Eid Mubarak!

“Where I’m from, do you know what your name means?” the doorman said with a knowing smile. “Uhh… yea… I’m pretty sure, but you tell me,” I said. I’ve been here before, so I am more cautious than I used to be. I used to just blurt out, “it means precious. Of course I know what my own name means!” But these days, I’m much more reticent to assume that I know what it may mean in every country the world over. Perhaps it means frog legs where he’s from, and I would surely like to know that now before I spend a lifetime considering myself a gem of the earth.

“It means precious,” he said. “Phew,” I thought. “Yea, I know,” I said with a sigh. “But not like pretty precious, not like gold and jewelry. I mean like air.” With my ‘whatchu talkin’ bout Willis’ face on, I inquired further. “It is precious, as in essential. Something you cannot live without. Think, like water, air. You know, it’s about being essential to life,” he said.

And there in lies my identifier. No one with an understanding of Arabic language or Islamic culture will assume that I am not of the same. I don’t always look the part. I am a bit unassuming in appearance and sometimes I require an explanation – mainly because of my American last name. But, upon introduction I am asked about where I pray. Am I married yet? No. Why not? How old are you? “You need to marry a Muslim man. It is time.” This is generally the progression of things. I am not usually asked to explain myself beyond, “my parents are Muslim. I was born Muslim.” Even in this North Indian world where I have about as much a place as an albino leopard in a gorilla’s cage, I can belong as a Muslim.

It’s interesting though, because I’ve never wanted to belong as a Muslim. It is possibly one of the few identities I could attach myself to that I never needed the validation of attachment for.  I have read the Quran in its entirety. I went to Islamic school when I was quite young. I have worn a hijab for days on end for no reason at all. I was born Muslim, so I don’t owe an imam my shahada. Allah and I have had conversations where I confessed that I will never practice my faith as heretics claim the literal Quranic translations should be lived. I’ve never felt the need to explain my beliefs or their waverings. And, I have never needed to be Muslim to believe in Islam.

Perhaps it’s hard to understand how those of us Nation of Islam babies, or us Sufis, or us Ahmedis, or us Bhoras get along in life – accepting a level of culture that stands apart from the religion itself. The assumption is, of course, that the world’s Muslims are either Sunni or Shi’a. The assumption is, of course, that Muslims speak Arabic, pray 5 times a day, and lock their women in cages with a “Polygamy is my mistress!” sign on it. Some Muslims subscribe to certain ritualistic prescriptions of the religion itself, and others subscribe to the cultural narratives their elders have taught them about how to live the religion. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.

The fighting for jihad, the guns, the guts, the restrictions – dare I say, come out of Middle Eastern cultures that encapsulate its many rigidities into beliefs about Islam.  But their beliefs in Islam are not universally recognized or understood by the rest of us who could call ourselves Muslims.  Nor would I argue that their beliefs are wrong.  They aren’t consistent with what I believe, but who am I to say wrong?

And this comes after being told in high school that most Muslims don’t consider the Nation of Islam’s subscribers to be Muslim. “That is not true Islam,” I was told. And this comes after the Ahmedis living in an Islamic country are considered blasphemous and, thus, persecuted as if they were proselytizing the word of Yahweh and eating pork chops on Mohammad’s birthday.  There are the Sufis of West Africa and South Asia who fast, whirl like dervishes, see djinns and praise Allah just the same.  There are the Bohras who even pleasantly surprised me when I discovered them in Mumbai last week, with their established high society, colorful capes, and formal events where only men do the serving.

I have spent all Ramadan fasting. And instead of reading the Quran, I’ve found myself reading about the cultures of Islam.  From “City of Djinns” to “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” I’ve pondered the practices and the mythologies; these conversations and spaces of holy worship that are socially accepted in certain regions, but lay outside of the universal religious prescription. They have given me much to think about this holy month.

While the intertwining of God and politics has always been accepted in America when it comes to Christian values, my birth into Islam came at a time when Black people chose a counter norm. No doubt, Islam in my life has been as much political as say the politics of shari’a in Saudi, but my politics are fixed from an inner pulse of core values that don’t require stoning or penal codes to reinforce. I can surely say that Jews aren’t the only ones who get to be ‘cultural’ or ‘religious.’ I’m claiming my space as a card toting cultural Muslim.

For every salaat I have not made, I have – without provocation and/or a second thought – said ‘stafallah’ when I killed a bug or spat a foul word. I feel bad when I don’t say grace before eating and, yes, I still say it half in Arabic like I learned it when I was 4 years old. Pork is not allowed in my house, though alcohol is a favorite meal. Submission to life’s way is something I fully subscribe to, but some things are worth fighting for and that, too, is life’s way. I understand that hair is a crucial aspect of vanity and I love shoes and black eyeliner just as much as any Muslima. I have learned to be content to walk alongside religious Muslims, but not with them every step of the way.

What Ramzan (the Indian pronunciaton of Ramadan) in India has brought me is a fuller understanding of what Islam means to me and a greater respect for what Islam means to others. What faith doesn’t motivate and inspire – some to their highest point, others to the weakest of states? While some feel the need to travel to Mekkha and Medina to venerate God, I have had enough frank conversations with God in the comforts of my own home that I’m pretty sure that me and Allah already got a thing going on.  My understanding of Islam is that it can be just as ample as the wind – sometimes whimsical, sometimes dangerous.  Like the Jordanian version of my name, I remain focused on life giving. Some pray for daily sustenance. Some of us find God in the art of living. We can all be called Muslims, that is, if we want to be.

Eid Karim!

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day…”

My ‘Literature of the Middle Passage’ professor Caryl Phillips (Caz) said that “Graham Greene once said that most writers are fully formed by the age of 14.” I’m not sure if Caz understood the relevance of that statement for me personally, and – looking back – I’m not sure how it possibly could have been relevant to any classroom discussions from that semester, but it’s one of the few tidbits of writers’ identity reinforcement that I continue to carry with me into adulthood.

See, our camel driver was fourteen years old and he seemed to be the youngest on the strip from the East street entrance to the East gate of the Taj Mahal. I got the impression that he too was fully formed. He was only 3 years senior to the camel he whipped forward, and both were visibly weather beaten. His is the face of India’s laborers – young, unregulated, untrained, and in service to another person who could be described in the same way. This ten-year old to the eye, fourteen year old by his own admission, triggers images of the boy from KaviLatika from Slumdog Millionaire and Sarita, begging for money and food outside Saket mall, who told me she was 4, then 5, but looked 8, and then admitted she didn’t know how old she was.

When I think of a childhood I don’t remember, I have to admit that it’s categorically different from a childhood they never had.  While I’ve found many Indian families to be an onion of rules, impositions, superstitions, responsibilities, joint families – my impression of most middle class families is that these layers offer children shelter from the larger unpleasantries experienced by India’s lower class children. For every Amir, there must be a Hassan, who does the grunt work so the former doesn’t have to and who takes the fall because the former wouldn’t know how to get back up.

From my vantage point, this is the way this society is built; often in direct contradiction to a more familiar idea of self-reliance and independence. Surely, India isn’t the only place on earth where this rings true. Needless to say, these layers of family and work order prop up the top echelons of society, and more importantly make it possible for the middle echelons to believe themselves to be on their way to the top.  These accepted labor inequities can lead to unconscionable extremes of blatant child labor and abuse; the more common impression I have as a resident outsider is that this methodology leaves gaps of accepted inefficiencies and predatory behaviors that are deeply imbedded in the fabric of this saffron life.

This country has no dearth of young labor. But, what it could use, in my mind, is a more visionary ideal of how best to use it. Carry overs from the caste system may have worked for the British of the 1900s, but they simply don’t translate well in the service & outsourced industries of today’s American standard.

As a child, I learned early that if you want something done right – you have to do it yourself. As an adult, I’m learning that in some stretches of the earth, while the belief rings universal, the division of labor isn’t organized to see its fulfillment. The fact that I have a full-time household staff of three, is absurd to me. The fact that I actually need them at all is even more mind-blowing, especially when I spend more time talking to them about how to appropriately interact with each other than they actually spend doing their jobs.

But, Delhi is built on having layers and layers of unskilled, often young, workers around to do the things you can’t, don’t want or think you shouldn’t have to do. Yesterday, something clicked when I heard tell of how Arjumand Banu Begum come Mumtaz Mahal had 14 children in her 19 years of marriage to Shah Jehan; she died at age 38. The Shah had over 350 concubines who lived in the palace in rooms flanking their marriage bed chamber. When he played parchessi, he used women of the harem as human game pieces. When Mumtaz died giving birth the 14th of their brood, she was remembered as the perfect wife because she traveled behind him wherever he went and had no political aspirations. I hate to be the jerk that can’t translate joy from this love story, but this is relevant to this conversation because it not only shows that being dicked around (pun intended) is par for the course of both work and home, but it also illustrates the historic foundations of the re-fashioning and over-glorifying antiquities’ disregard for human value as a concept of valor to be revered. #offmysoapbox

On the journey to Agra, my Ugandan friend and I discussed for hours how she and her West African sunshine dumpling were going to raise African children of two nations while living in a suburb of the U.S. She frets over identity; I posit that a healthy relationship between parents seals those gaps. She frets over schooling; I suggest home schooling and mixed Montessori education. She worries that they won’t settle comfortably into the title of African-American, when it is what they will be called, but not precisely what they are made of.  I found myself reminding her that in the world beyond today, the children we think we’ll own will be born into the world that we make for ourselves.

Lest we forget, though, that their identities will be formed in constant flux and relative to the identities of the children of others, those who we allow to wash our clothes, clean our cars, buy our books, install our cable, DJ on the radio, make millions off of us, do our dirty work, make us go get butterscotch lady finger cookies while walking barefoot across the Brooklyn bridge on stilts, whip a camel so that we don’t have to walk 30 yards. How we treat those around us, whether they work with us, for us, near us, across the seas or not at all, will have a great bearing on the character of the generations to follow.

This week’s lesson from North India is one that has rocked the foundations of my core, causing me to wonder if I can be formed anew to adjust appropriately. Since I don’t want to undo the Caz & Graham mystique, it’s an idea I’ll continue to mull over. Maybe with time, I can disbelieve it. But, I’ll share now for your thoughts. Forgive me my resignation and maybe an offense to the higher being of your choosing, but while we are all God’s children, the meek will not inherit the earth… perhaps the after life but, from where I sit, the selfish opportunists start young and they got the earth on smash for generations and generations to come.