Archive for July, 2014

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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Of (some) converts and online radicalization

So, another white American female convert has been arrested for allegedly providing aid to terrorists. Shannon Maureen Conley, or as she called herself, Halima Conley, from Colorado. Only 19 years old.

It’s hard to gauge exactly what was going on with her on the basis of media reports. If what they have to say is accurate, she comes across as someone who is very naive, socially isolated, socially awkward, takes things at face value… and doesn’t think before she speaks. Perhaps more of a danger to herself than anyone else—but still, she was apparently warned repeatedly that what she was planning to do is illegal, and she did not desist. What did she expect would happen? Was this some sort of a cry for help? An unconscious effort at self-destruction that unlike cutting or drunk driving or suicide attempts would be “moral” in her mind because she could explain it to herself as “religious persecution”?

As usual, the media is trying to explain how an apparently average American suburban young woman ended up not only converting to Islam but supporting a very extreme fringe group whose calling cards are death and more death.  Some turned to social media in search of clues to her radicalization process, and pointed to pictures that she had posted of herself wearing a baseball cap, a hijab, and then a niqab, as if that “progression” explains everything.

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I am a haunted house

For those of us with war-related ptsd, this time of year in North America can be particularly triggering, due to parades including uniformed soldiers, artillery salutes, fireworks and other similar things.

Is it possible to deconstruct sacred texts and stories that were used as weapons against us and others, so that their power to wound is taken away? (Artist: Ala Ebtekar http://www.torandj.com/works1.html)

How do we relate to sacred texts and stories that were used to justify war and torture and a long list of horrors, and to manipulate us into assenting to things that our consciences rejected? Are we forever at their mercy, trapped by the guilt that they were used to instill in us? Is it possible to read them instead of being always read by them?
(Artist: Ala Ebtekar http://www.torandj.com/works1.html)

There’s nothing quite like calmly walking down the street on a holiday afternoon, enjoying the sunshine… until you hear artillery, and even though you rationally know that no real shells are being used and nobody is dying you start to shake, and every ounce of your strength becomes focused on keeping yourself together and getting away from that sound as fast as is humanly possible.

Or like standing in a crowd of happy people ooh-ing and ah-ing over a spectacular display of fireworks, aware that you alone are unwillingly cringing at every boom and being reminded of aerial bombardments and you desperately want to be anywhere but here.

Trying to “ground oneself,” to remember that “that was then, this is now” and that this is just a patriotic holiday celebration and nobody is getting hurt. Trying, and not really succeeding. And feeling very, very alone in that sea of evidently happy people. They can enter into the holiday spirit. But although I can usually seem outwardly composed, inwardly, I am a haunted house.  I never know when the ghosts will reappear. Sometimes I’m almost sort of ok with fireworks and I think that I’m well on my way to overcoming this problem… and then I find that I’m not.

Back in the day, we were taught to recite certain verses from the Qur’an or masnun du’as when we were afraid or otherwise troubled, and it worked. But now, it usually makes things worse. So much of the violence that now haunts me was justified by men (and sometimes women) who quoted from those sacred texts and claimed authority due to their knowledge of them.

What I tend to find more helpful than the invocation of these texts is art that deconstructs their use as weapons in the hands of the powerful.

This particular series by Ala Ebtekar really helped when nothing else did. Not only was it wonderful to see a particular instance of religious wartime propaganda from the ’80’s represented and in the process  unmasked for what it was, but it provides a glimpse of the possibility of a future in which these ghosts might be neutralized. Shorn of their ability to terrorize, and put to work in the service of artistic creativity instead.

 

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Learning to leave it on the mountain

Recently, I went hiking up a mountain, in search of the remains of a ghost town.

What was left of the road was steep, and not in good repair. I got lost for a bit as well. But I finally found what I had been looking for—what was left of a ruined farmstead.

One of the few remaining buildings in Thistle, Utah. Photographed by Drew Zanki.

When you pour so many hopes and dreams (and so much effort) into something, it can be very hard to admit even to yourself that it was pretty much a lost cause from the beginning….
(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thistle-Burried_House.jpg)

It was a bright sunny day. The sky was blue and the birds were singing.

Lichens grew on the large rocks that littered what had once been the pasture. A tree had grown in the middle of the remains of the small barn (which had long ago lost its roof). What was left of the foundations of the house was so overgrown with tall weeds that it was hard to gauge how large it had once been.

It was a lovely and yet despairing place.

The original settlers had been allotted that isolated swathe of rocky land up the mountain, with the promise that if they could build houses and produce crops on it that it would be theirs. They had come there expecting that they were getting land that could be farmed. They had had high hopes, thinking that the several families who were coming to farm there would establish a village, which would then become a town.

But what they found once they laboriously cleared the trees from the land was soil that was too thin and poor to grow wheat or corn or oats or much of anything. It wasn’t even very good for pasturing cattle.

The remains of their back-breaking labor were still evident in the stone fences and what was left of the buildings. They had moved those stones with oxen. They had cut, prepared and notched those logs by hand. But no matter how hard they worked, they had barely been able to scratch a living from that land. Within fifty years, the last of those settlers had come down from the mountain, abandoning their farms.

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