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Jun 25, 2007 - travelogue    6 Comments

Retreat Reflection


I just posted a retreat reflection for this year on the board, so check it out :)

* Retreat Reflections Photo Album *

For seven years I have been coming to this rock. Sometimes in the dead of winter, when the trees are bare and there are feet of snow outside and it is freezing cold, I think of myself here. Sitting on this rock as I am now with the green dappling leaves from the trees giving me shade. The sun sparkling on the water as far as the mountains. The mountains shades of pine, blues and grey. The clouds light and puffy, sometimes coming near, sometimes going far.

I am happy here. Why is it that only in this place, on this rock I am content with my life. Yet all through the year all I feel are anxieties and heartache. I am indeed a sinner, but thankful that this tiny slice, this tiny glimpse of peace is shown to me once a year.

There are seven years of memories here. I still remember the first time we came to this retreat site. It was un-chartered, unexplored. We walked down towards the Lakehouse and caught our breath as we saw water rising in front of it and thought it was the most magical place.

My memories are bittersweet. Some are happy memories of laughing on the canoes and making dhikr in tune to our rowing. Our “year of mujahadah”, which looking back on now is quite amusing. All the wonderful classes and revelations and the most beautiful group of Muslims gathered from such various far away places. Then there are the painful memories of understanding the import of our sins and feeling the anguish of our tawbah. I miss my old friends too, the fellow brothers and sisters who had started this journey with me seven years ago. Some have lagged behind the caravan and some have gone far ahead of us.


This yearly spiritual retreat in the Adirondack Mountains is organized by the Shaikh and his students and held at a Christian camp/retreat site. As the legend goes, the Shaikh decided to go to a “Save the Adirondacks” meeting in Albany one day and there he met Kent. Kent looks like a typical outdoorsy, surfer guy – blonde, blue eyes and long hair. They began to talk and the Shaikh found out that Kent runs a Christian camping center and since he had been looking for just such a thing they became fast friends!

The first year we came to this retreat site, we were about twenty people and we only stayed in the lodge with two or less! people per room. We had class for about two hours in the afternoon and all the rest of the time was ours to do whatever we wanted. The sisters would get together and go swimming in the evenings. Our kitchen lady ‘Margaret’ would make us special meals and desserts. We were the first to explore the campsite and everything was a new discovery. We canoed in our lake on whichever days had good weather and held our classes on couches in the Lakehouse with the windows open so we could hear the waves against the rocks. Kent invited us to a barbeque with his camp counselors where they sang some songs for us. We used to clean the tables and kitchen after every meal until the “Ottawan brother’s clean-up crew” volunteered to take over for us. A sister, just out of camp kindness, would take our clothes, wash them for us, fold them and put everyone’s clean clothes in their room. Ahhh- those were the good old days!

Nowadays we spend months beforehand in preparation for the retreat. Updating the website, setting up registration, vetting applications, collecting deposits and answering questions. As the retreat dates comes closer there’s more and more work. Every retreat staff’s complaint is that they spend the majority of their time organizing and very little being a participant. On top of that is the constant feeling that something is wrong with us because we don’t feel the same things or reach the same spiritual levels as the others.

After seven years of organizing, things are somewhat easier, but the retreat is still a huge undertaking.

Alhamdulillah, this year we had over seventy registrants from all over the US and Canada. Ma’shaAllah they were all very dedicated, good people. There are the usual college MSA kids, some aunties, some young couples, a doctor and his wife who come every year, Canadians who love to cross the border, locals who came up for the weekend and so on.

Every retreat year has its own flavor with different people, events, and tone. This year’s retreat was 10 days, which started with 7 straight days of classes: 3 hours in the afternoon, an hour and a half after Asr, two hours after Maghrib and the majority stayed awake after Fajr until Shuruq. The tiny pieces of free time we had were spent for the staff: taking care of registration, money or other things, or for the participants: writing summaries and revising notes. The last three days were spent in outdoor events such as canoeing and hiking.


This year we went to two new places. One was a very long hike to three successive waterfalls called Hope Falls. This was about a 4 mile hike one way. It was long, but seeing the waterfalls made it worth it. We also saw a baby bear climb a tree not far from us!

The second place was canoeing down Kunjamuk River, a beautiful curvy canal/creek like expedition which was absolutely stunning. We passed four beaver dams as our challenges where we had to stop and get out of our canoes in order to get them over or in some places even carry our canoes around to the other side. This definitely left a newfound respect for beavers in us!

After we made it past all of them we stopped at a little area offshore in a forest to pray and eat lunch. The skies darkened and thunder crackled above us. The sheikh came over from the woods to tell us not to be scared and related a hadith that says that during a storm, the thunder is in dhikr and the angels are in fear of Allah swt. We sat and watched the rain on the river while the tall, stately pines of the forest protected us. The rain drops hit the water in the river and created bubbles on the surface called habb al-maa. This habb we learned in class is related to the Mahabbah (love) of Allah. If one’s love is sincere it will always rise to the surface like the bubbles on water and become apparent. One simply cannot hide their true love.

After our lunch and khalwa time, we headed back through the river in the light rain. My canoeing partner and I went first and it felt like we were the first explorers to come to this place. We soon canoed right onto a beautiful little lake surrounded by mountains. It had stopped raining and there was mist and fog all around us. Long grass, bamboo and water lilies surrounded the edges. The sun was setting in the distance in a show of yellows, reds and pinks. It was like a virtual scene out of some fantasy reality. We set our paddles up and just sat floating, staring at the absolute beauty around us. We heard the birds calling each other, and the frogs singing. We watched the water begin to turn pink from the sunset. We must have stayed there for half an hour or more. No one wanted to leave. It was truly one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had at the retreat and a highlight for this year.

The last day of the retreat this year, we went hiking to Augur Falls, which is an old favorite for everyone. It’s a rather large creek that starts out gently tumbling over rocks until it turns into raging rapids and at one point makes a sharp 90-degree turn. Some huge rocks overlook this turn and this is where we sat eating our lunches, contemplating and doing dhikr. After a while I decided to take off my socks and shoes and put my feet in the water.

The water from the waterfall was warm and felt so nice as it rushed past my feet. I just sat there for a long time with the water going over my feet, wondering where all this water came from, gallons and gallons every second all the way down, turning and continuing somewhere else. The water was crystal clear. It felt so refreshing and clean. I had this incredible urge to just jump into the middle of the Falls and sit there in the water, letting it rush over me and cleanse me completely of all my sins, all my memories, all my faults, all my envy, all my hate, all my mistakes. I could just sit there for hours until I was so completely clean and pure. How clean would I be then compared to just making wudu with the water. It came to me that that water rushing over a person continuously is like someone in continuous tawbah and a person who just uses the water to make wudu is like one who has made istighfar once. The difference is clearer to me now and I realize the need for being in tawbah all the time.

I am sad to be back home again, but am hopeful that the retreat memories from this year can inshaAllah carry me to the next.

Dec 29, 2006 - travelogue    Comments Off

The Day of Arafat

One year ago today….

The Day of Arafat

It is the Day of Arafat! All the women of our tent woke up around 3:00 A.M. and have since been busily preparing by changing, taking showers, packing separately what to take with them. Now some are making Dhikr, reading Dua books or Qurans, sitting on their little folding mattress beds in the tent. Most of the women are wearing white or at least white scarves. All of the Hujaaj will have to move to Arafat today, inshaAllah by noon, if not then by Maghrib, if not then they must by the Fajr of the next day. The trip in normal traffic takes 15 minutes but can take up to 15 hours! (My advice to the Saudis is that they should make some express lanes for buses.)

Labayk allahmumma labayk! We are going to Arafat to acknowledge our sins, our imperfections, to beg Allah for forgiveness and to cleanse ourselves. It is a Day of Repentance and Forgiveness. It is the day Shaitan hates the most because Allah frees the most people from Hellfire on this day. All over the world except in Arafat Muslims will be fasting in remembrance of the special-ness of this day. I am so thankful to be among the ones to stand in Arafat in supplication. Last year helicopters even flew some sick people over Arafat who were lying prone in the helicopters in the hopes of gaining some Shifaa from this day and place.

First light – …Crowds and crowds of people are moving. They are on top of jeeps, Maruti vans, even on the back of pickup trucks. They are walking, thousands and thousands. Group leaders hold up umbrellas with dangling ribbons or flags or wear bright colored patches or shirts. A few motorcycles whiz by. Parents grip their children’s hands. I saw a mother carrying her little baby as she walked at dawn. Some pull along carryons. Some carry blankets in clear plastic bags. One man carries a Tasbih in one hand and a folded prayer mat in the other. He walks in long paced strides. It is perhaps 3 miles. Now they are allowing buses on the other side of the road to go the other direction. All traffic is flowing out of Mina towards Arafat. The sky still holds a delicate pink eggshell color.

Here a mother pushes a wheelchair with an elderly woman and two of her little children sit on the grandmother’s lap. Faces … Turkish, Indian, Afghani, white, brown, black, beards no beards, black Hijab white Hijab. A little baby with a snow cap peeks up from his father’s shoulder. “We are coming Allah! we are coming!” There, a little girl of 6 in a bright pink jacket and pony tails. An old African man with a noble face wears wooden brown beads around his neck. An Arab man with spectacles carries a folded up Oriental rug. Some Sudani women carry their blankets on their heads. We pass the Indonesian camps on our left and the Pakistani flag flies on our right.

11AM … Alhamdulillah we are in Arafat. We were here by 9:30AM which is a miracle according to those who have made Hajj before. I am outside our tent which is full of women lounging, resting or making Dhikr. On the street numerous people and groups are going back and forth trying to find their camp or a place to stay. Helicopters constantly fly overhead. A while ago some people broke part of our camp gate made of aluminum siding and tons of people started pouring in here like mad. They were so elated at breaking in! The guards hurried to fix the wall.

I see all these mothers carrying their young babies and walking in the hot sun. I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how those men stay sitting on top of moving vehicles without falling off. A group goes by with the leader holding up a long stick with a can of soda and a plastic bottle attached to it.

This tent is surrounded by sand. I wonder how this plain was at the time of the prophet (s). I heard there were no trees here even 20 years ago. Now there are trees all through this desert. A sign of the Day of Judgment. There is a Hadith about how Bedouins will grow trees in the desert at the last hour. We are so many Muslims here … so many, but look at our position in the world. Why are we the poorest, most backward, illiterate, lacking good manners and politeness? It almost hurt to be in Madinah and know what was going on around the prophet saw.

6:00PM … Arafat is over. Alhamdulillah. It was so amazing and so cleansing. People rested in their tents until Zuhr and then we all went into one big tent separated into women’s and men’s. There someone hung up a makeshift loudspeaker that was going in and out. Luckily the speaker was nearby and we could hear him. He talked about how important it was for us to repent and acknowledge all our sins to Allah. The sins we’ve made with our eyes, our hands, our private parts, etc. A knowledgeable sister in our group also gave us a pep talk. I was almost nervous with anticipation for Zuhr to start.

As soon as we said salaam I jumped up and headed for my spot. The place where our tents were situated was pretty barren but a few of us ended up on the other side of the tent next to the road, which was under some shade and relatively private. There we made our Duas. All the while people were going to and fro. As soon as it became close to Maghrib, like around 4:30 there was a huge rush as people packed up their stuff back into their vehicles and buses and started moving off. I wanted to say “Wait! It’s not Maghrib yet!”  We too had to head towards the buses before the sound of Athaan. Dad said “That’s it! Hajj is over!” and I said “What! There’s still so much to go … the stoning, the Tawafs” …May Allah make it easy for us to fulfill them.

On the way back to our buses we found a woman sitting in a chair crying surrounded by people. Apparently she had lost her group and in fact didn’t know what group was hers. I could commiserate remembering the feelings of total panic at the beginning of the trip.

Feb 15, 2006 - travelogue    5 Comments

Damascus Spring

Souk Jumuah

The first days of Spring in Damascus are so beautiful. The sun finally comes out and shines on all the old buildings and monuments, little alleyways and old houses, almost making them new again. You can hear the birds singing everywhere, some wild, some from little birds in wooden cages kept on rooftops, shops and even in public parks. A neighbor across the way must keep a number of birds on their roof. I often hear them tweeting and singing through my open window.

The history of this city is staggering, almost incomprehensible. Just walking through a souk, you pass the place where Salahuddin’s wife is buried, some old madrasas where famous scholars taught, the tomb of Mohiuddin ibn Al Arabi.

Damascus has been famous in history for its beautiful gardens. One report says there were 120,000 gardens in this city, multitudes of mosques and madrasas.

On days like today, you can forget the urban sprawl, pollution and increasing western influence. You only remember that Damascus once had the most advanced hospitals and medical schools of its time. That it’s scholars and scholarship resonate throughout Islam until our own times. Who hasn’t picked up a book by Imam Nawwai or Ibn al Qayyim or Ghazali. Its arts of glass making, intricate wood inlay, ceramics and textiles are still famous the world over. Ever heard of a Damask tablecloth or seen the beautiful wooden furniture that comes from here and you’ll know.

A Damascus souk is like a place out of time. Winding narrow streets of stone bricks with shops and stalls crammed on both sides. I can easily imagine that these souks have not changed much over hundreds of years. Just like now, the souk must have been lined with vegetable and fruit sellers. A shoe maker, a rug store. Little shops of hijabs, jilbabs, abayahs, household goods. Nowadays you can add a little cd shop, western wear clothes shops and imported products from china or korea.

The souk near our house is called Souk Jumah. It starts next to the Abu Nour Islamic school with bookstores, stationary supplies, and cd stores of Islamic lectures and nasheed and then continues on into grocery stores , bread shops and vegetable carts, until it turns into the souk proper and then and continues all the way down past Sh. Mohiuddin’s Masjid and tomb. I’ve never actually seen the end because either we walked enough to be tired or purchased all the goods we needed. Perhaps this souk winds all the way down across the bottom of Mount Qasiyoun.

There’s always something to see in the souk. Sometimes when I’m bored and want to feel like I’m living in a different place I’ll come here. All manner of people come to go shopping, to buy their week’s groceries, or just walk around checking out all the new goods and latest fashions. There’s little old men and women buying their tangerines or bread. Housewives bargaining with the butchers on the price of chicken parts. School children in their little blue uniforms walking and running in groups, sometimes crowding into a toy stall or candy shop. Mothers carry their babies or push them in carriages. There is a constant buzz of cars, shoppers, storekeepers

Sometimes you’ll see a horse driven cart go through. Although these days you see mostly Suzuki trucks full of apples or bananas or crates of vegetables like tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. These are goods being delivered direct from the farm.

Sometimes an apple farm owner will travel down the souk delivering a case of his apples to each stall as he goes. Because of all the traffic,I almost wish they would close it off to cars and suzukis so we could shop freely but I guess there’s no other way to receive deliveries and the alleyways are too narrow to build sidewalks.

Once I saw hundreds of men following a funeral bier through the souk. Each store would ‘close’ by putting something at their entrance or closing their door out of respect. I thought that was a beautiful tradition. You also see many beggars especially near Sh. Mohiuddin. At one particular spot right near the entrance to an ancient madrasa I always see this this crippled man. He never asks anyone for money nor does he have a plate or pot. He just sits there and as people walk by, every now and then someone stops to give him something.

Yesterday someone remarked that Syria is in transition from yesterday to tomorrow. It truly is, and I feel that it is almost in a fight with itself trying to figure out which way to go. I would truly be saddened to see Syria turn its back on its traditions and culture and ‘modernize’. To let the souk go by way of huge malls and all the materialism it brings with it! For now at least I can enjoy and feel like what life must have been like hundreds of years ago before this disappears as well.