Book club: Tiptoeing between East and West…if a butterfly flaps its wings in Egypt

I hate the phrase “clash of cultures” but one of the themes in the Butterfly Mosque: A young American woman’s journey to love and Islam (by G Willow Wilson) brings the phrase to mind: how does a Western American revert navigate her new life as a Muslim in Cairo?

When talking of her reversion she says that she gives the convenient answer that she decided to convert during college (which is sort of true), but that in another sense she felt that she was always Muslim, since she discovered in the Quraan what she already believed.

In trying to understand the difference between culture and religion, Willow concludes that culture belongs to the imagination.  To judge it rationally is to misunderstand its function.  She questions why for example Egyptian men refrain from kissing women (but would kiss other men) and Americans are afraid to kiss other men (but would kiss women).  She gives up debating why culture is how it is, saying that the search for the meaning behind culture is as “inconclusive as searching for the practical function of a bow tie, or arguing the logistical merits of doorknobs”.

While culture may be confusing, religion is not.  Religion gives her the unity and peace she was searching for.

The culture in Egypt is at first unsettling and foreign to Willow, so she decides to visit Iran – her reasoning being that if she goes to a place even more foreign and different, Egypt will begin to feel normal – and it works.  Weaving herself into the fabric of Egyptian life, she comes to enjoy the interconnectedness of Egyptian families, where the whole family works together to create a balance in which everyone has a place and is protected and loved.  After a while, she notices that just as she begins to realize her milk or other groceries are low, her brother-in-law will arrive with a fresh gallon of milk.  Some might find the closeness of family ties in Egypt stifling, but Willow embraces it.  Her family treats her with fondness and affection and tries to gently guide her in the ways of Egyptian women.

She also writes about the care and concern of other women who are not family: for example, a lady on the bus who would gently tug her Hijab into place if it slips loose, not because she is being judgmental or conservative, but because she is being protective of her fellow Muslim sister.

The book is an interesting look into the view of a Westerner who throws herself headlong into life as a Muslim wife in Egypt, and it is filled with thought-provoking observations.

G Willow Wilson is so cool because she is versatile.  Apart from this memoir, she has written a great semi-fantasy novel called Alif the Unseen, about a computer hacker, the Middle East, Jinns and ancient books.  She is also the writer behind the latest Ms Marvel comic (Ms Marvel being a Pakistani immigrant – I am just fascinated that we have a mainstream superhero that’s a Muslim girl).

I also read this article by Willow (click here to read it) about the women’s carriage in the trains in Egypt (a separate carriage just for women and children) and about all of the happenings that go on in this hidden world.

Generally, when speaking to or reading about reverts, I always marvel at the wonder and awe that they feel for Islam – it seems that we who grew up as Muslims have lost some of that magic feeling, and I wish there was a way for us to get it back. Well, I’m going to try.

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Why are there so many #@$* words flying about?

People sometimes apologise when they swear in my presence – maybe it’s the Hijab, but even before that, they somehow knew that my perceived delicate tendencies did not appreciate a well-placed F-word.

Sometimes it’s funny when other people swear.  I watched this episode of the BlackAdder recently where one of the characters kept saying “damn”!  It was quite hilarious because the accent made it sound like “deamm” (similar to how I would say “mehn”).

But constant profanity irks me – especially when it’s a symptom of having a sadly small vocabulary.  There are so many cool words out there, we might as well try to use some of them, like…skulduggery, and hugger-mugger and cantankerous and ballyhoo (I’m not sure what ballyhoo means, though it is a real word).

New words are interesting even though I also often don’t know what they mean – take “bae” for instance.  I can only ever get a feeble grasp on the meaning of this word, used incessantly on social media.  Maybe because it’s new and has a somewhat fluid meaning, it’s hard to capture in a neat definition.

Anyways, I recall something about Islam not approving of profanity (I don’t remember a reference though) and I guess it also has something to do with Hayaa and the fact that we shouldn’t speak too much nonsense.  Is it maybe linked to the disapproval of “idle talk”?  We should try to mind our language.

Khalid Baig in his essay titled The Value of Words says that pre-Islamic Arab society was very vocal and that the use of words could sink reputations or start wars (if you look quickly, that actually looks like Star Wars!).  Islam tamed this beast.  We are accountable for all of our words.  He said that “it is better to keep silent than to say something bad.  And it is better to say something good than to keep quiet.”

People often say that if you have nothing good to say, keep quiet.  I tend to forget the corollary: if you have something good to say, say it.

The playlist in my head and getting rid of the Arctic Monkeys

I don’t listen to much music anymore (and Maher Zain is constantly on my car playlist, which is getting sort of tired) but I can’t get this Brian Adams song out of my head – everything I do, I do it for you….don’t teeelll me, it’s not worth fiiiightiiing foooor!

I’m still not 100% sure why music is forbidden but I’m trying harder to accept it.  And if all that is left in my head is the sound of Brian Adams, it might not be too hard!

Well, if I think about it harder, I can come up with a few issues with music, at least for me.  If I spend the afternoon listening to Linkin’ Park, the hard rock sounds start to make me feel a bit more edgy.  And listening to Imogen Heap or others with a sad bent, leaves me feeling melancholy and blue.  This means that these tunes are influencing my mood.

When my mind is racing, work is stressful, and I want to distract myself, I usually listen to Eminem, and soon enough, my mind goes blank (side note: did you ever hear that song “cleaning out my closet” where Eminem cusses out his mother and raps about how much he hates her?  Funny thing, I think he recently released a new song, apologizing to his mother for hating her and saying that he sort of understands her crazy past – and he can’t stand the lyrics to “cleaning out my closet” anymore. I’m not so sure if my story is accurate, this is me trying to piece together my memory of Eminem facts…but imagine having a famous song that you now hate, reminding you of how bad you were to your late mother…heavy!)

So, rap makes me blank out.  But this is exactly the thing I probably should not be trying to do – I shouldn’t want to lose myself in a tune.  I shouldn’t want to lose myself at all.  I am meant to feel what I am feeling, even if it is stressed, or rushed, or annoyed with traffic…deeply, and let it wash over me, and then let it go.  I am meant to think through the thoughts racing through my mind and not push them aside.  We are meant to be present.  Lives have become so busy and hectic that music is used as a calming relaxing distraction.  But music leads to other garbage, like seeing Miley Cyrus twerking, or Rihanna almost naked in a music video.  Blegh!  And what is a “real slim shady” anyways?

I do miss the sweet sounds of Vanilla Twilight and those other bubblegum light sounds (pour me a heavy dose of atmosphere).  I guess like smoking, it is a bad habit that needs to be quit.  So people who stop smoking sometimes take nicotine patches.  Maybe my nicotine patch is Maher Zain, and pod-casts, and Zikr.

Rights and what is right

Tomorrow is Human Rights day in SA and it reminds me to have a look at the Constitution (or at least the Bill of Rights) and wonder at the current state of our country.  Surprisingly few South Africans have read (or even heard of) the Constitution even though it is meant to be a document by the people, for the people. Its founding values of dignity, equality and freedom are supposed to permeate our society and culture, but this is often not the case.

Luckily, the “Constitution” of Islam does not share the same sorry fate.  Muslims the world over read and learn the Quraan in its original language (even if they don’t understand it) and try to live their lives by the principles extracted from the Quraan (and Sunnah).

How do we reconcile our lives as Muslims with our roles as citizens of South Africa? I am not always sure.  The Constitution and Islamic law diverge on some obvious issues, such as homosexuality.  What are we to do?  Maybe the approach is similar to the approach we have about paying interest in financial transactions – I have read that some leeway is given for Muslims living in a secular country, to follow the laws of that country.  Are we supposed to maybe embrace the message in Surah Kaafiroon and follow our religion while letting others follow their religions (or lifestyles)?  Live and let live, and leave others alone?  But also as obvious, people have different interpretations of that Surah too.

There’s this push and pull and a host of questions that I can’t answer, so I keep wondering.

Auras of the humble lovelies

Is it just me or does everyone feel this sense of calm and wonder when they meet a really serene and humble apa?

I went to an interesting talk by a really soft spoken and knowledgeable apa – but she was so sweet and kind and gentle and self-effacing – the point of her actions being, I think, to live out her belief that the bottom line is, nothing happens without the mercy of Allah.  Nothing that she can tell us is due to her own ability, but due to the mercy that Allah has bestowed on her, so that she may share her knowledge with us.  It’s an eye-opening thing to see, someone living their belief in their actions and being.

The other upside to attending this talk is that I got to see my long-lost but living-close-by-to-me cousin Amina, and her getting-taller-and-less-naughty cute son.  It’s so cool to see a familiar face in this “new world” that I am not yet quite used to.

Anyways, back to the point: dear apas.  My apa, (my regular apa, if I may call her that!) also has this gentleness that brings back my old memories of other apas.  I had some great apas growing up, one in particular, but they were always much older than the apas I meet nowadays (or maybe I was just so much younger?)  I’m always surprised by how non-judgmental they are, even though I must sometimes look like a hoodlum compared to them.

Wait, on second thought…thinking about the talk today has brought back the image of cousin Amina’s mother – there was just something about her, an elegance, a grace, mixed with a quirky sense of humour and a brilliant smile.  May Allah grant her Jannatul Firdaus, InshAllah.  Even the lovely ladies who we know for just a short while have a lasting impact, and won’t be forgotten.  I feel that every good lady who has passed through my life has left her fingerprints on my identity, and I am richer for it.

It took me almost 6 months to realize I didn’t have a rolling pin (aka Potatoes part 2)

Well done to me – I opened the Indian Delights, scanned its long index and found the recipe for Puri.  Puri is not hard.  It can’t be.  Not really.  So I made the dough (and thank goodness I halved the recipe and only used 1 cup of flour instead of 2 – because by the time I was done, I’m pretty sure I did end up using 2 cups after all).

Anyways, food done, Puri dough ready, oil on the stove.  Searching for a rolling pin. Still searching.  It’s 7pm at night so there’s no way I can go out and get one – so I improvised with my hands, a spatula and a potato masher.  The Puri came out thicker than I would have hoped but it was not a total catastrophe – still able to eat the vetkoek-like Puri, all was not lost.

I now have a rolling pin (thanks Daadi) and other flour-implements (thanks Mom), but this has all just made me realise that I still don’t have a sieve (the closest thing I have is a tea-strainer).

Gosh, I feel like I have so so so much kitchen stuff but these random bits are still slowly making their way into my cupboards.

The other good news – I have used the Indian Delights, and was (partially) successful!  Whoo Hoo!!

Nieces, nephews, the apple-butterfly story and a shout-out to Mr Darcy

Some of the most random conversations I’ve had have been with my nieces and nephews.  One night when the lights went out we all sat on the floor and told stories. Nuha’s one was about a butterfly and an apple (I don’t think she’ll remember this now because she was so young, and I’m not sure that I’m remembering it correctly either) and when we all started giggling she yelled at us for being “erretating”! Which is funny now still, especially because Nuha is so cool and calm nowadays.

For some reason one of the first words I remember Imaan saying is “water”, so I always associate watermelon with Imaan.  This kid really knows how to do a supermodel pose for a photo (at some point when she was about 2 years old she couldn’t smile for the camera at all – I think the concept of a fake-smile confused her sincere and uncomplicated picture of the world).

Aside: did you know (who knows if this is truly true but I read it somewhere) that we learn what smells good and what smells bad?  This means that roses smell rosy and sewage smells gross because at some point we taught our brains that we should have good or bad reactions to those smells.  This means that we could potentially have taught ourselves to like all smells!  If only I had known this before walking the smelly streets of India!  Anyways, I think that we also learn what to fear, for instance, the dark.  When the lights went out on that fateful storytelling night, the kids weren’t scared at all – why? Because they had not yet learnt to be afraid of the dark.  I wish that I could unlearn my fear of cockroaches and insects and things with wings.

Also, don’t underestimate energy – when Rania, Hanna, Nadia and I were babysitting one day, we thought we could get the kids tired by running around the yard, and then we’d all get some quiet time – well, we ended up tired, but the kids kept running (bad plan).  I want boundless energy!! How do we get that?  How can a kid spend hours playing the same game but I can’t even do one thing without looking at Twitter or email etc – what great focus they have.

The girls also sometimes end up in endless fits of giggles.  Nuha, Imaan, Tahani and Khadeeja have these insane laughing fits that remind me that kids laugh hundreds of times a day and adults, I think, laugh under 10 times a day.  How sad.   Why don’t we find things infinitely funny?  Are we afraid of being silly?

I also envy their sense of style and self-confidence.  Khadeeja, who I once thought was a tomboy, felt confident walking around with a tiara, heels and a flowy dress for a whole evening out.  How cool is that?!  Tahani, a bit more shy, still manages to surprise me when I notice her busting a move in one of our impromptu dancing moments.

The boys – well they’re just another ballgame all together, but I must say that I’m surprised by how affectionate they can be.  Momo is pretty much a tall almost-adult by now and he scandalizes me by how much he knows about…stuff.  He’s just about one firm handshake away from being a man, but it’s still strange to see this proper fully formed person moping around when I still remember the chubby cute baby (oh gosh I sound old).  Talha is an adorable little ball of energy, strong as a house and sweet as a marshmallow.  Although it’s little Uzayr who teaches me most about manners, always politely saying “Jee” to everything and everyone.

Laughter, confidence, manners, fun – I want to be a child for a day – and it’s not that hard – hanging out with these guys, my childhood feels just a skip and a hop away.

By the way, on the anniversary of my Elizabeth Bennett day, a bucketful of love and toasties must be sent to my very own Mr Darcy.  It’s probably time to read Pride and Prejudice (again).

But in the meantime, I need to remember to enter the world of these kiddos more often – so much fun has yet to be had, and they remind me of all things good, and teach me many things forgotten.