Jun 8, 2012 - travelogue    2 Comments

A long time ago, in a place far away

My favoritist spot on earth (next to in front of the Kabah :))

Allahumma ansarhum an adh-dhalameen.

Salawat… please say Fatiha for all the Shuhada.

Jumah Mubarak

Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me?
My voice rings out, this time, from Damascus
It rings out from the house of my mother and father
In Sham. The geography of my body changes.
The cells of my blood become green.
My alphabet is green.
In Sham. A new mouth emerges for my mouth
A new voice emerges for my voice
And my fingers
Become a tribe

I return to Damascus
Riding on the backs of clouds
Riding the two most beautiful horses in the world
The horse of passion.
The horse of poetry.
I return after sixty years
To search for my umbilical cord,
For the Damascene barber who circumcised me,
For the midwife who tossed me in the basin under the bed
And received a gold lira from my father,
She left our house
On that day in March of 1923
Her hands stained with the blood of the poem…

I return to the womb in which I was formed . . .
To the first book I read in it . . .
To the first woman who taught me
The geography of love . . .
And the geography of women . . .

I return
After my limbs have been strewn across all the continents
And my cough has been scattered in all the hotels
After my mother’s sheets scented with laurel soap
I have found no other bed to sleep on . . .
And after the “bride” of oil and thyme
That she would roll up for me
No longer does any other “bride” in the world please me
And after the quince jam she would make with her own hands
I am no longer enthusiastic about breakfast in the morning
And after the blackberry drink that she would make
No other wine intoxicates me . . .

I enter the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque
And greet everyone in it
Corner to . . . corner
Tile to . . . tile
Dove to . . . dove
I wander in the gardens of Kufi script
And pluck beautiful flowers of God’s words
And hear with my eye the voice of the mosaics
And the music of agate prayer beads
A state of revelation and rapture overtakes me,
So I climb the steps of the first minaret that encounters me
“Come to the jasmine”
“Come to the jasmine”

Returning to you
Stained by the rains of my longing
Returning to fill my pockets
With nuts, green plums, and green almonds
Returning to my oyster shell
Returning to my birth bed
For the fountains of Versailles
Are no compensation for the Fountain Café
And Les Halles in Paris
Is no compensation for the Friday market
And Buckingham Palace in London
Is no compensation for Azem Palace
And the pigeons of San Marco in Venice
Are no more blessed than the doves in the Umayyad Mosque
And Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides
Is no more glorious than the tomb of Salah al-Din Al-Ayyubi…

I wander in the narrow alleys of Damascus.
Behind the windows, honeyed eyes awake
And greet me . . .
The stars wear their gold bracelets
And greet me
And the pigeons alight from their towers
And greet me
And the clean Shami cats come out
Who were born with us . . .
Grew up with us . . .
And married with us . . .
To greet me . . .

I immerse myself in the Buzurriya Souq
Set a sail in a cloud of spices
Clouds of cloves
And cinnamon . . .
And camomile . . .
I perform ablutions in rose water once.
And in the water of passion many times . . .
And I forget—while in the Souq al-‘Attarine—
All the concoctions of Nina Ricci . . .
And Coco Chanel . . .
What are you doing to me Damascus?
How have you changed my culture? My aesthetic taste?
For I have been made to forget the ringing of cups of licorice
The piano concerto of Rachmaninoff . . .
How do the gardens of Sham transform me?
For I have become the first conductor in the world
That leads an orchestra from a willow tree!!

I have come to you . . .
From the history of the Damascene rose
That condenses the history of perfume . . .
From the memory of al-Mutanabbi
That condenses the history of poetry . . .
I have come to you . . .
From the blossoms of bitter orange . . .
And the dahlia . . .
And the narcissus . . .
And the “nice boy” . . .
That first taught me drawing . . .
I have come to you . . .
From the laughter of Shami women
That first taught me music . . .
And the beginning of adolesence
From the spouts of our alley
That first taught me crying
And from my mother’s prayer rug
That first taught me
The path to God . . .

I open the drawers of memory
One . . . then another
I remember my father . . .
Coming out of his workshop on Mu’awiya Alley
I remember the horse-drawn carts . . .
And the sellers of prickly pears . . .
And the cafés of al-Rubwa
That nearly—after five flasks of ‘araq—
Fall into the river
I remember the colored towels
As they dance on the door of Hammam al-Khayyatin
As if they were celebrating their national holiday.
I remember the Damascene houses
With their copper doorknobs
And their ceilings decorated with glazed tiles
And their interior courtyards
That remind you of descriptions of heaven . . .

The Damascene House
Is beyond the architectural text
The design of our homes . . .
Is based on an emotional foundation
For every house leans . . . on the hip of another
And every balcony . . .
Extends its hand to another facing it
Damascene houses are loving houses . . .
They greet one another in the morning . . .
And exchange visits . . .
Secretly—at night . . .

When I was a diplomat in Britain
Thirty years ago
My mother would send letters at the beginning of Spring
Inside each letter . . .
A bundle of tarragon . . .
And when the English suspected my letters
They took them to the laboratory
And turned them over to Scotland Yard
And explosives experts.
And when they grew weary of me . . . and my tarragon
They would ask: Tell us, by god . . .
What is the name of this magical herb that has made us dizzy?
Is it a talisman?
A secret code?
What is it called in English?
I said to them: It’s difficult for me to explain…
For tarragon is a language that only the gardens of Sham speak
It is our sacred herb . . .
Our perfumed eloquence
And if your great poet Shakespeare had known of tarragon
His plays would have been better . . .
In brief . . .
My mother is a wonderful woman . . . she loves me greatly . . .
And whenever she missed me
She would send me a bunch of tarragon . . .
Because for her, tarragon is the emotional equivalent
To the words: my darling . . .
And when the English didn’t understand one word of my poetic argument . . .
They gave me back my tarragon and closed the investigation . . .

From Khan Asad Basha
Abu Khalil al-Qabbani emerges . . .
In his damask robe . . .
And his brocaded turban . . .
And his eyes haunted with questions . . .
Like Hamlet’s
He attempts to present an avant-garde play
But they demand Karagoz’s tent . . .
He tries to present a text from Shakespeare
They ask him about the news of al-Zir . . .
He tries to find a single female voice
To sing with him . . .
“Oh That of Sham”
They load up their Ottoman rifles,
And fire into every rose tree
That sings professionally . . .
He tries to find a single woman
To repeat after him:
“Oh bird of birds, oh dove”
They unsheathe their knives
And slaughter all the descendents of doves . . .
And all the descendents of women . . .
After a hundred years . . .
Damascus apologized to Abu Khalil al-Qabbani
And they erected a magnificent theater in his name.

I put on the jubbah of Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi
I descend from the peak of Mt. Qassiun
Carrying for the children of the city . . .
And sesame halawa . . .
And for its women . . .
Necklaces of turquoise . . .
And poems of love . . .
I enter . . .
A long tunnel of sparrows
Gillyflowers . . .
Hibiscus . . .
Clustered jasmine . . .
And I enter the questions of perfume . . .
And my schoolbag is lost from me
And the copper lunch case . . .
In which I used to carry my food . . .
And the blue beads
That my mother used to hang on my chest
So People of Sham
He among you who finds me . . .
let him return me to Umm Mu’ataz
And God’s reward will be his
I am your green sparrow . . . People of Sham
So he among you who finds me . . .
let him feed me a grain of wheat . . .
I am your Damascene rose . . . People of Sham
So he among you who finds me . . .
let him place me in the first vase . . .
I am your mad poet . . . People of Sham
So he among you who sees me . . .
let him take a souvenir photograph of me
Before I recover from my enchanting insanity . . .
I am your fugitive moon . . . People of Sham
So he among you who sees me . . .
Let him donate to me a bed . . . and a wool blanket . . .
Because I haven’t slept for centuries

– Nizar Qabbani

Jun 2, 2012 - islam op-eds    11 Comments

Equal access to Mosques

One thing that I never understand is why brothers don’t get why sisters want to be in the Mosque. Why do we want equal access? Why do we want to go there to pray? Why do we want to hold classes there? Or do learning or social things there? It’s like Duh? Why do we even have to explain this? Just like for men, the Mosque is the center of our spirituality, the center of our learning, the center of our community. Why do brothers want to cut us off from this?

And then in the same breath they will criticize sisters for ‘causing fitnah’, ‘not dressing appropriately’, ‘hanging out with non-muslims’, ‘being feminists’ and whatever blah blah myriad of a million complaints.

I would like just for one day, every Mosque in the US to actually do a switch and have the men go to the ‘women’s section’ and the women go to the men’s! I wonder if they’d find it irritating to find parking in the back and look for the right back door to enter. And then going down maze like hallways to a tiny stuffed room usually in a basement (with no a/c) filled with a ton of kids and ppl with (if you’re lucky) a tv screen with sub-par speaker system blaring the prayer or dars. Then they should also endeavor to have an iftar for 100+ women and kids in there and then pray in the same place on top of dropped rice and salan for taraweeh with a ton of screaming kids and distractions.

And YET STILL women love to go to the Mosque! How amazing is that.

I wonder if this would change any of their perspectives? Probably not for most. They’d still believe “women don’t need to go to the Mosque” and if they do go “they’re a fitnah”.

Sometimes it *is* just easier to stay at home and watch TV or go to the Mall or a restaurant or basically any other place in the world. Everything in every other place is open to everyone equally. Every other place has our convenience in mind, not just men’s.

Some of the best Mosques I’ve been to were built in the late 70s or early 80s. These were our fresh faced parents who came here to study or as young professionals who built these mosques with their families and their kids in mind. There was usually ONE door that everyone would enter through as a family including ONE door to the Musallah area which would be divided by something very simple. Seating in the dining area might be gender based but it would be open to everyone and you could see everyone. All the rooms were open and shared. And the Mosque was thought of as a community space.

Today in most Mosques, even the mega Mosques being built for the future, everything is so carefully divided, huge walls are built, separate entrances, separate doors, separate rooms, separate eating areas, completely separate prayer areas even with big screen tvs or balconies separate us from the worship going on. There is such heightened segregation as a reaction to I’m not sure what? Fears of oversexualization? That we’ll turn into beasts? That people will come to the Mosques for the wrong reasons – like to meet someone for marriage? I mean I don’t even know what they’re trying to prevent here.

They want to make it so you don’t even ever SEE a woman at the Mosque.

It just makes me sad. Most women are extremely intimidated by all these barriers. Why should they come to the Mosque to hear a class through tiny speakers that are competing with crying babies. Why should they come to pray when they just see the tiny back of the Imam through a TV screen. (They can sit at home and watch an even better prayer at the Haram on Saudi channel1!) An entrance in a back alley, one sister told me, is the reason she never comes to the Mosque. They can’t even change their babies or find a place to nurse them or a safe place where their kids can play. Why is a woman going to the Mosque to pray Maghrib seen as a ‘feminist’ or ‘loose’ or something!

Really I’m going to just straight up ask, why should women even go to the Mosque? Cuz there’s just nothing there for them.

It’s not “ours”. It belongs to someone else and we’re not welcome there is the message most Mosques are giving women. Let’s ask ourselves if this is right, and not just “right” but is this something that would please Allah?

May 18, 2012 - albanyia    8 Comments

Memories of early Muslims in Albany, NY — part 2

Ok so this is the second of what I hope is a series of different Muslim’s memories of growing up in Albany, NY.

I’d love for more people to write about their early memories of going to ICCD as kids (or other area Mosques as kids) and their experiences. Kind of so we can preserve those memories as so many more Muslims/Mosques arrive in the Capital District and we move on to the third and fourth generations here! So please let me know if you can write a few paragraphs that we can post on here!!

So last time I told you about how we used to go to the Mosque every week and practically grew up there, it was such an integral part of our lives. We used to have two or three classes with breaks in between. Our hangout place was the girl’s bathroom! We’d go in there and be free and talk about our American school and life and whatever else. We also used to go outside to the treeline and go into the woods a little where we’d have a private hangout. One day on one of those ‘youth sports day’ Saturdays we went into the woods and somehow got lost! when we finally came out we discovered a golf course! It was like a new world of smooth grass, rolling hills and a pond with lily flowers. We felt like we discovered a lost new world! Later on I found out some of the older boys had already discovered the golf course and used to go there to smoke! Tsk!!

The teachers would use various ways of teaching us. I don’t think we actually had any type of books until much later. At some point they started photocopying different things and binding them into books. The Islam teachers would teach us a random subject each week and we’d always complain that we just ‘learned the same thing over and over again’. On occasion a teacher would take our class outside to the grass and we’d sit in a circle and read from our Quran pages or the teacher would tell us a story or answer any questions. Brother Djafer especially was an amazing storyteller who would make the Sahaba and Seerah come alive for us. These are some of my favorite memories.

All the classes were co-ed until maybe my later teenage years when they separated us into a girl’s class and a boy’s class. I think most of the boys just stopped going after awhile as they got older. But most of the girl’s continued and only ‘graduated’ when they graduated from high school.

Brother Djafer and brother Mokhtar used to take us on camping trips to the Adirondacks during the summers during my teenage years. We even went horseback riding and once I think we stayed a whole week up there with a big group of boys and girls. The girls used to row out to some island and we’d go swimming there with our long pants and t-shirts. That was definitely a highlight in life. Our Imams back then were very young themselves and had young kids and wives back home. We’d sit around the fire and tell jinn stories, they’d talk or say something to each other in Arabic and laugh or they’d tell us ‘riddles’ that we had to figure out.

One of the interesting things I contemplate here is that we never had this strict kind of separation like we have today. Girls and boys with huge barriers in between, the old in one place and the young in one place. It was just that we were all together.

The custodian of the Mosque was named Br. Kamal. He was quite the character and always took care of us kids by putting out cookies during breaktime (we were only allowed two each) and used to know everyone by name. He was originally from Macedonia and in one rare instance came to our class and talked about ‘the old days of the war’ there. He was probably one of the first Muslims to even come to the capital district, if not like The first! He died just a few years ago and the entire ICCD Mosque was packed with old and new faces and they took him to be buried at the Muslim cemetary. That was a very sad day.