You’re Invited

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Familiar Stranger: Thoughts on Philosophy and History

Sometimes in class, I feel like I am a stranger. You know, like a friend asked me to meet them at a party, but didn’t show up. So I’m stranger at a party that I was not invited to. And everyone is trying to be friendly but wondering how I fit into the equation. What can I do? I try to find commonality and be gracious as possible. But class is not a party. Sometimes a class is not a class, but a performance and a game. My classmates drop names, referring to texts and contexts that I’m only vaguely familiar with. Not only do I feel confused, but I feel like I’m losing every round. How does one become engaged intellectually when it becomes more about performance and winning points?

Despite the downfalls of class performance, I am sometimes inspired in my intellectual pursuits. Recently, I have been inspired by my friend’s epic journey into mysticism, postmodernism, and existential phenomenology. We do very different things, but we are both studying something that moves us. I am interested in what moves people and moving people. Specifically, people who migrate and become strangers in foreign lands for religious purposes.

I had big ambitions this evening. I began doing a little research on theoretical and analytical tools that might help shape my research and writing. My three goals this next year are to develop my languages, to sharpen my intellect, and broaden my base of knowledge. I have lots of questions and some fuzzy ideas about things I would like clarified. Then big idea came to me: look for critical summaries of the books I would like to read before I leave for Egypt. If I familiarize myself with the concepts, I might be more comfortable approaching these Great Books, the canon of western thought. I want something to work with as I write another seminar paper.

Almost every serious study on Africa and the Middle East indicates the importance of knowing about European thinkers, philosophers, and theorists. Even if you can’t apply the theoretical or analytical tools of Marx, Foucault, Gramsci, Weber, Wallerstein, etc. to Africa, you still have to contend their analysis. While it is important to recognize how they can be useful, you have to be familiar with them to know their shortcomings.

From my conversations with my friend, I began to think about how existential phenomonology may be useful in critiquing materialist analysis of religious movements, such as rational choice theory and poltical economy theory. I remember asking one of my professors, a Marxist historian, “why should we assume that human beings are rational actors?” My big question: How do we take into account non-material motivations? What about people who sacrifice themselves for religion or ethnics? Specifically, can you make a rational choice equation figuring in a religious person’s desire for union with God? What about the insane and irrational? How do we factor in culture and faith? Often the conventional histories and euro-centric approaches disregard the experiences of vast majority of people. I have often found books written by Western scholars troubling because they seem to belittle people’s lived experiences and the ways they understand the world.

I began looking into ways existential thought could be a tool to think about my work. Since I am interested in religiously motivated mobility, I didn’t want to focus on a material analysis of migration. As I was researching various writers and creating a little database to save my notes. I came several people who interested me. But one stuck out because I remember being really upset about reading his work–Albert Camus.

I first read Camus in a Maghribi social history class three years ago. We read an English translation of his novel, L’Étranger, The Stranger(1942).It is set in Algeria and the main character, Meursault, is a French settler colonist kills an Arab. Here is a bit about what Robert Royal wrote about Albert Camus:

Robert Royal writes that Albert Camus “was both shadowed and inspired by the voiceless mass of people, who, like the Algerians of his youth, go through their lives leaving barely a trace of their existence” (Royal, 1995: 54).

Royal tells us that Camus devised a three stage writing plan. In this first phase, Royal tells us, Camus wrestled with the nihilistic movement. This context offers an important lens by which to view the novel. Camus tries to come to terms with the absurd. Royal writes that Camus believed this was an important step towards a “fuller vision of human meaning and value” (Royal, 1995: 56).

Here are some of my thoughts on the story:

Clearly from The Stranger Camus told the story of an Algeria from the pied noir, perspective of a settler colonist, perspective. The books serves a dual purpose, giving voice to an overlooked community and reflecting an international intellectual movement–existentialist movement. At the same time, it is an artistic creation that offers a view of how a pied noir viewed his world. In order to understand Meursault’s view of Algerians, and Camus rendered them invisible and voiceless, it is important to consider the reasoning and workings of settler colonialism.

Camus does something important, he shows how settler colonialism builds within itself a number of contradictions. It dehumanizes both the colonized and the colonizer. Activists have demonized the colons, and Camus shows how one man could take the life of a dehumanized “other.” Camus, however, refrains from a didactic tale because the contradictions reflect absurdity of existence.

Writers like Memmi and Fanon have explored the psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized. But few writers have elaborated on the psychological effects of being the colonizer. Camus offers a glimpse of the colon’s anxiety. Camus novel starkly reminds us that Europeans and indigenous North Africans lived in a parallel world. How were the distinctions drawn when their lives intersected? The colons were privileged and rendered Algerians voiceless. In the novel, they were like cardboard characters, drawn out to fill space. Through the novel we are given the names of Europeans but those who were seen as Arabs were without names and without history….

A classmate called the main character, Meursault, an existential hero. That to me was the most absurd thing about the novel. I was deeply troubled when I read the bok. I remember in class spinning off into some tangent about how white colonizers render the colonized subjects invisible. People thought my my tangent was actually funny because I went off about Tolkien–who likely saw people of color in South Africa–and his ultra white Lord of the Rings. People are really dismissive about the racist assumptions that were commonly held during that time. But I have found some articles that point out that a few scholars have pointed out Tolkiens racial symbolism. In a similar way, I found Camus’s novel to be racist. I really doubt that he was a racist, but the novel promoted the image that Algerian Arabs were objects. They were mistreated, abused, ignored, and murdered in the novel. They also did not have a voice. Nor were they valorized as existential heroes. That day, more than any other day, I felt like a familiar stranger. I related to those voiceless Arabs in Camus’s novel. I felt like those great European writers, like Tolkien wished me away as they created a perfect white world. Sometimes it is difficult to read and absorb the works of Great thinkers, become so intimately familiar with their ideas, while at the same time always being that “other.” The ones who say that I don’t have a history. The ones who overlook my experiences because it is not meaningful to them. The ones who have disregarded the lives of countless people who exist in the Global South.
In order to engage in broader debates I have to be that familiar stranger. But this raises the question, can those who do not see us tell us a great deal about our lives and experiences? I am not sure.But in order to engage in a discussion with those who view the world through a western lens, I have to understand how they order their world. So, in the end I think that understanding their philosophies may be useful. Perhaps something can be legible…