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As I Am

April 12, 2014

“Ya Allah, we come as we are,”
She said,
Adjusting her large spectacles,
Her large dupatta hugging her shoulders through her abaya,
Large, burr-covered men’s socks in bunches around her feet.
“However we are,
We come as we are.”

Her words glimmered from afar,
For I now think I know.
When I wash to pray,
The pigment used to cover the darkness beneath my eyes dissolves.
And I go back to work.
As I am.
Ya Allah,
I come as I am.

Ableist Idiocies in South Asian Matchmaking

April 9, 2014

I once overheard a conversation that revealed so much about attitudes towards disabled individuals that I was profoundly shaken.

The topic of discussion was a young man of a decent earning and standing. The catch? A childhood illness permanently affected the functioning of the left side of his body, and he had onsets of mild tremors from time to time. According to the conversers, his tremor was enough to mark him as “spoiled goods.”

Impressions of the disabled seem to be fraught by flawed assumptions about their forever-compromised worth. As a result, those with disabilities are tucked away out of sight and spoken of in pitying terms, as this man was.

Surely we can do better.

Here are some of the ludicrous sayings floating about, and some responses I would like to everyone to consider:

Myth: We want our children to have healthy spouses, can you blame us?

Response: The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Let’s be honest about how “healthy” “normal” individuals are. Given this age of rising obesity, diabetes, and cancer, there is no telling whether those perceived as “normal” will outlive their disabled counterparts. There’s not even a guarantee that they’d have a decent quality of life.

Those with disabilities face a different set of challenges in achieving full health, yes, but that does not make their state inferior. We all are struggling to be healthy in the truest definition of the worth, and that makes us more similar than different.

Myth: Children are out of the question.

Response: This foolish and automatic assumptions in play: (a) the traits the person possesses can be passed on to their children, or (b) disabled people aren’t “interested” in reproducing; they’re asexual, or (c) their disabilities render them as inadequate potential parents. The only response I’ll give to this nonsense: Just because someone is disabled does not mean they do not want to or cannot have children.

Myth: if there’s a physical condition, who knows, there may be mental condition as well

Response: This is the absolute worst. First of all: no, people who are physically disabled do not automatically have mental health issues that affect their ability to have a relationship. Also, what’s being implied is that if someone has an invisible disability such as a mental or learning disability, that’s fine. What kind of a double standard is that?

Is disability a non-issue? No. Is extra consideration required when making such matches? Yes. Should people be absolutely certain that they will love and support their lesser-abled spouses for as long as they can? Yes.

Here’s what not to do: treat and regard them as subhumans to be pitied.

The conversation I overheard that spurred me to write this ended on an interesting note. One of the people (you’ve probably figured out by this point that it was a well-meaning but ill-informed matronly matchmaker, a.k.a the rishtaa aunty) said: “Perhaps the only way [those with disabilities] can get married is not by arranged marriages, but by finding someone themselves. The families don’t have to make the decision, so the children will make them themselves and settle down.”

This impression is a double-edged sword. It gets precariously close to acknowledging that everyone is deserving of love and lifelong companionship, while at the same time disavowing responsibility for such a match. For when it comes to status, beauty, and wealth, rishta aunties are blazingly confident in making the right matches. But they stutter and flail helplessly at the prospect of someone with a tremor.

May we be redeemed for transgressing against the vulnerable and underprivileged members of our community. May we get over ourselves for thinking that normality exists.

Note: I’m blessed and privileged to be able-bodied, and I hope this little rant doesn’t come across as self-righteous or a claim to speak on someone’s behalf.

Why I left.

March 24, 2014

One who is like you

should remind me of Him,

not take His Place.

The Men Who Are: On Reading Salaam, Love

February 9, 2014

mattu-salaamlove

Title: Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy

Editors: Ayesha Mattu, Nura Maznavi

Publication Date: February 2014 

Genre: Sexuality / Religion & Spirituality

Source: eGalley from publisher 

Without a doubt, I am a different person from the time I read Love, InshAllah. Curiously, though, I put off reading Salaam, Love for the same reason I put off reading its predecessor. As someone as disconnected from the Muslim community as I am, I thought, wouldn’t this make me lonely? As someone struggling as hard  to find love now as I was two years years ago, wouldn’t this be a reminder of what is lacking?

Just like I was with Love, InshAllah, I was proven wrong. Through these beautiful, intimately-crafted essays, I met Muslim man after Muslim man who shared his experience with love. Mind you, I don’t use “meet” in the metaphorical sense of the word, or even the usual, everyday sense of the word. Rather, I feel like I was let in and given glimpses of the deeply personal, these men at their most vulnerable.

To look at it one way, the fact that these stories were told by men is almost irrelevant. More often than not, I was reading these stories with the sensibility that they were Muslims’ experience of love; gender didn’t matter. On the other hand, there is something original about men telling such stories. I have a considerably rich understanding of Muslim women’s experiences with love, thanks to having read Love InshAllah, Love in a Headscarf, and my day-to-day work at Altmuslimah (including a recent piece in which I discussed how to make the rishta process work for Muslim women). With this personal context, however, I needed to round off my exposure and personal experience by listening to the brothers in the Muslim family.

Hence, in this review, I want to acknowledge and celebrate the kinds of male Muslim-ness I came across in this story. Choosing which stories to focus on was an especially difficult task, but necessary for the purposes of in-depth reflections.

The Men Who are Imperfect:

No one’s perfect: that’s a given. Those of us who open ourselves to love have often failed on small or grand levels. Hence, no collection of this nature would be complete without the inclusion of a story that included a story of a major failure on the part of the storyteller. In this collection, one of those stories would be Maher Reham’s “Just One Kiss.” In a very candid, almost blunt account, Reham recounted the story of his hasty, lust-driven marriage and the confusion and hardship that followed afterwards. His marriage became so rocky that his friendliness and closeness to a co-worker evolved into an full-fledged extramarital affair. The admission of this story may be shocking and disconcerting to some. However, it is important to remember that such occurrences don’t just take place in the Muslim community–oftentimes, the betrayer excuses themselves for their actions. In this story, however, the complexity and depth of the issue is revealed, in which Reham holds himself accountable while making me seriously question the phrase: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” In a strange way, this magnitude of imperfection becomes beautiful, giving me great appreciation for this story.

In “A Grown-Ass Man,” Alykhan Boolani gives the story behind his once being the “Asshole [from the jamat khana] who didn’t call.” (Which is probably not how he would explain the reason behind writing this story, but for me, that’s what it boils down to.) So Alykhan meets a lovely girl who, like him, also happens to be Ismaili. There don’t appear to be any issues, just the promise of a beautiful romance. However, their local community is, to put it lightly, extremely close-knit, something Alykhan finds, again to put it lightly, suffocating.

Through the very rich and ornate prose in this story, what I managed to make out was this: while the author was walking on air for the time after that first date, something didn’t seem right, and he couldn’t place his finger on what it was. A friend then brings him face-to-face with the fact that she looked like his sister. I am not sure whether this was meant literally, but in any case, it makes it clear to him that he can’t go on with this. In the meantime, thanks to the very “small town” nature of their community, his sister, father, and eventually his mother have found out about his date with this girl. Then, after some time, there is a run-in with the girl after one of the Friday sessions at the jamat khana, and what goes through his mind, by way of explanation, is this:

I can’t deal with the way in which the ‘ism looms so large. . . I want to stand up from prostration and speak directly into the big, scary face of Tradition, and say, Hey, bow toward me a little bit, like I bow toward you! Just give me some room, and I’ll do this my way, and I’ll do it with good heart and a right mind, like you taught me! But is this really a conversation to have with an institution? Or is it really about my mother? As in Ma, I love you, but I’m a grown-ass man and you can’t play a major part in my love life, albeit by utter cosmic accident.

So here is my twofold reaction to this:

It strikes me as odd to think that something like this didn’t work out just because it was too close to home. Seriously? People are fighting to marry their soul mates when they fall outside their sect, race, or religion, even, and you don’t follow up with someone because she is too much like you? 

That said, this story is just one example of the many forces in play in the Muslim love scene. As is the case with many first-second generation immigrant families from the East, now living in the West, there is a serious struggle between the social and the personal, collectivism versus individualism. I can certainly relate to being put off by a suitor simply because they were being shoved so hard in my face–a suitor I would have gotten along with perfectly well had I met him on my own.

The Men Who Are Like Us:

…and by “Us,” I mean women. It can be delusion-ally comforting to think, especially through online discourses in the Muslim community, that male privilege is the reason for women’s struggles with love. While it is important to point out trends that favour men, it can become too easy for such explanations to become a safety blanket. By placing the blame elsewhere, we don’t have to take action, or face the truth of the situation. Truth being: we are all damaged. We are all struggling with love in this crazy, busy world, all the while fending off pressures from the community while trying to heal scars from our past.

Take Yusef Ramlize’s story “Who I Needed to Be.” Having suffered severe abuse and emotional neglect at his father’s hands, he had to find it in himself to forgive his father and “let go of the fear and pain” that had held him back for so long. This account was followed by his journey to love and a blissful union with a woman named Samira. The beginning and ending of the story are major contrasts  It was so heartwrenching in the beginning but ended beautifully, leaving the reader with much hope.

The title Arif Choudhury’s story asks a question many women ask themselves: “How did I end up here?” As an average-looking man of Bangladeshi descent who doesn’t follow a career path prized by parents of Bengali girls, he has been struggling to meet someone, a process that has left him “lonely and demoralized.”

To me, this story illustrates two key points. One: it’s not just Muslim women who have to pay the price for being original and going off the beaten path. Two: one can have the right attitude, pursue whatever paths are available, and have a very basic set of criteria, and yet still be unable to find someone. After reading this story and recalling others like it, I will never make the mistake for thinking that things are somehow “harder” for women.

Arif alluded to loneliness and demoralization; states none of us are strangers to. There was a much more sober take on loneliness in Haroon Moghul’s “Prom InshAllah.” In this piece, Haroon relates the story of a soul-shattering heartbreak he experienced when he was seventeen. His reflection: “My religion says a man should not be alone with a woman. But somebody should have told me a man should not feel so alone that being with a woman is the only way he can feel life is worth living.”

Women, more so than men, are conditioned to believe that their worth is derived from their having a spouse. But that demon of need that Haroon talks about does not discriminate. Only the luckiest men and women are immune to such a mindset. In immigrant families like Haroon’s and mine, alienation from one’s parents only deepens the need for someone to communicate with, someone who already understands your view of the world. When you happen to cross paths with that someone and they can’t stay, the devastation can really take its toll. I could thus completely relate to his taking eons to recover from a short-lived relationship at such a young age.

The Men Of God:

There were some pieces in this collection in which the respective men’s faiths shone especially brightly. The ones I will focus on  were shared in the the third section of the book, entitled “Sabr.” This section contained stories related to health-related crises. Without coincidence, it was here that the depth of the authors’ faiths could be seen. Take Alan Howard’s “The Promise,” his account of meeting, marrying, and caring for a woman who had cancer–until the day she passed on. His experience God-consciousness touched me incredibly deeply:

Through Joan’s ordeal, I learned to accept that there are things that happen in this world that I do not understand and cannot control, but must face with sabr anyway. Joan’s embodiment of Islam taught me how to understand and survive the tests I have been given in life, in order to grow and change and become more beautiful….my wife’s test in this life was cancer; it changed her and made her strong. My test was to take care of her, to never turn away. It was my duty to stand by her, but it was also my love. It was the core of my humanity.

The last story in this section and the collection is Randy Nasson’s “Becoming Family.” This harrowing tale opened my eyes to the trial he and his wife (one of the co-editors of this collection, Ayesha Mattu), went through. This made me ashamed of the assumptive reflections I had made in regard to Ayesha’s story in my review of Love, InshAllah. I’m grateful that the rest of the story was shared by means of her husband’s perspective, showing that “happily ever after” requires a great deal of work, more for some couples than for others.

To drive home why this book is relevant to everyone, we must visit the original question: “Why love?” Romantic love–whatever form it may take–can bestow one unimaginable bliss, while also forcing them to confront their demons and contend with underlying issues in their broader communities. In the case of an enormous, decentralized, and often dehumanized community like the Muslim community, all those “usual” elements of love stories are increased by tenfold.

I am not sure Salaam, Love is as revelatory or groundbreaking as Love, InshAllah was, and that could be a very good sign of how far along this enterprise has come. Yes, there are stories that could make some of a certain slant uncomfortable, but to someone like me, that isn’t news anymore. It is for this reason I took it as a continuation of conversation, rather than its beginning. At the time I read Love, InshAllah, I was bearing witness to my personal stories. I was learning that what happened with me were not anomalies or freakish incidents, but part of my personal growth and journey in faith.

Recently, however, I am becoming especially conscious of the shared struggles with love in the Muslim community, and this book assured me that I am not alone. I’m not the only one who had to overcome a lifetime of conditioning to learn how to love myself. I’m not the only one who is confused by inter-generational conflict. And should something work out for me, sooner or later (InshAllah), I will harbour no illusions about that being an end in itself.

Back.

January 18, 2014

The last 40 days held the expected and the unexpected.

I’ll admit, the first two weeks felt less like writer’s a vow of silence and more like a vacation. It just felt so good to have one less thing to do. My mind would start composing, but I would stop myself and focus on something else. Yes, there were times I gazed blankly into the distance. But maybe my mind needed those moments to detox. Maybe it’s these blank, dull moments of emptiness that I was craving.

My father recently retired from his permanent position. When it became official, he felt a strange sense of disembodiment at not having to check and respond to emails. In a similar fashion, I suppose, my writerly self felt like a phantom limb. Knowing that I could not write, even if I wanted to, I could only ignore the twitches and move on to reading, to work, to dhikr.

It was towards the end that I truly felt a sense of emptiness and began to long to come back.

I guess the muscle has weakened. As I write this, for example, the words are not flowing as they used to. But that is all right. Better to start from scratch.

In terms of lessons learned and strengths gained:

  • Not everything that can be said needs to be said. This is something I already referred to in my previous two posts, but experiencing the truth of the statement by refraining from writing took it to a new level.
  • If a thought comes to me and I have the urge to express it, I’m better off waiting to see if it recurs a couple of more times before I try developing it in written form.
  • There is so much to listen to, both in person and by reading. One of the seven effective habits is to seek first to understand, then be understood. Now that I look back at this period of silence, I can definitely see a decrease in the number of occasions where I interrupted people with my own take on a situation. So written silence did end up influencing my habits in speaking.

Man, writing that was tiring! But my system has definitely reset itself, and I’m primed for a joyous, creative 2014, InshAllah.

Wishing all of you a wonderful one, with thanks for your continued support!

On Spoken Silence

December 10, 2013

silence

A period of silence from verbal speech is one of the greatest gifts a person can give to themselves. I have found that people are very intimidated by this notion and say that I am introducing a bidah–innovation. I’m not sure where they are coming from. This practice is not without precedent in the Islamic tradition, as you will see in the following:

  • The practice of Itikaaf–designating a time and space to focus on remembrance of Allah–includes refraining from frivolous speech and arguments. If one is especially prone to such manners of speech (thanks to information overload and engagement in online communities, which can make us very reactionary), the way for them to uphold Itikaaf is not to speak at all.
  • Many know that Istikharah–the prayer for guidance–is supposed to be made after Isha (the night prayer) and before sleeping. In some traditions, however, it is emphasized that the supplicator not speak to anyone after this prayer and before bedtime. (I wasn’t able to find a decent source for this claim.)
  • There are several times in the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings me upon him) life when he consciously disengaged from everyone and either took the company of very selected people, or worshipped Allah in solitude.

If the idea of a designated period of silence is still too difficult for you to digest, perhaps you can start by watching the film A Thousand Words. It’s a light and entertaining watch that will give you an understanding of how excessive use of words can be toxic.

I pray that we cultivate a culture in which vows of silence are as understood and respected as voluntary fasting, memorization of the Quran, philanthropy, and Itikaaf.

On Writerly Silence

December 8, 2013

I am now conscious of words the way I started becoming conscious of animal products about a year ago. They feel heavy on my system. I’m sensitive to excess. They make me feel uneasy, the way something might feel if it’s makruh.

At first I thought the solution was silence from speaking*, and I tried it for a few days. It was not without its benefits. I realized how much I talk over my sister. I slept better. My prayers and meditation deepened.

However, I also realized that my spoken words do not hold a candle to my internal dialogue. When I talk over people, I feel as though my head is going to explode from everything I have to convey. I have over twenty unfinished blogposts. I write long, detailed emails that don’t necessarily meander, but they delve into so much detail that writing them exhausts me. In my spoken speech, on the other hand, I suddenly go on tangents, causing others to look at me quizzically. Every conversation is a matter of trying to catch the slippery fish of my thoughts. And then there are the worst symptoms: I haven’t finished a book in months. I would start a thread of supplications, and then forget I was doing it halfway.

To sum it up: I am constantly in a state of writerly rehearsal, thinking of thing after thing to write about, to say.

There was a time when I would have loved to have this problem. But this immense gift of Rumi-Quotebarakah in writing goes hand-in-hand with the necessity to keep listening, keep reading. If I don’t uphold the latter two, I am no longer fit to receive this barakah. Hence all the symptoms. 

And so I declare my writerly vow of silence for the next forty days, so that I may to purge myself of internal writing oriented dialogue. There will be no drafting and publishing of blogposts. No journaling. No long emails. A conscious restraint in spoken speech. I may check into Facebook from time to time for reading purposes, but I won’t engage. 

Ya Allah, let a space open within me, so I may absorb more of Your Wisdom.

*In two days’ time, I will publish a short (pre-drafted) post that discusses vows of silence in light of Islam.

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