Heartbreak, Detachment and Hope

Foregoing Community for Authentic Relationships

I came home from a community iftar on Saturday and tweeted this:

Margari Tweet

When asked what happened, I answered, “I’m breaking up with my community.” Anybody who has been through a divorce can tell you that ending a relationship can be a long process.  It begins with knowing that things aren’t working.

So, I’m in the process of breaking up with my community.

Two months ago, the reality of it being over hit home.  I was in a New York hotel, on the first over night trip away from my three-year-old daughter.  As my husband told me about the latest development in our Muslim community, I burst into tears. The masjid board was dissolved the month before, and the waqf took over, deciding not to institute elections for the foreseeable future.

I was losing the dream of an inclusive community, one where my daughter could belong to and one in which the 18-year-old version of me could prosper, rather than spiritually and economically flounder. I felt so hollowed out.  What had I been working towards for over a decade?

Read the rest on AltMuslim

Politically Incorrect pre-Ramadan post

Before Ramadan begins, I want to get something off my chest. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have felt excluded at some point during Ramadan.  However, there are some things that should be left unsaid about our friendships, especially during Ramadan. For example, if you hear that one of your friends is getting together with a some other folks, you shouldn’t say, “Why wasn’t I invited?” Here is where you should give your co-religionists 75 excuses, as opposed to harboring ill feelings during this blessed month. Besides, how many get togethers have you organized without inviting your whole address book? If you really want to hang out with said friend, invite them for an iftar. Maintain contact throughout the year, build closer bonds, and next year they will remember you. Stop worrying about whether or not you were included. There could have been  a myriad of reasons why you weren’t invited this time around: budgetary concerns of the host (it is expensive and the economy sucks); numbers (room may be full to capacity); crowd (it may not be your scene); organizer (perhaps the host is not even your friend or the event was to bring together certain people for a specific purpose); perhaps you don’t extend invitations yourself; perhaps they just forgot.  Ramadan is not a time to harbor bad feelings or develop envy over someone getting invited to an event that you were not invited to.

Contrary to our family’s face, our social world is very limited. As a recent transplant and new mother it can be isolating and challenging. There have been many a Ramadan when I received a scarce invitation outside the community events that are open to the public. The daily iftars at Stanford were great. I didn’t have to worry about stuff like that. But here, in Philadelphia, at my first public iftar, I felt like I was just an object in all the sisters’ way.  I didn’t feel very welcomed, so I understand.  Outside of a handful of friends that I run into at public functions, I get the warm smile and the I-recognize-you-and-and-your-husband-but-I’m-too-busy-to-talk-to-you interactions from most. During my first year in Philadelphia, we received two invitations to people’s homes. One ended badly when a guest turned out to be confrontational because many guests weren’t in his particular sect. My second Ramadan, we didn’t receive many personal invites either. Those that did invite us were recent transplants to the Philadelphia. My third Ramadan was similar, even as I was very heavily pregnant and majorly tired, I think some people complained about last year when we didn’t invite them. And once again, not many personal invites outside the usual transplants and public events.

A lot of people we know and have been close to have not invited us over to their homes for whatever reason. At times do I feel left out when they write about their functions and close ties in public forums like facebook? Yes. But do I put it in perspective and keep on moving? I try to and focus on what I can do to not feel so isolated while not breaking my bank or neglecting myself or my family. I know that Ramadan is not about being part of the in crowd or showing up at the who’s who event to eat up all of somebody else’s food. Nor is it about creating popularity contests. These are things we shouldn’t bother ourselves with because we should be focused on higher things. Okay, breath deep, now to focus on my pre-Ramadan jitters! Stay blessed all!

It’s not personal…

…but sometimes it is. There was a time when I was all about forging those bonds and finding a community of like-minded individuals online. When I was in my darkest times, I found support in a small community of bloggers.  I even became acquainted with my spouse and learned of our mutual interests through our writings.  For someone who has gained so much from my blog, why the trepidation of forging new friendships through it now? Life is a bit overwhelming for me to spend hours in chat or getting to know someone behind a screen name. I don’t sit behind a computer screen in an office job. Nor do I have hours of downtime like I did in Kuwait. But even more so, I have learned from past social missteps and heartaches that arose  out of connecting to strangers through social media.

Over time I retreated into a more personal world even as some people have reached out to me for support or friendship.  I guess I’m writing this because I feel guilty, however I have a greater need for privacy and real flesh and blood friendships. I am still “friends” with countless people who I have no personal contact with.  I often wonder why am I still connected and how to create greater degrees of separation in this monster called social media. I’m still sorting out the blurred lines between my public blogging, social media, and my personal life. We have just begun to understand the consequences and ramifications of social media. In some ways it makes people feel more isolated, even as they doing more and more to share their lives in the public. For the most part, social media does not forge what Malcolm Gladwell calls strong-ties, unless they already existed prior to social media. For example, my sister lives in Southern California and the rest of my immediate family members live in Northern California. I can see instant uploads of major milestones, such as graduations and baby pictures. While I have reconnected with long lost friends, it still isn’t like how it used to be. I rarely talk on the phone with friends from high school or college, we never get together, we don’t even send email or text. For most of us, we’d have a lot of catching up to do and getting to re-know each other before I could share the most intimate details of my life or feel part of their lives.

Occasionally, I will get a request from someone I never met, but they are a friend of a friend on facebook or they follow my blog.  Ignoring a request isn’t a personal thing, but in a way it is.  But not in the sense that I don’t like you or you’re a bad person, or you’re unimportant. I just don’t know you, even though some of  you may think you know me. You only know some of  my thoughts, personal reflections, and tendency towards typos and bad grammar. Maybe you get my humor or maybe you don’t.  Perhaps we have shared interests or similar views, but we don’t have a personal connection. Most of us haven’t had an extended exchange for me to feel much of resonance. I just don’t want you to think I’m giving you the cold shoulder. It’s nothing personal,  but following my blog isn’t enough for me to allow someone access to more details about my life, so that I can be known without a person truly knowing me. We have to have some type of professional, personal, or or academic relationship before I add you my facebook friends or give you my personal contact.

You’re Invited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Am I Doing?

You want an honest answer? Really?

One of the things I hate about my own American culture is the typical greeting, “How are you?” In truth, most Americans don’t really want the answer. In fact, it is rude to answer honestly if things aren’t going so well. The point is that “how are you?” is really a rhetorical statement. The inflection at the end of the statement is really just a formality. Sometimes it isn’t even there. People say as they pass by, “How are youuuuuuuuu.” voice fading as they speed by. Over the years I’ve had a lot of people ask me how am I doing and then get really annoyed when I tell them the truth. I’ve had friends who call me up and get really annoyed or impatient as I talk about things I’m struggling with. I’ve had close friends who have shared their stories, who I have helped work through issues, who I have sat for hour listening and trying to understand, go off on me or shut down when I share my story. But at least I can write uninterrupted. I don’t have to spin my wheels worrying if my complaints will offend someone’s sensibilities before I can fully articulate what I’m going to say.

To answer your question:

Alhumdulillah…Things have been challenging and frustrating. I’m just coming out from some major upsets. Thins are looking better, but I’m still wondering if it will work out just as planned. Things operate differently here. And there are different levels of shadiness and ineptitude. Overall, it is a mixed bag. I’ve already written about boredom and being judged. I have felt homesick, isolated, disoriented, and lonely. It would be far worse if I lived on my own. I’m grateful for my friend and her family. They basically keep me going. But sometimes I feel intrusive and like a burden. There are times when I felt like packing up everything and going back home. And then I realize, I can’t because I don’t have anywhere to go back to–somebody’s subleasing my room for the year. Plus through the past few years many of my relationships and friendships back home had become strained or distant at best. The nice ones were ephemeral, kind of like “hi-bye good luck on your trip!”

Before I left for this trip, I had no doubt that I had to take this step. But I had trepidations. I felt like I was putting life on hold. But then again, I wonder what life? I have spent the past 6 years focused on getting into graduate school and then trying to survive graduate school. It consumed everything. Even my few diversions and leisure activities (including laundry, foot soaks, blogging, visiting friends) were just coping mechanisms for graduate school. Even my leave of absence was full of reading, researching, planning, worrying, re-planning, writing proposals, and preparing for graduate school. This whole leave of absence for French and Arabic study took a huge wind out of me.

Cramming a year’s worth of French in six weeks was a piece of cake compared to embarking on this trip. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy many things about being in the Middle East. But is absolutely frightening to know you don’t have a safety net. By safety net, I mean family members who will send you funds if you get ripped off or stuck in a jam. I know a Muslim woman who was actually stuck, really stuck, in some Gulf country. All our affluent friends did nothing to help her out in her jam. I suppose those car notes and bargain shopping had ran up the bills. There was even one brother all into tasawwuf with a site about sacred knowledge who treated this sister poorly. He ran into her at the house of some people who might have helped her and her children find a safe place to live until she could get a ticket back to the states. But this well known brother sent her packing and told her never visit those people again. I guess he wanted to protect wealthy Muslims from helpless and homeless American Muslim women who are stranded abroad. After a harrowing story full of drama, she finally made it out and eventually made it back home. You can have your passport lost, credit card stolen and personal items stolen, put in jail, or become really sick. I’ve known people who have gone through some tribulations and trials abroad. Some of their accounts speak to my worst fears.

I’m still working on my fears and insecurities. I still get embarrassed speaking Fushah in public. I still don’t understand Kuwaiti Arabic and there are some days when your confidence in your language abilities gets knocked right out of you. I try to motivate and work harder despite the most recent setbacks. I try to think about the overall purpose. Learning Arabic has been a dream for 15 years. Going abroad wasn’t just important for my academic career, but my spiritual well-being. Maybe it was about letting go of some control–even though I finally had taken the reigns of my own life following my divorce. 5 years ago as I prepared for graduate school my adviser David Pinault said that graduate life was monastic. It entails poverty, lonely long hours, etc. He assured me that it was a good kind of poverty. You don’t starve, it is just a modest living. After a few years in graduate school I wasn’t in debt (except for those deferred student loans), I could pay my bills, I was even saving some money. I found history to be isolating. That was just part of the field, the long hours in archives, the long late nights writing, the time in the field. I knew that going abroad for graduate work was looming in my future. And it felt like a destabilizing force.

Two years ago I asked for guidance and support about graduate school and my requisite year in the field. One imam’s wife told me to look at graduate school like it was a prison–I was just doing my time. There are some mind trips about this training and the constant insecurity of graduate school. Academia is medieval in its structure, from the apprenticeship approach to developing your own masterpiece after demonstrating your worthiness to be in the guild of scholars. I haven’t even begun to think about the publish or perish world of tenure. My African American peers in graduate school tell me to keep up the fight. We’re so few, 3% of the graduate population at my university. With more African American men in prison than in dorms, I have to keep trying to make a difference. There are people who don’t want us there. There are people who don’t think I can do it. Jan Barker said that if we felt like we’ve been through a hazing in graduate school, it is because we have. Through the hazing process, my Muslim friends often tell me about having patience and faith. Keep going–it is a test. So, that’s how I’m doing. I’m in the middle of another test. I’m not sure if I’m passing. But I’m doing the best I can.

Arguments on History, Race, Politics, and Religion…

As much as I like to argue…I’m going to stop having them. Period. What is the point? I may want to be the know it all, but when someone feels strongly about something the conversation can go down south easily. I think if I stop getting into arguments with people on the net and in real life, I’ll have much more time to do other things like study Arabic, read, and write. In fact, I’m going to refrain from arguments in blogistan, and especially here on my blog. I have spent hours and hours carefully writing retorts to wack statements. Although I’ll avoid arguments in daily life, I’m going to speak my mind freely here in my blog. Fine, if you don’t agree. But once I make a statement, I’m not going to have a lot of time to argue with you. If anyone is a scholar of Islam and the African Diaspora, please email me so that I could have a cordial and scholarly exchange. I miss that. I miss the classroom, who would think that I’d miss 3 hour seminars and boring scholarly conferences? I’d like feedback on my work and in exchange, I’d read and give comments any work you’d send me.

I’m still passionate about what I do. I have built my life around research and writing the history of religion, politics, and race. But I am really disliking discussing either history, race, politics, and religion for fun. It makes bad dinner conversation and it’s really bad for the digestion. I have to quit discussing three subjects most contentious subject in my spare time in order to preserve my sanity, manage my time and maintain respectful relationships. I am not saying that my conversations won’t be deep. I’m just not going to argue or push my point of view. That’s all….

Protection

I meant to post this over a week ago, a song by Massive Attack:

“Protection”

[Tracy Thorn]

This girl I know needs some shelter
She don’t believe anyone can help her
She’s doing so much harm, doing so much damage
But you don’t want to get involved
You tell her she can manage
And you can’t change the way she feels
But you could put your arms around her

I know you want to live yourself
But could you forgive yourself
If you left her just the way
You found her

I stand in front of you
I’ll take the force of the blow
Protection

I stand in front of you
I’ll take the force of the blow
Protection

You’re a boy and i’m a girl
But you know you can lean on me
And I don’t have no fear
I’ll take on any man here
Who says that’s not the way it should be

I stand in front of you
I’ll take the force of the blow
Protection

I stand in front of you
I’ll take the force of the blow
Protection

She’s a girl and you’re a boy
Sometimes you look so small, look so small
You’ve got a baby of your own
When your baby’s gone, she’ll be the one
To catch you when you fall

I stand in front of you
I’ll take the force of the blow
Protection

I stand in front of you
I’ll take the force of the blow
Protection

You’re a girl and i’m a boy [x4]

Sometimes you look so small, need some shelter
Just runnin’ round and round, helter skelter
And I’ve leaned on me for years
Now you can lean on me
And that’s more than love, that’s the way it should be
Now I can’t change the way you feel
But I can put my arms around you
That’s just part of the deal
That’s the way I feel
I’ll put my arms around you

I stand in front of you
I’ll take the force of the blow
Protection

I stand in front of you
I’ll take the force of the blow
Protection

You’re a boy and i’m a girl [x4]