In Touch

A few days ago, my friend told me he got an email from our mutual friend. Hes been abroad for some years, wandering around in some ancient land. I asked how he was doing and the reply was that he was fine. My friend said “That brotha is real special.” I agreed, “Yes he is.” This is not the only time I heard this. Several people have made the same remark upon meeting him. I remember my bosss first impression, when she said that he looked at you in the eyes and you could feel his warmth. And his mind operated on this unique level, he didnt try to conform to how society defined the way black men should act or think. Hed say things like, “Asalaam alaikum dude” in a cool Cali skater boy accent. When we were young, he wanted to be a park ranger. I always thought that was cool. And this brother was really beautiful inside and out. I think a lot of people were really caught up in his physical beauty, as opposed to truly appreciating his unique soul. No, this society doesnt offer a space for some special people. It displaces them, decenters them, makes unreasonable demands upon them, and marginalizes them.

Three years ago I began looking for my boy, I had heard he still lived in Oakland. I just wanted to know if he was doing okay and learn more about what he had experienced in the past ten years since we talked at length. I found out this past December that he was abroad again. I had only seen him once in that decade, after both our lives had changed so much.

It was awkward asking around for him because in my circles it wasn’t really proper. I remember asking a sister and she was like, “Why are you trying to get with him?” I answered “No, I just want to know how he’s doing and to tell him he’s been in my thoughts and prayers.” I also wanted to tell him about my trip to the Tafilelt in Morocco. The Tafilelt is in southern Morocco and was the ancient trading outpost between the ancient kingdom of Ghana and North Africa. You can see a thousand years of blending between North Africans and sub-Saharan Africa in the faces of the people that lived there. They often considered people from other regions of Morocco as foreigners. To me, this region of Morocco was the most beautiful and heart breaking. When we first arrived to one of the towns, I couldnt hold it in and I said “Look at all the brown people, they are beautiful!” Sheepishly, I realized that I was in a van full of white women and I said, Awesome!! (Later on, I got some heat for saying that. Why people had a problem? They could kiss my bootey cause they always commented on their white-ness)

The first night we arrived the girls and I headed to the market. I was absolutely shocked because I saw a spitting image of my long lost friend. I knew he travelled but what was the liklihood? But something in the young man’s stare told me that it wasn’t my friend. That warmth was missing.

On the second night in the Tafilelt, I was really sick had to be rushed off to the pharmacy/doctor to get medicine for my fever. I experienced so much frustration and isolation there. My heart ached as I saw the crippling poverty of this once prosperous region. All these brown children, so beautiful, would follow us with bright eyes and smiles. The women constantly begged us for money. We saw the beginning of the locust swarms devastate these poor date farms. The young men tried desperately to chase the locusts out of the trees by burning acrid smoke. Those locusts swarms started there and would later sweep across Africa causing the 04-05 famine.

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The above image is the Tafilelt Oasis Valley

When I got back from Morocco, I began asking different people if they had seen him or heard from him. On day online I ran into one of his friends. I tried to reach out and sent a message. I briefly told my Morocco story and wrote, “Send the brotha my salaams.”

I have always wanted to talk to people who, like me, had gone some place in search of knowledge and understanding. I remember jealously watching the brothas go away years ago in search of sacred knowledge. And I felt constrained. But after returning from Morocco, I wanted to reach out to that group. Maybe they could build with me and help me get my bearings.

This brings me back to my friend. We became friends when we were children on the cusp of adulthood when we were close. There was a tight little group of Muslim converts in the South Bay and we existed in this interconnected but dispersed network. Some of us knew each other from DeAnza, or as friends two well known brothers. When I was young, I had a lot of male friends. I think I spent an equal time building with my male friends as I did my female friends. A lot of my more conservative friends would admonish me for mixing with men and having too many male friends. Sometimes the intentions were clear and my relationships remained platonic. Other times it was fraught with tension. But all in all, I miss those largely innocent times. Im glad to hear that the brotha is doing alright. I asked my friend to send him my salaams. I am sure it will get to him this time.

Race in Academia

So, it’s 1:30 and our neighbors are having a party. We live in the multi-cultural theme housing, but I rarely see or talk to any of my neighbors. I think the most cultural aspect of this little neighborhood is the “black music that they are playing right now. Yeah, all night has been hip hop. It is pretty weird, especially in this rather mono-ethnic environment.

Outside my department or the organizaitons such as Black Graduate Students Association or Muslim Student Awareness Network or ISSU, hardly anyone ever speaks to us or bothers to get into a conversation. Outside of some ethnic or religious commanality, there is always some awkwardness in making any bridges. The thing that makes it strange is that I grew up in a well integrated area. I even lived in a multi-racial household. So, I actually am pretty adept at moving back and forth between black worlds and white worlds. But Stanford has this special class divide.

Last Summer while I was in a summer program my lil Brazilian sis and I went to the Lake with our white classmate. This white sister kept saying that she now knew how we felt in all white Middlebury as the only black girls in the program of 120 students. She was not the minority because two of us were black. She stated that she felt awkward when my sis and I were cracking jokes about being ashy. Maybe it is not normalized for them to be the minority, but everyday I cycle through campus, I am aware that I am rather an anomoly. I think that it is an opportunity to learn and develop one’s patience. Perhaps more people should experience that awkward feeling.

Last year, my roommate and I were invited to one of the grad get togethers organized by one of my neighbors. I think two people came up to me and my roomate and tried to strike up some awkward conversation. White students approach the Black Graduate students tables at the student organization fairs all scared. We have offered free water and candy. They will venture near for some water or candy saying something like, “I’m not black but I’d like some water.” I said several times, “Hey you are welcome to some water, just as you are welcome to join us at a number of our events, such as barbecues, meetings, lectures, and cultural events.” I also said, “This organization is open for anybody who is interested in black culture or issues.” They wouldn’t sign up to learn anything about the few black people on campus concentrated in one geographic area. Even at the end of the year BBQ, they would be all scared, and walk by staring. At times, some would come by for a hamburger and scuttle off.

For a long time, I would get annoyed and would want to not think how much race seems to matter to people. But every so often, in unsuspecting moments it comes up. Like the last day I was leaving Durham England and in a brief conversation a British dude told me that because the color of my skin people would treat me differently. Plus, all attempts to touch and comments about my hair. Or asking some old dude the time and him saying “I don’t talk to n—-s.” Or sitting in Arabic class and the teacher pointing out, “Aziza is black, her skin color is black, she’s black black bliggity black” I was irritated, I said, “No, my color is brown.” “I am of African descent” “The name of my people is Black” and they he ignored me and for days to demonstrate colors, he said, “Like Aziza there is no one like her her color is black.” (these are translated from the Arabic) Meanwhile, in Arabic, there are names for people who are tan, people who are fair with blonde hair, and people who are ruddy. So black encompasses a million shades of brown. For a language as subtle as Arabic, I find the lack of distinction between ethnic groups and the infiinite variety in black people very obnoxious. Finally, I looked at the sketches of the suspects who jacked two stanford students. The descriptions and sketches sort of resemble two business school students. So, not only do they have to worry about getting jacked, but they will always be the usual suspects.

Final shady note, one friend pointed out that in white neighborhoods that have those shady XXX video rentals, you will always notice how the black porns are always sold out. So, it sort of makes me wonder about the weird voyaristic fantasies that people have with the “Dark Continent” and peoples of African descent.

Tonight’s party reminds me what a strange world we live in where people seem to love black music, obsessed with black sexuality, and black sports stars, but they don’t like black people. Well, if you don’t try to get to know us as real people with hopes, dreams and aspirations just like you, then you don’t have to humanize us, right?

Intelligence and Hair in the UK

I’m back home and I feel kind of dizzy. Maybe it is the jet lag. To took a shower and washed the travels right off me. I have a swollen ankle from nearly busting my ass on the cobble stone streets in Durham. I got to London Friday afternoon an did the 2 hour bus tour. I stayed at a hostel, first time ever. It was called the Generator. It was full of drunk Australians and New Zealanders. They were singing Oasis songs, remember them? Wonder Wall, back in the 90s? Those t two brothers with unibrow who spoke incomprehensible English, didn’t get a long and sang alternative-poppy British songs. The garage is a happening place, I guess. Hostels aren’t so cheap any more 17GBP per night. Times that by two, and you will see why I think a 8 person room and communal shower is ridiculously expensive. Saturday morning, I headed to the airport at a responsible hour. But there was an adventure waiting for me as I caught the Underground to get to the airport. It normally takes an hour to get from Heathrow to The line to the airport was stopped, which meant that I had to make several exchanges. Long story, I’ll get back to that. I was so tired, I have never worked so hard to lift, carry pull climb, drag, stand run, roll, push.. Luckily Londoners are more friendly than New Yorkers and a family helped me carry my luggage on a few of the exchanges. I was stopped by an officer/agent/official after I checked in. He asked where I was going, I said back to the United States. First he said that I was late for my flight, but perhaps it was delayed He then me what was I doing in the UK. I said I was doing research at the University of Sudan. He then took my passport, and I waited to find out how long would the questioning be. I was a little concerned about being held up, I’ve heard some people were held for four hours. When he returned, same line of questions, a barrage of them. He asked me what was I studying. I said at the Sudan archive. He asked what was I studying. I said interwar period Sudan. He didn’t know what that was, I said Sudanese history after World War I and before World War II. He then asked if I had plans to travel to Sudan. I said, if my dissertation topic will be Sudan. He asked if I had plans on traveling to the Middle East. I said I am a student of Middle East history, so I plan to. He asked if I work for any companies. I said no, I am a Ph.D. student at Stanford University. He asked what do I study there. I said study Nigerians in the Middle East. Do I just study? I said I also teach classes. He told me he was interested in people like me, people who travel to conflict areas, hot spots. He works for intelligence and he is interested in information on people like me, you know people like me. Long story, he couldn’t say at the moment. I was allowed to leave and he said, “I don’t know how you do your hair.”

I have had a lot of hair comments since I went natural. So, it wasn’t surprising to get comments from Europeans. “Amazing Hair” on the train. “Big Hair” “How do you do your hair” at the air port “I love your hair” and “Is it all yours?” at the hostel. One woman asked to touch my hair. It is weird, like it is some type of anomaly. Maybe we should gather all the brown women with curly hair and make a petting zoo. We could get young multi-racial children, brown and black babies and the people can gawk and talk about how cute they all are. But I don’t want to blame just our European sisters and brothers. When my hair was straightened, I’ve had African American sistas reach into my hair, asking “Is that all yours?” while feeling for tracks. As if they were going to catch me in a lie. I used to get made fun of for having big hair. They used to call me “Bush!” I have been called a liar about my hair, criticized for bad hair, made fun of for having “fake” hair, I have had girls beef with me over hair, people compliment my hair. I should start singing India Irie, “I am not my hair.” Women’s hair is a crazy powerful thing. Mashallah there is definitely hikmah in hijab.

Spring Break Like Whoa

I was a non-traditional student. I spent years in community college which meant that I didn’t move out from mom’s house to stay iin dorms, join a sorority, do the whole spring break thing, and come home for the summer and intern. It began twelve years ago…and now I can’t believe I’m buying this ticket.

I worked my way through school, sometimes too broke to even afford books or a bus pass to get to school. I was a student activist, down for the struggle, but not that many people understood my struggle. Even in community college there were a few quarters I couldn’t pay tuition. During those times I’d spend my time studying in Santa Clara University’s library. I was lucky to meet some Muslim sistas at a MSA event, they gave me a ride and we’ve been tight since. One of the sistas lived by me and she’d pick me up and take me to campus just to hang out. There were two amazing Iraqi sisters at SCU, one began teaching me how to read and write Arabic. I wanted to travel so I could learn to speak and read Arabic and understand what I read and recited from the Quran. Likewise, a bachelor’s degree was a dream but I was just happy to be able to learn and be in that environment.

But there were people who believed in me even when I was ready to walk away from the whole academic thing. Spring Break was the farthest thing on my mind. I was just trying to break in. Life circumstances positioned me in a place where I finally got my foot in the door. I went back to community college and was accepted into SCU. But that door shut closed on my foot and all a few quarters later. No Spring break, just a three year break paying off tuition bills and learning how valuable education was through my bull %*& jobs. I did visit my family in Jacksonville Florida, which coincided with Black College Reunion, so maybe that counts. During that Spring break I didn’t know a single student at BCR.

Three years later, I wasn’t thinking about Spring Break. Debt paid off, I finally received a decent financial aid package and went back to school to finish this time for reals. Finally I did the damn thing, graduating with honors. I had my Kente cloth and my three sets of honors ropes, and even a phat medallion from an honors society. So I applied to graduate school, I loved this stuff. They would pay ME to study? What? I would get to travel to cool places? I could write my books and teach? Two things I loved to do. But Spring break was not on my mind. Break? Give me a break, I was riding on some high achievement high.

I got into grad schools, 5 fully funded and two in the Bay Area. Who would have thunk? In the bidding war, Stanford offered more funds. I loved Cal, spent a summer there attending Arabic classes. I always loved the East Bay more than any other place in the Bay, and Cal offered me a really nice financial aid package. But Stanford offered to send me to the Middle East to study Arabic for the Summer. I felt like I was walking on clouds. 12 years before, I used to ride the bus from the East Side of San Jose to Cupertino, just hoping to make get out of junior college. So, getting into these programs was kind of wild. A former college drop out, who used to get picked up by TABS for skipping class and get kicked out of of Mt. Pleasant for scrapping now becoming a scholar?

Fast forward to my first year in the program. Grad school kicks everybody’s butt. Especially if a program commits 5 years to funding you. Spring Break last year? Man, I was just finishing up incompletes, praying that I’d pass. In my department, B is failing, B+ means you’re wack. A- means you’re scraping by, and an A means you are okay (maybe). I’ve been working my &^%$#@ off since I got here in Summer of 2004. This last summer, I went to Vermont for nine weeks and Morocco for a Month, both times to study.

Spring Break? I wish….academics don’t break. A few weeks ago, my advisor gave out the command that I needed to hit up some archives. “What are your plans for Spring Break?” I wanted to say, “Sleep without guilt” but of course I had nothing to say. Great! So then he said I should find some Arabic sources in Chicago or at the University of Durham in the UK. I’ve never been to either place. I had to look into it and see if it was worth my while. I also had to find friends and family who would front me until I was reimbursed by my department.

Today, I just bought my ticket from New York to London, leaving on March 25 and returning on April 1. My job is great right? It is amazing, I should be super happy. And a huge part of me is. I just purchased my ticket and I’m like “Whoa! London for Spring Break” (Well actually Durham which is a few hundred miles away) Nobody in my family has been to Europe nor North Africa. I am about to see the London Bridges yall! But I’m too tired for all that excitement. Maybe it will hit me as I cross the Atlantic. I’ll sleep on that flight, maybe even on that train. Until then no sleep for Aziza. But on the real tip, this is better than Spring Break. I hope I come back with some good stuff from those archives, inshallaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!