Archive for category Wishful (or is that hopeful) thinking

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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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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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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Of converts and fantasies

Now and again, I get these questions submitted as comments: Are you still Muslim? If you are still Muslim, then why?

I don’t usually answer. Partly, because these questions are often at least implicitly judgmental. Answering them risks touching off a string of cut-and-paste rants about how if I am Muslim, then I need to know that I’m doing X wrong and that it’s a sin to say/do Y.

But aside from that, it’s triggering. The conservative communities I was involved in were very concerned about defining exactly who is and isn’t a Muslim, what words, deeds, or even thoughts put a person outside of Islam, etc. That sort of environment fosters constant self-doubt and self-censorship. Until today, I have issues with automatic self-censorship, that happens so quickly and unobtrusively that I only know that I’ve done it again when I realize that I know something is missing or unsaid or not quite honest in what I’ve said or written… but yet I can’t put what it is into words.

But even when these kinds of questions aren’t motivated by judgmentalness, there’s something about them that deeply disturbs me. But I didn’t know exactly what. Until I received this comment:

Yes actually, the question [why are you still Muslim—ed.] came from a place of sincerity. I didn’t mean to offend. I only asked because I thought however you came to still stay Muslim would help me do the same despite those concerns.

Hoooo boy. A really triggering comment—though unintentionally so, I realize. But it is triggering because it sums up so many of my experiences with convert–immigrant born Muslim interactions in a nutshell: The idea that, as white, North American female converts, we have worth because we can potentially provide reassurance and affirmation (along with a generous side serving of halaal entertainment) to certain types of immigrant or immigrant-descended born Muslims.

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More thoughts on stories of holy women: Half-truths and lies

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….

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