Today marks the beginning of my 37th trip around the sun. I don’t celebrate birthdays, but I think completing a trip around the sun is full of significance. Here are some of my thoughts on that, as a gift to you:
Today marks the beginning of my 37th trip around the sun. I don’t celebrate birthdays, but I think completing a trip around the sun is full of significance. Here are some of my thoughts on that, as a gift to you:
“Make sure you take a shower first…”
“You shouldn’t hit anybody or do anything…”
“You have to cry when you see it…”
“You’re supposed to- Wait, I need to rewind that…”
My wife was reading instructions to me point-by-point from a YouTube video. I’d just gotten home from work, rain shut down traffic yesterday, the driver was on the way and I had no idea how to do úmra. We were about to go on a whirlwind tour of Islaam’s two holiest cities and we’d been so busy that we hadn’t taken the time to refresh our memories on how to do the pilgrimage.
This was not gonna work. I had her slide over and copied down the instructions from the video point-by-point. It matched everything I’d read and heard before, and may Allaah have mercy on him, he told it all in just 10 minutes.
It’s freezing. This guy has his window cracked to stay awake (!), and I’m shivering with my coat on. Near-freezing temperatures after a thunderstorm isn’t the weather you’d expect in Saudi Arabia. Expect the unexpected. We asked him to turn on the heater but he said it would make his window fog. At a rest stop, I gave up on putting on my ihraam garments(2 white unstitched cloths, basically a toga). I would have frozen to death.
Finally, at 2 a.m., we reached the meeqaat, the place where pilgrims must enter the state of ihram (sanctity). There was a hotel (and I do use the term loosely). We all passed out in our coats and sweaters, my mother-in-law, wife and daughters in one room, me and the driver in the other. I don’t even wanna tell you about the bathroom. You don’t want me to tell you about the bathroom…
In the morning, by some miracle, it was warm. Actually, I live in Riyadh, which is smack dab in the middle of a huge peninsula. Places in the middle of landmasses are prone to temperature extremes. Riyadh’s more extreme on the hot side (120 in the summer), but its winter’s nothing to ignore. But the meeqaat station is close to Makka, which is rather near the Red Sea, so by we woke up to the warm sun.
At the meeqaat, a pilgrim for hajj or úmra must enter the state of ihram, or sanctity. This consists of a full bath, shaving the armpits and pubic hair, cutting the nails, and (for men) trimming the ‘stache. Then the pilgrim makes the niyyah, or intention, for hajj or úmra (or hajj and úmra) and puts on their ihraam garments. For women this is their normal Islamic dress code, with the exception that the face can only be covered, if desired, from above, rather than with a veil that is tied around the face. For men, the ihram is two white garments, basically long towels. One is wrapped around the waist. The other is draped over the shoulders. After that, you should pray two units of prayer and advance toward Makka. After that, there is no shaving, no hunting, no cutting the hair or nails, no sexual activity, and, most importantly, the person should stay in a state of remembrance of Allaah, and avoid any conflicts, arguments or anger.
I hearken unto you, O Allaah, I hearken unto you. I hearken unto you, you have no partner or equal, I hearken unto you. All blessings are yours, all praise and thanks are yours, and all dominion. You have no associate or equal.
It is somehow less romantic than arriving by camel, but we got back in the Toyota and drove into Makka.
Makka is Islam’s holiest masjid, literally “place of prostration”, otherwise known as mosque. It houses the Ka’ba (literally “cube”), a cubical structure usually seen draped in a velvet-like black cloth that has gold lettering stitched onto it. This masjid is the qibla, or direction, Muslims face when praying. We don’t pray to it or even think about it when praying, it’s just the direction we face. If you think about it, when you’re praying there, you are the first in perhaps thousands of rows of prayer rows, reaching back to the ends of the earth. Or, when you’re praying at home, somewhere thousands of rows in front of you, someone you have no idea about, but your brother or sister just the same, is going through the same thoughts and motions. Beautiful…
The Ka’ba is special. According to some sources, it is the oldest house of worship in the world, built by Aadam (a/k/a Adam), peace be upon him. We do know that Ibraaheem (a/k/a Abraham) raised its foundations with his son Isma’eel (a/k/a Ishmael), peace be upon them, and proclaimed the pilgrimage for all mankind. After this religion was later corrupted by hundreds of idols which were placed around the Ka’ba, Muhammad-may Allaah send blessings on him, and peace- was sent with a message of and oneness to restore it, and the qibla, prayer direction, was changed from the masjid built by Solomon, Bayt ul-Maqdis in al-Quds (a/k/a Jerusalem) to the Ka’ba in Makka.
When you enter the masjid, you walk slowly, slowly, slowly, you look up, and there it is. Al-ka’ba. I don’t know why, but this time I couldn’t stop the tears. I was shaking. My mother-in-law was too. She’d been waiting her whole life for the chance to come here, for even the minor pilgrimage, nevermind the hajj. Finally, after so many years of waiting and praying, she was there, in the house of Allaah. It was so beautiful, and we hadn’t even started yet. According to some sources, you should have a supplication ready to make the moment you see the Ka’ba, and when you see it, without taking your eyes off of it, you should offer that supplication to Allaah.
At that time, I take the cloth under my right arm and over my left shoulder, so that my right arm is bare, and then the úmra’s main rites began. There’s no special time of day or year to do úmra, unlike hajj. It’s happening 24/7/365. Literally. I’ve been to Makka many times at different times of day or night, and there were always people doing úmra. At any given moment the Ka’ba is being circumambulated (walked around), and people are running the hills of Safa and Marwa.
The circling of the Ka’ba begins from one of its corners, the one containing a black stone. According to some sources, after Ibraaheem raised the Ka’ba’s foundations, this stone was sent down nearby. At that time it was whiter than milk, but now, man’s sins have blackened it to the color of onyx.
Unfortunately, humans have a penchant for fetishism, a tendency to get obsessed with physical objects. Throughout history, we have been attaching undue importance to objects, people and phenomena, and devoting ourselves to them instead of the one who made and sustains them. We even go so far as to create objects and persons or beings, and imagine phenomena. This deception is the basis of all the many deviations there have been from Allah’s many revelations, and today’s materialism is no different. In fact, it is exactly the same. We attach fake importance to things like pieces of cotton paper, and the amount of these it takes to get the things we fill our hearts and homes with. Then we ignore all notions of morality and character by judging the individuals and societies that have the most of these to be the best.
So, yes, there are some unfortunate people who are absolutely obsessed with kissing the black stone. They fight until exhaustion, writhing beneath a policeman who can only save himself by hooking one arm onto a rope hanging from the Ka’ba. They are not glorifying the One whose glory our worship cannot do justice to. They are not praying for their guidance and that of their brothers and sisters in humanity. They are casting off all notions of sanctity and peace to do what? Something that gives them no benefit. Úmar, may Allaah be pleased with him, the second khaleefa (caliph) or successor, even said so. He said he saw no benefit in kissing the black stone except that he had seen the prophet Muhammaed do it, establishing the act as an act of worship.
There are others who simply lay themselves on the Ka’ba. They stand at it and lay their faces and outstretched arms on it, for hours it seems. There is no precedence, and therefore no reason to expect benefit, from such an act. Nowhere have I read that the Ka’ba itself has any inherent blessing. It is only the obedience to what is clear of Allaah’s will, a minute portion of which involves the Ka’ba, that bears blessing.
(When we were leaving Makka, I was showing my mother-in-law how these people were laying on the Ka’ba by flopping onto the driver at a stoplight, overdramatically, with fake tears and all. Then we looked up and realized the people in the car next to us were watching the whole thing. Once we saw them watching us, we just busted out laughing. Who knows what they thought I was doing. They just looked away, waited for green, and drove off in a tiff.)
Anyway, when you get to the corner with the black stone, you begin your tawaaf, or circumambulation. Basically, you walk around Ka’ba 7 times, with your left side closer to it, i.e. counterclockwise. (Apparently, everything in the universe is counterclockwise, except, well, the clock.) In these circuits, you should glorify Allaah and pray, and do your best not to disturb the other pilgrims. My wife and I have a system. I carry our younger daughter as much as possible while she keeps the older one in line. But though the hajj crowds had mostly left, there were still a lot of people. So I ended up in the arrangement that neither of us favor: me holding my much heavier (ma shaa-a-llaah) older daughter, and her carrying the younger one, who’s no pipsqueak. Men are supposed to jog the first 3 circuits. If I’m not mistaken, that’s because the people resisting the re-establishment of revealed religion in Makka were mocking the Muslims who were returning from their migration to Madeena to perform Úmra. They were saying that they had become weak, so Muhammad ordered the men among them to jog to show that Islam was in fact strong. We still jog because it still is.
When people come for pilgrimage, they come in groups. So you’ll see a train of south Asian sisters with identical head-coverings holding onto each other’s backs in a line. If one of them accidentally lets go, she might push through the people to catch up. We just move aside and let her rejoin her group. No one wants to cause distress, or see anyone in it. It was amazing. No one was rude. No one fought or pushed unless they had to. We just moved along, and friendly bumped into each other.
There were other groups, too. You may notice how west Africans often wear colorfully-printed pantsuits, not dissimilar to the south Asian shalwar-qameed or kurta-pajama. Well, the hajj groups had their logo printed into the tie-dye pattern. So everyone there was not only dressed identically, but the tour company got free advertising. There was a group of brothers I think must have been Kurds. They had on matching khaki-colored suits. The pants had a really long crotch, almost like M.C. Hammer, and they wore purple cloths wrapped in the Yemeni style on their heads. VERY thick mustaches. But the cats who kept it most real were the Indonesians. We saw them all the way to Makka, all wearing, I mean men and women, identical shirts with some kind of complicated purple, white and red pattern. They weren’t going to get lost. Yall know I like turbans, and I saw this one guy, an Afghani Pashtun (their dress is distinguishable from their Pakistani counterparts) wearing a long, shiny, pure black turban. It hung down over his shoulder to his waist. He had on a dark green shalwar-qameed made of a heavy cloth. It was so beautiful watching him pray. Complete calm. Quiet strength. The lion of Khorasan…
These observations don’t all come from the tawaaf, of course. I was focusing on my own worship and prayer, and of course not losing half of my family in the crowd.
After 7 circuits, you go and drink zam!zam! water. (I’ll explain what it is later.) There are tanks and water fountains for it surrounding the Ka’ba. This was a sort of break for us. My kids loved it. They were so happy there. There was so much space on that huge marble floor, that they just started running around after playing with the cool water. I felt so much peace and love inside of me. I was happy for my wife and her mother, and happy for my kids. It was a really cool pilgrimage.
Next is the Sa’ee, the striving forth. You go to the top of a hill called Safaa, pray, face the Ka’ba, magnify Allaah, then proceed down until you reach the top of a hilled called Marwa. That’s one. You do seven (i.e. ending on Marwa). These two hills are now totally enclosed in the masjid, which is HUGE, by the way, but this is only because of expansions made to the structure of it over the centuries. In fact, and this is totally unromantic, the sa’ee area is air-conditioned. It’s paved, too, but that’s a good thing. Millions upon millions of people have been walking up and down these hills for centuries. If they didn’t pave over them they’d be pitcher’s mounds by now. There are 2 green light posts between these two hills. Men should run between them. I suppose women don’t because if you imagine their anatomy it could be immodest. Allaah knows best. According to my understanding, these green posts represent what used to be the area between the hill banks. Due to erosion, I assume, it’s now part of a long flat walkway. In other words, you are running from what used to be the bottom of one hill to the bottom of another. But the hills are so worn that the distance between them is much greater, so the original points have to be marked.
What is the point of this tradition? Well, Ibraaheem had a wife called Hajr (a/k/a Hagar). He left with her and their son Ismaa’eel, and they journeyed and journeyed and journeyed on their riding animal through the desert, all the way south to Makka. You have to drive to Makka to appreciate this. It’s in the middle of a desert, not a sand desert, a volcanic field. There’s nothing there but cooled lava, i.e. a bunch of rocks. It is absolutely barren. Then, when they reached where Allaah had told them to reach, Ibraheem dismounted, left his wife and son- can you imagine how hard this would be?- remounted and started to ride away?
“Are you really going to leave me here?”
He says nothing.
“Are you really going to leave me here?”
“Are you really going to leave me here?”
Silence. He doesn’t look back. His horse keeps walking.
“Did Allaah tell you to leave me here?”
“Then we will be fine.”
That is Hajr. Absolute faith. She’d seen neither Allaah, nor any way for this to make sense. But she had absolute faith in her Lord, and absolute trust in her husband.
That all looks good on paper, but when you’ve got a breastfeeding baby, you’ve got to eat to keep the milk coming. There was nothing to eat. Her baby was hungry. He was crying. Have you ever heard a hungry baby cry for milk? I have. There were a few times on the road when we didn’t have a place to stop for awhile when the baby got hungry. So we had to keep driving. The cries got worse and worse. Blood-curdling. My wife instinctually motioned to move to the back seat, then sat back down. It was only a few minutes or so, but it brought tears to my wife’s eyes. To hear her baby suffer. To not be able to soothe their needing pain.
But we knew we were gonna feed her. We just had to wait a few minutes.
Hajr, may Allaah have mercy on her, had nothing. She saw nothing. She heard nothing. There was nothing. Just a couple of rocky hills, in the middle of a lava field. But this woman had faith. She put her baby down and ran to the top of a hill to look around. Nothing. Nothing but faith. She ran down that one, and up the other one. Nothing. Hungry (not that I-skipped-lunch-‘cause-I-was-busy feeling, REAL hunger). Thirst. And nothing. She ran back down and up again. Then back down and up again. Until she had run up those hills seven times.
Then she saw something. The angel Jibreel (a/k/a Gabriel), Allaah’s strong one. He dug with his heel in the ground, and water began to well out. In other narrations it was the writhing of the baby Ismaa’eel which opened this water source.
“Zam! Zam! (Stop! Stop!)” she commanded, fearing the spring of water would run itself onto the ground. She then dug a hole around it, so it would become a well. Had she left it, according to a narration attributed to Muhammad, it would be a river right now.
This is the reward of believing like you see, striving like you know, working as if you have already been rewarded. Soon, the Hud-hud (hoopoe) a bird that flies around a source of water, started circling over their two heads. A tribe of Arabs took note and followed. They were a noble people, so even thought they could have done away with Hajr and her son, they asked for permission to camp near the miraculous water source. Hajr, a young woman, mother of a suckling child, alone in a wasteland, was fearless. She gave them permission, but denied them any rights to ownership of the well.
Soon Ismaa’eel married from among this tribe. It is said, then, that he is the forefather of all the Arabs. This is obviously false. They were Arabs before him, and there were many other Arabs besides them. It is in fact he who was Arabized. (Check the relevant narrations, they taught him Arabic, so how can he be their forefather?) So it would not be correct to say that Ismaa’eel is the forefather of the Arabs, or that all Arabs are descendants of Ismaa’eel. Ismaa’eel’s immediate descendants must have been Arabs, but by now who knows where they might have migrated and intermarried, so it is most likely that some non-Arabs among his descendants. So it cannot even be said that all Arabs are his descendants, nor can it even be said that all of his descendants are Arabs. This is certainly true for many people who are considered Arabs today. Like Isma’eel, many were Arabized. Personally I don’t care one way or another; I just can’t bear the ridiculous notion that everyone from Morocco to Iraaq is a descendant of Ismaa’eel, and that every zionist is a descendant of Is-haaq (a/k/a Isaac, peace be upon him).
That is the story of the sa’ee and zam!zam! water. Believing in the unseen, not being paralyzed by what we do see. Knowing that it is Allaah who provides, not our efforts, but that he provides VIA our efforts, so keep trying, keep fighting with all your might…
I was telling my daughter this whole story in Arabic while doing the sa’ee. And whaddo you know? Her name is Hajr…
She was bouncing along and laughing as I ran with my brothers between the hill banks. Then, I saw my wife on the other side with my older daughter, heading in the opposite direction. I knew that girl was slowing her down playing, and I felt so happy I just said “Well let me take ‘em both,” thinking Naqia would enjoy walking and running along with me. But wouldn’t you know it, that girl wanted to be held. So now I had two babies bouncing along, and a pair of burning biceps, too. They were kissing each other and laughing. Even the people walking by were happy seeing us. They patted them on the head and some even offered to help me carry them.
“Run, baba, run!”
At the end of the sa’ee, you should shave your head, you should shave your head, you should shave your head, or at least shorten it. That’s for men. You don’t think Muslim women are hiding bald heads under those hijaabs do you? No, they just have to cut a little bit.
Then, it’s over.
Put on your other clothes and go home.
We finished the sa’ee before my wife and her mother, so we just waited on top of Marwa. They were running around and eating candy. I’m really glad my kids had so much fun. I want them to love Islam and enjoy it, so they will value it enough to put in effort for it later.
We were guests in Allaah’s house.
None too soon, and we were back on the road. Madeena or bust.
4 hours later and we found the worst hotel with the worst bathroom in Madeena. The last person in our room had dropped bombs and apparently failed to notify the staff that the toilet wasn’t flushing. Keep in mind that in Saudi, as well as most of the world outside of America, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe, a toilet is a stylized hole in the ground. It’s literally a porcelain hole in the ground. They sometimes flush (i.e. with a handle or something), but often you just gotta put a lotta water down there to, well, move things right along. And, I might as well tell you, most of the times you walk into the bathroom, what you’ll see is a porcelain hole in the floor, and a bucket with a long, skinny neck. No toilet paper, no sink, no soap. If you’ve got bad knees like me, or you insist on washing your hands (also like me!), be creative. Come up with a strategy. Learn, as we have, to carry toilet paper and instant sanitizer when traveling. This is as much a part of pilgrimage as anything else, so…
The hotel was horrible. We could somehow hear a pin drop, and every noise louder than that coming from the street. The bed was a thin piece of mattress, thinner than a McDonald’s hamburger (ever see the movie Falling Down?), on top of a metal bed frame. We slept like babies (two of us actually were babies).
Sooooo many people walking to fajr. It was like a sort of fashion show. West African, South Asian, Turkish, North African, Southeast Asians and others all doing their thing on the way to Masjid an-Nabawi (The Prophet’s Mosque) in Madeenata-nNabawi (The Prophet’s City, the full name of Madeena). He is buried at the masjid, but that’s because he died in his home, which was a collection of small apartments for his wives built next to the masjid. As a prophet, he was buried where he died, and the masjid was left where it was, so it is a coincidental placing. We pray at the masjid, not at his grave, and graves are not to be made into places of worship, as it leads to the inevitable fetishization, and eventual worship, of the buried.
After praying jumuá, (noon prayer preceded by a sermon on the 6th day of the week) in the Masjid, we did the obligatory shopping for Madeena dates (probably made in China) and Islamic clothing (definitely made in China) and accessories. Then 9 short hours (not really!) and we were home.
Hours on the road for days with my mother-in-law, a toddler and a one-year-old. Most guys’ worst nightmare come true, right?
Naw, I loved it. I felt my heart glowing. Everyone was so happy. I started learning Pushto from the driver. We took turns telling each other stories about where we were from on the way home (as a trick to keep him from falling asleep!)
I was in London last weekend, and this weekend I went to Makka and Madeena. alHamdu-lillaah…
Next stop, the 3rd holiest masjid and city, and the only other place of legitimate pilgrimage, Baytu-lMaqdis, al-Quds. And I’m not asking any zionists for permission either. I’ll pray there when we open it again…
When I was growin’ up, we used to put Vaseline on our faces to keep ‘em from lookin’ ashy. Somedays us kids would do it ourselves and show up to school with so much grease on we looked plastic. Good morning to you, good morning to you, We’re all in our places, with bright shining faces…
We was always late for school, man. When you showed up late, you had to get a late pass from the office before you went to class. We were late so much, our late passes would already be ready when we showed up.
We would be late for everything. They got this saying, “fashionably late”. Man, if being late is fashionable, we shoulda been on the runway in Paris.
I remember I had this wristwatch, and I liked to see when it was 11:11 11, the whole clock on the same number for only one second. Well, church started at 11:00 00, but I usually caught all 11’s on the way.
My dad said in the car once, “From now on, we’re going to be on time. We are the On-Time Olivers.” We got a lotta laughs outta that. We had this idea about making black satin jackets with ‘On-Time Olivers’ written on the back in yellow. Anyway, we continued to be late, majorly, and every time we would say “The OTO’s are at it again…”
My dad is a funny cat, man, and the funniest thing is, he doesn’t try to be. Everyone gets the joke but him. He went through this phase where he was out of style on purpose. It was just a few years. I guess it was his mid-life crisis. We had to force him not to leave the house with sandals and socks on, or a with a hip pack on years after they went outta style.
“Where are you goin’?”
“I’m goin’ to the store.”
“You can’t go out like that!”
“Like what? I’m just goin’ to the store.”
“But you’re wearing sandals and socks.”
“So what’s wrong with that?”
“Dad, please, man…”
“What? I don’t care what nobody thinks.”
“But we do, man.”
“Yall aint even goin’.”
“Yall are crazy, I’m just tryin’ to go to the…”
He’d mumble under his breath on his way back to the room and re-emerge with the appropriate fashion correction, or occasionally with something even worse on, then we’d have to go through the whole thing again.
My dad was old school, militant, a big, black, 6’2, 250 type-of-cat. He coulda went to the NFL, but it woulda been as a free agent and they didn’t get paid much back then. So when my friends saw him, and heard his deep voice, they’d be scared. But he was really a beautiful cat on the inside. I mean he would play with us until we were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. I remember he used to take us to church, and when it was over we’d be looking all over for him. Where’s dad? Excuse me, have you seen my dad? Do you know where he’d be? In the car passed out ‘sleep. The cat just couldn’t stay awake and he didn’t wanna be disrespectful by sleepin’ in the middle of worship. We used to laugh and tease him about it, but lookin’ back, I respect it. I mean if you believe in somethin’ you should give it all you got, even when you know it ain’t enough…
But you know what’s the funniest thing he ever did?
I can’t even tell you. There are too many to choose from, and you had to be there anyway.
I can tell you ‘bout my mom, though.
Go look on TV at a nature channel when they show birds. Or look at a picture of an eagle. See it’s eye? It’s like this emotionless piercing beam. But you can only look an eagle in the eye one at a time. I used to always be gettin’ in trouble and lyin’ about it, and my mom was always out for the truth. So we would do this prosecutor-defendant thing, sometimes for hours. Suddenly, outta the blue, my mom would put her eagle eye on me. She would just stop cold, and beam me with her eyes wide open, mouth closed, nose flared. Dead silence. And she would just hold it, dead still, without even blinking. It was her last tactic. She was clever, but so was I; I learned it from her. I used to sit in the bed at night going over all my lies to make sure I had not only the story, but every story straight. This was a game of poker. If I win, I live to sin another day. If she win, it’s fire and brimstone. I could either confess, and tell the truth about everything, or I could plea bargain, and give up a little bit of stuff and not get in trouble for the rest, or I could keep bluffin’, but that risked a greater punishment if she actually did know somethin’.
Sometimes I would get bold and eyeball her right back. Sometimes when I did that I couldn’t hold it as long and I would look down, which was like a confession, or smile.
“Why are you smiling? Is something funny?”
And every now and then, rarely, I really hadn’t done nothin’. But who could believe that?
I remember this one time when I was in 3rd grade, my mom walked in while we was in eatin’ and was like “I’m not washin’ yall’s clothes anymore,” and then just walked right out. So I had to learn it all from scratch from that day. All my white clothes turned pink, all my red clothes turned pink, and everything else shrank. She was Austin’s top real estate agent, so I guess that’s one chore that had to do. But she was and is the best cook in the world. But she had this one thing: she wouldn’t clean up the kitchen.
And she wouldn’t cook if the kitchen was dirty. She would just walk into the room with this sweet voice and say, “Oh, I was just about to cook [favorite dish], but the kitchen wasn’t clean so…”
“No, mom,” we’d say all desperate. “I’ll clean it right now.”
“No, it’s OK,.” she’d sing out, “by the time you finish I won’t have enough time.”
“No, we’ll clean it right now. We can do it fast.”
“OK, well, call me when it’s done and if there’s still enough time, I’ll see what I can do.”
Mind games, she was a pro. She had us on point. We’d be watchin’ TV after school, and she would just walk in, turn it off, not say a word, and walk right out. We would just look at each other, sniggling under our breath, and find whatever was wrong in the house. And speakin’ of TV, we were four kids with one remote. Sometimes we all wanted to watch the same thing, sometimes we didn’t. So whoever had that remote, that was power. And you better not sleep on it either. Because the other ones would be watchin’ you and as soon as we could see the veins stop poppin’ outta your hand SNATCH!– there go the remote and your favorite channel. One time my big sister had it, then my mom told her to go clean the dishes. So you know what she did? She took it right there with her in her back pocket. She coulda at least put it on the channel we wanted to watch. We tried to sneak up on her, but this was a big sister, she had eyes in the back of her head. That dish rag came flying…
My mom’s the best mom in the world. My friends wanted her to adopt them. She used to take time off work and take us to nice hotels for Spring Break, and my dad would come when he finished work. She would let us pick any recipe in her dessert cookbook and we would cook it together, and you know the best part was licking the spoon…
You know what she used to love for Mother’s Day? Bath stuff. She used to love taking a good, long bath. And she deserved it…
Do you wanna know the worst thing that ever happened to my family?
A box of ice cream sandwiches.
We had ‘em in the freezer, but we had to ask permission to eat them. One day, my mom checked and the last two were gone, but no one had asked to eat them.
Controversy ensued. Interrogations went on for days, and suspects were re-called for further questioning.
“Don’t get in trouble tryin’ to protect Daniel. If you know somethin’, tell me.”
That’s what they told my little brother. I was far and away the most likely suspect, but wallahi, I didn’t do it.
Me and my brother were on the same Little League basketball team. We had a championship game that Friday, but the situation hadn’t been resolved. My mom promised that there would be no game and instead we were gonna all stay home and get our behinds beat.
We were all looking down, then up at each other, and then all at me, but really, I didn’t do it, and even if I did, as bad as I was, I was a team player. I wouldn’t let anyone go down for me.
Finally, at the last minute, my mom called off her bluff, and we went and won the game.
No one has ever confessed to this crime, but I have a theory. I had this final project my senior year of high school and I had to stay up late a few nights to work on it. I noticed that sometimes my dad would come walkin’ in out of his bedroom in the middle of the night. He’d go right to the fridge, eat somethin’ and go back to the room, without a word. I would even say somethin’ to him but he wouldn’t say anything back. He was taking his midnight snack sleepwalking. I would even ask him about it the next morning and he didn’t remember. So that’s my theory. I think deep down in his inner psyche, he was harboring deep-seated longings for ice cream sandwiches, perhaps triggered by traumatic memories of missing the ice cream truck as a child. You know how it is, by the time you hear it and go ask for change, he’s gone. So he subconsciously arose and devoured them, wrappers and all in a sleep-like state, then went back to bed with no recollection. I’ve put this theory to him but he’s not convinced.
I wish I could tell you the ice cream story he does know about, but he made me promise to stop tellin’ it.
There’s one other story I gotta tell you, because if you meet my family they’re gonna tell you anyways. We moved to North Austin, but we still got our hair cut in East Austin, at Green’s barber shop at 11th and Rosewood. That could only happen on the weekend, and some weekends my parents were busy. This one time in 4th grade, during Christmas break, I had had enough, so I went into their bathroom, took out the clippers and decided to do it myself. I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that Mrs. Green used a guard on the clippers, so I just turned ‘em on and promptly cut a bald spot onto my head. After that I just panicked. I kept trying to fix it, but it was just cutting more bald spots. It wasn’t working like it did in the barber shop. So I came up with a plan. I would put on a hat, go to bed early before my mom came home, then sleep late until she left for work in the morning. It woulda worked if it wasn’t for my own big mouth. We were sitting at the table and I started smarting off to my sister. So she flipped the visor in my cap and everybody just froze.
“Oh my god! Mom’s gonna kill you. What did you do?”
“I was trying to cut it and I don’t know what happened.”
“But why did you try to cut it?”
“Because nobody will take me to Mrs. Green.”
So she took me back to the bathroom. She tried the same thing I did, with no guard, but from the top.
It wasn’t working. So she took some scissors and cut my hair all the way to the bone by hand, then smoothed out the chilly bowl with the clippers.
But what would my mom do when she saw me with a haircut? We decided I should stick to my original plan to go to bed early. But… my mom came in to say good night anyway and noticed I had gone from Bone Thugz to Michael Jordan. Admiring my sister’s craftsmanship, she decided to let it go. Had my dad been the one to discover it, he probably woulda just been like, “That’s one less trip around town for me…”
And since my little sister would probably be the one to tell you this story, I’m gonna tell you one about her. It’s the pre-emptive strike doctrine.
She ate dog food once. She was probably only about 5 and we were all at home alone. She just snuck and ate some and we caught her. We freaked out. I mean, it was for dogs, it’s probably fatal to humans. So my big sister called 911.
“Hello, this is 911. What’s your emergency?”
“Hello, ma’am, my little sister just ate some dog food.”
“I’m sorry, did you say she ate dog food?”
“How much was it?”
“It was just one piece, ma’am.”
“Is she OK?”
“Cicely, are you OK?”
“She said yes.”
“OK, well just give her a little milk and she’ll be fine.”
“OK. Thank you, ma’am.
“Mm-hm. Thank you for calling.”
That’s my family, growin’ up Oliver. You had to be there…
I graduated from Columbia University in 2005, which means I was in NYC on 11 September 2001. Three years later, I accepted Islam in the very same place. I finished class in December of 2005, and started looking for a job. On a whim, I applied to be a substitute teacher in the same school district I had been educated in, and fell in love with it. Later, in the summer, I got a last minute call from the imam of my masjid, mosque, inviting me to go with him to a conference. I had nothing to do, so an hour later, we were on our way to Houston. There I met an older brother who asked me what my job was. I told him I was looking for a teaching job. It just so happened he was the founder of a small charter school, and he offered me a job in Weslaco, a small town on the Texas-Mexico border.
But what about the marriage, right?
Well, I ended up renting a house that was next door to its owner, an older brother named Rana from Lahore. As his renter, we had done business together, and he knew people with whom I had traveled, so he knew me well and trusted me. Everyone did. We were a small community in a one-mosque town, all Pakistani except, well, me. I soon asked him to help me find a wife. He came back from Pakistan on winter vacation and let me know that there was a family near his home there whose daughter was coming of age. He asked me if I was interested- I said yes. Things went back and forth between my future father-in-law and me, via Rana, for a few months. Finally, he told me that to go further we would all need to meet in person. He invited me to visit Pakistan with him in the summer of 2006 and I agreed.
Our last conversation in America was that I would either get married right away, engaged for later, or one or both parties would decide they weren’t interested.
I arrived in Pakistan in the middle of a July night. I walked out of airport to hundreds of pairs of eyes searching for their arriving loved ones, and staring in the meantime at me. It would be a little easier to stare back at the sun. Luckily Rana walked up to me out of the crowd. Allah decreed that me, Rana, his, a driver, and all our suitcases would all fit into a car with no trunk, and there’s no other way we all would have.
Because of the 12-hour time difference, I couldn’t sleep until late morning. When I finally did, as if on cue, a skinny Pakistani boy woke me up. It was Fahiim, my future brother-in-law, and he didn’t know a word of English. I was nearly in a daze, but we managed to communicate by writing because Urdu is written in an adaptation of the Arabic alphabet, which I happened to know. Between that, hand gestures and a lot of smiles, we both managed to convince the other that we understood what he was saying.
Later, about 6 p.m., I met my future wife’s parents at Rana’s neighbor Saliim’s house. I thought we were going to do a chit-chat introduction, but it turned out I was already engaged!
Yeah, somewhere between my friend’s departure from Texas and my later arrival in Lahore, they decided that we would get married after all. Guess that’s how it goes out there.
The only question I was actually asked was, “Is Friday OK for a wedding date?”
I was like “Uh, Friday sounds, uh… wait, let me pray about that.”
Amazingly, that was taken as a yes, and as my heart pounded the meeting continued with a flurry of Urdu and Punjabi, interspersed with a few words of colonial English, and occasional glances in my direction.
Finally, after a few minutes, Rana turned to me and said, “Daniel, we’ll need $1700.”
(That was no problem, except I only had $400 on me. You see, I was gonna be in Pakistan for 3 weeks, and I didn’t think anything could possibly happen, even if we decided to get married, before the first 2, at which time my next paycheck would be in the bank. It wasn’t that I had only brought $400- I only had $400 to my name.
…the day I left from Weslaco, the imam of our mosque, who was also from Pakistan, called me to his house. He gave me $3000 to give to his brother. You’re probably thinking terrorist funding, right?)
“OK, I’ll be right back.”
I went back to my room in Rana’s house and did what any man in my situation would do (assuming another man has ever been in my situation): I borrowed $1300 from my friend’s brother’s money and added it to my own. Hey, I swore to Allah I’d put it all back as soon as I gotmy salary. What was I gonna do, tell everyone I came all the way to Pakistan to get married with no money? It would have made a mockery of me and my host.
The wedding was on.
There was a lot of shopping. From the little anyone decided to translate, I gathered there were going to be several ceremonies. For some, I was supposed to buy my own outfit, for others my future in-laws were to buy outfits for me. And vice versa from their side. And of course, the gold.
If you’re not from Africa or Asia, you’ve probably never seen real gold, or certainly not in any large amount. Well, the gold bazaar in Lahore is basically a thousand or so shops that don’t sell anything under 22-carat (I’d barely seen 18-carat in the U.S.). It’s a strange market feature of Pakistan. Everything is sold in only one place. Gold is sold in the gold market and nowhere else. There is no other place in Lahore where gold can be found. The same goes with books, paper, etc. Vendors there must have some other way of competing.
But don’t worry about the bazaar: you have to get there first…
And you will do that by flagging a rickshaw, negotiating the price, not agreeing, waving down the next guy, agreeing, folding your knees till they almost pop, nearly falling out at a sharp turn because there’s no door, holding something, anything over your face to filter the smog, barely missing other vehicles and pedestrians… There is nothing like the city streets in Pakistan. There can’t be. There are rickshaws which are basically a small carriage strapped to the back of a motorcycle (these used to pulled by a man on foot.) There are carts which are bigger carriages strapped to a motorcycle, the motorcycle replacing what was previously a horse. There are people sitting on small wooden platforms on wheels pulled by a donkey or ox. I don’t know how they don’t fall off ‘cause those things wobble. There are motorcycles with whole families on them, but the ladies don’t straddle- they sit with both of their legs crossed over one side while holding a baby and balancing a sandal on one toe, while the driver is weaving through traffic. And forget helmets. There are people on bicycles. Wallahi, I swear to God, I even saw a guy running in traffic once. There are a few cars, too, mostly fueled by CNG, compressed natural gas.
And there are no lanes. By that I mean that you go into whatever space you can fit in. When in a hurry you may cross all the way the other side of oncoming traffic to go around. Near-miss is a way of life. I know a Pakistani guy whose kids grew up in America. He took them to visit once and his son, as he was standing by the road said, “Now I believe in Allah, Dad.”
“Only now? Why?”
“Because only Allah could keep this kind of traffic from having accidents.”
Well the roads of Lahore made a believer out of me too.
I’m a man, and therefore unlikely to have a lot about shopping that I want to talk about, so I’ll fast-forward you to Friday, the day of the wedding, or so I thought.
“Wake up, you missed Jumua.”
Jetlag had gotten the better of me. It was the day of my wedding, the biggest day of my life, wherein I was to complete half of my religion, and I had slept through Friday prayers. Not a good sign.
Later that night… “Brother, get dressed.”
“I am dressed.”
“But where are your new clothes?”
“What new clothes? I didn’t buy any clothes for today.”
“But brother, this is the nikah, wedding contract ceremony. You can’t wear that. You must wear something new.”
“Nobody told me.”
This happened about, I’d say, one hour before I was supposed to get married. It was true, nobody had told me. You see, Pakistani families are big. People have lots of siblings, and lots of cousins, all of whom are like siblings. When any of them get married, their in-laws become like blood relatives, all of them. So you grow up attending all of your uncles’, aunts’, cousins’, siblings’, nephews’, nieces’ and all of their in-laws’ weddings. By that time there’s so much you take for granted that there’s a lot you’d forget to explain in a 3-day Pakistani wedding crash course, which I was currently failing.
Somehow clothes that fit me magically appeared from the Saliim’s wardrobe, though I’m much taller than him. Still don’t know what he was doing with those. Alhamdulillah…
So the nikah began on my in-laws’ roof. In the shariiá, a wedding contract consists of the bride’s guardian’s consent, her consent, the groom’s consent, and four witnesses. All the aforementioned were present, plus a few relatives, but the bride was downstairs. They signed, I signed, then they took the contract downstairs and she signed.
“Mabruuk, congratulations, you’re married, now go home.”
“When do I get to see my wife?”
“What? Why? When?”
“Just wait a few nights.”
That’s right, we got married before we had ever even seen each other.
Well, I had seen her ID photo, but you know how those turn out. It is allowed and even recommended in Islam for potential spouses to see each other, but not in this branch of Punjabi culture. I brought it up, and was met with a few blank stares, so I decided to let it go.
Meanwhile, Rana’s family took on the traditional role of my family. His female relatives would visit my wife and tell me “Oh, she’s beautiful,” or, “Don’t worry, she’s gorgeous.” That made me nervous. I mean, why’d they have to keep telling me that? If she looked good, she looked good, no need to repeat it a thousand times. And why they keep sayin’ don’t worry? I never said I was worried. Was this some psychological trick? Make me think something ‘til I believe it so much it changes what I see? Yeah, like Shallow Hal? But what happens when I snap out of it.
Believe it or not, sending me home alone wasn’t a sick form of torture. The bride and groom shouldn’t be seen together until a public announcement of their marriage to avoid rumors that they eloped, rumors, apparently, that are hard to avoid…
Two nights later, was the Mehndi Rism, or Henna (handpaint) ceremony. I bought a few kilos of sweets, came with an entourage, and was sat on a fancy swing on a stage- in front of a crowd of about 200. By the way, everyone in Pakistan is Pakistani. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, if you look at America, everyone’s an American citizen, but we’re all from different places. In Pakistan, no one comes from any other place. Everyone in Pakistan is from Pakistan. Except you. And you’re sitting on a swing on a platform in front of 200 people.
Zoos really are inhumane.
Later, finally, my mystery bride arrived in a red dress with gold embroidery. She looked nice, except I couldn’t see her. The veil was very big and hung over her head. At least we got to sit together. Relative after relative came by and put pieces of sweets into our mouths and then much-needed cash into my hand. At one point, someone brought did 3 circles with a live chicken in front of my face. Don’t know what that was about, but they left cash, so…
Then, someone took the money from me, told me to get up, and started escorting me home.
“Where am I going?”
“What about yall?”
“We’re gonna stay and party.”
“Man, what?! I wanna see my wife, maaan…”
“Just a couple more nights, brother.”
They really make you earn it.
The next ceremony was the Bharat, no idea what that translates to. The day of, I noticed a tent being set up on my way to and from the mosque. It was taking up Rana’s whole block. Soon, some huge cooking pots were going. Without telling, Rana had taken the groom’s father’s role by paying for all of this. The Bharat consists of eating some food, then the bride and groom sitting on a couch while family after family comes and sits around them for a picture. Add those flashing lights to the camera lights because the wedding was being videotaped. If you look at most of my wedding pictures, you can see that we’re squinting, despite our best efforts.
These lights, of course, added to the 120-degree heat, as did my suit jacket. It’s a nice night for everyone but you.
At the end, an entourage followed my wife and I to our honeymoon nest.
And there, for the first time- finally!– I saw my wife.
She was beautiful…
Two weeks later and I was back in the U.S. As a sign of what was to come, I got held up by Homeland Security, missing my connecting flight, for three hours. It was your good ol’ good cop-bad cop set-up by guys who needed acting classes.
“What do you think about Osama bin Laden?”
“I never met him.”
“Do you plan to commit terrorist acts on U.S. soil?”
“Would I tell you yes even if I did?”
1 is theUS country code, 92 isPakistan’s. That’s the name because that was the game. On again, off again calling cards, distant echoes, and fuzz. On top of that, my wife didn’t speak much English. Everyone studies English in Pakistan, but they know and use about as much as you use the languages you studied in high school. So it was very difficult to communicate because so much of communication is body language- gestures, drawing pictures in the air, pointing, facial expressions- which you need all the more when there’s a language barrier. People ask if I learned Urdu; I haven’t really, but I cheated and had my wife take an English course.
“Wa alaykum as-salam.”
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. Did you eat?”
She would always ask me this, first thing. Anyone who knows me knows that’s one question you don’t have to ask. This question to our first fight: over cereal. You see, there’s no breakfast cereal in Pakistan, at least not that I or anyone I know there has ever seen. So I would keep telling her that I’d had cereal for breakfast (I soon learned not to mention the times I’d had it for lunch or dinner), but she didn’t know what it was. I was not able to describe it, at least not in a way that put her mind at ease, and I started to sense a growing suspicion and even hostility to my beloved Raisin Bran ©®™ and bananas. Finally, I convinced her that I didn’t eat it that much and just when she was starting to believe me, she got on the phone with my mom. She told her “Yeah, he eats it all the time.” She was referring to the past, of course, as I tried to explain, and I didn’t even live in her house anymore, so she couldn’t possibly know what I ate. But, in a pattern that would continue, they believe each other more than they believe me, even though they both know me better than they know each other.
“What did you eat? Cereal?..” It would hiss off our tongue, like she was spitting out something vile…
By now, we’ve come to a compromise. She eats cereal some, and I eat it much less than before.
“I need more money.”
“What? What happened to the money I sent?
“I want to buy some gold.”
“Why do you want gold?”
“Because I need it.”
“How can somebody need gold?”
“I don’t know, but I do. You don’t understand.”
Sure didn’t. And let me tell you something: I didn’t have a job when I got married. I had resigned from the one I had before I came to Pakistan to move closer to family. Of course, I didn’t tell nobody in Pakistan this- would you have? I figured I’d get a teaching job when I got back, right in time for the next school year. I did get an offer, but found out that Sociology, my major, is specifically listed as not being a social science according to the State of Texas. And I didn’t have enough credits in any other subject. So there I was, jobless with a wife to support, which is a long way of saying desperate.
I finally found a job as a chauffeur. A cat with an Ivy League degree who didn’t know how to tie a tie driving a limo everyday. (I got my brother to tie it for me, then only loosened it enough to take it off but not untie the knot- worked for almost a year.) I lived life one tip from broke, which means I was a slave to the next trip. I might go to bed at 1 and wake up at 3. Pressed for time, I only ironed the front of my shirt and the collar. I had to wear a jacket, so no one was ever
gonna see the rest. And I can tell you all one thing: you don’t need to dry clean suits if you know how to use an iron. I met a few famous people and had some interesting conversations. Once, while driving a woman and her daughter, the woman blamed me for farting. She must’ve thought I couldn’t hear her. I guess the $20 tip she gave me was some kind of compensation.
At any rate, I barely, rarely had enough money. I could’ve made more, but I refused to take any jobs that in any way involved alcohol, and partiers are bigger tippers. I didn’t miss that money at all…
“Are you OK?”
“Ji. Nehi. Buta nehi.”
Her answer to my question is translated as “Yes. No. I don’t know.” Only a woman can confuse a man so profoundly.
But they were all true. She was happy to hear from me. That, more than even food, was her sustenance. I’d lived a lot of life before Islam, but this was her first love, her only love, her only contact with an unrelated male. She didn’t even know what a kiss was before. It was a total love: there was nothing in her heart to which she could compare it.
To further illustrate, she stopped eating when I left. She was hospitalized twice within a few weeks of my departure for low blood pressure. I’d never heard of it, so I scoured the internet to find a cause. Finally I correctly guessed that she hadn’t been eating.
She was grieving.
There was nothing even her family could do. Whenever she was doing anything, she was also waiting for me to call. Only I could get her to eat, or go to sleep.
So yes, she was OK, because we were together again, even if it was only our voices.
And no, she wasn’t, because sooner or later that call would end, plunging her back into that interminable agony of missing me.
And she didn’t really know what to feel, because this was all too new, and much too much to have to go through alone.
I used to end every call with “I love you” and do you know what she would say back? “OK.” She didn’t even know what love was, yet she had fallen hopelessly, mysteriously in it.
The outside pressures were enormous, and unfair.
“When’s the last time he sent money?”
“He didn’t call you today, did he?”
Her family’s so-called friends actually asked this. Some people would say I wasn’t coming back. It started before the marriage even began. In the unedited wedding video, before it was dubbed over with music, wedding guests are overheard gossiping about us over the food that we had served them.
“How can she marry him? He’s too tall for her.”
“He came to Pakistan before and fell in love with her; that’s how they met.”
Can you believe it? Why? All for their sick, sad amusement. It was like making their own little soap opera, all the more entertaining because the characters were real, life imitating art imitating life ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
Even our respective national intelligence agencies got in on the act. Imagine an undercover agent coming to tell you your son-in-law had been in jail the last 3 days.
“But he’s been calling her 4 or 5 times a day…”
“Maybe they let him call from jail.”
So I get arrested for terrorism charges, and instead of throwing me in a secret prison, they let me make 4 phone calls a day, to Pakistan? Wow. Better sign up for script-writing after those acting classes are finished.
Needless to say, as an African-American, a Muslim, and a person with connections to Pakistan, my profile throws up a lot of red flags. I’m not Homeland Security’s flavor-of-the-month, or maybe the problem is that I am. It’s not worthwhile to tell you how far they would go- and how they get others, even community leaders to go with them- but it’s pretty far. It’s also ridiculous. I guess danger’s part of what makes it an adventure. I’ve been in trouble my whole life anyway. At least it’s for something right this time, if you call that a bright side. I don’t complain. As was said in ‘The Godfather II’ and ‘The Road to Perdition’: this is the life I chose.
So why didn’t I just bring her to America? Well…
…everyone involved thought that after getting married, her entry visa would take the usual 4 months, which would allow us to be together while her residency application processed. As of now, it’s been more than 15 times that long and still nothing. Just a bunch of badly-rehearsed excuses and shady 6-foot, 220 characters asking when we can have a “chat”. Why? I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count…
First they told me that a delay in processing had begun for applications after a certain date. I had applied before but that date didn’t seem to matter. There’s always either an obvious idiot or a cold-hearted bureaucrat on the other end of that call, one unable, the other unwilling, to help.
The Eagles’ song could have been about me if it hadn’t been written before I was born: I was just a hired hand, working on a dream I planned to try. I was underemployed and underpaid driving, with a marriage I had no idea how to keep alive.
For her part, a friend of mine always says that ideas have consequences. Well grief, worry, love, longing, doubt and hope are all ideas. And they were having consequences. Her hair was falling out. She was losing weight and being periodically hospitalized.
Music makes love and suffering seem like something you actually want. They’re not. The situation was as unbearable as it was interminable. We couldn’t take it anymore.
But there was no end in sight…
By all normal expectations, we shouldn’t have been married.
In Pakistan and South Asia, there is the issue of caste. If anyone from there tells you any different, they’re covering it up to fit in. It is not as all-encompassing in Pakistan as it is in India, but it is very much a part of marriage decisions. I can prove it. Go to any Muslim magazine. Flip to the back. You’ll see matrimonials. Read the ads. You might see, for example, the word “Rajput”. That’s a caste. They want to marry someone from their caste. They only want to marry someone from their caste.
On top of not being in her caste, or any that I know of, I’m a kalloo, a black. Anti-dark skin and anti-African racism has the potential to unite the world. It is one thing that most cultures seem to agree on, including, sickly, dark-skinned people and Africans themselves. If anyone from anywhere tells you this isn’t true, just go to where they’re from and ask any dark-skinned people or Africans about that. Or, when you visit a country, compare how many dark-skinned people you see on the street compared to how many you see on TV. The only ones you’ll see are in the “before” portion of the skin-lightening cream commercials.
And Pakistan is a controversial country to be connected to, to say the least. A lot of people fear it, or outright hate it. I remember driving a newly-wed couple from their wedding to a hotel for their honeymoon.
“Are you married, too?”
“Oh, really? Where’d you get married?”
We really do make an odd-couple. We’re over a foot apart in height. I’m black, she’s white. I’m the far-flung rebel, she’s the goody-goody homebody. I’m extroverted, she’s introverted. And our cultures and languages are vastly different.
“Why did you say yes when they asked if you wanted to marry me?”
“I don’t know.”
That’s the answer I always get when I ask, and I believe it. When she asks me, I can’t come up with anything different.
Life is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Remember those? You read through a situation and it ends with the character facing two choices:
Choose A and turn to page X.
Choose B and turn to page Y.
Your choice, in turn, leads to two more choices. But you didn’t know what they’d be until you’d already turned the page to them.
Except in life, you can’t turn back the page. That choice is never available to you. You don’t come to the options of consequences of your choice, and decide to go back and pick others. You can only continue to choose. And that’s it. There’s no other way to describe it.
It doesn’t matter why I did what I did, because it’s already done; but I’ll still try to tell you. For one, the taste of adventure intrigued me. I’ve always wanted something different. There’s always been something about where I am- wherever I am- and who I am- though the most part I love- that I’ve hated. I’ve always wanted to be different, to do different. Whenever I look at the road that’s paved for me, I step off it and walk on the grass. It’s softer on my feet.
I used to be so filled with rage, and I still am, but no longer consumed by it. I wanted revenge against the society I was born in. You know what I hated the most? Humiliation. I hated the fact that I was in America because my every second there was a reminder that my ancestors had been dominated, ripped from their lands and history, my history, raped and enslaved. I hated my own- the European trophy on the grave of my African and Native American ancestors. I looked around and all I saw was people being abused, and taking it. It was unfathomable. Talk about my mama, and I woulda beat you up, but you know what the real insult was? Telling me what to do. Who did you think you were that I would obey you? Who did you think I was? I will not do what you say, even if it’s what I want to do, for the exact reason that you told me to do it. I will correct you. Further, I will humiliate you for your arrogance against me. I will make you wallow, publicly, in the humiliation you dared to believe I would accept.
I remember once, in 2nd grade, there was an assembly. So the teacher told us to line up and get ready to go. I can’t tell you why, but I refused. She made every threat, but I would not get in line with the rest of the class. Finally, she turned off the lights and led the class out. I called her bluff and stayed right there, until the assembly finished and they came back. Her blunder was that I had no bluff. There was nothing anyone could do to me, no threat that I could even imagine, that was worse than living with humiliation. I could endure anything except shame. Living with the memory of oppression was a worse fate than death.
You know what really used to trip me out? Watching everybody tripping out on me. I’d be looking at them taking orders and conforming and I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t they see they didn’t have to? How could they ever want to? I mean I was there setting the example, fighting for all of us, right in front of their faces. It hurt me to watch them endure what in my eyes could only be suffering, and I was fundamentally, absolutely bewildered that they couldn’t see the point. I was really popular, these were my friends. I was the class clown, class rebel and honor roll student, all at the same time. Everybody liked me and was probably a little leery of me at the same time.
So everything and everyone feels familiar and utterly foreign to me at the same time. There’s no crowd I don’t feel lonely in, no people I can consider wholly mine, none who consider me wholly theirs.
That’s probably why I travel, why I’m free. I have nothing to gain or lose. I feel like I can do anything. There’s nothing to hold me back. I’m always on the outside looking in, and the inside looking out. It’s not so much that I transcend, it’s that everywhere is the same. There are just the obligatory adjustments of language, currency, time zone, etc. Hard times ain’t a hurdle for me.
So that’s why I said yes to the marriage.
Sometimes people say, “I wish I could’ve done that.” Not about this “strange marriage” but other things I’ve done, like transferring to another university, or studying abroad. I’m like “Why couldn’t you have? You could’ve applied as easily as me…” But it wasn’t the practicalities they were talking about. It is only now, and I mean at this exact moment as I am writing to you, that I realize what it was really all about.
You can’t dream.
In Sociology, I learned that institutionalization means taking the present reality for granted to the extent that you can’t imagine anything else, even if you don’t like it, even if it feels wrong.
You can’t even picture yourself even trying.
This isn’t what you want, you’re not who you want, but at least you know what’s on the next page. If you start choosing your own way, you won’t know, and that’s why you don’t choose it. I don’t blame you, because I’m as scared as you. But what I’m scared of is what’s on this page, and what I know is on the next one. What I’m scared of is the way we feel right now. The reason I take the risk isn’t because I’m stronger than you. I have no idea what’s gonna happen next and I swear to God that I’m afraid. But I know it’s our only chance, and that’s why I take it. I’m not brave- I’m just less afraid of change than the misery of things staying the same.
And that’s all this story is really about when you think about: a choice. One simple choice, and all the choices that were opened or closed to me after it. Marry the girl or not. At the same time, so much of that choice was beyond my choosing. Her father chose Islam over culture and that gave his daughter the choice. She, in turn, chose yes, which gave me the choice. There is a verse in the Qur-an which is translated as “and you do not choose except as Allah Chooses”. Before we choose anything, so much has been chosen before it for us to even be able to.
Now I’m gonna ask you a question, the answer to which is a question, that only I can answer.
Do you know what my friend just texted me, tonight, right before I started writing this chapter?
“Based on the story i’m reading on the net. have you been back home with your wife yet?”
The answer’s no and yes: no, I have not taken her to the land of my upbringing; yes, for we are home wherever we are. Wherever we arrive, we project an aura, the same aura, from our hearts, and its beams meet itself right at the top of wherever we are, then we bring it down, then it fills the entire space that we are in. Then we are home, in our love, in our special culture.
Our dream is the only home we have, and by Islam we realize them: that every person was made to live in peace- wholeness within, unity without. Every person has the right to inherit that peace, the duty to uphold it, and the responsibility to pass it . It is only that, truly, that unites my wife and I, across the chasms of culture, background, and personality: we share the same dream.
Don’t underestimate them: dreams are the most powerful things in this world. And the most dangerous. Name anything, and we have more than enough of it. Maybe they’re being squandered or hoarded, but there’s more than enough water, food, land, oil, everything. The one thing there isn’t enough of is room for everyone’s dream to come true. It is for this alone that wars are fought. This, not money, is the root of all evil, for money is only a means to achieve. This is the source of every lie- for at all times, every effort is being made to create your dream for you, because your dreams determine your choices. Everyone wants you to choose as they have chosen, because in life, really, there are only 2 choices: wake up to your dream one day, or somebody else’s.