What do I really know…and akhlaaq of the golden oldies

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Why wasn’t I taught so much in Madressah, stuff that I am only learning now? Not just nice-to-know but essential-to-know stuff, Waajib stuff.

There are so many things that I am learning now, and that makes me wonder about the gaps in my learning. Information is now shared at the speed of click, and that also makes me wary about the authenticity of sources. But there are some things that just seem to have been missing from my good ‘ol afternoon after school Madressah.

Apart from the missing pieces, there’s also the fact that history, for example, was taught in such a dry and boring way. The textbook (in my hazy memory) seems to have been filled with the names and dates of wars, with the numbers of soldiers on either side, and not the colourful detail that would make the stories truly memorable.

And it’s not as if we don’t have this detail – so much has been preserved from our history, and just a few exciting tidbits would have gone a long way to spark my interest in digging deeper.

Why were we not told about the red turbans adorned with ostrich feathers that were worn to strike fear in the hearts of the enemy? The heroism, the bravery, the poetry. I recently read about one of the Sahabia who charged into battle to defend herself by grabbing a tentpole and proclaiming something along the lines of “let me rearrange your brains”.

I understand that Apas have their hands full managing an unruly pack of kids, and trying to ensure that they learn the basics and instill the need to practice. But adding some spice to the work would really help to inspire the love of learning that would encourage us to learn more even after class.

Religious teachers may not have been taught how to teach in the traditional sense, and this may be what holds us back – but there were still some who I will never forget who had that natural knack for inspiring us to want to know more.

We have so many interesting stories, some inspire, some teach, some break your heart – I just wish that these were better conveyed to elicit more feeling in learners.

Maybe times have changed and Madressahs are doing a better job now, I have no idea because it’s been more than 10 years since I’ve seen what goes on in those classes. I hope it’s gotten a bit more juicy.  Am I being too critical?  Is it up to us to figure out what we don’t know and sort it out ourselves, do some self-study and find something that interests us and gets us to look further?  Is it too much to expect everything to be taught adequately in such a short time, since there’s so much to learn?

Which reminds me…even though I’ve been out of Madressah for years, there seems to be a recent resurgence in adult Islamic education. People are signing up for online classes, or attending Tafseer and Arabic lessons, listening to Islamic podcasts and sharing updates about seminars and talks happening at the Masjids.

There also seems to be many more Hijabis (although maybe we just notice them more because there are also so many selfies) and a trend towards Islamic awareness.

This is really cool…but I wonder whether we are actually better off now. We may have more book-learning, actual knowledge about our religion, but our practices may not be up to scratch.

Those lovely oldies, the grand-folks and great-grand-folks, did not have as many books and classes and did not have access to all of the info that we have at our fingertips now. But the old ladies, with their triangle scarves draped lightly around their shoulders, grey hair sneaking through, had such great character.

They may not have been able to quote a Hadith about sincerity of intention, but they automatically lived their lives with sincerity and good morals. They had less theory but more practice. They may have known less, but they acted better.

What good is all of our knowledge when we find it so hard to practice? The world is so distracting, how do we just…be good?

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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.

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.

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!!

Book club: Forbidden lessons in a Kabul guesthouse

I recently peeked into one of our local libraries to see what was up.  I wandered along the rows of books, thinking how ill-stocked the shelves were, when I started to realize when I looked a little closer that there were actually quite a few books that I would want to read.  I now have a library card – even though there are over 50 books on my home bookshelf that I want to read (or re-read).  And many more unread books, waiting for their moment, on my kindle.  Oh well, I’m a book lover, and I love it when the stack is high.

I came across Forbidden lessons in a Kabul guesthouse and took it out, left it at home for three weeks and then realized that time was up.  So I renewed the book, and now, two weeks later, finally cracked open its spine.  To my surprise, it is the kind of book that you finish in one day because you can’t put it down (even when there is also a huge pile of tasks in my in-box, begging to be done).

It tells the story of Suraya Sadeed, an Afghan who emigrated to America when the Russians invaded Afghanistan at the end of the ’70s.  Years later, after the unexpected death of her husband, Suraya sees a newsreel of fighting and chaos in Afghanistan and decides to go back to deliver humanitarian aid at a time when no one was going into Afghanistan.  The books focuses on her work from 1992 until after 9/11 and tells of her struggles to open clinics and schools for girls (forbidden by the Taliban).  They end up opening the first schools in the basement of a friend’s house and lessons are held by candle or lamp light.

At times her work seems pointless, because every bit of aid they manage to bring is overshadowed by the constant fighting and chaos in the country.  But Suraya is reminded, “where there is life, there’s hope”.

I learnt that contrary to what many people assume, the Afghan Burka was not an invention of the Taliban.  It has a long history in Afghanistan and was at first seen as a status symbol because only the wife of a wealthy man could afford one, so a woman would wear it to signify that she wasn’t a peasant working in the fields. Afterwards, some women chose to wear the Burka because it offered protection against ignorant, violent men.  But not even the Burka could protect countless displaced widows who were relegated to the “widow camps” – with no male protection, these defenseless ladies were subjected to the torture of being used by soldiers at will.

The book also criticizes the tendency of Western women trying to “save” Muslim women from the perceived torment of the Burka.  As the author explains, if you had to choose between equal rights with men and the ability to feed your children, the choice is obvious:  women’s rights were irrelevant to a mother with a starving child. There is also the issue of culture and tradition.  So while Afghan women may welcome the introduction of western comforts such as cell phones and computers, they do not see the need to be exactly like the rest of the world.  If you asked an Afghan woman what she needs, rarely if ever would she say that she needs to be liberated from the Burka – her concerns were different to that of a Western privileged woman.

I was also surprised by the author’s account of media reaction to Afghanistan.  Pre-9/11 there was almost no interest in the suffering of Afghanis.  However, as soon as the twin towers were hit, media frenzy erupted.  While Suraya’s organisation tried to get aid into the hardest hit areas, journalists were jostling to get the first shots of the bombing, unsympathetic to the fact that these were real bombs, affecting real people. They found it “awesome” that they could get photos of the front line of this new war. Their ability to bribe ferrymen also led to a delay in humanitarian aid getting to Afghanis, because they monopolized the transport that was necessary for NGOs to get their supplies into the right area.

The main thing that struck me about the book was that, while I was aware that Afghanistan has been under attack since 9/11, I was ignorant of all of their struggles prior to 2001.  It seems that the Afghani people have been suffering for many years under warring factions internally.  The people on the street barely knew or understood the reason for the US invasion, assuming it had something to do with the Taliban but unaware of the strike on the twin towers.  Their land has been used as a battle ground for other people’s wars since at least the time of the Cold War, and the Afghani people pay the price for issues that they are barely aware of.

Apart from wars, they were also subject to some crushing natural disasters.  One remote village, hit badly by an earthquake, lost 17 grooms and 16 brides who had had a big wedding the night before.  Only 1 bride remained.  Suraya, assuming that the girl had broken her hand because she refused to open it, tried to get medical help – only to realize that the pain in the girl’s hand was not physical – she could not bear to look at the bridal mehndi that remained, in the wake of all that had passed away.

The author’s organisation, Help the Afghan Children, still operates today, trying to help as many Afghanis get a decent education as possible.

The ability of Afghan women to survive is amazing.  Their continued struggles should not be forgotten.

Books, my precious (words words words)

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“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.”

It’s often said that reading is good for your brain. But studies now find that just having books in your house (even if they’re just lying around, with no one actively reading them) is an indicator of how intelligent the children in that house will be.  This is presumably because if there are books around, it shows that the parents value education – and therefore there’ll be a general emphasis on education in a bookish-house (I think Malcolm Gladwell came up with this conclusion).

In my childhood home there were tons of books around because dad loves reading – I remember as a teenager once stumbling across the Art of War by Sun Tzu.  But not only was I reading ancient Eastern wisdom, this book was The Art of War – For Managers.  Dad had lots of business books around.  I learnt about management stuff (the parts that I could understand), there was a book on reflexology in the study too – along with books on right brain thinking and a lot of other stuff that I’m sure most 1st year psychology students learn.

I may not have known what the point of what I was reading was, but combing through dad’s bookshelf opened up my reading experiences to some really random stuff (for a teenage girl that is).  If not for his bookshelf, I may have stuck to Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High (shudders*).  So I best keep books all around the house for when the potential future kids arrive.

And keep sifting through dad’s books for more unexpected knowledge.

Probably the coolest thing though is that dad bought us books all the time – so apart from reading from his adult business-y library, we got to choose lots of our own stuff, and discover what we liked to read.  I went for mostly fantasy but still – it was cool to have someone funding a book-love.  Even my brother who barely ever opens the covers of a book once bought a book (about WWE wrestlers I think?)  I remember reading that book on Mick Foley (is that his name? The wrestler whose stage name was Mankind, how weird).

So we’re a house of bookies.

And then there’s the Quraan – which is the most important book – we at least try to read that once a year in Ramadan and more if possible. But I’m thinking more and more about how we read without understanding. I watched an interview with a lady who wrote a book about Islam and in her research she decided that she had to read the Quraan to try to understand Islam and its history – so she read four (yes four!) different translations / interpretations alongside the original text. If a moderate agnostic/Jewish woman can do it, I should be able to do it too.

Trying to be serious – oh look, a butterfly!

I have the attention span of a lukewarm teaspoon.  I used to be able to spend hours and hours doing just one single thing (most of the time that one single thing was reading a book that I couldn’t put down).  But nowadays, I won’t even wait for one google search page to load before I’m off reading something else, flitting from one book to another, 15 minutes at a time.

I fold half the laundry and then get distracted by the chaos in my wardrobe and start sorting that – only to be distracted by a Watsapp message, and then end up reading some link to an interesting (or maybe even not so interesting) article on my phone, and on and on and nothing gets fully done the first time.

Is it because we’re glued to our phones and have all of the information in the world at our fingertips that we find it hard to focus?  I keep reading articles and web pages, and then I start skimming because I am not even patient enough to properly read them.  What’s a distracted girl to do?

I want to slow down the chaos in my mind and the haphazard attention that I pay to everything – they say that no one can truly multi-task (not even women!)  What actually happens is that your brain switches between the different tasks that you are doing – and in trying to switch between multiple tasks, you lose a few minutes of focus each time – because it takes your brain a few minutes to get back to focus on one of the things that you are doing. Constant switching means you lose lots of minutes each time you jump from one activity to another.

The better way is to just do one thing at a time.  Be fully focused when making breakfast (and save yourself from burnt toast).  Be fully focused when reading salaah (one Apa switches her stove off, even if she is midway through baking, so that she doesn’t feel distracted).  Be fully focused when chilling with the family.

I’m not sure how to get my focus back – one solution is to force myself to read one whole book, from start to finish, without flitting around (but I have yet to succeed).

 

Being the full you…lessons from friends, American Beauty and a note about strange

There’s a scene in American Beauty where the weird new neighbor boy across the street who walks around with his camera filming stuff, claims that the floating of a plastic bag in the wind – basically, trash – is beautiful.  He also films a dead bird for the same reason.  He is an oddball I guess, doing whatever he wants, finding beauty in the mundane and going for the a-typical goth-girl and ignoring the cheerleader.  The point, you might ask?  Well, while the cheerleader looks at him in disdain, goth-girl makes the observation that “he’s just so confident.”  She thinks it isn’t real, but he does whatever he wants, even though it may seem completely odd or random or weird, and he doesn’t care what other people think.  He really was that confident.

Some of my friends are the perfect example of being completely themselves, even when it goes against the grain.

Mishka would campaign for any cause that touches her heart, be it battery farmed chickens, striking cleaners at university, or the rights of cockroaches (to be relocated, not exterminated).  She is never afraid to show her love and appreciation and wonder.  I once lamented the fact that some girls wore high heels to campus – how in the world did they do it, why were they being slaves to fashion, blah blah.  But Mishka was having none of it…her view?  She admired them for their dedication and commitment in being able to accomplish such a difficult feat.  She often makes me see another point of view.  And she’s clever, so her points aren’t arbitrary, but well thought-out, well argued and empathetic.  So while I may never have warmed to the idea of wearing heels, I stopped being so judgmental to those girls who brave the cobblestones with their favorite high fashion.  Mishka is not afraid to take the differing view, with good justification, and stick to it passionately, even when others may not see the point.  She is just that confident.

Fatima is confident in a different way.  She’d seek out alternative artists, cultivate her own very unique (and bad-ass) style (she’s the one with the rocker boots:) and would not suffer arrogant fools.  She is so secure in her knowledge of who she is and what she wants, that she just goes for it, and often gets what she’s after.  Both Fatima and I would rather spend the afternoon before a big exam reading a book, only to cram into the night, learning last bits of information right before the exam.  She knows her abilities, so she would use her reason to work out complex accounting questions (since she hadn’t studied that section) and often ended up getting the answers right (or at least partially right).  She has confidence in the ability of her brain to work out a problem instead of relying on rote learning.  She’s set up at least 2 business (and we’re just in our 20s).  If she sends me a recommendation for a book, I know I’ll read it, because her taste is impeccable. She does not have to pose or bring others down in anything that she does – she does what she loves for herself, and that is enough.  What other people think is irrelevant.

I’m not there yet – I’m not that confident.  But I want to be.

It’s crappy that so many of us are dragged down by our conception (or misconception) of what other people think.  The fact is, we’re deluding ourselves if we think people really think or care about what we do – they’re much too busy with their own lives to bother with us.  And if they have the time to criticize and judge, then they obviously have way too much free time on their hands.

I have heard that the Prophet (S.A.W) said that Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers.  The explanation that I have been given for this hadith is that Islam began with a few people who accepted it and stuck to its teachings and practices.  This means to me that Islam went against the grain of the society into which it was born.

Nowadays, Islam is beginning to be seen as strange again – a lot of the world are misunderstanding the religion and think of Muslims as strange.  Sometimes if you wear a Hijab in a very conservative western community, you need to embrace the fact that people will think of you as a weirdo or a stranger and use your strength to stick true to your principles.  If we are confident enough to stick to our religion and practice it properly, we might be seen as strange or strangers.  What awaits those who have the confidence and ability to be steadfast in their religion when it starts being seen as strange?  Glad tidings to the strangers.

And all I can cook is a potato

Supposedly a prized possession, my mom gave me a copy of the Indian Delights as a wedding gift. I think it’s one of my prized possessions. Well, if I’m not even sure, then maybe it isn’t, but I think that it should be.

My first attempt to pluck from its hefty knowledge left me unimpressed. All I wanted was a recipe for pancakes – but found a complicated more-than-4-ingredient fandangle that was too intense for my new-born grocery cupboard. I didn’t even have vanilla essence, so maybe that’s also my fault. But still…shouldn’t this be easier?

Should I have taken more of an interest in learning how to cook and all of the other hoopla of domestic life, before I got married?

Maybe…probably….well we can make the best of what we have now, which is, basically, potatoes.  Potatoes are the best because you can’t really spoil ’em.  Chuck them in a pot of water or oil, add some heat, wait a bit – done.

My relationship with this orange fiend, the great Indian Delights, needs to move from awe and fear to trusty side-kick.  I will persevere!

I also recently came into a lovely copy of my favourite dictionary…red and big and thin-papered, I know for sure that it is one of my prized possessions.  Hmmm, this definitely says something about me, but I hope it bodes well for Husband’s waist-line.  I cannot have him be a starving intellect, living off an occasional potato.

Is it an Indian girl thing, the need to cook from scratch?  Why do so few people in our community buy almost-ready dinners?  The world is trying to make our lives easier but we remain entangled in the need to be good kitchen masters.  Meh, it’s in me too, and I need to climb this cooking-from-scratch mountain, one burn and cut at a time.

The aerobic aunties

This new working-and-studying-from-home thing made me think that I have oodles of extra time for new stuff, and I’ve been itching to find different things to explore and learn.

So when cousin Ayesha suggested an Aqua Aerobics class, I bet she was surprised that I answered the call.  For the past few years I was the cousin least likely to pitch up at…anything.  And even less likely to even respond to a WhatsApp message.  But with my new-found time comes tons of choices.

One of the problems of today is that there are sometimes so many choices that people are paralyzed and cannot decide what to do, sometimes meaning that they end up doing nothing.  Not so for me: I like to believe that I can fit everything in (not always so wise, but I’m going with it for now).

So after attending Aqua (which was fun but not too taxing, by the way) I was convinced to take up the regular 4-day-a-week aerobics class that my instructor does.  Okay, I didn’t need much convincing since I’ve become a bit of a yes-woman but who knew that this would lead to even more opportunities?

Attending the first class as the young-newbie, I got countless whatsyourname / whereareyoufrom / howoldareyou / areyoumarried / doyouhavekids from all of the aunties there.  Yes, aunties.  The class is filled with them.  Well-meaning, middle-aged aunties (okay, a few are young but some are pushing menopause).  And that’s when the other invites were offered – can I cook? Well, welcome to our cooking class!  Taaleem here and there.  Tafseer.  Maybe Arabic.  Support groups for something or other.

While my natural instinct was to run and hide from the aunties, I decided instead to embrace this Indian mothering instinct and take them up on some of their offers.

So while I try to keep up with 50-year-olds at gym, I am now also extending my network and getting to know the ladies in the neighborhood.

I was complaining to Husband the other day that I don’t know “the scene” (the local scene of who’s who, what’s what, Jamaat Moulanas and local celebs i.e. Nasheed singers etc).  But with the aunty network on the case, that ought to be rectified pretty soon.

Lesson of the day: be open to new experiences, say yes (even when you want to say no sometimes) and see where it takes you – it’s bound to be interesting.