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.

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.

Race and the Flip Side of Sex Tourism

While visiting the Tafilelt, Morocco in 2004, I passed by an odd couple in a resort hotel. The woman looked old enough to be the young man’s grandmother. But they weren’t related. He was clearly Moroccan, a beautiful bronze complexioned twenty year old with large doe eyes, and a head full of big dark curls. She was clearly a European woman, her pale liver spotted skin loosely draped on her thin frame. The woman made a romantic gesture towards him, making it clear that he was not merely a tour guide. The young man had a new set of designer shades and a crisp new outfit. The woman seemed self satisfied as if she defeated something. He was her brown prize, even if only for that moment. That air about her made her almost radiant, even through her sun damaged skin. The man seemed slightly annoyed, impatient, as if anticipating something more.

I think that was the closest I’ve come to Female Sex Tourism (see wiki entry here). But I’ve heard that it is popular in several locations where there are large numbers of unemployed brown men. In fact, someone told me that making out with a Moroccan was part of the travel experience. From the wiki article, it looks like Morocco ranks up there in the female tourism industry. I’m also familiar with stories about female sex tourism in the Caribbean. A close friend of mine, a guy originally from Guyana but grew up in the Virgin Islands told me stories about his friends. Many of the local guys hung around the docks waiting for the cruise ships to unload white girls. It was an easy hook up, no strings attached, and sometimes they’d get something out of the deal. It was especially the case if the woman was less than attractive. They might receive more than free drinks, but clothes, watches, and even money.

In November Reuters featured a story Older White women enjoy Kenya’s Sex Tourism . I found it interesting because the year before I was in an ongoing debate about Black men and Sex tourism.
During that time, there was a flurry of articles and commentary responding to William Jelani Cobb’s expose. like this and a One brother pointed out that Terry McMillan’s When Stella got her Groove Back opened doors for professional Black women to travel to the Caribbean for a little bit of relaxation and hook-up

Sex Tourism by Annan Boodram

Annan Boodram wrote an interesting <a href=”http://www.caribvoice.org/Travel&Tourism/sextourism.html”>piece</a&gt;.

Dr. Phillips emphasized that sex tourism, a product of slavery, was not new to the Caribbean. White women always wanted to sample black men, while the latter saw them as their hope of financial and social boost, she added.
American sociologist Klaus de Albuquerque agrees with the erotic element to sex tourism. He believes that for the white woman who flock to the Caribbean for sea, sun and mostly sex, it’s a ‘phallic sojourn’ in search of the ‘big bamboo’.
If an ‘escort’ plays his cards right, being with a tourist sexually can raise him a pretty penny. Most of the women are into oral sex, largely taboo among Jamaican males; for this act, some of the women are reportedly willing to pay as much as US$100. According to a Jamaican beach bum ‘Jim’, this is normally played out in their hotel room.
The success of the Terry McMillan’s book and film ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’ added a fillip to sex tourism as many successful American women flocked to the Caribbean beaches to find sex and romance.
Indeed the majority of these adventurous tourists travel to Jamaica in the winter season. They are single women in their mid-forties and are from major cities in the United States. They are not necessarily into long-term relationships, but Jim says they return regularly to their island boy, bringing gifts like jewellery,designer sneakers and clothing.
But while they like the gifts the ‘escorts’ ultimate hope is to be like Winston, Terry MacMillan’s lover – marrying and migrating, preferably to the United States. It gives them an opportunit for a new life and better days for their children. But to Dr Anthony Bryan, a prominent Caribbean scholar and professor of international relations at the North-South Centre of the University of Miami, the desire of white women and men to pay for sex can be traced, in part, to “The racist stereotype of the exotic and erotic black or mixed-race woman or man”.

I find this whole trend disturbing. I actually didn’t know it had been going on as long as it did. I really find the apologetic tone troubling. But clearly, from the media representations, Female Sex Tourism captures a lot of people’s imagination. There have even been a film about Female Sex Tourism, “Going South”and a play. While people have argued nobody had a problem with the film “When Stella Got Her Groove Back” people critique Black men who travel to exotic locales to hook up. I take pride in not ever having read a Terry McMillan book, but I have been subjected to several of her films including Stella. From what I remember, Stella did not go to Jamaica to hook up. But she did find her groove an other things. This story was loosely based off of McMillan’s life. And if you want to see how that story ends read here.

Back, well sort of

 I’m back, well sort of. I’m back in Kuwait from my two week trip to Egypt. Fourteen years ago, I used to only dream of visiting places like al Azhar and the pyramids.  I definitely could not have imagined living in the Gulf.  I became Muslim shortly after the Gulf war ended Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq. I definitely could not have imagined that I would thrive here of all places. Like every dream I’ve had and been able to live, my dream of seeing the Middle East turned out so much different than what I expected. Even with this trip to Egypt. It was really a lifetime dream. It was so much different but so much better than I expected. Slowly, over time, I am getting to know Egypt. I am learning how to get around, to find places I love. I’m learning how things work. How things don’t work. And I’ve learned a lot in a short time. I’ve learned that I’m prone to erupt in tears when hungry and frustrated. I’ve learned how much luggage I could lift just to avoid feeling jipped by someone demanding bakteesh. I’ve learned that I can meet people on common ground. I’ve learned to cross the street while cars are racing by, as if I have some force field to repel cars. I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned more the obstacles I face in life (the biggest one being myself) and a bit about what it will take to overcome them. I’ve learned that I am here because of the goodness of my brothers and sisters (regardless of race, religion, or creed). All that goodness comes from one source, and for that I am truly blessed.

Taking real trips, avoiding tourist traps, going alone and seeing the down and dirty you get to experience real life. A few years ago, I was able to  see how poor and Middle class Moroccans live. I have mingled with the upper middle class Egyptians, spent way several evenings in city stars, visited a family in the City of the Dead, experienced life in the suburbs of Cairo. I have met religious and western trained scholars, teachers and educators, everyday workers and craftsmen. I have spent 8 hours with a taxi driver conversing  in broken English and Arabic.  I have seen seen beach side resorts, watched a lively Alexandrian woman bargain to have a duffle bag handmade on the spot.  I have ridden on a felucca blasting belly dancing music, watching muhajabats bellydance. I have strolled old palace gardens, ate ice cream outside a pre-modern fort put my feet in the Mediterranean.  I have been on the receiving end of lewd comments and unsolicited flirting. I have had met men who were protective and made sure that I was okay.  I have been hustled and received kind gifts of generosity.

For me, traveling and living abroad is a chance to learn a different way of life. I believe we are made of different so that we can get to know each other, and as we get to know each other, we can learn from each other. I believe travel is a way of learning about yourself, about others. It is an ideal opportunity to transform yourself (and I don’t mean just going native). Some of the things I have experienced really make me want to be a better person. Arab hospitality is something that I have really come to admire.  Years ago, I first experienced it when visiting my Libyan American friends. They fed us hearty North African food, couscous served with savory tomato based stew, lamb soup with cilantro, tomatoes, and pasta, sweets,  Ahmad tea with milk served in beautiful cups. My Muslim friends made us as comfortable as possible frequently asking me to stay the night in order to avoid a long drive in the dark. I never felt unwelcome or that my presence was burdensome. My experiences with Muslims from various cultures raised my bar for hospitality. For fourteen years, I have had high standards to meet. Sometimes I come short. But often, when I grocery shopping I buy something just in case I have a random guest drop by. At minimum, I have an elegant tea set to serve my guests. I love cooking,  I love having people over to share food with. But the pace of life in grad school often sucks up all my spare time. But the value of hospitality is something that I feel is still ingrained in my from my grandmother’s southern roots. The past two weeks in Egypt reminded me how hospitable Arabs can be. The kindness I was shown really warmed my heart. I know that if ever I have a guest, I will try my best to do what was done for me in the past two weeks.

Being away has been nice. It makes you appreciate little things. It makes you appreciate being able to let go of less important things. Walking the streets of Cairo or the malls of Kuwait, so much that seems heavy back in the states lifts away. It is break from the provincial thinking that many Americans have. For the past 7 years I have thought about where I want to live, knowing that I would spend a considerable amount of time in the Middle East and Africa, and maybe even Europe. While abroad reading blogs reminds me about what people are struggling with in the States. I think about those issues, and what type of life I want to lead. Sometimes the prospects and opportunities of teaching in some American University overseas some really great, especially considering the flurry of negative, unconstructive comments.   Although for the most part, my comments have been encouraging  I get frustrated sometimes. It reminds me that going back home means going back to a place full of baggage.

The first time I went to Morocco I felt a sense of relief. Honestly, I felt like it was a break from being Black. By that, I do not mean that I was escaping my Blackness. People did notice my skin color and I was treated differently than my white classmates abroad. I didn’t mind being nothing special on the street. I just kind of blended in.  People noticed my color, made reference to it, but my skin was in a completely different context. I wasn’t just another angry Black woman, nor did people assume that I was. Noone assume that I was from the hood, but they were surprised that I spoke “perfect” English and that my family didn’t immigrate to America. Many people assume I’m African, and a number who have said I look like a black Arab. Maybe because they haven’t been to America or they haven’t been exposed to all the stereotypes and the people who perform them perfectly to a “T.” But no one assumed I had a chip on my shoulder. If I had a grievance and got loud, that’s no problem because that’s what everyone does here. Arab women can be very dramatic bargaining or expressing complaints about services rendered. I never had to get too dramatic often ticket agents examining the size of my head luggage or forgiving the extra luggage would  say  things like, “I like to be kind to my American Muslim sister.” Many Egyptians and Kuwaitis don’t seem to assume that I’m un-marriageable. I meet women of various ages and they say things like, “Maybe  you will find somewhere here and stay” or “Marry an Egyptian and move here.”

I am not saying that this is solution to all my worries. But that not everybody is looking through a racialized lens every living breathing, waking moment. Nor do I claim that everything is perfect or that I’m living in a utopia. There are struggles, there are challenges, but I have been embraced by an amazing group of people. I miss my family like nothing else. But I’m not ready to go back to the States. Not yet.

Traveling

I haven’t written any blog entries because I’m traveling in Egypt until the 4th. I slept only an hour the night before the trip. I normally can’t sleep before a trip. So, I looked really tired when I arrived in Alexandria.  My Egyptian friend who spent several years in California with her husband met me at the airport. I swear, she and her family are among the nicest people you could possibly meet. That was evident back in California. But we didn’t get to spend a lot of time together before she and her husband returned to Egypt to start their lives.  Her family exemplified the Arab hospitality. The only comparable hospitality in the US would be maybe Southern, even though I’ve met really kind mid-westerners.   But even then, it is nothing on Arab hospitality. My hosts kept feeding me, and my friend’s mother-in-law gave me snacks and sweets to take with me on my 2  hour train ride to Cairo. Her father-in-law gave me a Qur’an with tajweed markings (which is soooooooo helpful). Also, since my purse’s zipper broke, they gave me a purse to carry all my things. I spend several hours with the family. They were so kind, and even gave me compliments on my Arabic (which was more than generous because it needs a lot of work).I was pretty nervous before leaving on the train. But my friend was really helpful, guiding me along the way and making sure I understood the illegible writing on the ticket (seriously it printed so faintly I could barely make out the numbers).  I always get nervous about train rides, in the US or abroad. Something about missing the stop, getting off too early, it just makes me nervous. I managed to get a second class ticket at 7:15, with an arrival time of 9:30 in Cairo.  I think I dozed off several times on the train ride. But I listened to my ipod, with each song bringing bringing back memories of someone or some place. Some songs brought back old feelings, as the time passed I kept thinking about how sweet or sad an experience was for me. I tried to set aside any preconceived notions. But I didn’t want to talk too much or stand out. It helped that I wore abaya. My friend noted that I didn’t stand out much as a foreigner. She noted that I looked like any African, like I could be Egyptian. She just said try not to be noticeable or speak loudly. I guess most Egyptians get confused, I am sure they assume I’m dumb because I can barely understand or it takes me a while to process what they’re saying. But overall, I didn’t get haggled too much as a foreigner and in general, people were courteous and helped me with my luggage as I struggled along. When I arrived in Cairo,  I slipped by a sleazy taxi cab driver and found a man that looked about 100 years old. He asked if I needed a taxi. I said “na’em,” like a good foreigner. I then told him Nasr city and pulled out address from my phone. He said 30 EGP, I said I heard 20 EGP. He said 25, I said, “tayyib.”  I’m staying with friends, who are also amazing hosts. It is really interesting to see the expat American Muslims, Arab Americans, British Arabs, as they manage lives in the hustle and bustle of Cairo. It gives me a chance to know what I’m in for. I guess I won’t be so overwhelmed when I come to live in Cairo to do research and continue studying Arabic. I don’t make it a point to do touristic things. Of course I want to see things. Coming to Egypt is  like a dream. I can’t believe I’m within reach of some of the most historical sites. I guess that’s why I’m not in such a rush to see everything. I have a fear that I’m going to impose some preconceived notions on this experience. Still want to see pyramids, al-Azhar, old markets, and even the cheesy touristy spots. But it is nice to just visit friends, get to know new people, and get a sense of the way of life.  

Half Empty

No, my cup does not “runneth over.” I’m looking at it half empty. I read a recent study that suggests that some people may be hard wired to be optimists. I don’t think I came equipped with that hard wiring. I’ve tried to reset my hard wiring. But I’m an over-achieving, constant worrier, sensitive, hyper-critical, driven person.

I know a lot about myself because I began my self exploration at a young age. Much of it was influenced by mom mom. She was always an avid reader. She had library of self-help books. I remember seeing expensive book and tape sets from Dianetics, the Silva Method, and Tony Robbins. She had books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and dozens of titles from how to became a self made millionaire, to how to actualize your dreams. My mother read popular psychology books, relationship books, horoscope books, speed reading, and Mega-memory. She had a range of new agey books about positivity, meditation, relaxation, personal development, and spirituality. But growing up I just thought most of the stuff was rubbish. I mean, I respected her meditation. She’d come home from work and handle her business until around 10 when she’d listen to her relaxation CDs till she fell asleep. She’d then wake up at 4:30 and begin the next day. My mom did not have a lot of encouraging people around her. For her, these books offered keys into providing a better future for herself and children.But I grew up skeptical about the books. Mom was wasn’t positive all the time, nor did all her aspirations fall into place as her positive visualizations envisioned (at least that’s how I saw it at that time).

I developed a fatalistic attitude because contrary to what the books claimed a positive outlook didn’t always get you what you wanted in life. Then my intellectual proclivities added a hyper-critical aspect to my outlook. Sometimes I just lived in my head, trying to find overall patterns, the underlying logic to seeming absurdities. Everything I saw around me had to be picked apart. I developed insomnia thinking about ever interaction through the day, global issues, my own person conflicts. My life, itself was a battleground, a constant struggle to prove to myself and the world that I was a worthwhile. But how does one prove something that is inherent? How do you prove to people who wouldn’t be convinced no matter what evidence you brought forward? And why did I need to convince myself? Why do I still need to? My mom used to tell me that half the world will love you and the other half will hate you. Growing up I was obsessed with the half that hated me.

As I’ve matured, I have had some deep conversations with my mom. You know when most kids would claim that their moms were the most beautiful mom in the world. My mom was always stunning, turning heads wherever she went. She was well read and articulate, dedicated, tough as nails, and vulnerable. She spent her life searching for answers. Much of her quest centered on overcoming the box that people tried to put her in. Considering my mother’s hardships, she is a very optimistic person. In one of the conversations I told her of all that she accomplished. So many people looking on the outside would be jealous. She was owned her own home in one of the most expensive regions in the country, she had a luxury car, she dressed nice, two of her daughters attend prestigious universities, her son has never been to jail and is an entreprenuer, she has traveled abroad. She grew up in New Jersey’s rural area in poverty, at times living in a house that had an out house. She picked vegetables in the field to earn money. Her family then moved to the city and experienced the struggle of urban life, where my grandmother raised 6 children by herself. My mother had her first baby at a young age. From her teen years, she was independent, working jobs from shoe shine girl to seamstress. She lost one of her babies, let her abusive husband, and flew all the way to California to start a new life. She pushed her other three giving whatever our fathers didn’t. She said that for years she didn’t feel accomplished. But when she looked at an old list of goals she had set, she had accomplished many of them. It was suprising to her.

I learned some important lessons before I left the States. There was a family reunion and I spent almost a week with my grandmother. My grandmother is one of thse old school tough as nails little black women. After listening to a week’s worth of my grandmother’s complaints and grievances against everyone, I was tired. I began to realize how much a struggle can wear you down. I rsaw how much of that was instilled in me. It is the reason why I left the question mark in the title of my blog. It is the reason why I explore issues that touch sore spots, especially for Black Muslim Women. We struggle. My people have struggled. There are triumphs, but many of the stories are heartbreaking. That collective memory, as well as my own struggles were becoming part of me. I began to feel like everything was a fight. Every injustice and every affront (real or imagined) was a battle ground. For some of my ancestors it was life or death, it was the flight or fight from the lynch mob. We had real grievances, real injustices that reverberated in our daily lives in sometimes small and other times profound ways.

I have shared much of my struggles. But it recently dawned on me what have I said that is wonderful or amazing about my journey. There are many things. Today, was a mostly positive day. I had someone tell me that something I find spiritually rewarding and beneficial was fundamentally wrong. I didn’t want to engage in an argument. My linguistic capabilities in Arabic are not up to par to spar with a native speaker. I recognize people differ on many things. The way people feel about their particular stances will make best friends go to blows. As I try to navigate the world of new friends, I recognize that large parts of me will not be accepted by others. But that doesn’t mean that I want to be only around people like me. But I want to find a common ground with people who have different experiences and world views. I could focus on the half that we disagree on. But, I am hoping to find a way to find that base where we can agree to meet half-way.

I drove and got lost following simple directions to a park. I was about 40 minutes late and stressed out. It was a relief to make it there. I sat outside enjoying company of three really nice women. Two American and one British, we couldn’t be more different, we couldn’t be more alike in many ways. I can say after the past few weeks of solitude, I can appreciate the warmth. It was a breath of fresh air. The rest of my day rolled out smoothly. I see today may have provided me some major openings.

Plus, I got inspired to keep moving forward in changing the direction of my writing. One of the things that struck me in the conversation this evening was the conversation about the blog world. One woman said it was just draining. Another pointed to endless debates, generalizations, and unsubstantiated claims that try to pass off as dialogue. As I ween myself from pointless debates (I know I still have work to do on breaking away), I am more reflective of the way my writing may reflect of skewed worldview. By skewed, I mean one that focuses on the ugly, the controversy, the negativity, the injustice, that jumps out in our minds. This skewed vision overlooks the beautiful, the harmony, positive things, the examples of heroism and selflessness that should inspire us. While I take a break from serious intellectual clashes, I am still going to explore complicated issues. But as one sister pointed out, I’m not going to make my point with generalizations. I will qualify my statements. I will humbly recant when proven wrong or if my underlying logic is flawed. The exhausation from struggling, fighting, and climbing over obstacles is not a negative thing. I may have gotten the wind knocked out of me. But a lot of people are in my corner cheering me on. My cup is still half full. I might be able to savor that cup, enjoying every drop. Plus I got enough juice in me to get some steam going. Insha’Allah once that steam builds to a critical mass, I am sure I will be able to do some meaningful work.

Gender Segregation and Free Mixing: Where is the Equity in Reality?

My public presence is minimally disruptive, well that’s because I hardly ever go out. But when I do, I dress conservatively and go to most places that women are free to go. In Kuwait, I’m witnessing how gender segregation work in everyday life. There are prayer rooms for women in schools, in malls and stores, in parks, and restaurants. Even though I haven’t yet enjoyed the women centered amenities, I’ve heard that there are separate beaches, and tons of facilities for women like gyms and swimming pools and social clubs. There are many places where men are not allowed to go. I’ve seen gender segregation at Kuwait University and gender segregation in banks (yes a whole separate office space for women). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to equate gender segregation with Jim Crow. Our fountains are just as nice, as well as our bathrooms. We don’t sit in the back of the bus. We just don’t take the bus. I haven’t seen a sign where it says women are not allowed. I suppose that is just implied based upon context. And yes free-mixing goes on in Kuwait. But like one Kuwaiti woman told me, if you want to go to jennah don’t mix with men.

My friend says that my life reads like I’m in the middle of a participatory observatory study. But this is a real lived experience where I try to balance traditional social norms between men and women and my modern needs as a female student and traveler. In many ways I feel like I can’t win for losing. My friends says that is the only way to make sense of what I’m experiencing is to take an anthropological approach. The only thing is that the I’m not a detached observer, this is my life. I have a Muslim identity, so my so called experiment is directly tied to how I see myself. Also, the social censure has that extra bite. This is part of my social world and the social consequences can be far reaching.

My friend suggests that I write about my experiences because of its relevance to Muslims in the West. It is hard to imagine that what I have to say will really matter. In fact, it may put off a lot of people. For one, I find the rules of gender segregation are stifling. I wrote about the social isolation that I experienced during my first month in Kuwait. It is especially stifling to women who are socially punished by other women for non-conformity. I get the sense that I am a persona non grata. “Who are you?….Are you married?….Where do you live?..With who?…Ohhhhhhhhhhh…” and then awkward pause. I’ve already mentioned judgmental attitudes.

Maybe women who grow up in societies where women sit in the house all day are used to it. But for me, it makes me really unhappy (and I’m a homebody!) and I’m trying to find some way to have social outlets without seeming too desperate. Can I scream at the top of my lungs (PLEASE HANG OUT WITH ME CAUSE I’M GOING TO DIE OF BOREDOM!) I’m not saying that I do nothing all day. I spend much of my time studying. I have editing work, research, and I help out here and there. I even have a tutoring gig in the house, but we got off schedule. I have lot of busy work, I putter about in my room, and then for a few hours I may putter about the winding corridors of this flat. My social word, as well as that of my friend with children, contrasts with the buzzing social world of the male head of household.

So far, my social world is pretty spotty and the few opportunities are rather contrived. It really consists of me being a tag along or default invite to a family social function. Most of my socialization will have to be structured around classes and lectures. I go to a 2 hour Arabic class on Friday and I just started dars (lesson) on one of Ghazali’s books. So, that’s like four hours when I leave the house. But most of my lessons are in the house. For the past week a really nice Iraqi brother has offered to help me with my reading and grammar several days a week. I normally prepare for hours looking up words and translating the assigned text. We sit for an hour reading and talking about various Islamic subjects. I asked to sit in on his sessions of Arabic text incremental reading. So, for the past week, I’ve sat with two men in order to benefit from being immersed in the Arabic texts that are really for very advanced Arabic students. Since both speak English fluently, they define words I don’t know and explain difficult concepts. I hate to slow them down, but I benefit from getting a taste of texts that I might otherwise not read on my own. They are also patient as I try to articulate difficult concepts with my Arabic limitations. My friend’s husband has recruited another man to be a more formal instructor. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can have formal lessons with this teacher three days a week.

So far, it seems like I have had to transgress the boundaries of gender segregation to learn anything–especially when it comes to Arabic. I’m sitting in the highest level of Arabic offered at the Islamic Presentation Committee. There are 12 levels, this is level 6. The director said that maybe in three years she’ll see our class as graduates from the Arabic class. What that means is that the road to learning Arabic in places like IPC is real slow. I lacks the rigor that a serious student needs. And I found that outside Kuwait University (which brushed me off last minute), there are no full time Arabic programs. With all the students at the Islamic centers, no one is really invested to help fisabillah, maybe fisabalfaloos except for the gentlemen who have offered to help me get to the level of Arabic that I need to move on in my program. So, one has to ad lib. Outside of the group halaqa or dars, no women have volunteered to teach me or help me learn. Last month, I had a chance to meet a well known Syrian scholar. I asked if there were no women to study under, was it permissible to study under a man. He said yes, then hailed Syria’s female scholars. That’s nice, masha’Allah. Since I’m not in Syria, I have to make due.

I know for many Muslims sitting with a man alone is transgressive. If a man and a woman are lone than Shaitan is the third person. I even know a former graduate student who wouldn’t meet with her adviser alone because of that. This caused some problems for her non-Muslim adviser and her work wasn’t taken seriously. The lax Muslim in me just thought Muslims needed to get over it. period.But the Western me believed that we had the internal will to fight back what ever personal demons that might cause either party to objectify the other. There proggie Muslim in me believed that if the intention was pure and that if both people treated each other decently, then both parties could stay out of trouble.

When I had a private writing tutoring, I didn’ feel the same pressures as I do when I have a Muslim Arabic instructor. I’ve had Muslim instructors in the states and there was a bit of the pressure, the worry about adab. Maybe deep in my mind there was the psychological terror that I was leading someone on the path to perdition. The traditional me was convinced that a man and woman cannot be friends and something was fundamentally wrong with sitting in a busy coffee shop was somehow an illicit meeting.

As a young Muslim, I was criticized for free mixing too much. I even attended a study group full of enthusiastic Muslims. The more conservative MCA wouldn’t host a group like that, but we were able to go to SBIA and learn from each other. Unlike some of my non-free-mixing friends, I would have starved to death if I had no interaction with non-mahram men. I’ve always taken a pragmatic approach to free-mixing. I’m not saying that the results have all been good. I’ve had some fitnah past. But I am saying that I couldn’t follow the no free-mixing between the genders without dramatically altering my life–basically get married right away, having tons of babies, and rarely leaving the house. If I followed all the rules of gender segregation I wouldn’t have been able to get my education, let alone learn the language of the Qur’an. I’m aware there are many people who take issue with the path that I’ve chosen. I guess this is what I’d have to say to them: Before you condemn me for being some free-mixing loose Muslim woman, please consider what type of intellectual wasteland you’d banish me to.