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Something about Ummah

2 Nov

I came upon the term ummah after delving into the study of Islam fourteen years ago.  It’s often translated tightly as community, but it’s so much better than that. So much on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t ever find the precise words for the feeling…like… the most sublime tremor of well-being just to be alive and connected.

No. That won’t do. Scratch that. It’s something else. Something I can’t tell you, just as you can’t tell me how un-done you felt to be in love when you finally realized what it was -with the fear, thrill, and anticipation that sent you laughing yourself to sleep that night.

O.K., you have a point. That’s not fair– to let you in on something, and then not tell you what {it} is!! I agree. Well then, I’ll try.

Ummah is a refined acknowledgment of connection that transcends all boundaries of tribalism and national borders for the purpose of seeking the pleasure of God Most High. It is an idea that breeds transcendence, so it is only natural that ummah will be more palpably felt between two people of different languages and tribes, which is commonplace, for one, in my neck of the woods. Lucky for me! I have so many ummah stories that I could share with you based on my experiences over the years…they are treasures which I pull out and dust off from time to time to rekindle.

Last week marked Eid ul-Adha, the world over – a day of commemorating the Prophet Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his own son, based on his literal interpretation of a vision from God. Prophet Abraham’s son willingly accepted to be sacrificed believing that it was God’s will;  however, God intervened through the Angel Gabriel, before the sacrifice could take place, and Prophet Abraham was commanded instead to sacrifice a sheep, a thing much less beloved and prized to him. Prophet Abraham had already demonstrated that seeking the pleasure of God reigned supreme in his heart, even when the logic was not apparent on the human, cognitive level. As Muslims, we reflect on his vision as a metaphor, to unhinge ourselves from the world- to give preference and space to love what is Everlasting over what is ephemeral. This story is one illustration by which we can get a sense of the incomprehensible rank that God bestowed on Prophet Abraham by deeming him His friend.

In the U.S. on Eid, Muslims raising young children often gather in public spaces such as parks during the afternoon period. The festivities eventually transport to cozy homes. It is typically a frenzy of idleness, with fired up grills, bags of candy, and throngs of children running as independent bands- coming to their parents only for more juice, or another cupcake. Eid is all about fun and not stopping until you lay, speechless, having said all there is to say, and exhausted on one’s bed – sighing and falling into a peaceful sleep born from doing nothing that isn’t pleasurable.

So, on this Eid, our family packed into the car, then took a detour to pick up the children of a friend who was ill. We piled out expecting to walk into a large crowd of Eid-goers only to discover no one around. There was a large gathering of Muslims in one gazebo, none of whom I recognized. Clearly Palestinian, I thought by surveying the collection of men who needed a BBQ grill so big they brought their own. The pithily one at the park would never do for the massive amounts of beef and chicken they were about to unleash. I understand. I’m Collard Green.

The other dead give-away were the men dressed in brightly colored shirts underneath snug, black polyester vests, coupled with fitted pants reaching to long, black and well-shined, square-toed shoes. Picture minions of Godfathers hovering around a grill next to a massive playground set. The grill master, a young guy, wore his dress sleeves rolled up, and extending from his left hand were five kabob poles extending three feet or more in the air; his other hand swiftly turned the sizzling kabobs still on the grill. The aroma was marinated, charred yumminess- a feast that only a zealous vegan could refuse with satisfaction. I wanted to ravage the place.

Impatient, I scanned the horizon. Where were all our people?  I spotted two familiar faces, likely as disappointed as me over the weak turn-out. We convened and made a few phone calls before realizing that folks were on their way; a phenomenon I’ve come to know as ‘Muslim Standard Time.’ Before long, a Nigerian friend showed up and soon her kids were running around the park; they disappeared into the haze of smoke. She leapt in to retrieve them, and no sooner than she could exit, they insisted that she : EAT! EAT! TAKE! SOME MORE! NO, THAT’S NOT ENOUGH! The men busied themselves with heaving generous portions of food on her plate.

She didn’t know any of them, yet because she walked into their midst for less than a minute, she was obliged to take something away. That’s ummah.

So, we huddled in our barren, yurt-like gazebo and ate the Palestinians’ food. It was so good. I could hardly complete a thought, but when my consciousness returned, I felt guilty to have left a sick friend with an empty stomach. My intention had been to bring  her some of our food, but not enough in our party had arrived to start grilling. Not having grown up in an ummah-centered culture, I was too shy to walk up to the Palestinians and ask for more food, even if for a sick woman. That’s what Collard Green people would call tacky. But, there’s no tacky in ummah which is what my Nigerian friend knows. She didn’t hesitate to return. With wide smiles, like greeting a long, lost friend, they encouraged her a second time. EAT! EAT! TAKE! SOME MORE! And this time they handed her an entire tray full of freshly grilled shrimp to go along with her over-flowing plate.

Eventually our party showed up; we were able to start our own festivities. Toward the end of the day, I navigated my way into the Palestinians’ enclave with a measly plate of fruit. Meandering around the men, I crept deep into the belly of the party where all of the women, from the Palestinian region of Gibran, languished. Their space was dim and hazy. The smoke from a shisha pipe rose – hovering like cumulus clouds over their lair. Their heads cocked back -mouths gasping for air because it was just so funn-y…I can’t speak..I can’t breathe…my love, habeebti!!!

In their colloquialism, I had no clue what they said. What caused them to laugh so convincingly? They looked the way life does…when it is living.

A thin, petite woman took my plate and winked, thank you, she said. I did not stay; in fact, I ejected myself swiftly, feeling like a school girl who’d slipped out of bed and tip-toed into her mother’s party, uninvited, but then stricken by being so far out of her element, scurries back to bed, only to wish she had stayed.

There was more goodwill to be had. The Palestinians made these fantastic high-end goodie bags and proceeded to throw them into the arms of any child within reach, including my own. To which one of my kids exclaimed: “They have really good stuff!”

Our parties had mingled so much, they would have been indistinguishable by passerby.  One of the Palestinian women made her way to our huddle and lamented that she had left her broom at home. “Do you have one?,” she asked. “I can’t just leave the place like this!” she lamented. Of course, how could she leave her first-come-first serve gazebo so un-kept?! Doesn’t everyone sweep up the concrete floor after a BBQ. How disappointed would the next party be?! “Sorry,” we replied, we are fresh out of brooms.

Later that night we ended up at our friend, Laila’s house for an all dessert pot-luck. Families with roots in Korea, Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia, Palestine, Turkey, Morocco, and my very own ‘Merica, amassed on the main floor with the men huddled in the basement. We had our own version of a smoke-filled room, without the smoke. Over-indulged on the qatayef, chocolate, and coffee, we remembered the Palestinians and felt joy.

Ummah is a thing that eschews mere politeness; it scoffs at minding your manners. It is a surging wave that thrust itself forth, covers the other, washes over and quenches the thirst of its members – both giver and receiver. It harbors no refuge for the ego; for to experience it you must peel off the coarse layers of yourself and meet with the tender heart of another. Like Prophet Abraham’s vision, it forces you to see beyond the ephemeral and dive into the timeless Source of all Pleasure.

I can’t tell you precisely what it is, but I pray that you will feel it on the tip of your tongue one day….so close, but never able to convey it precisely. Who can define love, after all?


Potty Purgatory

29 Apr

In today’s age, bathrooms can speak for our sense of style and especially our imaginings. For example, a family in South Dakota has guest towels with rustic sail boats and sea shells. Their vanity is scattered with displaced coastal knick-knacks, while on the walls hang pasty children in starched knickers building a sandcastle.

Interior decorators refer to the bathroom as a potential sanctuary and retreat. That is a lot of pressure to put on a room that began conception as an outhouse. My Georgia grandma never tired of telling us what it was like to get up in the frigid air of January to brave the sharp winds just to use the potty. My North Carolina grandma lived in the city limits but she still had to use the outhouse when visiting family on the farm. I bet you have a nostalgic grandma who told you about using the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue as “toilet paper.” I hope you have a grandma like that.

I know what ya’ll are thinking- didn’t this lady already write about Twelve Rolls of Toilet Paper? Yes, I did. The bathroom is on my mind a lot because it’s the annex to my office, which is the rest of the house. I have three kids; my brood includes a toddler and a pre-schooler who still need technical assistance in the wiping department. Ya’ll might also be thinking – what does bathroom decor have to do with a Collard Green-Arab, family?


In all the homes I’ve visited in Morocco, and I’ve visited a lot, the bathroom serves a strictly utilitarian function, much like in my grandma’s generation and every generation before that. I’d wager that the majority of Moroccans are not going to spend a lot of time, thought, and resources into concealing the true purpose of a bathroom. Everybody knows that you go in there to do the stuff that nobody wants to be around- not even your mama, which is why she toilet-trained you in the first place! Depending on the socio-economic status of the hostess it might be a hole in the ground or a shiny porcelain throne. It will not say anything about the hostess, and you better not saying anything either!

In Morocco, no one walks out of the toilet and says: I just love what you’ve done in there! Heck no! She will: a) think you are trying to insult her, and/or, b) wonder whether one of her kids forgot to flush the toilet. 

Moroccan women are a lot like Collard Green women, so at that point, she’s going to serve you cake and tea while praying under her breath that you will get pulled away by an important phone call, which is such a shame, because, it would be lovely if you could stay, because, she always enjoys your company and especially your conversation, and do come again!

Here’s another piece of advice to save you a lot of embarrassment – there are a pair of cheap sandals next to the bathroom door. Those are for you. Wear them!

Let me explain. Moroccans will clean all day long, with that bald-headed mascot of disinfection, Mr. Clean, and they would be horrified to let the soles of their feet, or anyone else’s slide across that clean floor. Moroccans wear flip-flops in the bathroom because they leave their walking shoes at the front door. I didn’t know this and no one told me so my first trip to the little girl’s room went something like this:

We stopped at a friend of the family’s home on the road to my husband’s small town. Everyone’s shoes came off at the entrance; next, came the customary Islamic greeting, Peace be upon you, before we were seated in the family room. Trays of sweets and pots of tea were brought out by the mother, her teenage daughters and several of their female cousins. After a while, I had to go the bathroom very badly on account of having swallowed so many glasses of sweet, hot mint tea. In Moroccan culture, and this is also true for most of the Arab world, if you empty your tea glass, the hostess is obliged and happy to fill it back up for you. Leaving an ounce at the bottom is a polite way of saying enough.

I didn’t know that and no one told me. Every time I finished a cup the hostess would touch the mouth of the teapot to the rim of my glass as if to dribble its contents inside. Then, as is customary, but surprised me- she swiftly leveraged it up until her arm could reach no higher, in a sublimely extravagant effort that betrayed no concealment of pretension. This produced a golden fountain which, though high, emptied only into the narrow cavern of my petite, brightly tinted-blue glass- its façade rimmed with silver, geometric repeating patterns.

The force of this lava-hot stream made a rim of thick foam swell up, almost to the mouth of my glass. Rising from the foam was a concentrated vapor of fresh mint which filled the space in front of me. I was intoxicated by an unfamiliar yearning to abandon all my earthly affairs and never return home.  Through the haze of steam, my eyes fixated on my hostess’s expression of joyful ease, made even more ornate by a charcoal-colored tattoo, perfectly aligned along the center of her chin; extending from its base to the underbelly of her bottom lip- illuminating the perfect symmetry of her smile.

I might have given into the siren’s call, if not for the sharp pain emanating from my full bladder. I needed to use the restroom badly, but it’s not like I could discreetly saunter up to my hostess and ask if she would kindly show me to the powder room. Who needs a tour-guide book filled with useful, everyday expressions when you are being escorted by a native speaker? That’s for tourist. I was practically Moroccan, right? Or, at least, I was married to one. My husband used to translate everything. Not cool. There is nothing more humiliating than having someone announce that you need to take a trip to the john, and no better motivation for becoming a student of the local language.

After my husband announced my predicament, all the ladies of the house sprung up, downright giddy, to help me navigate my first trip to the toilet. It was quite an entourage. Since I eloped and never walked properly down the aisle- that is probably the closest thing to a formal procession I’m ever going to get while I’m alive. They ever so carefully led me around the corner, through a sparsely furnished square room, down a steep step, through a corridor, around another corner, down a short hallway and then- voila! There was the door of the bathroom and I rushed to it feeling that my time was short.

I was almost home-free when I heard a cacophony of shouts erupt- La!, which, in Arabic, means no. I turned around and those  not biting their lips, or cupping their mouths, were just plain laughing. I wanted to laugh too. I love to laugh, but I didn’t get it. One of the girls sprinted to my side; she bent down and produced a pair of bright orange sandals about two sizes too big for me. I still didn’t get it. Are we going to the dang boardwalk? Never mind, I thought, they can laugh, but I’m going in.

I turned to enter, but that girl pulled me back as if she were saving me from a certain death. She put the flip flops on her own feet, and then passed through the dark room and out again to demonstrate how it’s done. Alright. They want me to wear their flip flops in the bathroom, I said to myself, fine, I’ll wear a dead possum on my head if it’ll get me into that toilet. I dashed in with the proper foot wear and closed the door. There, on the floor, was a wide, dark, deep hole with two foot rest on either side. I didn’t think twice. I knew what to do. I’m Collard-Green; when you are out somewhere and there is no porcelain throne for miles- you simply adapt.

Later, I emerged flapping like a penguin, made-in-China, in my oversized orange flip flops. Everyone was where I left them, crowded around the door, still smiling. Maybe they thought I wasn’t coming out and were drawing straws to see who should have to go in.

So, that was my ‘Intro to Toilet’ seminar and since then I’ve worn all manner of plastic flip-flops to go to the bathroom there. Over the years, I somehow adopted the Moroccan notion of what a bathroom should and shouldn’t do. It should serve a necessary purpose- not express your good taste and unique expression. It doesn’t have to be your grandma’s outhouse, but good gosh don’t try to make it your sanctuary with a toilet; the master bedroom will work just fine for a retreat. As for the bathroom -get in, get out, disinfect it regularly, and don’t look back.

Well, that all changed last year when my good friend, raised in New England and Colorado, planned a visit to spend a week with us. I asked myself why our bathroom didn’t speak to our sense of taste and imaginings. We didn’t even have a nice set of guest towels. How was I going to make her feel really welcome? I felt ashamed. Here I was, all grown up and the mama to three, yet my bathroom looked like a glorified outhouse, when it was supposed to look like a vacation destination. I didn’t even have miniature lilac soap bars, shaped like oyster shells, for guests to admire (and not use). I wasn’t going to go out of the world this way. Heck no! I made up my mind.

I drove straight away to Home Goods and headed for the double wide aisle which shelved the towels. It was overwhelming, really. I should have brought reinforcements. I didn’t even have a strategy. I gave up my lofty ideal to have a bathroom that communicated something about me and just decided to acquire anything nice. My only other requirement was that they look like a proper set – useless.

I finally narrowed in on a teal and cappuccino colored ensemble. For just $3.99 you could get a non-utilitarian accent piece with matching tassels and beads on the end to drape over the arrangement, like a corsage on a sparkly debutante. That made its useless value skyrocket in my opinion, and thus even more fitting to accomplish my mission. I arrived back home to my husband and kids and set to work like a master florist.

Next, my very Arab husband came in and asked:

“What are those?”

“Guest towels. It was hard work picking them out, so say they’re nice,” I warned him.

“They are nice,” he said.

“No, I mean say something really nice about my good taste,” I explained.

“You have good, nice taste,” he said.

“Yes,” I agreed.

“How much did they cost?” He asked.

“A thousand dollars and fifty cents -so don’t use them, alright? Their guest towels.”

He leaned past me to feel the fabric.

“Huh…kind of coarse. Do you think guests will want to use them?” he cautioned.

“No,” I replied.

“Why?” he asked.

“’Cause they’re guest towels!”

Wa’kha,” he said.

Wa’kah– there is that word again. I wrote about in this post.

I bought those towels a week before my friend arrived, and in that time my Collard Green-Arab kids had already pulled them off to use in the shower. I kept reiterating that: “Those are guest towels!” I had almost given up because it was a headache and I seriously doubted that they inherited my particular strand of post-modern American, guest-towel DNA.

I picked up my friend from the airport and got her settled in. I was so happy to see her, I forgot about the trauma of trying to convert my kids to the idea of having useless things in the bathroom. It’s a good thing my friend reminded me. I was tickled pink when she walked into that bathroom and commented on what a nice set of guest towels I had, which of course she didn’t use.

That was last year. Since then, our bathroom has struck a kind of compromise. It’s in potty-purgatory. I grew weary of washing and re-arranging the towels my kids couldn’t remember not to use. So, the towel racks are now all stocked with clean rounds of fluffy white towels. However, the walls are adorned with Frenchy-inspired pictures and we have a sleek shower curtain, found on clearance at Marshalls for just $9.99! Would my great-grandmother have imagined that I would put art on the bathroom walls or devote the cost of a pot roast to a shower curtain? I think they were on the right track.  There are plenty of other corners in a home to fuss over and pamper– why dawdle in the bathroom unless you have another toilet-training tour to fulfill?

Here’s to bathrooms that don’t compromise. To bathrooms that don’t inspire! To bathrooms that don’t express anything! To bathrooms that call you in, and then hustle you right back out! To my old bathroom, dang-it!

 Raise a glass (of sweet tea)!

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.

As Seen On TV Muslims

24 Feb

Did ya’ll ever watch the movie, Not Without My Daughter? I saw it in my first year of high school. It’s a Cowboys & Muslims adventure.

The Muslim is played by Alfred Molina, a British actor of Spanish/Italian descent. The cowgirl stars in that famous commercial about how Once-Monthly Boniva armed her against postmenopausal osteoporosis. I loved her collard green performance in Steel Magnolias. Did you know Sally Field is from California? Yup. I looked up her bio and saw photos of her on the beach, as a girl called Gidget, and then swathed as The Flying Nun. I assumed she really was collard green.  Maybe it’s in her bloodline. How the heck did she play Norma Rae so convincingly?  I was less shocked to learn that Vivien Leigh, who starred as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, was British. After all, Scarlett O’Hara was, essentially, a rich fuss with a southern accent and a survival instinct. A finely chiseled English actress can pull that off… but, Norma Rae? It’s tormenting.

Anyway, Not Without My Daughter is the story of an American mother who gets a genius idea to marry a Muslim immigrant who had lived in the U.S. for twenty years practicing medicine. He’s cute and cuddly in America, oh sure, but not long after the family arrives in his home-country of Iran he takes off his Care Bear mask. The husband is embraced by his extended family- all bearing allegiance to black cloaks and furry eyebrows. Then, it’s one scene after another of him beating her while they look on menacingly. Finally, the American mother smartly orchestrates a plan to smuggle herself and her daughter to an American embassy and escape the whole tribe of meanie-Muslims.

Just before the credits roll, she looks haggard and defeated. Then, suddenly, she catches sight of our Red, White and Blue, waving in the distance. That’s my cue to burst into a slobbery cry of relief. I feel safe (fortressed), warm (drowsy), and fuzzy (slightly paralyzed). The cowgirl escaped the Muslims, into the arms of Lady Liberty. The End.

Dimmers release… time to go home…bright theatre lights pop… gotta’ take the dog outside to pee…tears go stale…my breath tastes like salty, orange saturated fat…the music stops… dang, I wanna’ brush my teeth!…ushers sweep under my feet…I need some sleep. Tomorrow is a new day! Yee-haaaw!

We never find out what happens next -whether they live happily ever after. That is not the point. The point is to scare the crap out of you. It worked! I watched it in the ninth grade and renewed my solemn oath to marry Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. I was pretty sure they were not Muslim.

Not Without My Daughter was filmed in the U.S. and Israel, and was allegedly based on a true story. Twenty years after the film’s debut, Finnish documentary makers dug up documents and eye-witness accounts which sharply contradicted the battered mother’s account. That film is called Without My Daughter. It tells the story of an Iranian father swindled out of his fortune and separated from his daughter by his sinister ex-wife.

As a woman’s woman, I just can’t wrap my mind around that version. I believe her. I hope when she made it back to the U.S. she returned to the support of an empathetic group of good girlfriends- not shallow, gossiping wenches. My motto is: It takes a village to raise a strong woman. It takes a village to keep her strong.  It takes a village to help her find a job and a pit-bull attorney, when her rodent of a husband becomes infatuated with his agile secretary – florescent fingernail polish and all! I BELIEVE ANITA HILL!!

Do ya’ll catch my drift?

I’m relieved for any woman in that position and I admire her courage. You don’t have to watch Oprah to know that abusers will become more manipulative and aggressive when the marriage is about to end, and they confront a loss of control. The abuser will try to regain control with more intimidation and violence. If he can put her in a situation where she is more vulnerable, say another country, where she doesn’t speak the language, he will.

This phenomenon, tragically, happens on U.S. soil as well, involving American jerks and foreign wives. The women, some of them mail-order brides, find themselves in violent situations out of their element, and they do not know who to trust or what resources are available. Not until relatively recently did The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) put into place aggressive legal protections to address this crisis. Now, a woman in the U.S. who would otherwise depend on an abusive spouse to obtain legal status, and access the court system, can go to a safe haven and receive help. The law will turn on the abuser, instead of on the abused. There are non-profit attorneys who work, almost exclusively, helping victims under VAWA; which illustrates how severe is the problem.

If the husband and wife are citizens of different countries, it becomes even more problematic when there is no equivalent of VAWA, and even worse, when the laws favor the husband over the wife. It is insincere to deny that some Muslim-majority countries do interpret Islamic family law to hail to the chief to the detriment of women and their children.

Now, don’t go winding your head and saying to yourself, uh-huh. I said some countries. Let’s not forget, there are Muslim-majority nations where women have been elected to serve as the head of state, whereas we have yet to reach that milestone. Yes We Can(not) Elect a Woman for President.

Sorry, ya’ll, I had to go there. It has a ring to it.

Many Muslim-majority countries, like Morocco, have initiated significant legal reforms in family law over the past decade, though it has a way to go for those reforms to gain acceptance in the hearts of people. A middle class couple I know in Morocco were married for only two years; the marriage did not produce children, yet the husband had to cough up a one-time alimony payment. His wife was self-sufficient and worked full time; however, the payment was required because she convinced the judge that her husband was el-cheapo. The Islamic family law court decided the case according to a Shari’ah principle, which applies to women, and can be roughly paraphrased as: My money is my money… and your money… is my money!

Under Islamic law, a woman is entitled to all of her earnings and inheritance, and she is entitled to support from her husband, regardless of her financial status. Anything she contributes to the household is deemed charity.

In Not Without My Daughter, the only part I have a hard time believing is that her husband was so archetypal before he reunited with his Muslim family and into the womb of his Islamic faith. You also don’t have to watch Oprah to know that all abusers are not Muslim, but some Muslims are abusers. That’s an important distinction. Sadly, abusers are ubiquitous. Evil does not confine itself to geographical borders or religious communities. Life is more complicated than that; although, the film leads us to believe that, but for, the injection of Islam and Muslims, the couple would have lived happily ever after- in a ranch house near the post office and convenient to several outlet malls.

Doesn’t it seem more plausible that the mother knew to some degree that her long-time doctor/husband was on the arrogant side with a mean temper, and harbored a skewed way of looking at the world? It seems more plausible to me that only after facing up to the complete desperation of her situation in Iran, did she find the strength to leave the marriage. Sometimes women don’t know how strong they are until they find a very good reason to dust off their long lost courage and make it work again. Not wanting to choose between living in abuse forever and giving up one’s daughter is a very good reason to dust off- no matter the risk involved.

If the story had been about a mother who willingly went to Iran with a long-time husband, in a rocky relationship, in the hope that someday he would change, then it would have been another movie entirely. Instead of good versus evil, Cowboys versus Muslims, it would have been a complex story, and it would have evoked complex feelings.

The cowgirl would not have been digested as the sterile protagonist that everyone wants to pay to watch, whilst inhaling a vat of buttered popcorn. Instead, she would have been the mama who made a really crappy decision to place herself, and worst of all her daughter, in a familiar and abusive situation, but in an unfamiliar context. She would have thrust herself into a pit in which she did not have the immediate resources to climb out. A woman smart enough to figure out how to steer her camel to Turkey, had enough sense to know that she had nothin’ from the start, except a plane ticket to Iran and a very shrewd, arrogant husband. No support system. No language skills. No grain of geo-political understanding. No contact to help her navigate the judicial process. No GPS! She’s flat broke with a kid to worry about. No one put her on that plane except her own two feet, in a pair of plastic Payless Shoes.

However, the fact is, she did pull herself and her daughter out. She screwed up big time, but she sat herself down. She rested her pounding heart. She thought real hard. She made up her mind. She put herself last and her daughter first. She looked around. She scavenged for recruits. She winked. She enlisted confidence. She won sympathy. She walked barefoot. She risked her life. She did what she had to do.

That takes intelligence, guts and self-sacrifice. It would have made her a convincing protagonist, in my view. Why didn’t they make the film about real people? Why are bad guys, too often, tied to geographic borders? Can’t the bad guy be rotten by virtue of being human? Can’t he be rotten because he never waged battle against his foul heart, or detached from a cycle of abuse; instead, he fed his parasitic traits?

If we acknowledge that abusers don’t speak a particular language or follow a common dogma, then we have a collective responsibility to solve the problem, and heal the trauma of domestic violence – we are in global partnership towards a shared goal to solve a global blight. We are engaged instead of detached.

Complexity makes sense of the world. Do ya’ll agree?

That’s how I see things now, but when I saw the movie, I had never met a Muslim in living flesh, and you wouldn’t have found me standing in line to meet one after watching all those Kung-Fu scenes. I didn’t know how someone would go about meeting a Muslim, As Seen On TV, but if the case should arise, I would keep the conversation to short, plain statements. Although I’d never talked to a real Muslim, I had met a lot of them on TV. I knew that they came in three varieties:

1) Madder than a one-legged rooster at a butt-kickin’ contest;

2) Even madder; and,

3) Ready to die mad.

 In middle school, just before arriving at Not Without My Daughter, TV treated me to other films featuring non-descript Muslims threatening to rampage and plunder. I was glued to the news for several days straight while we went to real-live war with a whole nation of Muslims. They called it Desert Storm. I didn’t see many of their faces, but I did watch a lot of flashes in a night sky airing “live.” I figured they were somewhere there, safe in their homes, waiting for the commercials to come on and the fireworks to stop.

Fast forward to my early twenties and I was packing my bags to go meet my As Seen On TV Muslim in-laws for the first time in Morocco. Folks were worried about me, but they didn’t feel like they could just come out and say: Listen, stupid, don’t go there unless you want to get the stupid knocked out of you! Instead, they would ask me nonchalantly, without looking me square in the eyes: “Did you, by chance, see that movie, Not Without My Daughter?”

Identical to the movie, my in-laws met me at the airport with a big bouquet of flowers. I’m talking big! You could have put it on the Sunday Easter alter. That’s where the similarities end. My mother-in-law had on a bright, turquoise dress and she was kissing me ten times on each cheek. My appearance fit in with some of the women my age, although most did not wear an Islamic headscarf, called a hijab. No one cared who wore what. Everyone just wanted to eat, and we ate well. My grandmother won’t appreciate me saying this, so pretty please don’t tell her, but they gave southern hospitality some stiff competition.

No one asked me if I would like to try an As Seen On TV Muslim wife-beating ceremony. Imagine that! Everyone was happy. I had such a good experience, that I returned again and again, staying months at a time- both with my in-laws and on my own. No one ever tried to make me stay against my will, least of all my husband. They were probably glad to get their spare bedroom back.

On my first trip, they sent me home with a flowing velvet, purple dress which I wore to my homecoming. I asked my daddy if he liked it, and he said I looked like a skinny, white version of Aretha Franklin. I took that as a compliment (minus the skinny, white part), because he owned every greatest hit cassette that she ever made. I’d memorized most of her songs early on, just from riding around with my him as Ms. Franklin schooled me in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” Even if I had married an As Seen On TV Muslim he wouldn’t have tried any of that Kung-Fu on me, unless he wanted to meet my inner-Aretha.

People looked relieved to see me and I passed around some of the homemade cookies my mother-in-law baked. Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune of sharing my experience with a lot of other ladies, Muslim and non-Muslims alike. Our stories are all paralleled by a common theme- ordinary folks in extraordinary moments, marked by lots of food and lots of love. I cherish all of my visits even if none of them would ever make it to the set of a Lifetime original movie. I had to travel far to see for myself that As Seen On TV Muslims are played by British actors. They’re not so easy to find in real life.