Archive for category Wishful (or is that hopeful) thinking
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the last post, I gave some of my initial reactions to a recent article about early pious and Sufi women on the Feminism and Religion blog. A stroll down memory lane, basically. Yes, reading and retelling these stories was a way that we sought validation, and tried in some limited ways to resist the patriarchy-on-steroids that otherwise surrounded us in our very conservative Muslim communities.
But what was their impact on us? Sure, they inspired us to make greater efforts to try to engage in certain stereotypically “pious” acts such as praying at night and fasting extra days—and also, to beat ourselves up when we failed. But did they help make us better people? Were they really spiritually uplifting, or did they function more as an opiate that temporarily distracted us from the tedium, poverty and petty cruelties that hemmed in our lives then?
I was particularly struck by the author’s bald statement that conservative Muslim “talking heads” use these stories “to lie about the past.” She points out that:
“These… narratives of the past… do not empower women, but rather leave men in charge of women’s history and worship today….
I see that the Feminism and Religion blog has an awesome article up about stories of holy women in Islam. This got me thinking about a number of things. I was one of those converts who was really drawn to those stories. Still am in some ways, I guess. And I wasn’t the only one. A number of female converts I knew were into stories about holy women, whether these were women in the Qur’an, stories about female Companions, Sufi women, or Muslim women today. We devoured books like Daughters of Another Path (about American women converts). We loved hearing stories about Muslim women political activists such as Zainab al-Ghazali and Merve Kevakci.
What was that all about, exactly? Because, looking back, I recall that (as Laury points out in that article), that having “too much” interest (aka more than a superficial passing interest) in such stories was discouraged in the Muslim communities that I was a part of. And, that even though this interest of ours was fairly controversial, we ardently pursued it… although now that I think of it, once you’d read several of these stories (especially about Sufi women or modern political activists) then there wasn’t usually too much that was surprising in any of the others. In other words, they were often pretty stereotypical. Why would they be controversial, when they were so utterly harmless? And what effect did reading them have on us?
And… along comes another Debbie Downer. 😦
I think that our interest in these stories was suspect because this was something that the male leaders in our communities weren’t really comfortable with, and feared that they couldn’t control.
But why is it that some converts accept Islam, adopt some of the practices and rituals, make some Muslim friends, maybe get a bit self-righteous for a short while……but soon come back down to earth and manage to live a relatively balanced and “normal” life involving good relations with their non-Muslim family and neighbors, a happy marriage, fairly well-adjusted kids and making positive contributions to the well-being of society?
While some other converts end up cut off from their non-Muslim families, former friends and neighbors, or suffering psychological harm, or getting into bad or abusive marriages, perhaps only managing to get out years later if at all, with traumatized kids?
I don’t know. It does seem to depend on a number of factors: When and where people convert, their social location (gender identity, race/ethnicity, social class, religious background, educational level, age, occupation, sexual orientation, etc), what sort of Muslim community they get involved with, where they are in their lives at the time, how their family and friends react… and a whole slew of other factors. Some converts seem to be more resilient than others. Some are more able to access the support they need, whether inside or outside their Muslim communities.
Ayasmom commented recently:
I read your blog regularly and identify with it in many ways although my experience has not been quite so horrible as yours. After reading this post I am left considering what is it about us that we actively participate in this type of personal transformation? What is it about our mental and emotional selves that allows us to search so diligently for an answer to all of life’s most difficult questions, find it in Islam, be so strong to adopt this very other cultural and religious identity, and then take it too far, so far that we inflict more self harm than we possibly faced before conversion? It’s like we leave the religion of our pasts because of the dogma we find unsuitable, but then inadvertently swap it for another. Sure we can all commiserate about the horrible patriarchal system that is perpetuated by traditional Islam, but being converts, we were ever really traditional to begin with? I think the patriarchy of religion is universal, not novel to Islam. I’m thankful for spaces like this where we can hash out all these experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas. Thank you for sharing.
Good questions. Why did we put ourselves through this? Why (1) convert to an “alien” religion, and (2) take our conversions so very seriously that what we had been taught (or read) is “Islam” started dictating every single tiny detail of our lives? And as if that wasn’t enough, then some of us get involved in Muslim cults or cult-like groups?
What is it the drives the desire to convert, first of all? What was with all the interest in religious matters??