21.4.12

Studying Chemistry

How can I focus on Chemistry when
the chemicals inside me
are pulling me to back then
back to when
Life was each moment
spent
revived and
alive
in each moment?
To a Black Widow garden
trailing dock and morning glory and cicad
reveling in their big-leaved splendor
cuz mama told us not to go there.
Or the tree house-
a pirate platform between the fork
in a teenage tree made just for us
to swing from-
with wolf spiders jumping from the bark
like us,
jumping from the bark
to land on the ground and roll
(as children seem to).
Or that tree
I once passed while biking-
bone-white lightning limbs bracing
reaching up pleading mercy
from the plague of black
covering its arms on all sides
and cawing
and sqwaking
and hawking
the dead and rotting goat at its knees
to all the vultures come to feast.
Or the snake
that made the horrendous mistake
of looking for a meal in our chicken house
that one night.
Watching the machetes fall
and glint in reflected light
with steel dulled
from weed-wacking
hacking at the twitching column
dark now mixed with red
and as I scootch to peer over
after everything is said
seems that water moccasin
made the unfortunate mistake
of actually being a water snake
(but we didn't know that 'til it was dead).
Walks through the woods
adventuresome moods
finding old dried rivers
and grumpy old box turtles
getting chased by a bull
-me an' my lil' brother, too-
running around with no shoes
waking up extra early
to go pick blackberries
that sprang in magical bursts
from mountainous tangles of vines
that nested in the woods
behind our residence.
Drinking drops from honeysuckle blooms
Gorging ourselves til we swoon
under the fig tree's scented boons
'til fall brought bonfire stories
and tinkling frost-filled mornings
and spider-lilies poking through dead leaves.
My morning chores of breaking ice
for the horse's trough-
but I always took longest at that stop
and my favorite chore ever
was simply being able to brush.
Next to the warmth of his flanks
I swept the extra hair away
as I told him my woes
and all of my joys
and lovingly brushed his mane.
How can Organic Chemistry hold precedence
over the rush of memories like this?
How can I focus on chemistry
when my chemicals continuously pull me
back to when
I was free?

Tuesday Night Perceptions of a Masjid

A hard woman, she looks like smiles abandoned her years ago. Now she commands with dark stone eyes and a cleaver’s edge to her voice: “Focus! Qur’an is ALL ABOUT focus!” The four boys sitting in a circle of ennui around her sigh and slide their chins further down their arms.
Behind her swathed in a pink scarf over black abbiya a woman who continuously wears a secret smile hidden in rose blooms on her cheeks watches over her young daughter doodle on a MCA flyer. Not too far away a serenely content mother in green satin hijab sits in a circle of girls braiding her giggling and wiggling daughter’s unruly curls as she calmly dictates out Qur’an to be memorized. Like shooting satellites about the prayer hall small children run to and fro, some barely knee-high to a grasshopper toddling head- or stomach-first after older brothers or sisters. One short boy is pushing an upturned white plastic chair about the carpet like a steamship, muttering steamship noises to himself. Mothers balance and bounce wide-eyed babies between conversation in circles of cotton, satin, and rayon. A nasally whining hum of children emotionlessly repeating words they do not understand back at their teacher sings throughout the room. A scratchy scuffle broadcast by stereo hums in anticipation then announces: “Alllaaaaaaahu akbar! Alllaaaaaahu akbar! . …Allaaaaahu akbar! Alllllaaaaaaahu akbar! Ashahadu an-laaaaaaa illaaahaaaa illaaalllaaaaa. Ashahadu aannnnnaaaaa Muhaaaammmadaan rasoooloolaaaaah. Haya al asalaaaaa. Hayaaa al asalaaaaaa. Hayaaaa al l-falaaaaah. Haya al l-falaaah. Qad qaamatii salaaaaa. Qad qamati salaaaaaaa. Allllaaaaaaahu akbar! Alllaaaaahu akbar! Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa illaahaaaa illllaaalllllllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!” and a rustling flock of skirts, veils, shawls, abiyyas, and jeans rush into a shoulder-to-shoulder chain across the room. A quiet covers the two-toned blue carpet. The older children snuggle up next to their parents or, in an act of stubborn independence, mold into their own line a few stripes ahead of their mothers. The younger children nestle into the forts formed by their mothers’ purses and jackets piled on the stripe ahead of the women and busy themselves with exploring hidden treasures like hand sanitizers and cell phones just waiting to be discovered.
A calm spreads through the close-knit line, ruffled only by a flitter of fabric or suppressed cough as all lids lower reverentially and eyes gravitate to the floor, all still facing the same focused point in space, mind, and heart. From the speakers comes the hum of an On-switch and a voice clearly states in a matter-of-fact tone: “Allahu akbar.” And the prayer begins.

Heaven

The man spied the perfect park bench.
This didn't happen often, so as soon as he saw it he nonchalantly glanced to the left and to the right out the corners of his eyes to make sure no one else had seen it, then tried to look as noncommittal as possible as he picked up speed and beelined toward it, newspaper tucked tightly under his elbow. As soon as he reached the painted wrought-iron solitary heaven he sighed, and allowed himself a few luxury minutes of settling in to enjoy the space and the view it provided. It wasn't a very large park, nor very crowded, which was why it was one of his favorite break destinations. He was on his lunch from work, and he often stopped here to relax before heading back in. He could usually spy from the newsstand where he got his paper whether it was worth his time to go to the park or not- if it was too crowded, he usually just headed back to his work and ate lunch there. But today, today he had spied the lonely park bench all the way from the newsstand. The fact that it had remained free from sitters all that time almost seemed a sign from God.
The man sat back and allowed himself another small sigh of contentment, then rustled his newspaper open.
He wasn't long into the headlines of the paper before a movement in his periphery caught his attention. It was an elderly woman walking at a leisurely slow pace up to the bench.
The man tried to find a way to make himself bigger, spread himself across the bench to absorb all the space without moving a muscle. He had just found this bench- it was his, he deserved his quiet after all the work he did! But the woman kept on patiently walking past him, did a slow shuffling pirouette as she got to the other end of the bench, and sighed down into the spot next to the man.
Great.
The man kept trying to read his paper despite her presence. He could feel her next to him, even though she sat a couple feet away, and it bothered him that his singular heaven was now a duet.
The woman next to him cleared her throat, and he silently prayed that it wasn't to start up a conversation with him.
"'Scuse me, dear, but do you know what time it is?"
Almost time for my lunch to be over, the man thought, but diligently took out his phone to look up the time. The woman watched what he was doing with curiosity, thinking he was doing so to ignore her. So when he read the time off of the clock on his phone to her, she laughed.
"Y'know, wasn't too long ago people wore watches to tell time," she chuckled. "I saw you pulling out that phone there and was sure you were trying to ignore me, show me you had better things to do than talk to some stranger!"
Embarrassed at how close to the truth she was the man laughed as well, putting his phone away and letting his newspaper droop from attention on his lap. "Oh, no, not at all. I probably should wear a watch- you never know when you won't have a phone and besides, watch batteries last much longer."
To atone for his earlier inclinations and assure he had no intention of rudeness in his soul he looked over at the woman with a polite smile on his face. To his surprise, he realized that the woman sitting next to him was bundled in clothing. Not haphazardly, though, like many of the homeless women and men that wandered about the park here. No, there was a decided air of cleanliness and order about her, but her entire head was swathed in a scarf which only allowed her cafe-au-lait lined oval face to peer out, and she wore some kind of dark embroidered robe that only just hid the specifics of her body type.
The woman was smiling out at the park before them, the lines blooming from her eyes down to the corners of mouth like flowers made of spiderwebs. "I just love this park," she exhaled. "Especially on days like this one. It's hard to find peace in cities," she added with a nod, looking over at the man who now wished even more that he could retreat into his paper.
"Mmmhmm," the man agreed with a small nod, trying to look back down at the news on his lap. The woman didn't seem to take notice of this and extended a robed arm to point with a surprisingly short, stout finger over in the direction of some people.
"Look over there." She paused, expecting him to put aside his paper and look, which he did, wondering why. "Those people there could be from anywhere in the world. And anywhere in the world they could be enemies, or friends. They could be people from the same work, or maybe they just met today and are enjoying each others' company all the same. We'll never know. But here, in this park, they've found a peace they couldn't have found at work, or in a bar, or behind their computer screens or newspapers in a coffee shop. Here, they found each other and some kind of tranquility in that and nature, if only for a little bit. Which is how it should be," the woman said finally, settling a little more into her seat.
Feeling especially self-conscious now, the man folded up his newspaper and put it to his side. He looked up and over to where she had been pointing and contemplated the people sitting in the bench across the way. "Yes, that's true," he allowed, bowing his head some in acknowledgement. "Places like this do seem to give us something concrete, glass, and neon never could."
The woman grunted, slightly rocking her head back and forth as if he had only repeated what she just said, nothing else. Now that she was silent, though, the man felt some need to prove himself just as insightful and wise as she had been.
"Do you mind if I ask where it is you're from?"
The woman just laughed, waving her hand in the air. "Mind? Why, not at all, honey, ask away! Personally, I'm from here, but my people are from down in a place called New Orleans, Louisiana. We're descendants of the great Marie Laveau, we are. My branch of the family moved out to Texas round World War Two time, stayed there a bit til things got too hot, then we moved on over here."
"Marie Laveau?" The man frowned. Sounded French. But he could have sworn she was Indian, or maybe East African or Arabian or possibly even Brazilian.
"Yeah, Marie Laveau, the great voodoo priestess of New Orleans lore. We're of French descent," she added, as if reading the man's mind, "as well as Houma, Chickasaw, Spanish, and German, with some Irish and Chinese in there. Some time ago my son did one of those mitochondrial DNA tests and said my mama's mama's mama's mama- way back there down the line- came from somewhere near the region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I couldn't tell you more than that about that part of my heritage, other'n that we've been in New Orleans through most of our history."
The man was quiet, unsure of himself and what to say. He shifted a little to get a better view of the woman. Yes, she was definitely wearing a headscarf and a robe. "That's amazing," he said truthfully, shaking his head in wonder. "I could have sworn you were Muslim or something, but that's quite a history."
"Oh honey, I am," the woman said in surprise, twisting to get a better look at him. Her perfectly arched and penciled eyebrows raised as she looked him up and down. "Why would my history make you think I wasn't Muslim?"
Agitated and embarrassed, the man shifted nervously in his seat and wished he could hide in his newspaper. Subconsciously he tallied how long he had been talking to the woman and how much longer he had for lunch. Too long.
"Well, I just thought- I mean, most Muslims I've met are Arab or from Pakistan or Somalia. I met some here and there that came from other areas like Indonesia, Dagistan, Turkey, or maybe the Ivory Coast, but I can't ever remember meeting an American Muslim."
"Maybe you have, and just assumed they were something else," the old woman said drily, eyebrows still arched.
The man coughed, and began rustling his newspaper, looking for a change in topic.
"You don't have to get all upset, now," the woman chuckled, "I ain't mad at you, just curious. You're not the first person to think I'm from somewhere else because I'm Muslim, and I know you won't be the last. It's good, too, that you've met so many different kinds of people in your life. That makes a person grow, teaches them things about themselves they didn't know, and teaches them about others."
"Yes, well-" the man coughed. "I'm sorry about the mistake. But, really, most of my acquaintances have been.....and the news mostly shows-"
"Oh, the news!" she sniffed dismissively and cut him off with a wave of her hand. "If I watch the news enough even I start to think Muslims are terrible people!" She laughed a deep, rich belly laugh, but then trailed off and added more seriously, "Which is bad. Because I know the ins and outs of Muslims, their ups and downs, their idiosyncrasies and their saving graces, all their vices and all their virtues far better than any news program. And because I'm human it's easier to remember the bad than the good, and so it becomes harder for me to remember the beautiful things about my community. And there are a great many good things," she added, nodding her head persuasively at the man. "A great many good things. But the bottom line is, we're people." She spread her hands palm-up like the creases and lines that bloomed across them, showing paths travelled and roads abandoned in her life. "We have our killers, our megalomaniacs, our self-righteous, our humble, our devoted, our fashionistas, our self-serving, our scholars, our sick, our poor, our desperate, our rich, and our saints. My great-great-grandmother understood this about people: All people are people. There are some that are truly evil, and some that are truly good. Most of us fall into some category in-between these, and it doesn't matter what religion you claim to be from, or what group you claim to be a part of, we all have similar desires, needs, and pains, even if we have different ways of experiencing and expressing them. We're not all the same. But we're damn similar. And this goes for any group you want to try to separate from a whole: Muslims, Jews, Hindus, blacks, Mexicans, Vietnamese, homosexuals, philosophers, whatever. The reason being, that where we're told boundaries are, there really are no boundaries of any importance, and where we're told it isn't important to look, it really is a matter of grave importance to look deeply."
The man was staring at her, lost deep in thought. "Yeah....." he breathed, not really realizing what he was saying. Something seemed just on the periphery of his understanding, something so obvious but just out of reach. He frowned, his dark brown eyes absorbed deep into himself trying to grab ahold of a corner of something that seemed just within his grasp.
The woman watched him for a moment, smiling that warm understanding smile only mothers seem able to master. She let the silence between them stretch just long enough, then reached out and patted his hand gently. "I don't mean to interrupt you, dear," she said as he started, "but I do believe we've been talking for a while, and if I'm not mistaken, by the way you're dressed I'd bet you're probably on your lunch break."
The man jumped and pulled out his phone. "Oh, right, right!" He checked the time. He had just long enough left to make it back to work before his shift started again. "I, uh, I, uh-" he looked over at the old woman, pained at having to interrupt their conversation as he gathered up his things to leave.
The lady chuckled and nodded. "I completely understand, don't worry. I'm a working woman myself too, you know."
The man finished gathering up all of his belongings, stood up, and looked back anxiously at the elderly woman sitting before him. He extended his hand and gently took her cold, dry palm between his fingers. "It's really been a wonderful pleasure talking with you," he insisted as he delicately shook her hand. "I was skeptical at first, not used to people interrupting my routine, but it really has been lovely. The best break from my day I've had in a long time." The woman smiled and nodded and murmured a demure thanks as she pulled her hand away. "Do you- do you come to this park often? I don't remember seeing you here before Mrs.-"
"Oh, just call me Marie."
"Marie..."
"Named after my ancestor," she added with a gleam to her still-bright hazel eyes.
"Oh, right." The man smiled, and half bowed to her. "It's been an honor. My name's Paul. I usually come to this park to relax on my break; hopefully we'll be able to meet again."
"I certainly hope so, Paul, you've been an entertaining conversationalist." She winked at him and waved him off. "Enjoy the rest of your day and take care now, y'hear?"
Paul nodded and scurried off in as dignified a manner as he could manage. Marie sighed and settled back into the park bench. She looked around at the people walking past, the people seated on the benches, and the occasional squirrel or bird arguing over territory. Adjusting herself she spread out her things and herself along the bench, absorbing all the space so she was the only thing the bench now had room for. The painted wrought-iron solitary heaven was hers now, and she knew just how to keep it.

History on the Bottom Floor

Bilan eagerly rifled through Google Images for pictures of the ferrous red dirt that packed the floor of her grandmother's house in Somalia that she had been describing to me, explaining as she did the roots of the modern conflicts between north and south Somalia and their tribal/colonial histories. Her nose wrinkled in disgust as she described the small tribe in the north's desire to re-name the country "Somaliland"- "Just that old colonial way of thinking, wanting to go back to how things were as a colony because that tribe had power then." Leaning back in her chair in the CAIR South Bay Area branch office she explained to me some of the tribalism driving the conflicts and how it carries over into Somalian families living in the United States. "It really is very difficult, you know, because you are raised hearing about it all the time- 'Don't talk to this person, they're from this tribe' or 'that person is from that tribe'- so it affects you, you know. But that doesn't mean it's right to go along with."

Maha settled next to me on the couch in her living room, bringing her dual language English and Arabic laptop to rest on my lap. "Are you sure, habibti?" she asks me for the hundredth time. "These pictures are so sad- they are really terrible." I insist that I am, and she opens the slideshow of pictures from Iraq that she used to present to the UN on the plight of Iraqi refugee women in Syria, and the effects of the invasion by America on Iraqi women and children. Pictures of young boys staring at fresh corpses while on their way to school; a six-year-old boy screams in blind horror at the camera that captured his freshly killed father laying on his lap; young girls being patted down by U.S. soldiers as other guards hold their outraged parents back; grotesquely, unrecognizably disfigured and prematurely born fetuses from the chemical warfare utilised by the U.S. on civilians- all these blinked past at a leisurely rate next to written statistics and accompanied by Maha's own narration. "Many girls' parents don't allow them to go to school, because of the soldiers and the Iraqi guards. They will stop them, sometimes maybe arrest them- and then who knows what happens in the prisons? Well, of course you know what happens in the prisons. Some people are arrested and are never seen again. Or maybe they do come back, sometimes after a very long time, but nobody talks about what happened. One of my neighbors, the soldiers came to her house to do a search. They do this very frequently, just come in and search for no reason. And her husband, you know, he wasn't there, so of course they told them that they didn't want the soldiers to come in. So they arrested her and her daughter. They were only in the jail for one day, but when they got out, my neighbor, she went from door to door insisting, demanding to all the neighbors that they were not touched, her daughter was not, you know....because they place such a high stigma on those things in Iraq." Another slide, and she is telling me about the Syrian government trapping Iraqi refugees into prostitution in nightclubs that they own- but how when she went to the United Nations to raise awareness of the deplorable conditions the Syrian government is subjecting Iraqi refugees, especially women, to, the government changed her speech at the last minute so she wasn't able to implicate them. Another slide, and I'm hearing about parents forced into deplorable conditions because of sanctions and the war resorting to selling their children to what they believe are adoption agencies, only to have the organizations turn out to be black-market groups for organ harvesting. Another, and my eyes are filling with tears as I lean my head against Maha's shoulder and she sighs and shakes her head. "Subhan Allah. This really is very difficult to look at. I told you, my dear."

Dian's face remained near-expressionless save for lines of frustration that marked her otherwise smooth features. "And can you believe it?" her slightly accented English staccatoed out, "one of the kids at the school asked me if I had an arranged marriage. I said 'Yes, I arranged it myself!'" She shook her head in disbelief. "Can you believe it? Where do they get such ideas?" With a resumé under her belt that includes having a well-respected scholar for a great-grandfather who was the first person in her village in Indonesia to go on Hajj, being one of the youngest people ever recruited by Proctor & Gamble to rise through the ranks of advertising, giving up a lucrative career in order to focus more on her religion, and being the CEO-founder of GiveLight Foundation that sponsors numerous orphanages worldwide, it's not hard to understand her disbelief. From Dian's perspective, she reached where she is through what Islam gave her, and now in working as the outreach coordinator for her local masjid, it often surprises her the reactions mere schoolchildren have to her presentations on Islam. "I mean, who told them such things?"

The stories related here expose only the smallest, tiniest fraction of the ground-level histories, the embodied experiences, I was privileged enough to experience over the last two years after my conversion to Islam. These stories, repeated in various strains and languages, with different fluctuations and different emphases, comprise the histories of places like Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Acheh, and the United States, but all contain a similar thread- all the women in these stories were mediators, translating experience, tradition, and personal theories of the flesh across their own cultural, ethnic, or religious lines. Some stories brought up by mediators I met along the way are contradictory to those mentioned above- at one point an Afghani girl I know who grew up in various countries across Africa admitted to me she felt uncomfortable around other Afghani-American students: "My parents just aren't into that sort of thing. They're not, you know, really religious or really Afghani, so I just don't like either." A former roommate of mine, being Shi'ah, took the initiative of mediation and related to me the Shi'ah history of Islam, which I didn't realize was different from the Sunni version until she spent forty minutes narrating a set of events that contradicted everything I had been told thus far about the history of our religion. These stories individually diverge and converge and contradict and agree in different points and in different areas with each other. Yet all of these histories are connected and are made possible through relation, an act which makes them visible, and thus, generational. If seen collectively, all of these stories have the ability to portray a far more complete vision of people, cultures, religion, and history than we have been allowed to see thus far.

A core part of what the theories of identity politics and of embodied experience put forth by women of color feminism were trying to achieve is the recognition that all the people that have made up, and make up, a place are an integral part of that place, too. The stories of the people that comprise what is now called America create the shared history of America; the achievements of these people are just as valid and a part of the collective identity as anybody else's; and their voices are just as integral to life in this nation-state- and the world- as anybody else's. To insist otherwise is to deny these groups an existence within this nation-state, and, in effect, deny them an existence as human beings.
In a sense, what different women of color feminist organizations in America are trying to achieve is not inclusion within "mainstream" feminism, but recognition of their claim to what is labeled "mainstream." As Patricia Hill Collins mentions, "[s]uppressing the knowledge produced by any oppressed group makes it easier for dominant groups to rule, because the seeming absence of dissent suggests that subordinate groups willingly collaborate in their own victimization." Just as the myriad stories of Muslim women from Africa, Europe, Australia, Arabia, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, South America, Iran, North America, Vietnam, and many other places and cultures make up the collective history of Islam, so, too, the myriad stories of women of the various Native American tribes, of Catholic or Voodoo or Daoist or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or Zoroastrian traditions, of Europe, of Africa, of Native Hawaiian and Samoan tribes, of the Phillipines, of Vietnam, of Cambodia, of the Middle East, of Japan, of Mexico, of Puerto Rico, and many other places and cultures make up the collective history of the Americas. To only acknowledge one or some of these histories at the expense of all their other component parts is to deny history, to deny heritage, to deny an identity in place and time to all the people that have participated in this collective history.

Cherrie Moraga's statement "[Third World feminists] are not so much a 'natural' affinity group, as women who have come together out of political necessity. There are many issues that divide us," is an acknowledgement of the at times contradictory nature of ground-level histories. These are histories in real-time, embodied experiences that can pit even members of the same group against each other because of variations in the personal aspects of their accounts. Which is how it should be. The very nature of history is that it is diverse; there is no singular thread running throughout all histories, no "moral moment" or all-inclusive storyline that accurately depicts the experiences of the innumerable people that were alive and learning and loving and dying and hating and struggling at any given time. The diversity of these stories helps foster growth and nurtures the complexity of life in its confrontations, mediations, resolutions, and revolutions. It is this diversity which necessitates mediators like what Gloria Anzaldua characterizes herself as in La conciencia de la mestiza in order to discover commonalities within differences that can be used as a guide towards shared goals. The key is to find a common theme that each can agree with, at least in part. Once this is agreed upon, contradictions amongst groups are able to occur as long as they continue to work towards the common goal. For instance, when the Combahee River Collective asserts "[e]liminating racism in the white women's movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability" they are acknowledging a common goal (the end of racism, which would imply an inclusion within American existence for all women) with divergent strategies towards that end that involve different experiences and histories.

To create such an all-inclusive paradigm of history and identity would be to acknowledge continuing struggle, conflict, and resolution as a part of that identity- but to refuse it would be to consign oneself to a literal and figurative death, "crunched into other people's fantasies. . .and eaten alive," as Audre Lorde put it. Within the tradition of Islam, despite the countless divergent histories and cultures and perceptions and applications, there is a common thread that unites the contradictions: We are all Muslims. To be sure, this assertion is constantly a source of both conflict as well as resolution, but it is my belief that if among the various movements for equity within the United States a similar common thread was woven that connected diverse histories while allowing each embodied experience of different communities to be acknowledged, a collective paradigm could be constructed that accounts for continued diversity in knowledge and identity that leaves open the possibility for varying paths towards shared goals. In such a paradigm, mediators from self-defined communities and people willing to translate their experiences are necessary, and encouraged, because the thread of community is always more tenuous, and more fragile, than is readily admitted- but it is a thread that is as necessary for progress as struggle, conflict, and resolution is.