Modest Sexiness

I wrote a bit about it Abayas and ‘ho shoes in my entry, Hot Girls in Kuwait. While i was in Egypt, I noticed that nearly 90% of the women on the street wore hijab. But even with hijab, there were many levels of modest from sexy to completely niqab. As for the sexy women, they ranged in age. Many of them were young women who covered each inch of skin.  But they wore tight jeans, shirts, and figure revealing outfits. A lot of Muslims dismiss them outright. Media Watchers extensively discussed the negative attitudes and pejorative terms used to describe women who wear hijab and sexy outfits.

Speaking of words we call ourselves, I must mention the derogatory terms. “Hojabi” and “muhajababe” have worked their way into our vocabulary (hojabi even has its own entry in UrbanDictionary.com). And, they are pervasive enough that non-Muslims have begun to use them in reference to us. They exist because we ourselves have invented them and used them, and they are born out of words that describe what one wears on one’s head (I haven’t come across any derogatory terms for bihejabis, but feel free to enlighten me).

Women who cover their hair while wearing flashy or figure revealing clothing are frequently looked down upon by both people who support hijab and those who don’t. That is the irony of it. Without looking into the contradictions that these women straddle, the pressure to affirm their Muslim identity through hijab and the pressure to be considered desirable and attractive. Both pressures exist in Muslim societies, as well as Muslim communities in the West. Pamela Windo recently weighed in with a very insightful about hijab in Morocco titled, Hijab and High Heels.

I returned to the States in 1997, but I continue to pop back to Morocco for my yearly nostalgic pilgrimage. I’ve just been on one of those trips and was surprised, alarmed even, to see how many more women are now wearing headscarves, most noticeably in the modern cities of Casablanca and Rabat. Not older women, but young ones; the same age group as the young women who had so exuberantly discarded them a decade before. And instead of scarves tied under the chin, they have now adopted the hijab, which is swathed closely around the head in the stricter Middle Eastern way.

Although they are made of colorful fabrics with pretty clips at the back, what most struck me was the blatant dichotomy between the hijab and their other clothes. While a few women wear it with a subdued djellaba, and others with their everyday modern suits, skirts and coats, a startling number of young Moroccan women combine the hijab with figure-revealing blue or black jeans, elaborate glittering belts, modern sexy tops and designer sunglasses. Equally striking is the glossy-magazine-style make-up, heavy on the lipstick and black kohl eye-liner.

For Muslim women, the hijab, worn for centuries by their forbears, is an essential part of their identity. Given that it is a symbol of modesty and sexual purity, and body-revealing clothes the hijab’s opposite, the alarm I had at first felt was quickly followed by empathy.

I really liked this article because it explores the realities of hijab without casting judgment. Because they explore the realities and pressures, their discussion of hijab is a lot more nuanced than the idealistic depictions of hijab. However, just many of the blog entries in  Muslimah Media Watch indicate, more and more Muslims are sensitive to the pressures that we face. I am also hopeful because there are some up and coming scholars. One such scholar wrote a masters thesis on the ideas of beauty in Arab societies. She argues that Arab Muslim women strategically navigate the seemingly conflicting Islamic ideal of feminine modesty and Arab society’s ideals of beauty. What I really enjoy about her work is that, while not being an Arab, she is a Muslim woman who wears hijab. She deals with those pressures and projections. Even those of us who don’t wear hijab are fully aware that our bodies are the subject of so much scrutiny. People in the West want to claim that we are liberated while Muslims want to liberate us by pressuring us to cover.  I believe that there is no compulsion in religion. However, I recognize the reality that we have many explicit and implicit pressures that tell us how to be, how to act, and how to dress as Muslims.

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.

Azizah Weighs in on African American Muslim Marriages and “Morocco is Not the Solution” From Kuwait

Sometimes I wonder why I am so preoccupied with concerns that are in the states. Right now I’m living in an alternate universe. I’m abroad in an oil rich country where “Fair” equals “Lovely.” All the way across the world, I’m not feeling the reach of many of the containment policies and strategies during this Cold War between Black Men and Black women in America. At this point, I’m joining the non-alignment movement, to focus on development. But I will have my defenses up just in case some missiles shoot my way.

Non-alignment is a good strategy right now. Relationships are just no big on my mind right now. I got some immediate things to take care of. But, the marriage issue does come up often. I get the usual question of whether I’m married or not. Women usually say something like, “Maybe you’ll find someone here.” “Maybe when you get married you can visit us in Yemen.” etc…etc.. A couple of occasions an expat mentioned somebody’s name.But because I’m not doing a back flip just hearing about the random brother. I’m not ready to drop out of my Ph.D. program and become an instant homemaker. So the issue usually passes. A sigh of relief, I get back to focusing on my Arabic and surviving.

I’ve been trying to play matchmaker for a while. And so far, I have a zero success rate in match making. And not so much luck in my own bureau of internal affairs and love. I know all about what not to do. But still who am I to be a matchmaker? Despite any blow back that I have received from a possible link up gone wrong, I still discuss gender relationships with a number of my married and single friends. I like having conversations about Muslim marriages and Black women in healthy relationships. I like seeing positive examples. For many women of different ethnic groups getting married is a given. But not for Black women. Who said life was fair? I guess it will all balance out in the Last Days.

One of the things that drew many Black women to Islam was the idea that women were honored. In fact, as women we applied the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) last speech to ourself, “a white is not better than a black, a black is not better than a white.” When I went to a mosque for the first time it was a predominantly Black mosque. That was the first time I saw so many Black families, in tact families. Sadly, over the years, the reality of unstable marriages in the African American Muslim community settled in. I had saw figures like Malcolm X, loyal to his Betty Shabazz, with a strong sense of self. I just kind of expected Black Muslim men to not buy into gendered racism or colorism. But over time I have seen that there is a small but increasing number of Black men who exclude Black women as viable partners.

Clearly, the growing trend has roots in some shifts in the consciousness of Black American Muslims. In the early 90s there was still that tinge of Black nationalism from the sixties movement. Black Power, Black consciousness, what ever you want to call it, whithered away. More of younger brothers moved away from the W.D. community, critical of what they saw as syncretic practices of “Baptist Muslims.” These Muslims aspired to engage with other mainstream Muslim communities. They began to seek training from immigrant teachers and some even went abroad to study. This generation hoped to integrate into a singular Muslim identity. Bloggers like Tariq Nelson seems to be of this ilk, he sees intermarriage as a way of forging a new American Muslim cultural identity.

As Black Muslims shifted from thinking of ways that Islam could solve issues that plagued the Black community, they begin focus on global issues that seemed to rock the “Muslim world.” During this time Many Black Muslims began looking for a culture. They adopted markers and signifiers. They began wearing thobes, Moroccan jellabas, shawal kameeses, turbans, wearing sandals or those leather socks in winter, speaking with an Arabic or Desi accent. Some men say they want a native speaker of Arabic, so that their children can speak Arabic. Others say they want their children to ahve a culture, especially one they see as closer to the culture of Rasullah (s.a.w.). Basically, they seem to be aspiring to create a new ethnic identity for their children by marrying Arab women or South Asian women.

But over the years, a disturbing trend began to emerge, where professional and educated Black men were buying into some negative stereotypes about educated Black women. I found that we were traded in for Moroccan and Malaysian women, many of whom were not well educated. For these men felt they were trading up. Often these men let us know why these women were the types of women that we never could be.It didn’t take me long to notice that in my immigrant community, white convert women were hot commodities. Initially immigrant Pakistani, Indian, and Arab men pursued them. Over time, I began to see more African American sunni men married to white convert women, as well as immigrant women. As this trend rose, I began to see more and more single African American women. Mind you, these observations are anecdotal. There are no studies, besides one conducted by Zareena Grewal on marriage preferences in four Muslim communities. It affirmed that Black Muslim women were the lowest on the totem pole of marriage choices. Not surprisingly, even the African American informants stated they desired an Asian or Arab bride.Overall, it is a negative message that they are sending. But then again, isn’t this world full of negativity?

African American men frequently feel the brunt of racism when their immigrant brothers at the masjid won’t let their daughters marry African American men. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a Black Muslim man tell me that was his primary grievance. South Asian families are even more resistant to interracial marriage than most other groups. And they are very unlikely to approve of their daughters marrying an African American male. So some men , with the aspirations of transcending the ethnic, tribal, and so-called racial boundaries have found other ways around it. They have found a place in the world that seems not only to accept interracial marriage, but families seem to welcome these African American men as knights in shining armor who will wisk their princess away to the Land of opportunity.

While this fairy tale should have a happy ending. One where, that the newly married couple cursed, harrassed, or bothred by all those evil Black spinsters and their jealous glares. But apparently some Muslim men are finding certain trends problematic. Maybe I’m not such a evil wench after all.
Umar Lee wrote about the Muslim marriage session at the MANA conference in his blog entry,
“Morocco is Not the Solution” and Thoughts of Muslim Marriage Discussion
. He wrote:

Brothers have personally told me that they would go over to Morocco and spend a lot of money on getting married (flying back and forth a couple of times, flying the sister back, the visa application process, paying the necessary bribes in Morocco to get the marriage license, paying the actual dowry, paying for the wedding, paying for the wedding celebration, giving the family money, etc.) ; but would not give a black woman in America a significant dowry because in their minds black women weren’t worth that much. They would say you can always marry a black woman who will only want you to teach her a sura because she may be hard-up and needing to get married ASAP.

For anyone not familiar with Umar Lee, he is a white American convert who writes a popular blog. And no, I don’t think he’s mad at all the brothers who are stealing those white convert women, let alone the seemingly endless supply of third world women. He continued:

The moment that brought the loudest applause though came towards the end when a brother from the Washington, DC area came to the microphone and simply stated ” brothers, going to Morocco is not the solution” and at those words the sisters erupted in cheers and laugher and many of the brothers chimed in ( although more in laughter).

So then the brother who stood up and said the infamous state, Abdur Rahman, wrote a blog entry explaining his reason for the statement.

It sends a loud and pernicious message to the world that our Black women are too unruly, uncouth, unmanageable, unlovable, unredeemable to take as a wife and to build a life with. I’m sorry, I believe she is not only lovable, but worthy of love. She’s crazy at times, but who isn’t. You can’t be a Black man or women in America and not be a little crazy? And if she happens to be in a lowly condition, isn’t it our responsibility as men, followers of the final Prophet and Messenger to humanity (pbuh), to raise her up by Allah’s permission and place her in her proper station. Does it ever occur to us, or do we even care really, that her lowly and unrefined condition stands as an indictment on our own manhood. I should like to know what other people turn their backs on their own women, heaping scorn and invective on her, calling her vile and despicable names (”chicken head”, “Safire”, “B*#th”).

Over the past year, I have written about this issue. Several times I have weighed in on this subject in comments and other discussions. People may consider me a racist for exploring the damaging effects of racism in the communities that I consider myself to be a member of. Sometimes I speak some uncomfortable truths (well, they’re true for me) from a very unique perspective. But just to be clear, I am not angry that someone made their personal choice. But I am angered when I hear about men who abandon their Black wives and children in favor of their new “mixed-raced” family. I am angered when I hear unfair statements about Black women thrown around to justify their personal choices. But ultimately, I have to let those statements roll off my back. I move on. I can’t internalize it. Yes, there are people who will judge me by color of my skin and say I’m not good enough even though they have felt that how much that hurts when they were discriminated against. Perhaps in their pain, they can’t see the hurt they dish out when they tell women who are not blond enough, not light enough, hair not straight enough, too educated, and have some genetic predisposition to have an attitude. I guess it is hurtful when you live in a society that discriminates against you, then in your own little ethnic enclave, you get devalued. To tell someone they are unworthy of love is truly an injustice.

I don’t think that every Black man who has traveled abroad has consciously though about denigrating his sisters in the states. Nor do I buy into the negative stereotypes about Moroccan women or women from developing nations. Once again, I would like to assure my readers that I am not condemning interracial relationships, but I am condemning racist, essentialist notions that may drive the popularity of a growing trend. I just hope we think about the underlying reasons of why we do things. Ultimately, it is not up to me to judge, but Allah will know your intentions. And that’s what you’re going to be judged by. That’s what we’re all going to be judged by.

Why you all in my grill?

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The majority of women wear hijab in Kuwait. And there is a significant portion of women who wear the face veil. I am often dazzled by hijab fashions in Kuwait. I try not to stare, but I am intrigued by the whole face veiling. I find that face veil does not preclude sexual attractiveness, since a lot of niqabis wear tons of eye make-up and are dowsed in so much perfume. Some of their abayas are form fitting and attention getting also. I’ve already mentioned the ‘ho shoes. Don’t get me started on designer bags and the cat-walking in the malls. Maybe niqab is not about modesty, but about anonymity.
I think this really hit home today. As we left the Friday Souq two stylishly dressed, and presumably young, niqabi ladies were sitting on a bench. They spotted us and broke their neck to follow us as we made our way out the market. It must have been the English, plus the group of seven brown people running amok. Normally staring people look away when you look back at them. I looked up and stared back at them. Neither one broke their gaze. I said in English, assuming a greater than 50% chance that they’d understand me. “I guess niqab allows you to stare at people.”

I have noticed that niqabis will just stare you down–hard. They had the advantage tonight. They were anonymous and we were not. I noticed that niqabis stare down men too. For me, niqab isn’t something new. I have friends who have worn niqab in the states for years. I’ve even tried it on for kicks. But I have not seen as many niqabis as I see here. Nor have I seen the levels flash that is often associated with khaliji style veiling. In my short stay in Egypt, I saw black enveloped and brightly robed niqabis, alongside the many veiled women. In Morocco, I saw the traditionally dressed women in jallabas, with their veils tucked just under their nose. During my stay in Fes, I came to dread encountering them on the street. No matter how smartly dressed, how neat their jallabas were, they’d hit us up for money. If we didn’t have that, they’d take our cokes, if we didn’t have that, they’d take our water. Nothing like a crowd of niqabis begging harrassing you. After awhile, I scoped out the street before heading down the block I saw a old school niqabi lady chillin on a stoop someqhere, I went to the next block. I’d cross the street sometimes.

As a non-niqabi, when I see a striking person, I tend to lower my gaze. I may look a few times just to gain an imprint in my mind. But as for looking at men, as a I follow the proper decorum. I tend to lower my gaze. One, I’m not trying to catch eye contact. Two, I tend to be kind of shy in public. I’ve never been one to stare down a man. Well, not on the street at least. And I won’t talk about the few times when I did try to those come hither looks. But that’s not going down in the Middle East. I lower my gaze. I know enough Arab men to know that one mistaken look and some random dude on the street may think I have the hots for him. I mean, I could have had something in my eye. Maybe his dishdash was blinded my vision in its crispy whiteness. I could have been trying to identify my surroundings or trying to judge the distance between me and him so I don’t run into a pole or something.

I was walking with a friend who wears niqab. After we passed by two Kuwaiti men, she murmured, “I see you two Kuwaiti men looking at me friend.” I told her I didn’t see them looking because I was staring at the ground. She said something like, “Hey I’m wearing niqab and I can look at them dead up in their face.” Maybe this niqab thing is not so bad after all. You can be a bit bolder in your use of public space. I might try this niqab thing. While donning it I can stare at who I want when I want. All the while I can pretend I’m the most beautiful girl in the world. Ahhhhhhhhh, next purchase Kuwait!!

Getting Stuff Done in the Middle East

I’ve always struggled with time management. But I really like making schedules, both by hand and in my computer. I like to make little colored boxes where I promise myself that I’ll dedicate the block of time between 9 am to 1 pm Saturday to studying then 1 pm to 1:30 pm to a quick lunch, then 1:45 pm to 3 pm for organizing my room. But normally I wake up and read some annoying comment on a blog or think of something I need to blog about. That can last for a few hours, then I have my compulsive email checking, which can suck up another few hours. So then my little time slots are in disarray. By the 5th week, I stop following my pretty colorful schedules. But I still log in those study hours.

I normally made up for wasted time by taking it out of my sleep, multi-tasking (i.e. eating while reading or writing), or canceling social engagements (to my friends’ chagrin). Even now, I am writing, what I hope to be, a brief blog. But I have about 75 Arabic words to look up in Hans Wehr. Anybody that has used this dictionary can know how irritating guessing whether the word has a weak vowel or if you are getting the right definition out of the 30 possible definitions. It is especially bad if you don’t know half other words in the sentence so reading from context can’t help you. Plus, I need to review everything I learned in the past 4 academic years + 3 intensive summers of studying Arabic. Seems like everything is a haze, like I got Arabic amnesia or something. I’ll return to that thought as I transition this blog back to talking getting stuff done in the Middle East.

I find that the angriest travelers are those who come with their preconceived notions about how stuff should work in the Middle East. And the people are the most frustrated of them all are those who want to live their lives in the Middle East ordered in the same way as they do in the West.

During my first trip to Morocco, just about everything was taken care of. I was definitely spoiled, but I also learned to give up control. One of the graduate coordinators came to pick me up from the airport(a grad student from Arizona who I must say is one of the nicest human beings I’ve met) . We drove the four hours from Casablanca to Meknes, stopping on the way for a nice lunch. Everything was arranged, our housing, food, registration at the university. We had a driver who drove us from our lodgings in the countryside to the classrooms which were in a satellite of Universite Moulay Ismail. We had lunch at a nice restaurant everyday and dinner at a cafeteria. Our weekend trips were planned and we even had organized social gatherings. Once a week, our driver drove us to the new city where we could run errands, shop, go the ATM, get some sweets. While many of the other students (most of them had traveled abroad before) complained about this and that, I was pretty stoked to be abroad. One grad student began complaining from the very first day because the program was restrictive. Basically, she wanted to be able to wander around and possibly live elsewhere or make it to class on her own (i.e. stay out all night in good ole conservative Morocco). We had two graduate coordinators who did their best to see to all our needs and nurse us from the throws of gastro-intestinal illnesses brought about by microbes and possibly parasites. Over time, you learn to avoid food joints that will lead explosive diarehea (especially places where the cooks never wash their hands). I missed a couple of days from that intensive program. It sucked, but I managed to make up my work because so much of the footwork was done for me(from finding a late night pharmacy to shopping for yoghurt and water).

During this first trip, I fell into the stereotyped role of the ill-adjusted “Black!” girl Real World/Road Rules style with a group of 9 white women under the age of 26 and 1 white man. I got tired of the incessant complaining, and learned to just go with the flow. Everything was so well taken care of that I would have missed one of the most important lessons about living in the Middle East. Alhumdulillah, I decided to stay a week on. Plus during my final weeks, I took a trip to Fez with one of the graduate coordinators to interview students of sacred knowledge. It was during that trip that I learned my most important lesson in patience: if you got three things done in a day in the Middle East, you were lucky. Yes, this has helped me preserve my sanity during my three visits to the Middle East.

That important lesson became ingrained in me during my second trip. That was even with Maria’s help setting up our apartment and dealing with Alif Fez. We even had help from our good neighbors over at Julie’s Cafe (who helped make sure Maria got a reasonable price on the rent) and Lotfi and Haneen downstairs. But even then, there were things that had to be done. It took me three days to clean the kitchen to get it to a livable condition. I remember it was a struggle to get to the Bank, grocery store, and cook dinner in one day. Some days, it could take an hour to catch a taxi from the train station to our section of Medina Jadid. Even my research and writing came slower. I remember having a meltdown in 120 degree weather, trying to get out of Fez. I could barely type up an email. We were broke, so I washed all my clothes and the linens on the balcony. That took extra time, as well as learning to cook in a third world kitchen.

In the West, you can get a lot of things done. But time management is key. It is possible to set out with a day full of events and appointment. Here is a typical Friday:

  • 9 am Withdraw cash from Bank
  • 9:30-10:15 Oil Change and Car wash
  • 10:15 Pay electricity Bill
  • 11 am Appoint Dr. Benghazi (10 minutes early for paperwork)
  • 12-1:15 pm Lunch with Sofia @Chez Maroc
  • 1:30-2:30 pm Shopping LuLu Hypermarche (hypermarket, even though they have less stuff than our super markets)
  • 3:00- 5:30 pm prepare dinner
  • 5:30 Dinner with Rashida
  • 8:00-Book Tickets online
  • 8:15- 11:15 Work from Home, upload files

Seriously, in the Middle East this list isn’t going to happen. The Bank? You’ll likely be in long lines or somehow your wire transfer decides it isen’t going to show when you really need it. The mechanic could be having a bad day, or a better paying customer decides he needs his oil changed and car washed, so you time has been pushed back. Dr. Benghazi may be on ‘Umrah or vacation (without telling you), Lunch with Sofia is likely to take up 3-4 hours, getting to the shopping center is going to take you a good 1/2 hour to full hour (no matter how small the town is), Dinner’s not going to be done on time because you should have gotten the food the night before or early that morning. Rashida may come around 6, but she’s not going to leave until after a good 4 hours sitting. In fact, let that be your whole night. Now that your friend is gone, you may not be able to get online. The internet will likely decide to be down for some reason, depending on where you live there could be a regular power outage, the water stops running, or you cannot get DSL or even a phone line at home.

Even without the breakdowns in transportation, you have to be prepared for a slower pace of everything. Social and Business transactions can last for hours. Traffic jams are just the rule. Bureaucractic institutions means that you have to go from person to person just to get something basic done. You can’t just call to get information, a personal visit is often necessary. I’m still learning the rules. You may have to go to several stores. The items you may need may be spread over several locations throughout the city. Lines are long. You have to find delivery guys and spend a 1/2 hour negotiating with them. Just because things happen slower and at time, inconvenient, it does not mean that you can’t get jack done.

Normally for any appointment, I give myself an allowance of minimum three visits over a course of a couple weeks. Arabs also like you to come back to their store or office, and the more often the happier they are. They really want to know if you are serious about getting what you want. Plus the person who makes the big decision or has the most important rubber stamp is usually never there. The key is to find their higher-ups so they can put the heat on them. That way, you can get something done. Otherwise, you better hope that the person you gave the paperwork to happens to like you or happens to feel charitable that day. Otherwise, your paperwork will sit buried under piles and piles of papers.

Getting stuff done in the Middle East is really about balance. You have to be persistent, but never let them see you perspire. You have be firm, without being too harsh and developing a bad rapport with the paper-pusher or gatekeeper. In fact, they can be your vital advocates. If they don’t want to help you, you have to then find their superior who may possibly help you. Then, you have to seem important and well connected. Being the friend of some important people helps. Or they might help you and expect something in return (I believe that’s what’s called wasta). But then what happens if what they want,  you can’t give?Being American, depending on where you are in the Middle East and the proclivities of the person you’re dealing with, may help you or hurt your cause.

I definitely survived my first trip to the Middle East because a lot of people were looking out for me. I’m not rich or well connected.  And there are times when people bust out in some local dialect and I’m like WTF?? There are times when I get tongue tied and feel stuck and overwhelmed. I also feel shy with my broken and mistake laden Fushah. To get a lot of stuff done, I rely upon friends and family that are looking out for me and advocating for me. I am learning through our shared trials and tribulations that when you set out to do something here (and anywhere else), you better say insha’Allah. And you better mean it.

Cultural Matters–Bridging Worlds

One of the great things about travelling to Muslim countries is to be able to witness the various ways people express this faith and its traditions. Even if some of the things I’ve witnessed were strange and seem illogical (one day I’m going to write about my field trip to an oracle in Morocco), for the most part I have enjoyed the similarities and contrasts. There are all sorts of ways that culture plays a dynamic role in keeping the tradition alive. Culture is important, it is dynamic, culture is a dialogue. There are many cultures that are disappearing under globalization, but at the same time new ones forming out of hybrid identities and close encounters of the humankind.

This raises questions about Islamic culture? What does it mean? Last year I taught a class and one of the major themes was showing that there was no monolithic Islamic civilizaiton and no single Muslim culture. And none of us saw that as a bad thing, but a testament to the beauty of our faith tradition. I taught the period from early Islam to the early-modern period. While the Mughals, Safavids, and Ottomans were exciting Gun powder Empires, I didn’t get to explore the questions that preoccupy us in the 21st century.

Today, my friend’s husband asked me if I thought there was an “American Islam.” Some of the neo-cons are in fear of it. Their arguments sound pretty close to what some of the early 20th century progressives (and KKK) had said about Catholics and the Catholic schools. They didn’t think that Catholics were loyal Americans and that they hoped that the Pope would become ruler of the world. That resonates with the crazy arguments that establishing a Khalil Gibran school will make inroads into Jihadism and will someday works towards establishing Shari’ah and imposing it upon hapless Americans. Well, there were a whole bunch of polemics then and there are a whole bunch of polemics now. Despite the intolerance, America has always been made up of a mosaic of faiths. And I know for a fact that there is an American Islam. I think there are several. But if we are going to talk about American Islam, we should take into account the largest indigenous American population who are Muslim, African Americans. Many of us are converts, and a number of us are children of converts. Our lives are intimately tied with our non-Muslim family members. In a major event I spoke up and said, “Hey I don’t join an organization or hold an event to participate in interfaith dialogue. I do that everyday with my family and loved ones.” Nothing dispels myths and misconceptions than close personal relationships.

In August, Just before I left the states, Christine Morente of the Oakland Tribune interviewed me about the depiction of African American Muslims. I talked briefly about the role of African American Muslims and their marginalization in the media African-American muslims fight misperceptions. Other commentors have mentioned that African American Muslims have been rendered voiceless in the media. Much of the media focuses on the immigrant struggle integrate in America while maintaining their cultural and religious values. I have also known that in the past decade, immigrant Muslims propel white Muslims to leadership positions. The conversion of a White American affirms their faith, rather than the conversion of those who they deem as lowly and marginalized (but contrary to what many foreign Muslims might think, 3/4 of Black people are living above the poverty line. And many of us are doing well with institutions established like universities, libraries, political lobbies, and large companies).

I became kind of nostalgic for the days when the Warith Deen community was really strong and that there were clear African American Muslim institutions (And Halal Soulfood and catering). Back in the 90s, a lot of Muslims really had it out for culture. Muslim Student groups looked down upon leaders who catered to ethnic communities. The most important identity was Islam. Culture was the source of all bad things. It was the source of nationalism, bida’, superstition, and division. We were one Ummah, there were no differences. Yes, that’s what we learned in halaqas and lectures.

I took Shahada at Masjid Waritheen because the brother (a family friend) figured I’d be freaked out by the gender segregation at MCA. This was even though I lived 45 minutes south of Oakland. Masjid Waritheen’s sunday Ta’alim (pronounced Taaaleem) had the feel of Church. There was call and response. Imam Faheem Shu’aib told us stories and parables that many of us were familiar with in the West. He used Greek myths and parables, historical figures, Prophetic sayings, stories of the Sahabi, Great Muslim leaders, and Western classics to teach. And there was call and response. “Umm hmmm!” “Teach!” “Ameen!” “That’s Right!”
Their modes of dress differed from the dour black, grey, and navy blue abayas and jilbabs Black and white big square scarves pinned neatly beneath chins at the MCA. MCA by the late 90s turned into a modesty contest. The contest for who could be the plainest contrasted directly with my experience at Emmanuel Baptist Church, which was about who could be the fliest at church. There is was a shame if you wore the same outfit twice. But me being the impressionable Muslimah that I was, became a true product of the MCA. I wore the jilbab and big square scarves came to look down upon the sisters who wore bright colorful patterns and African prints.

Even as I became fully entrenched in the whole MCA thing, I felt torn between those two communities. One of the things I struggled with early on in those youth groups and student groups, was that I felt like so many people pulled me in several directions. There were so many causes overseas: Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine, Philipines, Afghanistan, etc…. Plus corrupt leaders in the Muslim world who didn’t let Muslims practice Islam and Allah forbid didn’t let young Muslim men wear beards. Their was a critique of the secular leaders, religious repression of the Muslim brotherhood, petty tyrants, Kingdoms (which we were told were haram). There were dreams of revolution and the creation of an Islamic Utopia. As youth, we were the vanguard, we had the energy, we had the sincerity to change everybody’s perceptions of Islam, as well as change the world.

But that stuff started to break down. I was struggling as a young Muslim woman on my own. I felt like no one really cared about social justice issues or economic disparities that affected African Americans. All the zakah money went abroad. There, the need was far greater, in their minds, than the needs in the states. But there were real economic issues that I faced as I tried to put myself through school. Those same economic disparities increased the steady decline of African Americans from the South Bay. Not many African Americans felt like they belonged there or were really wanted there by the organized leadership of the MCA. For me, it was a mixed bag. It was in that community that I forged really strong ties with my immigrant friends (mostly Arab and North African and a few Pakistani and Indian women). But there was always a peripheral feelings. At the same time, when I visited Warith Deen community, I normally got the cold shoulder. I wasn’t Black enough, as evidenced by my “wanna-be-Arab-style-triangle-scarf-and-jilbab.” It seemed like in the women’s parties, we created little utopias where we were all equal. But all of our realities were different.

I struggled to straddle my multiple identities and deal with all the communities that I belonged to. Back in the 90s, I remember an overzealous Arab Muslim woman (who now longer practices or associates with many people in the Muslim community) chewed me out because I wrote a paper about my multiple identities with a title something like this “African American Muslim Woman.” She was upset because I put African American first. She said that Islam should come first. Mind you at that time, I had been Muslim less than two years. Second, even in the MCA, the quickest way to identify me was to say the African American sister. There were only two, so it wasn’t that hard.

Most of my life and cultural values were shaped by my Western and Christian upbringing and experience as a Black child growing up in an integrated community. My conversion experience did reshape how I engaged with those values, cultures, and experiences. Islam became the filter by which I viewed my world, my moral lens, the basic framework that guided my actions and ethics. My engagement with Islam gave me meaning and still to this day, my life’s work is really about understand Islam and how various people understand and live this faith. But at the same time, I’m influenced by Englightenment thinking. Freedom, rational thought, inquiry, questioning, basic underlying assumptions about truth and justice shape my orientation to Islam. When I began my academic career, I realized how much I was a product of multiple worlds. Even when I rebel, it is within that framework. I know there are people who consider me less than Muslim because I don’t conform. There are people who consider me less than American and some who think I’m not Black enough. Who is it that decides how does one engage with the communities that you belong to and who decides for you what those traditions should mean? I am beginning to ramble…knowing this blog entry really started out to talk about how fun Girgian was.

Two Arab Beaches

The other night it was a cool 96 degrees. The temperature is dropping and soon we’ll be able to do outdoor activities in the daytime without feeling like we’re about to drop dead from heat exhaustion. We went to the Beach at night. I put my feet in the Persian/Arabian Gulf for the first time. Too bad people think sandy beaches are one big ash tray. Despite the litter, an evening on the beach was really nice after iftar. Big ships passed by and from a distance they looked like constellations drifting farther and farther away. My experience contrasted with my daytime experience in Casablanca two years ago (I fell in love with Morocco during my first trip three years ago. But like any healthy relationship you recognize your love’s merits and postive traits, as well as their flaws and shortcomings).

Me and my friend Maria took a four hour train ride to Casablanca in order to escape the heat of Fez. There was a pool in our hotel. But I really wanted to find a nice beach. The beaches were packed with men and highschool age boys. It was really around 20 men per woman. There were a few girls in bikinis, but they were clearly with male relatives. We didn’t plan on swimming. So, we walked fully dressed, me in an ankle legnth long skirt and t-shirt and Maria in loose jeans and tunic, to the water.
All I wanted to do was put my feet in the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. As a child, I swam and body surfed the waves of Atlantic city and I even have vague memories of Chesapeake Bay. So, stepping into the Atlantic on the Coast of Africa had a special meaning to me. Mind you, Morocco as much nicer beaches in the South, but for that time Casablanca had to do. But, the beaches were dominated by men hanging out soaking up the sun. Men laying out walking. And there were of course a few families. But through the whole length of the beach, there were impromptu soccer games that stood in our way to the water. It was scary dodging soccer balls launching across the beaches and men running back and forth. Plus, I had to spend the whole time looking either at the sky or ground and avoiding eye contact.

Both me and Maria got a lot of cat calls. Although Maria is from Bahia Brazil (with all Brazilian flair to go with it), we look like sisters. A couple of times, a few guys sang, “Tamainunil asmarani…” Sometimes the guys would call out, “Soooooooooooosie!” or the standard “Pssspsssspspspspspspspssss! (that cat calling sound)” or “Zwaina!” Sometimes they would ask us questions as we passed by, “Where are you from? Are you Moroccan? Can I just talk to you?…” You learn early on that it is better to ignore an unwanted admirer. Even responded “No.” encourages them. Normally they will follow you, but I never really felt physically threatened in Morocco. This contrasts with the harrassment in I experienced in East San Jose, San Francisco, and East Oakland. I would get called all sorts of B***es and ‘hos. But one time we did get freaked out. A guy started following us. He kept speaking in rapid fire Moroccan, “Where are you from? What’s your name? Please I just want to talk to you? Can I just talk to you?…etc.” We kept walking away, trying to ignore him. Then he grabbed my arm. We both freaked out because this was the first time and only time someone invaded my personal space. We had no place to go but in the water to get away from him. Maria’s pants got soaked to the knees. I don’t know how I didn’t get soaked. After we escaped the over-enthusiastic guy, I tried to spend a few moments experiencing the Atlantic from the other side. That meant blocking out that recent close call, the learing eyes, the soccer games, and the male dominated public space. There are beaches and swimming places dedicated to women. But that day we didn’t make it. For the rest of our trip, me and Maria didn’t attempt to visit the beach again. That was enough for us. We went swimming in the hotel pool and got stared at by random guys on the third and seventh floor.

So, that account of my time on the public beach in Casablanca differed greatly from my experience on a Kuwaiti beach. First, women just don’t walk alone at night in places like Fez. But in Kuwait, it is common to see a woman get her jog on, speed walk, or hustle and bustle to one place or another in the evening. In a way, it made me hopeful that the Muslim societies can allow space for women to move freely without fear and intimidation. I saw a few couples relaxing on the beach. Women were out too. Sometimes in pairs or small groups. Numerous women walked along the path for evening exercise. A few times I saw a woman walk alone. I saw a fully veiled woman with chador flowing from her head to toes and niqab. I also saw regular girls and young women wearing abaya and the loosely wrapped head scarf walking in pairs. I saw Western women walking and an Asian woman in tight jeans and baby-t speed walking. All the women walked unharrassed, even as they passed by small groups of men.