or privy to the important changes became home. That you’ve become a distant memory. Maybe you’re thought of as an anecdote in a dinner conversation. Or someone asks their self, “I wonder whatever happened to…?”

I didn’t feel like the rest of the world back home forgot me the first time I traveled abroad. But I felt the sharp pain of leaving my world behind, of the strained bonds with loved ones. My first experience aborad was in a pilot program organized by University of Arizona and Universite Moulay Isma’il in Meknes Morocco during summer 2004. There were about 9 students and two graduate assistants. For me it was a dream come true. I was so excited about the journey, the opportunity to see places and landscapes that I only imagined. And I did a lot of imagining from my text book readings, to my own creative writing. My friend gave me some words of wisdom, “Expect to see the best of the best and the worst of the worst.” Those were my expecations. But I could not really foresee what types of challenges I would face.

I caught the flu just before going to Morocco, got stuck in JFK, spending the night in a cold, dark, and eerie terminal. By the time I got to Morocco, I had this persistent cough that gradually developed into a major respiratory infection over the next few weeks. My luggage hadn’t arrived, and within two days I had succumbed to the gastro-intestinal hazards of travel. I had some challenging times in Morocco, it was both beautiful and heartbreaking. I never felt more isolated. I knew I was in a country with millions of people that I could barely speak to or who could even understand me. Even our residence that summer highlighted our isolation. Our residence were little cottages by the school of agriculture in the country side about 20 minutes outside of town. We didnt’ interact with Moroccan students and there were only a few families living near by. It was hard to join in conversations about their sheltered, idealistic lives. Others dominated the conversations and it was hard to find an opening. I knew none of them related to me. And if you can’t relate to someone, how can you like them? The tensions rose as they would make comments like, “They’re staring at us because we’re white.” And I’d say, “Well, I’m not white.” I was told that I said was being offensive when I visited the Marzouga and saw the evidence the ancient slave trade in the faces of the brown people. As I looked outside the window, I said to myself, “All these brown people….they’re beautiful!!” Realizing I was in a van full of white people who couldn’t relate to my whole sense of wonder of being in Africa, but at the same time seeing the counterparts to Black Americans in Diaspora. Unlike us Black Americans, the people in this region still had a distinct culture and identity. In the midst of my wonder, I realized I had to self censor. So awkwardly, I immediately followed up my two statements with, “Awesome!” (I know, I’m from Cali and I said it in a kinda like Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger) A few weeks later, someone told that they were deeply offended when they heard me say, “All these brown people, they’re beautiful! I feel at home!” I was deeply hurt, that my profound moment of wonder at a North African society heavily influenced by an influx of sub-Saharan Africans would be misconstrued. I felt alone then, that there was noone to share that moment.

I think after that, it was clear I was on my own. I began to withdraw and tried to ride each wave and not complain. I grew tired about the constant complaints, we all were tired of various things. And for me, I was tired of being isolated in a bubble of American students abroad. I often listened to my CDs. I stopped writing in my journal, hoping that time would provide the right perpective to make sense of what I was experiencing. At night I began to draw comfort by memorizing Qur’an. Thinks seemed to melt away when reciting Qur’an. I began to reflect and ponder the verses I memorized. And accepting that I had no one, opening myself up to the silence, an ineffable change happened. I felt like I was embraced by warmth and my heart was at ease.

During my second trip to Morocco I experienced a few days where I felt isolated. It is a lot more difficult to travel by yourself as a woman in the Middle East. In Morocco, if you walk outside as a woman, you’re asking for a lot of trouble. My first trip to Europe exposed me to a different type of isolation. I experienced many days of silence in during my week in Durham, England. The town was half empty. London can be a lonely place, you will sit alone and not one person will talk to you. Few people will even pass you a friendly smile.

But my most challenging period, happened last year. That was when I experienced my loneliest day ever, Christmas in Kuwait. In truth, it wasn’t because I missed Santa Claus and presents. Of course I missed my family and on that day. But after a traumatic event involving children and an injured pet, I had all my fears, suspicions, and doubts had been affirmed. I wrote about some of my struggles and isolation in Kuwait in my blog entries, Missing and How Am I Doing? My circumstances were trying and I sunk into a dark place in that basement apartment.

I was glad to leave the shining malls of Kuwait for the rat race of Cairo. Here, in the bustle and buzz, sometimes you avoid going out because it can be overwhelming. In a city of 20 million, you realize how small you are and how hard it is to stay connected with the friends in town. I met my previous roommate in America the summer before. At that time, she had left Egypt for good and I was actually sad because I was looking for contacts in Cairo. By November everyone was encouraging me to come to Egypt and I heard she was looking for a roommate. I had no idea how was I to get to Egypt. But then things began to unfold and I found some openings and opportunities. I met my friend in Alexandria and from there we searched for an apartment in Caior. Before I moved to the MIddle East, I had never lived with a Muslim woman. This sister became a dear friend and constant companion. She was so supportive and encouraging on so many levels. After the tensions with some of my friends back home, the loneliness of Kuwait, my roommate was a breath of fresh air. Her constant support and care helped stave off my feelings of isolation. I remained largely connected through the blogging community, my communication and links were mainly through stilted chats. But I was so busy in Cairo, working, taking classes at the French center, at al-Diwan, eating, washing and hanging clothes, and learning to navigate, that it was hard to dwell too much on home sickness. But when you travel abroad, there inevitably comes a time when your travel companions go away or some issue that could be solved swiftly at home drags on for days. Things run in unfamiliar ways. Sometimes even finding solid advice can be challenging. But traveling alone, you learn self reliance, creativity, and perseverance.

Looking back, I can think about a number of things I could have done to ameliorate the isolation. I’m a home body, and it is easy for me to sink into a funk without knowing its happening. Sometimes you just got to get out and take a walk. Make lots of friends where you are at. Even if it is a headache getting from A to B, foster friendships with people you get along with. Travel with people you know or trust. If you travel with people you’ve never travelled with, have a plan B and an escape plan C. Stay in contact with people back home. Guilt friends and family members into emailing or calling you. Don’t just focus on your adventures, but ask them how they are doing. Make phone, chat, or skype appointments with people back home. Develop a hobby. Keep a journal. Embrace the silence and enjoy spending time with yourself. Sometimes all it takes is to just keep breathing, breath because with every difficult comes relief.