The way we were: all the stuff we didn’t read

Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons has a post for Banned Books Week, called “The books I didn’t read.” Some of the attitudes she discusses are all too familiar to me. She writes,

“I read the books that the adults in my life were comfortable with me reading– books that wouldn’t challenge any of their (or my own) ideas, books that didn’t ask any hard questions they might not have been able to answer. Safe books. Easy books. Antiquated and archaic and adorable and aristocratic books– only books that enforced the perceptions we already had.”

Oh yeah. That pretty much describes how we tried to raise our kids… and what our lives were like in the highly conservative, insular Muslim communities that I was involved in.  For a complicated bunch of reasons.

books

When I converted, the first Muslim communities that I encountered were usually led by immigrant men who had been heavily influenced either by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami. Some of them were engineering or medical students. They had little time for the arts, and that included literature of any kind. After all, what good was it? How did it help teach people Islam or make them better Muslims? Literature was most often ignored, or when it wasn’t, it was treated with some suspicion.

As a new convert, most of what I wanted to read was about Islam. Books in English on Islam were in short supply back then where I was living, but we would comb the public library for them (and occasionally mission out to the ISNA-run Islamic book store, which was just a hole in the wall in those days… but that’s a subject for another time). Most of the books related to Islam at the library dealt with modern political issues. I read a certain amount of that, but didn’t often find that it answered the questions I had.

I and my convert frinds read other stuff as well, but we self-censored a fair amount. We usually read books that were practical in some way,  or religious, or old. But we seldom read contemporary fiction, and when we did, we often found it unsettling for various reasons. Looking back, I can see that some of my negative reactions to fiction were trauma-related—stuff like The Color Purple was frankly triggering. But some of it was due to my discomfort with the ideas that the books expressed, as well as their “sinful” characters and open-ended plots that didn’t end with the punishment of those who did wrong and reward for those who were righteous.

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In this dead-end

Today, I discovered a poem (and a poet) for the first time.

Only some thirty years too late.

And wouldn’t you know it, he’s dead now. He died over a decade ago.

Better late than never, I suppose.

I don’t read poetry much. Don’t have time, for one thing. Am not really very attuned to it, for another. But I tripped across Ahmad Shamlou’s poem, “In this dead-end” by accident. And it hit me so hard. Because unfortunately, I know too much about what he is talking about:

In this dead-end

They smell your breath

You had better not have said, ‘I love you.’

They smell your heart.

These are strange times, darling…

And they flog love at the checkpoint

We must hide love in the closet.

In this crooked dead end and twisting chill

they feed the fire with the kindling of song and poetry

Do not risk a thought

These are strange times, darling

He who knocks on the door at midnight

has come to kill the light

We must hide light in the closet.

There are the butchers stationed at the crossroads

with bloody clubs and cleavers

These are strange times, darling

They cut smiles from lips and songs from mouths

We must hide joy in the closet.

Canaries barbequed on a fire of lilies and jasmine

These are strange times, darling

Satan is drunk with victory, sitting at our funeral feast

We must hide God in the closet.

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What salvation looks like: I didn’t die before this

I have not had the time or the energy to blog recently. Partly due to the situation with ISIS.  What is there to say in the face of such everyday horror, and every time there is an explosion you worry that someone you know might be dead?

And partly due to things going on in my former extended family network, as well as at work. Tiresome nonsense, that boils down in both cases to the unwillingness of a conservative former cultie Muslim dude (who knows that I was once a conservative Muslim and what sort of group I was a member of) to treat me with basic respect, while also not having the courage to be honest about what he is doing.

Hyper-conservative family dude plays tiresome, manipulative headgames that end up dragging innocent and unwilling others into the fray, and then when called on it, denies that he is doing anything. Work dude is patronizing and covertly undermines me, while being clever enough to do so in ways that leave no hard evidence.

Because I’m apparently hell-bound, a sinner who doesn’t even have the humility to admit that the conservatives’ ways of looking at the world are morally superior or to play the “inshallah someday I’ll have strong enough iman to re-hijab and bow down to the scholar-gods again” game. No, I’m not playing that game. Life is too short to live a lie.

It gets depressing and emotionally exhausting to deal with. Especially since I understand all too well where they are coming from.

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Of current events, triggers, and moral bankruptcy (II)

As events unfold in Syria and Iraq, I am brought face to face with so many deeply troubling aspects of what we used to believe. As well as what we weren’t told. And yeah, chose not to see.

For several weeks now, I have been debating whether or not to actually try to blog about some of these issues. These are really difficult issues to think about, much less talk about. And how would trying to talk about this be at all constructive?

But I see that threekidsandi has blogged about the situation in Sinjar (northwestern Iraq, where thousands of members of the Yezidi minority are trapped on a mountain by the so-called “Islamic State”, formerly known as ISIS). So, I suspect that I’m not the only convert/ex-convert who is being triggered by these events and is having a great deal of difficulty processing them.

Why? For a number of reasons, I guess. As converts or ex-converts who were part of very ethnically diverse communities, some of us knew people from those areas, or who now live there, and we now worry and hope that they are ok. In that, we are not so different from many other Muslims in North America.

But there, the similarities end. For some of us, the antics of the so-called “Islamic State” (I’ll use “IS” from here on in) raise serious theological questions, evoke survivors’ guilt, and finally undermine whatever lingering trust in or regard for our former leaders that we might still have.

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Of current events, triggers, and moral bankruptcy

Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to entirely ignore current events. Some of the news headlines recently have been very triggering. We lived through all this stuff in the ’80’s and ’90’s, and recent events keep bringing it back.

I am glad to no longer be living in any of the conservative Muslim communities that I was involved in or had dealings with, because I remember all too well how they used to deal with these sorts of international events: Incendiary, polarizing, us (Muslims… and therefore always in the right) versus them (kuffaar… and therefore evil) rhetoric from the minbar. Protests. Incessant calls to boycott X, Y and Z companies and products. Fundraising dinners, allegedly for refugees and orphans produced by the conflict—though in those days there was often little financial accountability, so who knew where the money really went. Guest speakers at Islamic conferences and other gatherings who talked about their experiences with the conflict (and collected donations, allegedly for relief work). And of course, the duas at Friday Prayers for “the mujahideen in X, Y, Z… wa fi kulli makaan!” (You could usually tell what the imam’s sectarian and political leanings were by which “mujahideen” he would or wouldn’t pray for in those duas.) And at times of particular crisis, imams would recite the Qunoot an-naazila. Even back in my most koolaid drinking days, that prayer deeply disturbed me. Invoking God’s curse on people? Really?? What an absolutely horrible thing to do. But it was justified because it is supposedly the sunna.

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Do we “still” need feminism?

On a road trip with an old friend of mine—another formerly conservative convert—we were listening to the radio as we were driving along. And, lo and behold, the issue of the day that the radio host was discussing with several invited guests was the burning question of… (drum roll…) whether or not “we still need feminism.” As soon as he announced the topic, my eyes started rolling. I guess that’s part of getting old—because as far back as I can remember the media has been dredging up this non-issue at least every few years, with wearying regularity. And these discussions never seem to resolve anything.

This particular discussion was no exception. One of the guests was a rightwing woman who spent most of the time repeating well-worn Tea Party-ish talking points: Yes, feminism sort of did a bit of good for women way waaaay back in the day, by getting women the right to own property and attend universities and vote… but then it went right off the rails, because it turned into a movement that is all about putting men down and demonizing them, while trying to make women superior instead of equal. Feminism (she said) denies the innate differences between men and women, and promotes women neglecting their husbands and children, while stigmatizing women who want to stay home instead of having a career. Women are weaker than men, and women should celebrate and embrace this rather than deny it. Oh, and feminism is also bad because it promotes abortions.

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Impossible mimesis

Ramadan. The moon shining outside my window seems to mock me, saying: Ramadan will soon be gone, and what have you done? How many days have you fasted so far? How many rak’ats have you prayed, how many juz of the Quran have you read, how many iftars have you hosted or attended, how many times have you managed to pray tarawih? How many fard and sunna acts have you not performed—and in this blessed month, when every good act is rewarded more than at any other time of year? How many blessings are you missing the chance to gain? And if you’re not part of this mad rush for blessings, are you really part of this umma?

And I don’t know what to say, except—this is a big part of the problem. Yes, this kind of attitude has an awful lot to do with why so many things connected with Muslim belief and practice trigger me today. Why I’m basically burned out.

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