Archive | March, 2011

The Day My Soul Caught Fire

24 Mar

When my Muslim friends raised overseas ask me what makes growing up in the South so unique, I talk about church camp. All my good Yankee friends are surely going to protest:  I went to church camp too; the South didn’t trademark that!

Honestly, I don’t know because I never made it past the Mason Dixon Line until the age of 15; our town sent me on a mission trip to build a protestant church in Spain and convince the Catholic citizens of Barcelona about our Southern brand of religion. So, alright my friends, maybe ya’ll did go to church camp, but you never went to Jesus camp.

My collard green daddy didn’t send us to camp to explore new interests, like horseback riding, origami or basket weaving. Heck no! Jesus camp had one purpose- to teach you how to love Jesus and fear God. Those who loved and feared the most were honored with a baptizing ceremony at the alligator-infested lake. Breathing in the bloated, soggy air under lava-hot Florida sun rays, made the threat of alligators less irksome, and salvation, a risk worth taking.

We’d all go down there, singing a gospel song and gather at the muddy edge. The pastor would go waste deep and start baptizing campers one by one to a round of amen. I almost waded in once, but changed my mind after my friend came up to a shout of hallelujah, and poor thing, she forgot to wear an undershirt. That’s the closest I’d ever been to a wet T-shirt contest. The pimply boy-campers, hovering around like flies on the sweet-tea pitcher, pounded out an awfully sincere word of praise. She spent the rest of the week getting waited on hand and foot.

Meanwhile, I was in no danger of fending off a courtship. The most prominent thing about me was a nasty under-bite, for which my mama sacrificed three days wages to pay for an orthodontic retainer. That tooth lasso could usually be found clacking around my mouth, which no doubt, was an effective boy repellent.

I pity you if you never went to Jesus camp because it was a four-star kiddie vacation. There were the sing-alongs in the fellowship hall, the breakfast of pancakes and sausage, the obstacle course, swimming, nature walks, devotionals, calling the top bunk, reprimands for practical jokes- somehow always involving toothpaste, covert hook-ups, a crush on that very fine camp counselor-college student, giggles, verbal cat-fights, fumes of gossip, canoeing, bonfires, S’mores, and Bloody Mary stories- followed by high-pitch screams.

Last but not least, was the reliable, collard green inoculation against evil in the form of a well-choreographed finale sermon.  The whole congregation of campers held hands and swayed to the organ music. We swore from the bottom of our collard green hearts to go home and be better children, students, and community members…better Christians.

When my son was six-years-old a group of Muslim parents from North Florida organized a camp and registered participants at mosques around the State. It was to be held at one of the camp grounds where I attended as a retainer-sporting princess. I was ecstatic to learn that the program rules allowed younger children to attend, accompanied by their parents. The three-day weekend activities were centered on the theme of Islam and Ecology, and the goal was for campers to depart, affirming in their hearts that they would go home to be better children, students, and community members…better Muslims.

Several volunteers lined up to lead workshops; there was even a contest to determine which child delivered the best presentation, educating fellow campers on how to better care for our planet. I eagerly put my name on the volunteer list and started preparing for the role. Then, I talked it up every day till X marked the spot on our calendar. We piled in the car, my son behind my seat and his baby sister, along for the ride. Our voices alternated between Islamic themed sing-alongs and our favorite blue-grass hits blaring from the CD player. I filled my son’s head with visions of myself as a child, a few years older than him, sitting in the back seat, just like him, listening to the radio with my daddy, just like him, wishing the miles away in anticipation …just like him!

He hung onto my every word because the only thing he loves more than telling me about something he’s gonna do, is listening to me tell him about something I already did. His expression always hovers between disbelief and longing to walk into that world with me…as if he can hardly comprehend that I was a kid once too.

As we approached the entrance to the camp, the traffic accumulated. It was a two-lane road, running a path through flat, sandy earth yielding only brown tufts of grass. In the distance I could see a group of people huddled on either side, holding up fluorescent poster boards on yardsticks; they alternated pumping them up and down like gilded, iron horses on a merry-go-round. As our car advanced farther in the queue, we could distinguish the lettering enough to make out the words: Jihad Terrorist Camp, Islam is an Evil Religion, Get out of America …and more.

My son was not a fluent reader just yet; still, I tried to distract him, but it was no use. The protestors were shouting and their voices became audible as we moved closer.  His father turned up the radio real loud.

“What are they doing?” my son asked. I un-latched my seat belt to turn my full body around in the seat and look into his quizzical expression, laced with a trace of wariness.

I shocked myself with a rapid response: “They welcome new campers like us. It’s part of the camp spirit,” I said. “They even made signs! How cool is THAT?!!”

A big grin spread across his face, and revealed the gaping hole where his two front baby teeth used to perch. He perked up in his booster seat and gave them all a big wave and a holler: “Welcome to you too! Thank you! Welcome!!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, trying to make his voice more audible over the blaring radio.

He pleaded with his daddy to “roll down the window,” so that the “nice people,” could hear him shout back. His dad feigned grumpiness, and claimed he didn’t want to let the air conditioning out. I reassured him that the welcoming committee would be just as happy to see his smiling face through the window. My son didn’t ask why their foreheads were crumpled up and their fingers were shaking up a storm. I slumped back down into the seat, struck by the realization that a six-year-old will take his mama’s word for just about anything.

It was probably no more than ninety seconds until our car inched into the clear, but it felt like ninety years.  The weight of the world bore down. The reality of raising my Muslim children bore down. The sight of the protestors’ signs, their battle-cry expressions, and waging fingers, bore down. The sight of my boy’s tooth-less, gullible grin; the force of his hearty wave; the piercing noise of that radio, drowning out their venomous shouts; the bitter taste of that lie on my tongue – it all bore down.

I wanted to unleash a river of scalding tears, caged off and burning a hole in my throat…burning me so badly it felt like fire ripping through my entrails, and lighting my soul ablaze. I wanted to make an opening to exhale. I had something to say, muddled inside the inferno of my disfigurement. If you came here to shock us; if you came here to wound our notion of belonging; if you came here make us want to crawl out of our skins, just because you can; if you came here to make us weep into our pillow to muffle the sound from our children; if you came here to do all of that… you won, damn you. You won!

I am acutely mortal in such circumstances. I didn’t feel defiant, yet humble, like David before Goliath, or merciful and determined like the Prophet Mohammed when his people threw garbage and rocks at his head, yet he only responded with an earnest prayer, asking God to forgive them all. My mind didn’t instantly revert to the oft-repeated verse from the Qur’an: “And the servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth with humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!…” (25:63). 

I’m not proud to say that I only felt smoke rising from my sudden, ruptured existence. I loathed them all.

I didn’t grip my husband’s hand, in a show of affection and solidarity. He didn’t grip mine. Whatever comfort we might afford one another, was muted in the shock of our predicament, and in the need to keep appearances for our boy- now nearly bursting out of his seatbelt in joyful agitation.

Our son almost opened the door before the car came to a full stop. The hot coal in my throat started to extinguish with the need to turn our focus on the details of registration and cabin assignments. The fire still flickered and I yearned for a private moment, just long enough to have a good cry. I wondered about the older children who read the signs, and actually understood them, but I didn’t ask. In these situations, people don’t want to talk, they just want to forget.

Those who lagged behind skipped the clan-like welcome. Even hate-mongers break for happy hour. They didn’t hold their ground against the “terrorist;” rather, they left voluntarily not long after our scheduled entrance. Apparently, it was not conviction that drove them there, but the sick thrill of capture…a hit and run. They smacked our kids real good; now, it was time to celebrate over a round of cold beers and high-fives. Maybe a reporter would even quote one or two protestors, then ask a Muslim camper to respond- as if it was a battle between two sides, and the public must decide. Only if the bigoted assault were directed at any other group of children would it be deemed a shameful act.  These were, after all, Muslim children and wasn’t it Muslims who attacked us on 9-11?

Meanwhile, we met in the Fellowship Hall. The keynote speaker told all the children that they had a duty to God; and as an extension of that duty, a duty to their fellow citizens, and a duty to care for the earth. He said it is not always easy to be faithful, but we must be sincere and try to do our best. We must not let hatred directed at us, interfere with that duty. The talk was followed by a communal prayer. When I touched my head to the floor, bowing down in worship, I noticed the burn was no more. I felt close to my Creator, and vast distances away from the world outside.

My son would soon read fluently; he would hear and see all things clearly. I could only protect him for a while longer.

My children will receive shocks of pain from corners that I never anticipated, and that I scarcely would have imagined as a child. They will know pain, but he will also know the sweet relief from bowing, in humility, in utter helplessness and submission before their Creator – like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus… like Mohammed, peace be upon them all.

I was reminded of this day, while watching a You Tube video featuring a group of protestors, led by fiery politicians, shouting down Muslim men, women, and children, as they approached the entrance to an event raising money for U.S. charities, aimed at stopping hunger and homelessness in America.

It is horrifying to watch and words do not do justice. I should warn you that it is not appropriate for young viewers, although you will see that many of those who attended the charity event were children.

Among the protestors, you will see more American flags than at a Fourth of July Parade, which begs the question- what does pure, unadulterated hate have to do with the symbolism of our flag?  The answer is so obvious, the question doesn’t even seem worth asking.

I protect their right to wave our flag. In fact, if that right were in serious jeopardy, I would hold it up for them, swaying it high over my hijab-wearing head (with giant ear-plugs). While I support their right, I disdain their work to make the symbolism of our flag the functional equivalent of a swastika. I wish they would don the disguise of their forefathers– a white sheet and pointed hood. It is, after all, an honest badge for those who cannot feel anyone’s humanity but their own.

This targeting of Muslim inter-faith leaders and community builders, along with their children, will be featured in a documentary aired on CNN this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST. It is called, Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door. Click on this link to see the trailer. I am hopeful that a mass media outlet is bringing this issue to light.

I will say goodbye, now, with a statement from the trailer. It was made by a Muslim mother who will be featured in the documentary. When asked whether she thinks fellow Americans hate her, she stated:  “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think people understand what Islam is and (what) Muslims are.”

I also want to conclude with a word of sincere thanks to a high school classmate who contacted me recently to say she made an appointment at her local mosque to address for herself negative assumptions about Muslims. So far so good; they gave her a warm reception over the phone. I hope the inter-faith relationships she encounters will last a lifetime. She’s collard green, of course. I know they are just going to love her.

Uncensored Out-Crowd

2 Mar

My eldest son didn’t know who Justin Beiber was until we enrolled him in a Qur’an class at our local mosque (a.k.a madrassa). His class-mates told him about an episode of CSI, wherein Beiber gets riddled with bullets in a shoot-out scene. A few weeks before that, he came home wondering about Eminem. A classmate generously provided the correct spelling in the margins of his homework assignment.

This ain’t your mama’s madrassa!

He implored me: “Mama, please, you gotta’ tell me everything you know about Justin Beiber. Everyone talks about him.” I laughed to myself and wondered how many kids ask their mom that question. He knows I will investigate. A few months ago we discovered that Zoey 101 was a hit TV series. Thank you Wikipedia! I found the goods on Beiber, also, through the internet. Then, I pulled down Rolling Stone from the magazine section in our local library. They put Beiber on the cover. In the article, Beiber is described as, “the most adorable, talented, sensual kid in the world.”

Hold up! Sensual and kid do not belong in the same sentence unless it is on a State Attorney’s charging document and pursuant to an arrest. The kid is sensual? No thank you. I poured through the article and then took the honors of editorializing it for my boy. Aren’t I a good collard green Muslim mama? I gave him the abridged G- version, but here it is uncensored:

Beiber is a child-laborer, albeit very well paid. He is carefully scripted because there are money-grabbers with investments and expectations in achieving dividends. Grown women can throw themselves at him; their daughters, via Twitter, can beg him to send cyber-french kisses; sulking children, with nannies as mamas, can demand that their parents bid, on E-bay, for a lock of his highlighted hair in anticipation of show n’ tell.

His own mama has to sit back and put up, though her baby is a product…and products must be sold. Their lifestyle is a far cry from single-parenthood in a roughed up neighborhood which is what they endured before Beiber was noticed. Beiber’s daddy wasn’t around much when they lived in poor town. He shows up all the time now. The first investor sent front-money for them to move out and into a nice townhome in Atlanta. Beiber was a likely candidate for pop-star success because: 1) he can dance and sing, 2) he doesn’t have acne, and 3) he’s a white boy.

White is green when it comes to developing talent for the tween market. Just ask Beiber’s counterpart- Hannah Montana. There’s more. White is green, if it likes black. It must love black.

Rolling Stone reports: “Nothing makes them happier than when someone compares Beiber to Michael Jackson, his idol.” Beiber is quoted: “Michael is my inspiration, and I want to emulate his career as much as possible.”

How many times did that child have to practice saying ‘emulate’ before they let him have a Capri Sun? I imagine it in my head: “No, Beiber – not mutilate his career, emulate, emulate… keep practicing!”

That script is green dollas, cabbage, bacon, cheddar, loot…what have you; it’s all money as long as Beiber doesn’t actually look like Michael Jackson (especially pre-plastic surgery). When what Beiber says is not expertly crafted, he can tote Ebonics, and even better if he does, but his appearance should not give it away.

The script is crafted by producers who don’t discover talent- they develop it. They know that if masses of moms and dads are going to buy pop-star paraphernalia they will grab more, and pay premium, if their daughter is drooling over a boy with downy soft blonde hair. If they are going to drag their work-weary limbs to a crowded big box store to buy a life-size poster of a teen idol, it better be someone they expect her to bring home to dinner when she is nineteen, on a weekend back from Vandy- where, of course, she is primarily focused on her studies.

As for drugs, of course, Beiber hates them. Drugs are for losers! That boy’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s not like the rest. Just say no, yo! Teen pop stars never do drugs, or at least we don’t get to that part until the industry has moved on, and the former idol finds a new niche, offering up their tell-all to nostalgic, mortgage-wielding grown folks who remember when. 

As irritated as I sound, actually, I don’t mind the intrusion into our cocoon. Our son became a tween this year on his ninth birthday. I want him to get a glimpse of pop culture and I want that to generate conversations between us. I’m frankly relieved that he comes home and wants to describe his observations, ask questions and get answers. We talk about why our TV doesn’t stream Leave it to Beiber, or M & M. We are ooey-gooey, fundalicious when it comes to filtering pop fizz, but probably not fundalicious enough; at a recent homeschool co-op class he announced: “Come to Papa!” He ripped that line from Garfield comics. It was a headache explaining to him that he can’t impersonate Garfield outside of the family-audience, without revealing more than was necessary. I was about to issue a Mama Fatwa.

Growing up, like my son, I was on the margin of pop culture, but no one attributed it to any reason, other than that the cable guy couldn’t be bothered to come over. I felt like I was trying to solve a pop riddle most of the time, with only a handful of clues.

There was a boy named George, so they called him Boy George, but he wore eye shadow and lipstick. My friend brought a magazine to school which featured Cindy Lauper in hot pink hair and high-tops. Ms. Lauper said: Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I thought she looked like the expert on fun. Madonna, on the other hand, was in a mess of trouble even before she started wearing her underwear on the outside of her clothes. Someone said she got pregnant, but she wasn’t even married! Her daddy was livid. I knew she couldn’t be collard green like the rest of us, because all she said for herself was:

Papa Don’t Preach.

Papa Don’t Preach?!  Papa Don’t Preach?! Woman, are you crazy?! If I ever said that to my daddy, he’d a had a comin’ to Jesus talk with me – collard green butt-whipping style. Why was this grown woman inciting my friends with parent-rearing advice?! Couldn’t she have the heart to at least stamp a disclaimer on her lyrics. Something useful, like – WARNING COLLARD GREEN KIDS: Don’t try this at home unless you have a prosthetic butt!

When I was my son’s age we lived just on the outskirts of town. I always dreamed that the cable guy would show up one day. All the kids at school had already invited him over. The cable company didn’t service our street because it was too far out, although we lived just a quick bike ride to downtown. That left us with three channels, and cycling between the sparse selection of VHS rentals at the gas station, besides whatever the grey-haired ladies at the public library could offer. I was probably the only kid, besides my sister, who knew all the words to the Yentl soundtrack. We had a sprawling grove to run on and a wide, long creek to explore, but the drawback was no cable until middle school.

We didn’t have enough money to own an Atari set. I only chomped Pac-Man dots at Chuck E Cheese. If we ventured to a movie it was more often than not at the drive-in Star-Lite theatre. They charged by the car-load, not by the head, and our mom didn’t have to hide a bag of store-bought popcorn, from Jimmy’s Thriftway, in her over-sized purse. It was more convenient and a heck of a lot less embarrassing.

By the way, collard green folks love, I mean love, drive-in theaters.  A rarity will even drive-in to church. Stop laughing because I’m serious. I lived in north Florida after I left home, and drove by a drive-in church every day on my way to work. Attendees could just roll on up to hear the Lord ’s Prayer over the speaker, attached to their window. I never drove-in, but I wondered whether the concession stand was open. That was a gruesome thought. One of the best parts about church-going is singing the hymns. A mouthful of Milk Duds would make for a pitiful, downright offensive, Amazing Grace.

I know I’m not a Christian anymore so I have no business running my mouth off about how to be a faithful church-goer, but love on me enough to let me say something about drive-in churches, then you can sing Papa Don’t Preach at the top of your lungs.

If you attend church services at a drive-in you are suffering from a case of Cheez Wiz intoxication. Take the aerosol nozzle out of your mouth and go drink a cup of black coffee. Have some respect! Go take a shower and get dressed up. Put on a pair of nice shoes and a tie. Get down to the brick and mortar church that your great-great-grandparents built, shake hands with the usher, ask about his elderly mama, stand for the hymns and then sit your butt down on the wooden pew! Oh…and put your popcorn money in the offering plate, but more if you can. If you’re going to be a church-going Christian then you should really go to church. If you want to watch M*A*S*H re-runs, by all means, park your rusted up “vintage” Cadillac at the drive-in, attach the tin-can speaker to your car window, and laugh until your cheeks ache.

America is a great nation, but let’s admit, pop culture has attached to her some funky fads. Who knows, in my great, great-grand children’s generation there may be a drive-in mosque. At least I’ll be long gone. The idea of worms feasting on my flesh, in the grave, is the only pleasure derived from the thought of a futuristic drive-in mosque.

Anyway, back to my childhood trying aimlessly to solve pop-riddles. Even after we got cable, I never gravitated to the pop-fizz besides some TNT movies, Nick at Nite, and Sale of the Century– my favorite game show. I resigned myself to living on the margins of pop culture, and it felt fine, so I didn’t make much effort to get initiated. The closest I ever came was trying out for cheerleading in high school. I made the squad which was clearly a sympathy vote; I couldn’t do anything besides scream real loud and smile unnaturally- like there was a popsicle stick lodged horizontally inside my mouth. I felt glow-in-the-dark walking around school in a pleated, short, polyester skirt and decided it was not much fun to stand out in the hot sun watching other people watch me. Jumping around, like a court-jester, half-necked in front of a sea of yelping, post-pubescent boys, was not something to look forward to every week; although, no doubt, they did.

I took up swimming and had fun, even though I never made it past lane two, which was equivalent to a tadpole rank. At least it led to a well-paid job as a life guard. I was semi-emerged into pop culture, but not well enough to enjoy a conversation with anyone in the cafeteria over a bag of onion-flavored Funyuns.

My biggest drama was trying to hatch a plan, with the Lutheran minister’s daughter, to get a ride to a Tori Amos concert at the Tupperware Center. We got there and weaved our way through the over-crowded hall. She heaved and I leached onto the back of her shirt, afraid to let go. When we got settled I whispered in her ear: “Why is everyone wearing the same perfume…it’s sweet-smelling, but it stings my nose.” She said: “That’s weed, dork.” Thus, I found out that weed wasn’t just a pesky plant we plucked from endless dirt rows, the year my daddy decided to become a farmer, stuffed a scarecrow, and plowed the earth behind our house.

We raved about how it was the best concert of our lives, the best concert we’d ever attended! Outside of our respective churches, it was the only concert we’d ever attended. Not having a lot of mental pop-fizz to occupy my mind awakened me to some other thoughts, like why the honky-tonk I was alive and where I was going to end up. One night during my senior year of high school, one of my best friends and I covertly sat out under an oak tree, on the margins of the orange grove, miserably coughing our way through a shared cigarette. She interrupted my stream of consciousness and cried out: “You think too much, you know!” She put up with all my garbled, aching, yet pleasurable thoughts, and she didn’t even get a Girl-Scout patch for it.

My destiny was to never solve the pop riddle. It was not my path. I don’t even try anymore. I would rather not know why the Desperate Housewives are so dawn desperate. I longed to be on the margins, which is why I always scattered to the periphery if I ever got the chance to enter the ring. I have no regrets that it took so long for the cable guy to come over for dinner. Now that I’m grown up with a family of my own, I won’t even extend him the invitation.

My son watched the first half of Yentl the other night. He’ll have to grow a beard before I let him watch the second half. He loved it and was very grumpy when I turned it off, even though I promised he could watch an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, as a consolation.

He’s got his pinky-toe in the ring, with some TV, a Play Station and a Wii, and a little bit more each year; but, pretty much he’s just trying to solve the riddle. He’ll have his own field to plow one day. He’ll make his own choices. He may turn out to love his induction into the out-crowd; conversely, he may fight with furious thunder to master a shrouded and un-inherited language, to live in the Real World. I will fight with equal thunder to have him hear my reservations, and the pounding of my aching heart.

I am certain, though, as clear as the newborn memory of cradling him on top of my chest, skin-to-skin, tracking the pattern of his faint breath, and sobering to the realization, that he is a being, apart from me- that I will love him. I will love him with every inch of myself…who once sheltered his very soul. I will love him, by permission, with the one part of mercy, out of the hundred parts of mercy that the Source of creation sent down amongst the creation.* I will love him with a quality too pure to come from me; it only clings, by design, from the Source of that nectar…the Source of creation. I will love him, truly, with no sanctuary for conditions.


*No. 5613 – Narrated Abu Huraira: I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, Allah divided Mercy into one-hundred parts and He kept its ninety-nine parts with Him and sent down its one part on the earth, and because of that, its one single part, His creations are Merciful to each other, so that even the mare lifts up its hoofs away from its baby animal, lest it should trample on it.”