Better Left Unsaid

I used to hate it when people would advise me to take my problems to my Lord. I was a bit confounded when a friend told me that my problems would work themselves out if I prayed tahajjud some more. Muslims aren’t the only ones who give that advice; Christians and even New Agey folks do it too. Christians take it to Jesus and if you’ve read the Secret basically everything is your fault because you attract negative energy. The pop psychology approach tells us that we fall into certain patterns due to some past trauma. There is some lesson in our problems, one that we fail to see. So, read the right self help book and reflect on your poor choices because the solution lies within.

Perhaps my spiritual journey is tied to my self-critical and sensitive nature. Growing up sensitive was not easy, as I was surrounded by critical people. And I tended to draw people near me who were no-holds-barred, tell-’em-like-it-is folks. On top of that, I have an emotive face. Some people call that wearing your heart on your sleeve. Without the mask, I’ve had to be honest and up front rather than let people feel smug for reading me like a book. So that means that I’ve often disclosed what’s going on with me because it was already apparent that something was boiling under the surface.

I have to admit that I’ve always been impatient with flippant responses to my complicated problems. An empathetic ear has always been important because I’ve always been hard on myself. I’ve always been hard on myself, wanting to be a good person by spending a great deal of energy pleasing others. I would want some person who was sympathetic, who could understand what I was experiencing. This was especially the case if I was going through something that was alienating. When I first got the “pray on it” advice from friends and family, I’d get frustrated because I wanted instant feedback or a kind word letting me know that I wasn’t a terrible person, something I experienced was unjust, or that my perception of reality wasn’t off.

By sharing your problems, you may get the instant gratification of feedback. There may even be some commiseration. And misery does love company. But often, sharing your problems with other people often doesn’t fix them. Some things are best left unsaid. I can say that after being hurt by friends and loved ones who have used some information I’ve shared with them in a hurtful way. It’s another thing if you are looking for strategies to deal with a situation. In that case, by all means talk to a trusted advisor, a counselor, or true friend. I suggest an advisor or counselor because the nature of your relationship is unlikely to change. God willing, you have a confidentiality agreement so they won’t share your personal information.

Things aren’t so bad, alhumdulillah, you’re still living. There’s nothing to worry about. If you have your health alhumdulillah. If you don’t, then there is some expiation in your hardship and you’re not dead yet. Once you’re dead, then there’s no need to worry because it is a done deal and your fate is sealed. My mentor was right, pray the istikhara and find that answer within yourself. More often than not, we want advice from somebody who will support us in doing something we planned to do anyway. Only the masochistic take criticism from friends, family, and advisors. Otherwise, deflect….deflect…deflect. Ultimately, you have to live with your own decisions and their repercussions in this life and the next.

The Apocalypse and beyond

Parts of Philadelphia are so blighted that there is really little hope for rebuilding. Those parts that are being rebuilt have become enclaves for the bourgeoisie and their re-gentrification projects. In Philadelphia blight is often just around the corner from affluence. The shift is dramatic and can best be illustrated on certain bus lines such as the 57 going from Penn’s Landing, through Northern Liberties, into North Philly. Some blocks of Philly are are just crumbling shells with just a few row homes suitable for habitation. I’ve passed by blocks where two row homes stood like broken teeth. Some neighborhoods can feel really heavy in their depressed state, forsaken by America. Sure, there are services, such as water and gas, and people can move through the city due to public transportation. But when the bus lines went on strike, I began to wonder about the vulnerability of the poor, disabled, and elderly. What happens if the state fails(I’m talking about the nation-state, not just Pennsylvania) collapses and society collapses?

Photo credit: Michael T. Regan Original source: City Paper
Sometimes I feel like we’re all in the midst of the apocalypse but are in denial. Maybe it is ending slowly, as we are losing our grasp on our humanity. It is not so farfetched, when you really think about it. As a child in of the 80s, I grew up under the threat of a nuclear holocaust. The idea of the world as we know it ending is part of our popular imagination. We have the upcoming Hughes Brothers’ film, the Book of Eli, 2012, I am Legend, Delicatessan, the Road, Mad Max, and countless other films and books.

Some days, I think the end is near. The hints of social decay are all around us. There are parts of Philadelphia, Detroit, and West Oakland that remind me of the Terror Dome. A few weeks ago, I took a wrong turn leaving my school as I headed to the social security office. It finally dawned on me that I have been working in a North Philly post industrial wasteland. Within these streets, the border between the sociopathic and the plain ole ignorant seems to get really murky. Certain honor codes have gone by the wayside. Grown men in army uniform cuss out old ladies on the bus, women prostitute their children for a rock, and little girls get their faces blown off because they come from the wrong neighborhood. The level of violence reminds me that we don’t have to wait for the End of Days. I’ve prayed several janazahs at al-Aqsa where young Muslims lost their lives in senseless violence. Who needs fiction when you’re living your own apocalypse? I think our society, which once valued the untamed wilderness of the West, enjoys flirting with disaster. The urban apocalypse is our new frontier.

Lost Boundaries: Race Problems Films in 1949 and their Significance in 2009

I wanted to share a few quotes from a work that is somewhat of a blast from my Academic past. I began working on this draft in 2002 and finished it by 2003 for a “Historical methods” course in undergrad. I was limited to a subject dealing with American history and had to locate a topic that would wield sources easily accessible to an undergrad with no archival experience. I wanted to choose a topic that related to my experience. At first, I wanted to write a paper about political leanings of the Black American Muslim community through the WD Muhammad community and compare that to the political leanings of immigrant led organizations such as ISNA. My Muslim peers were against that idea. So, I decided to work on a paper that didn’t explore the fractures and fragmentation of the American Muslim community. Instead, I chose a topic that dealt with race in America. Like most Black families, we have our family histories peppered with stories of interracial marriages between Black and Native American, accounts of children born from sexual unions between White men and Black women, and tales of this branch of the family or other passing for white. I grew up in a household full of racially ambiguous Black women, which contrasted with my experience as a phenotypically Black woman. In a way of connecting to my sister and niece, I began exploring issues of Black identities, multi-racial identity, white privilege, colorism, and class. For my research project I was initially interested in the history of Free Black communities in New Orleans. But after consultation I decided to explore similar themes through media representations of mixed race Black Americans. I looked at all the films dealing with Black American life and found a disproportionate amount of films dealing with racial passing and very few of the stories were written by Black Americans who appeared to be phenotypically white. I explored this theme in Black films and literature and soon learned that the race passing trope had little to do with the experience of mixed race individuals, but more to do with the discourse on racial place in America. Two films stood out to me because they represented a pivotal time in American race relations following World War II as America tried to normalize and reset race relations.

In light of the discourse on post racial America, Barack Obama, and the Tiger Woods situation, I think it is appropriate to revisit these issues. In 2010, there is less of a need to pass by hiding one’s African heritage. Rather, people are politely passing by checking out of Blackness. James Weldon Johnson’s main character in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man takes this position when he declares that he “would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race.” Many multi-racial people resent the Black community’s opinion of those who check “other” and do not identify as Black. I understand their sentiment, but I think that the ways in which both mainstream America and multi-racial individuals talk about Black America’s ambivalence towards this phenomena tends to be over-simplified. While I am not an expert on racial formations in America, I do think advocates of both the post-racial society and the the multiracial movement both depict Black identities in a ahistorical way. There is still more dialog that needs to occur, as Black identity in the 21st identity is shifting where individuals can have the choice to opt in or out. Now, one can have one drop and still live a relatively white life. There are countless individuals who do it. But back in 1949, that Black drop could be devastating as evidenced by this 1949 film which was based on a true story.

This short film clip is packed with problematic scenes. The one I found most disturbing was the nightmare sequence where Black faces are transposed onto white faces.

Here’s a snippet of the paper:

The Social Significance of Racial Ambiguity in two 1949 Negro Problem films, Pinky and Lost Boundaries
Margari Hill

“Most anthropologists agree there will be no Negro problem in another two hundred years; by then there will not be enough recognizable Negroes left in this country to constitute a problem.”
Ralph Linton, Anthropologist, 1947

A 1950s scientific study titled “Complete White-Negro Mixing in 1,000 Years,” determined that that 3.6% of genes in the African American gene pool, “are freshly introduced from the North American white population per generation.” Ralph Linton saw this trend as the resolution to racial tensions in America. Once African Americans were physically and culturally indistinguishable from whites, Linton concluded, it would be impossible to discriminate against them. The Mississippi Democratic Senator, Theodore Bilbo, wrote back to Linton saying he’d rather a hydrogen bomb drop on America than see the mongrelization of the races. Linton, assured Bilbo and his readers that race mixing goes only one way—to lighten Negroes.
Regardless of their outward appearance, social institutions and many laws restricted individuals classified as Negro in a system that privileged Whites over Blacks. Race passing was a way that few Negroes escaped discriminating laws. In a society preoccupied with racial identity and classification, racially ambiguous individuals were a special problem.

Race passing challenged accepted norms and was so shocking and controversial that its sensationalism drew movie audiences. In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, the leading authority on African Americans in motion pictures, Donald Bogle, lists the pantheon of iconic figures. Bogle writes that the, “moviemaker’s darling is the tragic mulatto.” The following films have explored this theme: God’s Step Children (1937) Imitation of Life (1934) and (1958), Showboat (1936) and (1951), Lost Boundaries (1949), Pinky (1949), Band of Angels (1957), Night of the Quartermoon (1959), Shadows (1960), I Passed for White (1960), King’s Go Forth (1958), Queen (1993), Devil and a Blue Dress (1995), and Feast of All Saints (2001). As evidenced through the changes in the depiction of race passing, these stories reflect America’s changing race relations.

In 1949, the release of three racial problem films broke new ground in the depiction of African Americans. Two of the films exploited the racial passing plotline and were starred in, written, and produced by Whites. Because of various compromises to the storylines, these films were less about the African American experience than White privilege. An examination of the mainstream press’s treatment of Pinky and Lost Boundaries in comparison with African American press reveals that these movies were more of a discourse on White privilege than racial injustice.

If you’d like a copy of the paper, you can email me.

Naysaying Loved Ones

I’m sure there are other converts who experience the Naysaying loved ones who take jabs at your religion when you’re down. Many of our families are not supportive of the struggles to wear hijab, career changes where you don’t compromise your faith, even process of getting married without the whole dating and cohabitating for years thing. Basically by becoming Muslim, they question your judgment. Even if it is not explicit, their implicit disapproval for your religion can be seen in their skeptical response to even your happiest moments. Then their doubts and concerns about your lifestyle commitments become more explicit when life gets rocky. If you are not a happy smiling Muslim, well the problem is your religion. Talking to non-Muslim friends and family members about problems can open you up for critiques about Islam. I’ve heard things from non-Muslim family members such as, “Well, your prayers aren’t working for you” or “Well, what have the Muslims done for you?” or “Maybe this religion isn’t for you.” These statements are not something you want to hear when you are looking for consolation or going through lonely times. Even though the Shaolin monks could kick some butt, you’re supposed to maintain a zen like calm under whatever threats because any human failings such as losing your temper under pressure are blown up to signs of hypocrisy. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I stick to myself, especially as I struggle to gain footing in Philadelphia, to reset my career path, try to make sense out of the ins and outs of this new life.

Those who were born into practicing Muslim families may not experience the occasional bouts of Islam bashing from their families. In general, their families will support decisions to be Muslim. Nor will their families take shots at their religiosity during those hard times. Maybe not from their practicing parents, but perhaps from their non-practicing siblings or other relatives who are not Muslim. But that critique is something that really hurts when it comes from a parent. That family disconnect is what makes the situation of converts alienating. I think that’s why we cling to the ideals of the ummah, feel even more hurt when excluded from particular communities. We have not broken family ties, but we have become the “Other” amongst the people who know us best. I’m not saying I have been persecuted for converting. However it still is an unknown factor, an oddity that they are not entirely comfortable with. I did lose a lot of friends in my spiritual journey and extended family situations can be awkward, especially in the past few years when I began practicing outwardly again. I have learned that over the years I have to tolerate ignorant comments about the Muslim world, about politics, I have to take the pot shots and the jokes in stride just to keep the peace. But on an emotional level, when you are looking for someone who has your best interest at heart, you realize that your relatives and friends are no Abu Talib, and that really hurts. There is an increased pressure to make life appear picture perfect or at least not share my ups and downs with others because my lows can be another indictment against my faith, let alone my decision to practice it with sincerity.

Loneliness Spreads like a Virus

A recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology offers something to think about. Loneliness spreads like a virus, as the study suggests, and it is not a personality trait. Instead, it is a condition like hunger. We human beings are naturally social and we crave human interaction. I think this is important to think about because whether we like to talk about it or not, many Muslim women are depressed. Much of it is due to social isolation. And I don’t mean just from purdah (secluding oneself in the home), but isolation as part of the modern condition where mass migration and high mobility separate us from friends and family. I have talked to a number of women, from new mothers, to newlyweds, to ex-pats, and immigrants, and a number of women I know, including myself, have experienced debilitating loneliness. How to combat loneliness? That is a hard thing, especially because it leaves you vulnerable and especially sensitive to social slights. The article states:

While a runny nose might spread through handshakes, people likely catch the loneliness bug through negative interactions. A lonely person will be less trusting of others, essentially “making a mountain out of a molehill,” said study researcher John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. An odd look or phrasing by a friend that wouldn’t even be noticed by a chipper person could be seen as an affront to the lonely, triggering a cycle of negative interactions that cause people to lose friends.

When you’re down in the dumps, it is much harder to make new friends or repair old ties. I don’t think it is just the lonely person’s fault. Sometimes people can act like vultures and prey on the weak or wounded. It is easy to take a pot shot at someone who is already down. In fact, some people can be downright mean as they see emotions as a sign of vulnerability. The trick for a lonely person is to reach out, slowly build real relationships where both parties earn each other’s trust. Another downfall of loneliness and negativity is that you can attract other people who are also angry and negative. Misery loves company. And as the study suggests, if you are around a lonely person that bug may catch you too. Maybe you can find activities to be around people doing something positive, instead of talking and commiserating. The most important lesson I walked away from after reading the article is that we should work hard as a community to reach out to people who are on the outskirts. We can’t just let people drift away, instead we should help them repair old social ties and create new ones. We all need circles of friends and associates for support. Living abroad and relocating several times has really brought that point to bear for me. We have to think about addressing these issues on a personal level and a community level. We’re all busy, but our modern lives and technology have created more communication but greater social isolation. We can all use a bit more face to face interactions and authentic relationships. Creating companionship is just hard work, but for our own emotional, psychological, and physical health we should work on it. Read more here.