Archive | May 2015

Celebrating with my Afghan family

11167990_10153307804138351_890648708503120799_nA simple smile ushered in wonderful changes to my lackluster life. That was a hot, blistering day in July 2013 when I was on my volunteer shift at the airport. A Muslim woman, Diba, appeared frazzled so I asked if she needed guidance. No, she said, but our personalities meshed right away. We talked for a few minutes then exchanged phone numbers. Soon, Diba and I talked or texted almost every day. A dinner at Diba’s home soon followed. Her Afghan family and friends welcomed me as one of their own. I was so happy, so at ease.

There were many family celebrations, dinners and sadly one funeral. A loved one passed away and I mourned his loss with the rest of the family. I am sorry that he left this world so soon, so suddenly. His unexpected passing deeply touched his family, friends and neighbors. Their heartache is mine too.

Last week, one of Diba’s young relatives graduated from sixth grade. The family invited me to both the school ceremony and the gala celebration several days later. What an honor to be included among so many kind, caring and compassionate Afghans who I have come to know and love. In the early days, many people referred to me as Diba’s friend. Now they know my name. I feel part of the Afghan community, even though I was born in New York. If it wasn’t for short-term memory loss from a brain injury, I might even learn Dari, the common language of Afghans. Nonetheless, I am thrilled to be part of Diba’s large extended family where no one is a stranger. Everyone is welcomed.

At the school ceremony, what a joy to see her nephew as he paraded across the stage to receive his diploma. Six years of studies, exams, hard work and extra-curricular activities earned him passage to junior high school where I expect he will perform at the same level of excellence. Solid family support contributed to his overall success too. Actually, a network of family support wraps around everyone and holds them close to each other with love, sharing and warmth. The room glows when the family is together. I look forward to the next invitation because Ramadan, the holiest of Muslim holidays, is coming soon.

A few evenings ago, I prettied myself to attend the festive graduation party. Guests including family, friends, a few teachers and classmates honored him with praise and acclaim for the delightful young man he’s become. All students work hard throughout their academic careers but Diba’s nephew had to go the extra mile because he was born blind. That didn’t stop him from earning good grades, making friends, and performing in the school band. He is loved by all including me. I wish him the very best as he moves onto junior high school. If you stumble my friend, the loving family surrounding you and your incredible personal strength will help you pick up and move forward. I love you Diba and your family. Thanks for loving me too.

PS No one in Diba’s family asked me to convert to Islam. Their kindness, mercy and love invited me to learn more about their religion, which I did. I read books about Islam and went to Friday prayer services at a mosque. Eventually, I said this is for me too and I became Muslim.

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Not just a graduation ceremony

Today I attended a graduation at an Arizona public school. My friend’s son was among the graduates and almost a dozen family members including me (I’m an honorary family member) came as a measure of support for our loved one. The school’s name isn’t important. What’s important is the love, caring, concern and dedication of the families who attended as well as the school that educated them. Parents glowed with joy as their sons or daughters paraded across the stage to receive a hard-earned diploma. Happy relatives snapped photos as their nieces or cousins posed with teachers. The principal, a man of impeccable honesty and good will, encouraged all the students to do their best each and every day. Continue your education and follow your dreams. As the school orchestra played America the Beautiful I blinked back tears. How can these beautiful children succeed in a world that we adults marred by war and violence? How can children do their best in under-funded public schools when state and federal governments continue to shell out tax breaks to affluent supporters and corporations who don’t deserve or even need them? Tax breaks the government says create jobs most of which are low-wage, dead end without benefits. What’ll happen to students in the future as they battle to stay alive in a world rocked by rising seas, perilous floods, and crippling droughts caused by climate change when certain members of the GOP refuse to acknowledge the certainty of melting glaciers? How can children feel protected by a government that shamelessly panders to a handful of special interests, some of whom are foreign, and not to the voters who elected them? Children need heroes not politicians who throw tantrums and file costly tax-payer funded lawsuits when they don’t get their own way. If education is so important as politicians claim, then why are prisons better funded than our schools? The rallying cry to support education seems nothing more than a shallow way to garner votes at election time than the real deal. Teachers shouldn’t have to scrape the barrel for books while profiteers from the prison industry count their rewards. Sadly, that’s the case in the USA as the race for privatization continues to roll across the country. I heard a report the other day on NPR about privatizing the FAA. Who’d want to fly if air traffic control was in private hands? Surely not me. I’m glad I went to the graduation this morning. Feelings of joy lingered long after I pulled out of the parking lot. Thanks to my friend’s mom for inviting me to be part of the family yet again. I love you all. Thanks to the teachers, principal and staff at the school for caring about the students. If I had a child, I’d feel safe sending my son or daughter to that school. And best wishes to the students. Be all that you can be and follow your dreams. I hope we adults can deliver to you a kinder, gentler world. You surely deserve it. We all do.

Dawn of Mercy

Celebrate mercy, celebrate Islam, celebrate the Prophet, celebrate community, celebrate friends and family. In a nutshell, that’s how I’d describe my weekend at the Tempe mosque, a time for celebration. For new converts like me the information was particularly useful even if my feeble brain had trouble absorbing it all. In 1994 a careless driver ran me over as I walked my two dogs after work leaving me with a traumatic brain injury. Short-term memory slid down on my list of skills, way down. Anyway, I soaked up as much information as I could from a panel of gifted, talented and often entertaining speakers who shared their knowledge and love of Islam as well as bits of their lives with the audience. Mr. Evans, the overall instructor, converted as a teen. He now appears in his 30s. Not only was Mr. Evans an eloquent speaker but he was amusing too. Mr. Evans grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in New York City. On a break, we shared a few brief moments about the hassles, challenges and sometimes joys of growing up in big cities. Another speaker, Dr. Hassan Elwan, is an man of impeccable honesty, sincerity and humility. His devotion to family, friends and Islam warmed my heart. The room glowed as Dr. Elwan talked about his children. Brothers sat in rapt attention as he said violence against sisters was never permitted. Ever. The Prophet didn’t resort to violence against women; neither should you.

Everyone involved from additional speakers to musicians to the support staff deserve kudos for the hard work, attention to detail and effort required to pull the varied pieces together, culminating in a rewarding experience. It started on Saturday morning with bagels and fruit juice and ended Sunday evening at a gala dinner banquet along with final speeches, music and prayers.

In closing, Mr. Evans noted the local cooperation. Eleven Phoenix area Muslim groups supported the Dawn of Mercy conference. Wow, that’s fantastic he said. Here here, I’m with you brother. The media often slams Muslims. We’re held culpable for the abject horror spread by ISIS and other terrorist groups that kill and maim. How many times has a Muslim woman heard that she’s oppressed. Muslim children may be called camel jockeys. There are over 1 billion Muslims around the world. It’s the fastest growing religion that includes a diverse population of Asians, Arabs, Persians, Africans, and Western converts. Yes, there are conflicts within Islam. No Muslim is perfect nor is anyone else. Some Muslims strayed from the original teachings of kindness and mercy. The despicable behavior of fundamentalists shames us all just as the KKK is a blemish against good decent Christians.

I can only speak for Muslims in Arizona where I live. They are my friends, my sisters and brothers. We worship and study Quran together. No one is ready to jump ship and join ISIS. For the past year I’ve attended weekly prayer services every Friday, the Muslim holy day. Not once has an Imam advocated violence. On the contrary, the message is always about love, family, mercy, and forgiveness. AZ Muslims collaborate on interfaith projects to build a strong community. Volunteers with the American Muslim Women’s Association help refugees adjust to life in the US. Muslim students at Arizona State University are active in the community with a variety of projects. Further examples of Islamic charity are too numerous to name here. We are not the demons portrayed on Fox Television. We are human beings just like everyone else. We are at the dawn of mercy ready to move into the afternoon and evening carrying that same message. In Surah 9, verse 109 says God does not guide people who do wrong. We Muslims are servants of Allah and Allah wants us all to perform just and good deeds. We’re all on board with that.

 

The Muslim Next Door

The Muslim Next Door

I am the Muslim next door. So are my friends, women, men and children, I’ve met at the airport, the mosque, as well as through networking in the community. You may know me but not other Muslims. Maybe you’ll reconsider. We are regular people like you, waking up in the morning for school, work or both. Our children may grumble about rising at the crack of dawn to catch the school bus. What child doesn’t complain about waking up in the dark? A night’s sleep interrupted by worry about paying bills or the fate of a sick relative overseas may leave us tired in the morning, longing for just a few more minutes of sleep. Still we rise, fixing breakfast for our families and ourselves just as you would. Muslims deal with personal problems like everyone else. If the economy crashes, we’re subject to job losses, foreclosures or auto repossessions. A fickle stock market doesn’t discriminate although employers sometimes do. At the end of the day, we unwind and relax with our family and friends. Who doesn’t? There is one big difference regarding entertainment, however. Mingling in bars or taverns is haram, or taboo, in Islam. We do not consume alcohol. That doesn’t mean we Muslims don’t have fun. Quite the contrary. We laugh just as hard as anyone. Count us in when it comes to sports. Muslims cheer on favorite teams in sports such soccer, basketball and yes even football. There were quite a few Islamic themed Super Bowl parties last February where Muslims gathered to watch the now disgraced New England Patriots handily bring home another trophy. Instead of celebrating with Miller Lites, we drank soda, juice, tea and water and snacked on hummus and pita bread. Muslim women enjoy an afternoon shopping in the mall, trying on new clothing or shoes. Indeed, you can wear a hijab and be totally in style. Go out to eat? Why not Muslims? Family friendly places with suitable menus are places we go.

We are your neighbors, the people around the block, or in the apartment upstairs.. We work in the cubicle next to yours. You may see us shopping in the mall for hosiery or in the local grocery store checking out breakfast cereal. For relaxation as well as fresh food, we tend our gardens, growing tomatoes, string beans and cucumbers. Clean, safe neighborhoods are vital to us too so you’ll see us mowing the lawn or picking up litter from the sidewalk. If there’s a miscreant around, we’ll alert the police. Our children attend the same schools as your kids learning about literature, math and science. If you’re hospitalized as an inpatient, sickened by the flu, your nurse or doctor may be a skilled Muslim professional. At the airport, catching a flight for vacation, the bathroom that you use may be cleaned by a Muslim janitor. We volunteer at interfaith events, helping to feed homeless people at churches with our Christian friends. We raise money to help new Muslim refugees adjust to the US and become productive citizens.

We reject the messages from violent extremist groups whose despicable actions are flung across the media almost daily. That’s not what most of us are about. On Fridays, our holy day, imams across the country encourage us to be kind, considerate and caring to our families, ourselves, and to our neighbors. Reject the teachings of ISIS, Al Shabob and others who strayed from the true meaning of Islam. Follow your deen, your faith, and treat people with mercy. That is a sign of the Muslim next door, a good, decent human being. I am the Muslim next door and so are thousands of others. Give them a chance. Get to know them. We are your neighbors, your friends, and your fellow citizens. We are just like you.

Who moved my hijab?

Who moved my hijab?

Do I write too much about the hijab? For most of my life, my hair flowed wild and free. Growing up in New York City I donned a hat during cold, frigid winters when going out uncovered was risky. Hats keep in body heat, or so it is said. In temperate weather, wearing a hat added to my stylish, cool look. I wore thrift shop specials but no one seemed to notice. As a jogger, a hat with a brim shielded my face from the sun or sometimes rain. Biking through the maddening streets of Manhattan was always precarious. A helmet, despite squishing my hairdo, offered a modicum of protection in the event of a collision with a kamikaze taxi driver rushing through the streets. My head would be safe even if the rest of my body would be in shreds. Now that I’m a covered woman, the whole hijab remains a learning experience.

Between the 15 minutes it took to drive from my apartment to the Masjid one day, my hijab moved. By itself, I think not. Pushed aside by gust of wind? Hardly the case. I live in Phoenix where it’s summer almost all year round so I drive with the windows shut to enjoy the coolness of air-conditioning. Plus closed windows keep the flies out. I hate driving with a pesky fly buzzing around the car. Talk about distractions. Trying to shoo a fly out the window is more of a distraction than texting while driving. Enough about flies, really. Hijabs are more interesting than flies. What happened to my hijab that day? I’m a new convert so picking up the ins and outs of the hijab is a new and different challenge. Muslim women look cool in hijabs. Wearing one comes easy because their mothers taught them the skill as they grew up. We converts are on our own. I’m at a further disadvantage because of a traumatic brain injury from a pedestrian car accident in 1994. As I walked my two dogs after work one January day, a careless driver whacked me with his car. Ran me over, sending me to a two month hospital stay. Just like that my life changed. Picking up new and different skills often sends me into hissy fits because I just cannot remember what to do. The recall part of my brain took a beating. Long ago I could’ve given up but I didn’t. I made peace with my disability. Now I’ll master the hijab, every aspect of it.

I soon found out the hijab is a two-step process. There is an under-scarf besides the hijab. I thought it had an exotic name. It doesn’t; it’s simply called an under-scarf. A sister gave me two as gifts after my conversion. I wanted more, in different colors. This is the US and under-scarves aren’t a hot selling item like cell phones, shoes or beer. On an unusually brisk, windy day I drove to a recommended store, the African Market. They sold all kinds of Islamic attire in addition to food. As soon as I opened the car door, a gust of wind smacked me, nearly sent my hijab flying off my head. It flapped this way and that. I had to yank the scarf that wrapped around face. Thankfully I wasn’t driving. With my hijab finally under control, I composed myself. I walked into the store looking like the mature Muslim woman I am. The owner, an older Ethiopian sister, proudly showed off her collection. There was an under-scarf for women with long hair that had a pouch on top. Not for me. I don’t have enough hair. I selected the style for ladies with shorter hair; one pink, one blue. After settling my meager bill, we chatted for a while then I left.

Every Friday for prayer service, I arrive early and park at the outer edge of the big, dusty lot, even though I have disabled license plates that allow me to occupy a space closer to the mosque. I prefer the distance so I have time and a little privacy to fix myself. My hijab invariably loosens itself in the short drive from home. Honestly, I don’t know what happens. I see other sisters with pins holding their hijabs in place. Like a dutiful Muslim I purchased a pack of tasteful pins from Joanne Fabrics. So far I’ve only managed to stick myself in the head. Ouch, that hurts. I’ve failed to hold my headscarf in its proper place. InshaAllah one day I’ll celebrate that accomplishment.

Then there are my pesky hairs. Gray hairs. My hair is now gray. I always refused to color it. I still do although hardly anyone sees it. But now and then irksome little hairs stick out despite my efforts to put on the perfect head scarf. I thought of shaving my head but that’s an extreme response. What’ll I look like on a ladies night out? A freak, a weirdo. I ditched that idea and put more effort into mastering the headscarf. I bought hair pins at Sally Beauty Supply. That seems to do the trick. At least so far.

You’ve come a long way baby. That was a signature line for a TV ad years ago for Virginia Slims, a brand of cancer sticks aimed at killing women. From the day I first wore a hijab in 2013, looking like a hapless dork, to now after my conversion in 2015, I’ve come a long way. I own so many hijabs (gifts from sisters) that I have two drawers full. There are prints, soft colors, short and long ones. I probably will never wrap a hijab around my head with the same deftness, speed and skill as a woman born into Islam but I’ve come a long way. At most public events, sisters don’t feel compelled to fix my headwear any more to help me avoid embarrassment. I probably look good, maybe not great but good. I’m OK with that. Maybe next time I drive to the mosque I won’t have to ask, who moved my hijab because it will finally stop moving itself. I can say I’ve finally arrived.

 

 

This entry was posted on May 12, 2015. 2 Comments

Together is better

Together is better

In the spirit of friendship, community and co-existence, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs shared food, faith and conversation on May 7th as part of an ongoing series of interfaith dinners. The growing interfaith movement in Arizona seeks to promote unity, healing and peace among all good people of faith. Since last year I’ve attended at least three or four interfaith events, all of which are uplifting, joyful events where I’m surrounded by kind, caring people who share my values. In fact, I received my first Quran at an interfaith event that was part of my journey to Islam but that’s another story. At every dinner, various religious leaders addresses the audience for several minutes on a shared topic of interest. Afterwards, a representative at the table answers questions. Organizers intentionally mix up the tables so there are Muslims, Jews, Christians, etc. available. We talk to each other and learn about our beliefs and traditions. Although a new convert to Islam and just recently started attending interfaith dinners, the power of the movement impresses me. While some people spew hatred and incite violence, we here in Arizona encourage co-existence and unity. Of course, we are not perfect but we make a sincere effort to get along. We are on the move forward, not backwards. Credit goes not just to those who attend the dinners but to astute leadership. We are blessed with a group of religious leaders who not only have incredible insight but they also seem to genuinely care about one another. Imagine how refreshing it is to see the Rabbi and Imam shake hands and smile at one another. Christian pastors share in the camaraderie. I thank Allah for guiding me to the interfaith movement. It fills my soul with joy and delight to play a small role in the Arizona interfaith movement and to represent Islam. I pray that our movement serves as an example to others who are hurting, who are lost and need guidance as I once did. Follow the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hatred is too great a burden to bear so he chose love. If there’s an interfaith movement near you, give it a chance. Become blessed like me and join a movement that is vibrant, growing and full of life.

Searching for my inner hijab

 

A Muslim woman wearing a smart-looking hijab caught my eye as I rolled out of the now defunct Borders Books and Music after a quiet hour of reading and drinking coffee. I wanted to emulate her but how? Glancing down at my scruffy high-top sneakers, faded blue jeans and T-shirt, the road ahead to hijab-dom would be long. I wondered how or if I’d ever get there. That was ages ago not long after 9/11 when Americans often scoffed at Muslims, holding them all culpable for the shocking, horrific events on that fateful day in September 2001.

Although I was raised Catholic, I shied away from religion most of my life. I was a profound disappointment to my mother that I didn’t join the convent or throw myself at the church the way she did. Sorry mom but I just couldn’t be the nice Catholic girl you wanted.

Now and then I church shopped trying out different ministries, including Quaker and Unitarian, to see if one fit. None ever did. I looked around for a Buddhist temple to fulfill my inner soul but that wasn’t satisfying either. So I shrugged off religion and settled on a spiritual life communing with God, nature and the universe in quiet, peaceful settings at home or healing centers. For years, I remained defiant. Religion wasn’t for me. That all changed when I lowered my guard especially after a serious car accident in 1994 that almost took my life. God spared me for a reason. I had to find out why. Without realizing it, I was on the road to Islam, slowly uncovering hints along the way. Allah’s plans became clearer in 2013 when I met Diba, a Muslim woman from Afghanistan, who walked me across the final threshold.

As a Muslim woman, I too would cover my head. It’s an art, a skill, that most Muslim girls learn from their mothers, older sisters or grandmothers. Converts like me can be challenged or frustrated with the hijab. There are dozens of books available about Islam but none about proper headwear etiquette. A simple instructive “how to” chart or website would’ve been helpful. So I started hijab watching. To avoid being accused of peeping, I stared at Muslim women’s heads without being overly obtrusive. Who wants to be stared at? Surely not me. I may have turned around and stuck my tongue out at someone staring at me. I just wanted to get the hang of the hijab so I would look proper like everyone else. A few sisters showed me headwear hints but I either looked like I had a dust rag on my head or a vacuum sucked on my scarf. Clearly, I needed practice, lots of practice to catch up and be natural in a hijab. Muslim women looked so stylish. Not me. In the beginning, I looked like a hag.

After I said my Shahada, also known as the proclamation of faith, sisters in my community showered with hijabs, all kinds of hijabs. I received colors that ranged from pastel to bold and bright. I was so humbled and appreciative. In fact, I received so many gifts that I had to buy a large wicker basket to hold them all. My dresser drawer overflowed with hijabs. Each one spoke to me desperate to be worn. OK girls, calm down, you’ll all get a chance.

Inside one of the gift bags was an under-scarf, an item new to me. Until then, small scarves that I used to wear around my neck substituted as under-scarves to hide pesky hairs that stuck out from the hijab. The gray under-scarf had a lovely decorative front. I slid it over my mop of hair but the pretty part faced the rear. I tried again. No success. Frustrated, I tried once more and still nothing. OK, I said to myself, I hold a master’s degree surely you can manage an under-scarf. I looked in the mirror, hair sticking out this way and that, and the result was the same. About to hurl the under-scarf across the room, I said a prayer asking Allah for patience. I counted to ten to calm down and finally the under-scarf fit right.

Maybe I’ll develop an app for proper hijab wear to help new converts. I can call it happy in a hijab or something. After all, learning to wear a hijab is not like throwing a table cloth on your head. There’s an art to wearing a hijab. I still don’t have it but I’m better than I was.

Now that I’ve somewhat mastered my outer hijab, I’m devoting myself to my inner hijab. Every day, I learn about the Quran especially at the weekly Halaqa, a Quran study group. I attend mosque services on Friday, the Muslim holy day. I read books about Islam. I pray five times a day. Maybe my mother would be pleased that I’m praying again. It’s not easy but I’ve cleaned up my gutter mouth. I avoid cursing and swearing as that’s not proper behavior for a Muslim. Actually, it’s not proper for a lady my age. I grew up in a lower class New York City neighborhood and using salty language has been a way of life with me for years. My father cursed and swore a lot. Shaping up is a good thing.

Ramadan, the most sacred Muslim holy day, approaches soon. Muslims fast from sun up to sun down for a month. I cannot refrain from water because I take anti-seizure drugs that leave me with an incredibly dry mouth but I’ll do my best to stay away from food. I got a late start but I want to be a good Muslim. I failed miserably as a Catholic. So miserable in fact that in junior year of Catholic high school I failed religion as a subject. I had lost interest and couldn’t answer a single question on the mid-term exam. The principal who I secretly called big mama said if I didn’t pass the final I wouldn’t graduate. I sucked up my mule-headed behavior and passed the exam. I still wasn’t interested in religion.

I am happy as a Muslim. I found a place inside a community of people who care about me. I feel settled and content. I found my inner hijab. Thank you to all the people who helped and guided me on my journey. You all know who you are. I finally arrived after a long, difficult struggle. May Allah always protect and watch over me. Always. And bless me with the skills to figure out the hijab would also be appreciated.

This entry was posted on May 7, 2015. 2 Comments