Archive | September 2014

Why I care about my Muslim friends

Why do I care so much about the public perception of Islam? Television, newspapers, and social media are full of gruesome images of ISIS, masked men with rifles who behead perceived enemies, kidnap women and children, and force ordinary Muslims to flee their homes. That is not a way of life for most of the world’s 1 billion Muslims including some who are dear to me.

Dedication to family, devotion to parents, caring for friends, helping strangers, charity, and avoidance of alcohol and drugs are what’s right with Islam. Lucky for me that Afghan and Somali friends brought their culture and the beauty of Islam into my life. The Tarin family surrounds me with love, kindness, companionship and caring. On the very first evening that my new friend Diba invited me to an Afghan-style dinner, I said this is home. I didn’t want to leave. Warm cozy feelings lingered long after I left.

Diba and I became fast friends last year after meeting at the airport where I volunteer. I took a chance and said hello. We started to talk. Later, we exchanged messages on Facebook, email and the phone. I mentioned that I’d attend the annual meeting of the Arizona chapter of the American Muslim Women’s Association. Over the summer I had donated games, dolls and puzzles to their Ramadan toy drive for refugee children. For seven years I volunteered as a pet therapist with Gabriel’s Angels with my adopted dog Luke who sadly passed away in January 2010. We spread kindness and compassion to homeless children at a family shelter. At Christmas time we always brought gifts to the children. Muslim children would surely enjoy toys for their special holiday so I donated to AMWA’s effort. I planned to introduce myself at the annual meeting. Diba met me there. Not only did we learn about the humanitarian work of the Muslim women’s association, we had a fantastic time sharing food and conversation. I’ve since become an avid supporter of AMWA and volunteer for community events. At the recent annual meeting, I received an award for service. I was so proud.

Sometimes I met Diba after work. Even if I wasn’t hungry, I always accepted her offer of food. Afghans by tradition always serve guests a generous meal. We talked and laughed as we ate. Every time she brought up moving, a knot tied up my stomach. Why did you have to go I said to myself. Already, I felt like I belonged around her. Family is everything among Afghans and Muslims in general. Diba and Abdul’s only child, a daughter, was enrolled in graduate school in Southern California and they wanted to be near her. I longed for those family ties yet they always remained elusive.

Daily prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam. I watched Diba a few times as she prayed, something I rarely did. Diba’s devotion to Islam fascinated me. Religion rarely played a role in my life. Undoubtedly I let-down my mother. Diba’s mom Latifa, however, must’ve been so proud of her daughter who embraced Islam with the same enthusiasm that I rejected Catholicism. Should I pray too, I wondered? Surely, it couldn’t hurt.

One evening, Diba invited me to her family’s home in nearby Queen Creek. I glanced down at my shorts, T-shirt and sneakers then compared myself to Diba, stylishly dressed, wearing make-up and a brightly colored hijab. How can I meet her family looking like I’m ready for a pick-up basketball game? I declined. Please tell your family I hope to meet them soon.

Before long, we talked or texted every day almost everything and anything. I grew more attached, relying on Diba, like the sister I was never had. Actually, I do have a step-sister but she’s much older. She moved away when I was a child and lived apart from me her entire life. I feel relaxed and at ease around Diba, like best friends or family members.

The time came to finally meet the family. Diba invited me to her younger brother Tariq’s home for dinner. Cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, everyone it seemed enjoyed each other’s company on a cool Arizona evening. Tariq welcomed me into his home not as a guest but as family. We ate dinner in the backyard. There, I was introduced to the Afghan custom of eating with your hands while sitting on the floor. Because of lingering injuries from a car accident, I sat on a chair but I had such a lovely time. Tariq led us in prayer to honor the anniversary of Diba’s late father who died suddenly in 1992. Before I left, Tariq presented me with a Quran, my second copy. I explained how I got my first one (at an interfaith service in 2011). On the half hour drive home to Tempe, I felt both elated and sad. Why didn’t I have family like Diba?

I tagged along to a “Persian Party” one evening, a baby shower attended only by Muslim women, all Afghans. There was tasty home-cooked food, lively music and wonderful company. I could have stayed all night. The atmosphere pulsed with delight. I wanted to become Afghan but I couldn’t.

Afghan people are thoughtful, generous hosts. As soon as I enter an Afghan home, there are always plates of food, sweets and green tea. I presented an enigma however because I don’t eat meat, sugar and rarely eat dairy. I ditched caffeine in 1992. Drinking tea is an Afghan custom. So is offering sweets to guests. I didn’t want Diba or my hosts to feel slighted by my dietary habits so I finally found caffeine-free green tea. Sugar has been out of my diet since 1982 so eating sweets is just not possible. Fruit, dates, and nuts serve as substitutes. I hope my friends understand my oddball habits.

Diba’s mom lives with her late brother’s wife and children but the entire family treat her like a queen. The Quran demands respect of parents. “Address them in terms of honor,” says verse 17:23-24. Caring for elderly parents is part of Muslim as well as Afghan culture. I visited a nursing home for several years as a volunteer pet therapist and never once recall a Muslim patient.

I figured out an Afghan secret. Nearly everyone it seemed stored used plastic bags inside their unused dishwashers. Dishes were done by hand. Afghans often have large family gatherings, especially during Ramadan. Women relatives pitch in to clean up and wash dishes, the old fashioned way – by hand. I’ve never heard the hum of an electric washing machine inside an Afghan home.

On a Friday, the Muslim holy day, I attended prayer services with Diba. Following tradition, I wore a hijab. On my first time, the loosely fitting scarf was lopsided on my head, not quite covering my hair like other Muslim women but I looked presentable enough. I later joined her for an in-law’s Islamic memorial service. I learned more and more about Afghan customs and traditions. To add to my growing knowledge, I took out books from the library. I read about the misery created by the Soviet invasion, the ensuing violence and the cruelty imposed by the Taliban. I gobbled up information as fast as I could.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, I stopped at an ATM. I needed cash. A surprise call from Diba invited me to join her at the hospital to visit her sister-in-law Maniga who had surgery. Sure I said, I’ll meet you there. Inside a small hospital room, at least a dozen Muslim women and me surrounded Maniga with well wishes. We all talked and laughed. On my way out, I saw more women in hijabs carrying flowers and gifts on the way to see Maniga. The outpouring of support and concern from the Afghan community for their sister Maniga was so genuine, so real. In verse 4:36 the Quran says serve God and to do good to parents, neighbors, kinfolk, strangers and those in need. Afghans just help one another.

Diba’s friends and family stay connected and support one another, talking daily. They share in each other’s delights such as birthdays, weddings, baby showers, and graduations. At times of loss, they reach deep down into their hearts and feel each other’s pain. So do others in the Afghan community.

Our friendship continued to blossom even though Diba and her husband moved a few months later to Southern California. A piece of my heart broke that Saturday in November as the moving truck pulled out of the driveway. I sobbed all the way home. The blessings of technology, however, keeps us in daily contact.

My bond with Diba’s family remains strong. Sometimes I join them for lunch or dinner. We pray together at the mosque. During the latest Ramadan, I joined her family and friends for Iftar’s (breaking the fast) at an Islamic center in Chandler. I cherished my evenings sharing home-cooked food, conversation and prayers with my sisters, some of whom I met for the first time. We laughed, hugged and traded bits of our lives. Children played under watchful adult eyes. After meals, we took turns cleaning up. And then at the end of July Ramadan was over. There would be no more evenings at the Islamic Center. I didn’t want it to end. I loved the camaraderie among Muslim women and Diba’s family. No one was a stranger. Everyone including me was welcomed. I miss my sisters. I hope they miss me too.

I am blessed to have Kameer in my life, a young Somali woman. I met her at the airport too. The airport has been good to me in many ways. She worked as a housekeeper until taking maternity leave. We struck up a friendship and talked whenever we saw each other on my shift. Before Kameer went on leave, I gave her a small gift. Several months later, she sent me photos of the baby and asked me to visit. That started a kind, caring friendship. I love playing with Kameer’s little girl Salmo. She’s loads of fun. Both Kameer and her husband came to the US as refugees from Somalia. They work hard at low wage jobs. Salmo is blessed with loving, caring and devoted parents. And I am thankful to have a friend like Kameer. From her, I’ve learned about African refugee camps, the long, arduous process involved emigrating to the US and the dangers that many refugees endure because of war and political instability. Somali people are close, like Afghans. They look after one another. I always bring a small gift for Salmo. Kameer appreciates my devotion to her daughter and always cooks scrumptious Somali dishes for me. She tells me about the Quran and its importance to her life. I respect the values she learned from her mother. Like Diba, she’ll pray while I’m there if it’s one of the five daily prayer times. We also worshipped at a mosque. Learning about Somali culture enriches me.

There are over 1 billion Muslims in the world. Admittedly, some commit atrocious crimes, including harming other Muslims and must be held accountable for their behavior. Extremism in any form is dangerous and a threat to world peace. According to a booklet I have about Islam, Allah commands Muslims not to begin hostilities or acts of aggression or to violate the rights of others. Not all Muslims follow Allah’s commands but the vast majority including the 5-6 million Muslim Americans adhere to the faith. Portraying all Muslims are jihadists or terrorists is an unfair portrayal of a diverse group of people – Africans, Arabs, Persians, Southeast Asians, and Western converts. Good and bad exist among us all. Muslims are no different. We are all God’s children, brothers and sisters. The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said if we don’t live as brothers (and I assume he meant sisters too) we’ll perish together as fools. I hope that day never happens.

The mosque and me

Vandals scrawled ugly graffiti on the local mosque in 2003, a  delayed reaction to that deadly day in September 2001. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind said the late Gandhi. To lash out at every Muslim for the cruel and murderous mistakes of a few was just plain wrong. Marring the mosque was obviously a result of hate, hurt feelings, revenge, or anger.

Several days later, I headed for coffee and to read at the former Borders Books and Music in downtown Tempe.  I took a detour, regretting that one of my neighbors defaced the mosque, a holy place to Muslims. At the time, religion played no role in my life, but for other people it was important. Tarnishing a place of worship was disrespectful as well illegal in the state of Arizona. As a responsible citizen, I felt obligated to apologize to the mosque. If the vandals had struck at a church, temple, etc. I would have done the same. So there I was, in my motorized scooter (the result of a car accident) in front of the mosque. What should I do now? I’d never been inside one before although I was often curious. Was I appropriately dressed? Probably not. I wore jeans, sneakers and a long-sleeved T-shirt. Did I enter through the women’s section? I don’t remember but I came with noble intentions. A man greeted me at the front door. I explained my purpose and he smiled. The callous actions of a stranger with little knowledge of true Islam saddened me. The graffiti may have revived fears inside the Islamic community because of the shooting death of a Sikh man in Mesa mistaken for a Muslim immediately after 9/11. As I talked with the gentleman, a woman wearing a colorful headscarf joined our conversation. She invited me to return for Friday prayers, gently reminding me about proper dress. I nodded as I glanced at my casual attire.

Years passed before I returned to a mosque although I drove down that block often, wondering what worship services were like. The shiny gold dome was visible from blocks away. With friends, I ate lunch in the Middle Eastern cafe next door and noticed crowds of people gathered outside on Fridays. I finally figured out that Fridays for Muslims were like Sundays for Catholics.

For years, I rarely attended church services. Mostly they bored me. What a terrible thing to say but that’s how I felt. The church meant so much to my mother and so little to me. No doubt I was a profound disappointment to her especially when I rejected Sunday mass. I just lost interest. None of her many prayers changed my mind. I couldn’t be the devout daughter she desperately wanted. The church didn’t interest my older brother either.

A wide circle of friends and acquaintances always surrounded me. Their diversity enriched me. I didn’t intentionally exclude Muslims but after I abandoned my bad habits of smoking, drinking and marijuana my social networks primarily revolved around athletics and animal rescue. There, I met no Muslims. That changed about two years ago when I met Maha, a Saudi native. We connected on-line through animal rescue. She introduced me to Islam and then sent me books from across the world. I read the Quran and the material she sent. Our conversations spiked my interest. Last year I met two Muslim women here at home. First there was Diba from Afghanistan and later on Kameer from Somalia. Both are now close friends and they expanded my knowledge of Islam. Last November I joined Diba for Friday prayers before she and her husband relocated to Southern California. That was the second time I wore a hijab, the first at an Islamic memorial service a few weeks earlier. Diba adjusted my headscarf because I just couldn’t get the hang of the hijab. I wanted to fit in with the other Muslim women although I’m sure I looked out of place.

As much as mule-headed me was loath to admit, the mosque service melted a chunk of my hardened attitude about religion. I wanted to go back. For much of my life I practiced kindness as a religion. I tried to treat people with respect and dignity although sometimes I cursed and swore at idiots and perverts on the subway. I’m a scrappy ex-New Yorker after all. Spiritual in nature, I connected with God through the universe, attending meditation ceremonies at the SW Institute for Healing Arts and other new age centers. Thus far, it was always enough.

So there I was at the mosque actually praying. My late mother may have been proud. But I was too stubborn to say I wanted more. I had an image to uphold after all. How could I admit that maybe I needed religion? I was thankful for a second chance because I nearly died in a pedestrian car accident on 1/6/4 when a careless driver ran me over as I walked my two dogs after work. Lingering injuries from brain trauma left me permanently disabled and knocked me out of the workforce. I re-invented myself with volunteer work, none of which involved religion except for pet adoption events at churches.

After Diba moved, I felt heartbroken. I miss my friend although technology helps us stay in close touch. What about the mosque? I felt shy about going alone. Should I ask Kameer who I was just getting to know? Would she expect me to convert? I wasn’t ready for that yet but I was drawn to Islam. I had read the Quran, started to read the Hadiths and was reluctant to let go. Kameer, her baby and I attended Friday prayers several times over the past few months. Diba’s family invited me to Iftar’s during Ramadan at an Islamic center over the summer. I enjoyed the camaraderie among Muslim women as we shared food, conversation and prayers. I was sad when Ramadan ended.

Kameer returned to work recently so where does that leave me and the mosque? I sucked up my apprehension, donned a hijab and started to go alone. Everyone is friendly, kind and welcoming, teaching me about Islam. Strangers help me up and down the stairs because of my mobility problems. I’m slow and wobbly but I always feel part of the community. What’s next for me and Islam? I don’t know. I’m still on a journey and I have to figure that out as I go along. I don’t know if I will ever go all the way but I hope it’s OK to keep my feet wet.

I’m sure about this. The media is unfair to most Muslims who are ordinary people like me. They have dreams, ambitions and goals. Families live, laugh and love together. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. Portraying Muslims as terrorists is grossly unfair. Sure, there are some Muslims who commit brutal, unforgivable acts and their aggression should be punished accordingly. But most Muslims are no different from anyone else. Do not judge someone by the opinion of another. Get to know your Muslim neighbors. I’m glad I did.

Not the Islam I know

Convert or die? Frightful stories in the media about militant fighters known as the Islamic state butchering Christians, Yazidis, Muslims and other ethnic minorities who do not share their fanatical version of Islam should disturb readers. They disturb me.

 Just as the Tea Party and the ultra right wing fringe does not represent most Christians, neither does ISIS represent mainstream Muslims, many of whom I’ve come to know and love over the past few years.

 Since I left my comfort zone and delved into the Muslim world, I’ve been warmly welcomed even though I’m not a Muslim. A newspaper advertisement in early September 2011 announced an interfaith service at the Tempe AZ mosque to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in peaceful, neighborly manner. I attended with my friend Mark. The Imam set out chairs for 30 people and over 300 people showed up. Muslims, Christians and Jews spent the evening in prayer and peace. Afterwards, we talked, laughed, and celebrated our community. The mosque handed out Qurans so I took one where it sat on my bookshelf for about two years until I met Maha, a friend from Saudi Arabia I met through Facebook animal rescue pages. Animal rescue unites people around the world regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, etc. because of our strong love for animals. I once mentioned my Quran. Maha asked if read it. No, I had not. She asked why and I shrugged. I barely read the Bible having attended Catholic School for 12 years, 13 if you add kindergarten. So I started reading the Quran, Surah by Surah. The words held my interest. Later, Maha sent me more books about Islam. I read a best seller about the Prophet. I added to my knowledge of Islam, a religion I knew little about. Then again, I knew little about most religions including the one I was raised in. As a high school student I was angry with brutal scenes on TV of the Klu Klux Klan terrorizing Blacks. Why burn crosses on the lawns of gardeners, cooks and porters? And the horrific scenes of children burned by napalm bombs in Viet Nam sickened me. Eventually, I stopped going to church. I practiced kindness as a religion.

 But now, I continued to explore and to learn about Islam. February 1st celebrated the first world hijab day to bring understanding among Muslims and non-Muslims about the hijab. How would my friends react to me wearing a hijab? I’d soon find out. I participated although I’d worn a hijab before at an Islamic memorial that I attended with one of my Muslim friends. At first, I hedged about wearing a hijab all day without the company of Muslims. What would people think? Then I said who cares? It’s my head. I’ll cover it if I choose. At the end of the day, I was proud of myself. World hijab day was a step to overcome prejudice and fear of Islam. Muslims are people like everyone else. 

I volunteer at Sky Harbor airport as a navigator. We help passengers with questions about connecting flights, ground transportation and other services. Last summer, I asked Diba, a Muslim woman from Afghanistan waiting outside a checkpoint, if she needed help but she did not. Her smile, warm as a dozen fresh peaches, encouraged me to linger for a few minutes. On duty, I could not spend much time away from my post. Plus, Diba waited to see family off. Before leaving, we exchanged contact information. Since it was the end of July and right before Ramadan, Diba said we’d get together afterwards.

 After a few e-mails, Facebook and telephone messages, Diba invited me for dinner in mid September. A home-cooked meal of Basmati rice, chickpeas and eggplant, Afghanistan-style awaited me. I live alone and rarely cook more than a pot of soup, bowl of lentils, or plate of steamed vegetables. Sharing a scrumptious meal with a new friend was a treat.  Diba and her large extended family embraced me as one of their own. I grew up without a close family. I enjoy being around Diba’s family so much because everyone seems to really love each other. How special for me to be surrounded by so much love and compassion. There are days when I just don’t want to leave. With my own family, I rarely wanted to stay.

 During the latest Ramadan, I joined Diba’s family and friends for evening Iftar’s at an Islamic center in Chandler. I learned more about Islam. I cherished my evenings sharing home-cooked food, conversation and prayers with my sisters, some of whom I met for the first time. We laughed, hugged and traded bits of our lives. Children played under watchful adult eyes. After meals, we took turns cleaning up. And then at the end of July Ramadan was over. There would be no more evenings at the Islamic Center. I didn’t want it to end. I loved the camaraderie among Muslim women. No one was a stranger. Everyone including me was welcomed. At the Masjid, I felt special. I miss my sisters. I hope they miss me too.

 On the last day of Ramadan this year, I joined over 5,000 Muslims for a prayer service at the Phoenix Convention Center. I sat in the back because I use a motorized scooter, the result of a pedestrian car accident in 1994. I didn’t want to get in the way of so many people. Muslim families from Somalia to Saudi Arabia and dozens of places in between attended. Everyone prayed together for peace and prosperity here in the US and around the world. I was glad to be a small part of such an awesome event.

Shame on the media for ignoring the kind, compassionate and caring side of Islam that I’ve seen such as families celebrating birthdays, college graduations, and weddings. There are over 1 billion Muslims around the world who are Arabic, Persian, Asian, African and Western converts. Yes, there are some Muslims who strayed from the Prophet’s original teachings and commit grievous wrongs. They should be held accountable and pay for their crimes. To paraphrase the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. judge me by the content of my character and not what’s on my head.

 

This entry was posted on September 8, 2014. 1 Comment

What laughter can do for you

No one over-doses from too much laughter. Laughter is free medicine for the entire family without dangerous side effects from prescription drugs such as stroke, gastrointestinal bleeding, dry mouth or even death. Medical studies indicate that laughing for no reason leads to the healthy functioning of blood vessels. Further, laughter lowers blood pressure, elevates mood, boosts immunity, and alleviates pain from arthritis. Can laughter improve families? Millions of followers in the US and around the world say yes it can.

 The organized laughter movement started in 1995 by Indian physician Madan Kataria who looked for non-traditional ways to help his patients heal. Dr. Kataria approached strangers on a Bombay (now Mumbai) street corner asking them to laugh with him. At first, they hedged but eventually a small group formed. That simple gesture led to the foundation of Laughter Yoga International, a world-wide movement with at least 6,000 laughter clubs in over 60 countries such as the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Ireland, and Ethiopia, just to name a few. Annual conferences spread the joy of laughter. I attended one in San Diego in 2011 and laughed with strangers from around the world for two and a half days. We all laugh in the same language. The late Mother Theresa said peace begins with a smile.

 The laughter movement attracts people for a variety of reasons such as marital discord, death of a loved one, job loss, crushing student loans, business failure or curiosity. Laughter of course cannot halt a home foreclosure but it frees the distressed owner from sleepless nights and the nagging fear of a damaged credit report. Life goes on after the sharks stop biting and laughter improves self-esteem. Laughter clubs unite like-minded people, even children, who spread joy and good will.

 Laughter leaders hold sessions in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and other congregate care facilities so patients can cope with chronic illnesses, chronic pain and loss of mobility. A Lutheran pastor (Laura Gentry also known as Laughing Laura) in Iowa incorporates laughter into her congregation. Laughter in schools improves children’s self-esteem. There are even laughter groups in prisons helping inmates adjust to long sentences and separations from family and friends. Yes indeed, people are paid to laugh.

 Tempe, AZ laughter leader and cancer survivor Linda Scharf says laughter helped her endure stress and fear while battling a serious illness. “I experienced difficult times when laughter lifted my spirits,” Scharf says. A 2004 newspaper article about laughter clubs inspired her to take the two day laughter leader course. Ever since, she’s been leading laughter clubs in the East Valley. “I’ve yet to find any negative effects from laughter,” says Scharf.

 

On the second and fourth Fridays of every month, I scream and howl with laughter for no reason along with at least a dozen other people. Some are strangers; others are familiar faces who return month after month. To find a laugh club near you, visit http://www.laughteryoga.com

 The psychologist William James once said, “We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.