Archive for category Adventures in recovery

Losing creativity… and towards reclaiming it

K.M. has posted again (yay!), this time about seeing a documentary about the Burning Man festival, and how it made her think about how conversion to Islam had affected her creativity. The quotes are from her post; my comments are in the square brackets.

… it was so very foreign to me.  You see people creating bizarre,fanciful art and cars and costumes. They smile, dance, kiss, twirl, laugh. They do this with friend and stranger alike. And this is what struck me the most: I would never fit in to a culture like Burning Man.

As a person who was once a Muslim, the tendency or ability to do any of this in public was taken from me.  Smothered, if you will.  Smiling and laughing in public is as loosey goosey as I get – and that’s after years of being in the so-called mainstream culture. Running and dancing in public is probably something I will not ever do.  I have not done them since I was a girl.

[I can’t imagine attending anything like that either, much less fitting in. Not because I wouldn’t want to, but because I couldn’t. Dancing in public? Twirling around? Wearing costumes? Nope. I remember going to a folk festival about a year before I converted, dancing to the music and really enjoying myself. But once I converted, that sort of thing became impossible. It was seen as shockingly immodest, as something that a “true Muslim woman” would never ever do, so even admitting to myself that I wished I could do it was not acceptable.]

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So much for sisterhood: When white convert discourses sound an awful lot like white racist rhetoric

I have been trying to reflect on reasons why as converts who had been given to understand that “we are all one umma” and that race and ethnicity don’t matter “in Islam” because the only thing that is relevant is your taqwa, we often faced a significantly different reality. Our ethnic origins and race definitely did matter, and they typically mattered in ways that made us feel like outsiders.

Caution: Objects in the mirror may be uglier than they appear. Especially racism passing for advocating religious reform. "CRV side mirror" by SeppVei - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG#mediaviewer/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG

Caution: Objects in the mirror may be uglier than they appear. Especially racism passing for advocating religious reform.
“CRV side mirror” by SeppVei – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG#mediaviewer/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG

 

And how did we respond to the complex racial politics that we found ourselves immersed in—both in terms of how our own families and the wider society treated us, and the internal politics of the Muslim communities we become involved in? Esra Ozyurek’s book, Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe gave me a lot of food for thought about the latter issue.

Ozyurek writes about repeatedly hearing German converts (often white and middle class) saying how fortunate it is that they discovered Islam before meeting Muslims, because if they’d met the Muslims first they probably wouldn’t have converted. (Although in reality, most of the converts had in fact gotten interested in Islam in the first place through a romantic relationship or other encounter with a Muslim.) Or converts repeating and endorsing negative stereotypes about immigrant Muslims (especially Turks) being dirty, disorganized, uneducated, and prone to dishonesty. Or converts faulting immigrant Muslims for “failing to understand Islam properly” or for being so uninformed that they mistake “culture” for “Islam.”

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So much for sisterhood: But the fact is, they never asked for us

In the last post, I discussed some of the reasons why I and some female converts I know used to wonder where the sisterhood was. The sisterhood that we thought was part and parcel of belonging to the umma, but that somehow we were being shut out of.

Now, looking back, I can’t help but wonder why on earth I didn’t notice who it was who was usually giving the talks and writing the articles about Muslim unity and how we are all one umma and the duties of brotherhood and so forth. It wasn’t usually women. And when it was women, it was usually… converts.

And come to think of it, who was it who was usually giving those sermons about how it’s haraam for Muslims to live in the land of the kufaar, unless they are here for dawa? Or who usually organized those dawa events or wrote those dawa pamphlets? Or who gave advice to Muslim male students on student visas, who were having pangs of conscience about being involved with western girlfriends and thinking that maybe they’d like to marry them but what would their families back home say about them marrying a non-Muslim woman and what about the kids… ? Typically, men again… and the odd female convert.

But what did those immigrant Muslim men, who urged other Muslim men to do dawa, produced the dawa materials, helped organize the dawa events, encouraged men in relationships with non-Muslim women to convert them… have to say to their own daughters, sisters, and wives about how they should relate to the wider non-Muslim society?

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So much for sisterhood

A while back, another convert left a comment for one of my posts (can’t remember which one, unfortunately). She agreed enthusiastically with an observation that I had made about how I had never really felt welcomed by most immigrant (or second generation immigrant) Muslim sisters in any community I was involved in or had dealings with. She commented that after converting, she had married an immigrant Muslim man, hoping that this would help her to feel more part of the community, and that the immigrant sisters would be more accepting of her. But the reverse happened. “So much for sisterhood,” she concluded.

At the time I received that comment, I wasn’t sure what exactly to say in response. That sister had evidently had a disillusioning experience to say the least. Like me, and like some other converts I know, she had apparently been exposed to the “we are all brothers and sisters belonging to one umma” rhetoric, and had taken it more or less at face value. She had expected that since all Muslim women are supposed to be sisters in faith, that therefore the other women at the mosque would welcome and accept her as a fellow Muslima, especially since she had demonstrated the sincerity of her conversion by marrying into the community. She wondered where the “sisterhood” was, and why it wasn’t being extended to her.

In some ways, I could definitely relate. On one hand, I did take that rhetoric seriously.

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Oh no, KM’s post is gone: thoughts on “apostasy”, shunning and conditioned reflexes

About a month ago (?), someone posting at A Woman’s Country under the initials K.M. put up a post about some aspects of life after leaving Islam. Particularly about the longlasting impact that certain mundane practices can have even once you no longer believe the theological reasons why you are supposed to do them, as well as the problem of how to meet one’s needs for de-stressing when religious rituals are no longer an option.

While she identifies as someone who has left Islam altogether and I don’t, I liked that post, and thought that it raised some important issues that can face anyone who leaves an insular, high demand religious group and whose beliefs shift significantly.

It is spooky to say to the least when you find yourself continuing to act and react in preprogrammed “sunna” ways that way back when, you learned (it isn’t as if you were born doing them!), but now you can’t seem to unlearn. After all, we put so much pious effort in the aftermath of our conversions into learning all the rules, in training our bodies and our automatic responses: Don’t shake hands with men, walk, sit and move modestly, lower your gaze, don’t laugh loudly in public or where non-mahram men might hear you, because modesty should be second nature and is a barometer of your faith as a Muslim woman. Always wash away all traces of urine and feces, avoid dogs (and especially, contact with dog spit), carefully read all food labels and avoid all hints of pork and alcohol byproducts, because believers are pure and God only accepts what is pure and if you really believe you should find anything impure intrinsically disgusting.

Avoid music (except nasheeds or possibly classical), don’t dance or whistle, careful of what you sing (and who might be able to overhear your voice), prefer reciting the Quran and reading the stories of the Companions and making dhikr to reading fiction or poetry or watching movies or plays or going to fairs, because a believer takes life seriously and is forever wary of being seduced by dunyawi attractions. The sincere believers should opt to follow the sunna in preference to the ways of the world or one’s own comfort, so one should put on the right shoe before the left (and take them off in reverse order), sleep on one’s side facing qibla (too bad for us restless sleepers), step into a washroom left foot first (and saying the appropriate du’a)… and so on.

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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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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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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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