Growin’ up Oliver

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.

DAD?!

“What?!”

“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’.”

“Dad, please.”

“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.

 

Bzzzzz-GHHH!  “AAHH!!”

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?”

“Yes.”

“How much was it?”

“It was just one piece, ma’am.”

“Is she OK?”

“Cicely, are you OK?”

“Yes.”

“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…

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Strange Marriage

“You got married in Pakistan?!”
“It’s not the craziest thing I’ve ever done…”

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?”

Strange Marriage, Part 4

Patience is the most pain…

My brother forwarded me an email once.  Some school in Saudi Arabia was looking for an English teacher.  I read it and deleted it.

Meanwhile, things continued as before.  I knew that to get my life together I needed a regular schedule and salary.  So I signed up for a temp job at Dell.  It paid less than driving a limo could, but, at least I knew where I was going to be at a given time of day.

Now when I told my wife that I was going to work in a factory, I made a mistake, and she made a mistake.  I told her I was going to work from 4 pm to 1230 am.  She started imagining the sweatshop her brother worked in with me in it.

So she was expecting a call at 1230 my time, but I had made a huge mistake.  I was working until 230 am.  We could not use phones at any time or place in the factory, so I just kept working.  When I finally did call, her only words were tears.

“Do they have AC?” she kept asking.

I said, “Yes, they have AC, they give us breaks, everything’s fine.”

She didn’t believe me.  She thought I was covering it up just so she wouldn’t worry.  Her brother worked long hours at a sewing machine with no ventilation and dim lights, and that was actually pretty good, considering what goes on in other factories.

“Don’t worry.  America only allows that outside of our country,” I assured her.

I wasn’t the only over-qualified guy in the factory.  I used to meet up for coffee before work with a Tunisian guy who was very intellectual, and working on a Master’s degree.  I should say coffees.  The guy picked me up for work at 2.15 and we didn’t start until four o’clock.  And my house was only 15 minutes away!  When he called I was barely awake, which was not a problem because we spent the next hour and 15 minutes exploring the outer reaches of free refills.  Once we spent 3 hours at a Starbucks on a night work finished early, which means I kept having to tell my wife I’d call her back.  Needless to say, she didn’t approve of this friend.  She doesn’t seem to approve of any of the friends I have coffee with, now that I think about it…

Somehow, I started to think about that email my brother had sent me.  My first trip abroad ever involved backpacking Europe in a Mercedes, if you can imagine that, and I’d had the “travel bug”- this desire, this need to be other places- ever since.  Maybe it started a little before that, but ever since I felt like a fish in a fishbowl that was floating in the ocean.  I had to get out.  My teaching license petition wasn’t going anywhere either, so maybe that was it, too.  I asked my brother to resend it, and alhamdulillah he still had it.

My interview with the school changed my life.

They told me about the job, blah, blah, blah, but when I started asking them about bringing family, they said I would be able to have my wife there within 2 months.  Getting that job in Saudi Arabia became my mission in life.  Saudi or bust..

I did everything.  They told me to get any teaching certificate, so I found the only one that was immediately available, a 20-hour weekend certificate in New Jersey.  I missed a flight to New York, got on another one to D.C. and took a train to New York, slept out in Jersey.  I needed some, any teaching qualification to be eligible for a visa.  I straggled my way back to my D.C., where my brother was working.  Then I called them to let them know everything was ready.  And you know what they told me?

Nothing.

They played me.  They were all off on summer vacation. 

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this only hardened my resolve.  I looked up an old friend, the same one who had invited me to Islam in fact, who I’d heard was teaching in Saudi Arabia.  He directed me to some English language teaching websites where job ads were posted.  I literally applied for every single job in the Middle East.  Unless they said they wanted a Ph.D, they got an application from me that summer.

Saudi Arabia has its particulars.  Their work visa requires a medical screening that should be the newest Olympic sport.  I took the form from the consulate to ProMed, and they kept looking at it, scratching their heads, going to ask someone in the back, looking at me, and scratching their heads again.

“What’s this for?”

“It’s for a visa to Saudi Arabia.”

“But why do they want all these tests?”

“I guess they don’t want any diseases in their country.”

“Yeah, they probably have enough problems already…”

I had to give a blood test, drug test, urine test, AIDS test, chest x-ray.  There was even a stool sample.  I didn’t know what a stool sample was, but, now that I do, I can tell you that you do NOT want to know how to “collect” and store one.

Whatever, I was on my plane to Saudi.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but when I saw Jeddah for the first time on the highway from the airport, I was shocked.  It was just. like. America.  The billboards, the cars, the clothes.  Everything.  OK, well there were about 100 times more people wearing black or white robes, but still.  Somewhere, apparently, and without my permission, they’d figured out that AC is much more effective than the shade of a palm tree, and traded in horses for horsepower…  It was just- I guess I’d read so much about the first generations of Muslims that I hadn’t imagined what else could have happened in the land they once lived in.  It’s not that I expected to go back in time or to be in some kind of holy land.  But I was expecting the difference to be greater.

The Bollywood music started and the crowd parted.  My wife walked out of the terminal, saw me, started gushing, and in a near run interrupted by bounds of joy, she fell into my outstretched arms and bouquet of roses.  

Then I woke up to the fight of my life.

It was Ramadan, which in the Arabian Gulf means shortened work hours, which means that the application for my residency permit, essential to my wife’s visa application, was going nowhere slow.  If you ask anybody for anything, they’ll tell you “After Eed.”  It’s not a holy month, it’s the perfect excuse…

I had to work on site till about 12 at the outskirts of Jeddah, hop on the first thing smoking back to my office, and start hounding this guy or that guy, whoever the buck was being passed to, about the application.  It turned out my boss was giving me the run-around.  He kept telling me to have someone else sign something that only he had the authority to sign, and by the way, he always takes Ramadan (and most other months) off, so the only way to get him to sign something was to give it to the guy who drove to his house from the office once a night.  I had to figure this all out bit-by-bit while getting over jet lag, fasting, going through a heat wave that makes Texas seem like Switzerland, and some mysterious headaches, probably brought on from the aforementioned three.

I had to get violent on those cats.  I went through all this trouble to get the driver guy to get a signature, then get that paper to the stamp guy, who doesn’t give a stamp without a signature, and then give the paper to the PR guy, whose job was to take things to government offices.  Do you know what this PR fool did when I finally tracked him down to give him the paper?  He picked it up like it was a towel and practically crumpled the whole thing.  After all I’d done.  I punched him in the chest.  I wasn’t angry (that’s what every guy says when he’s angry)-  I was just the new guy takin’ the shortcut to a little respect.  I hope that didn’t break my fast.  astaghfirullah

Finally it was all done.  Me and my wife’s paperwork were ready.  According to one veteran ex-pat, it was the Saudi record for getting the family’s paperwork done.

There was just one more thing, to bring her.  Normally, people just buy their wife a ticket and meet her at the airport.  I, however, was unwilling to break the Prophetic order forbidding a woman to travel long distances without a close relative.

“Brother, honestly, you’re wasting a lot of money.”

She’s not going to be traveling alone.  Her family will bring her there, then she’s on the plane with lots of people, and then you’ll meet her at the airport.  Someone will be there the whole time.”

This is what people were telling me, including my boss, who’s money I was borrowing to buy all the tickets, and whose travel agency was booking the ticket, and who’s language center I was going to be absent from for a day.  It’s a miracle this even happened now that I think about it.  alhamdulillah

I didn’t care.  I was willing to pay for a $100 visa to Pakistan, and a roundtrip ticket, only to stay for a day, on top of her one-way ticket, to follow my religion.

Besides, I wasn’t gonna take no chances wit’ my baby…

Her dad and brother met me at the airport.  When I walked into the house, she was helping her mother in the kitchen.  The first thing she did was look away, shy…

We didn’t hug- they don’t do that in front of other people in Pakistan.  We didn’t even smile.  There was too much worry, relief, gladness, and nervousness to know what face to make.  We’d been longing for so long we didn’t know how to feel anything else right away…

“as-Salamu álaykum”

“wa álaykum as-Salam”

Those simple words had so many thousand shades of meaning at that moment, and we meant every single one of them.

People had a certain smell when they are sick.  She had it.   Her skin was sallow, her voluminous hair thinned.  They say patience is a virtue.  I say that of all verbs, ‘wait’ is the most painful.  I don’t know what’s worse, being burned by the fire of the urge of what you think you can do, or the torment of knowing you can do nothing.  I’d had a lot of both.

As if on cue, our flight from Abu Dhabi was delayed.  Overnight.

You’re a young sheltered Pakistani girl, who’s only seen planes in the sky.  Now you’re in the middle of of one of the world’s busiest hubs with all kinds of people flying past- a line of 50 Malaysians with mini-visors sticking out of their hijabs making a beeline at you, a towering, Sudani family wearing miles of cloth taking your breath away, some squawky Brits brushing you aside.  Announcements blare in languages you can’t understand.  You’re alone and you don’t know where to go, who to ask, or even what to ask.

What would I have done if her flight had been delayed overnight and I was sitting in Jeddah not knowing where she was or how to reach her?  What would I have told her family that night at the time they were waiting to hear from her?  What would my friends and their advice do for me me then?

I felt vindicated.

As a reward, al-Ittihad Airways sponsored our second honeymoon:  a one-night stay with a free breakfast buffet in an Abu Dhabi hotel.

I had rented our apartment the day before I left.  I hadn’t even slept there myself, nevermind furnished it.  But it was home, our home, at last.  Only then could we finally take a breath and get a real look at each other again.

She was still beautiful…

To be concluded…

Strange Marriage: The Beginning…

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?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, really?  Where’d you get married?”

“Pakistan.”

Silence…

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.

Ready?

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.

Choose wisely.

windows without walls (my improbably journey to Islam & a lot of other places, part III)

There was nothing but me. No one had been more free than I had. I
took that to mean that I was the one to blame for the troubles in my
life. It also meant that nothing could stop me. I let everything go,
literally thrown everything away, knowing that everything and everyone
that had ever really been there would come back.

To make a long story short, I took a vow of celibacy (which no one
took seriously) and went back home, the prodigal son. One sharp look
from my mom said all that needed to be said about my dredlocks and a
lot of other things. My first order of business was to get back into
school. Imagine telling people that you dropped out of your third
year in the Ivy League to be a player.

I got re-accepted- they were no match for my characteristic
hard-headedness- and ran into an old friend from the basketball court.
My suitemates and I were having a monthly party called “Last Friday”
at the end of every month, very low key for me, so I invited him.

“I don’t drink, I don’t dance, I don’t listen to music. I’m a
Muslim,” he smiled, and then I saw it.

He had changed.

Gone was the tight-lipped bravado and swagger of one of the nation’s
best high school ballers. In place of his usual cool was an
uncharacteristic constant smile and a beard. His whole face had
changed. And his clothes too. His pants were tucked into his
Timberlands.

At that moment I knew: this is it. I’ve been trying to change, a
believer without a way, and he’s changed. Whatever he believed was
the truth.

I wasn’t ready to cancel the party just yet, but I asked him to tell me more.

“And if you are in doubt about that which we have sent to our servant,
Then bring a single chapter of its equal and likeness,
and call forward your witnesses (to its making) besides Allah,
if you are indeed truthful.
And if you have not done (this)-
and you will never do (it)-
then be wary of the fire whose fuel is men and stone,
prepared for the rejecters (of truth and right).
And give glad tidings to those who affirm (truth and right) and work
righteousness that theirs are gardens (of paradise), underneath
which flow rivers…”
-Qur-an 2.23-5

I couldn’t believe it. I had to believe it. No one could say that.
I had read hundreds of books- autobiographies, encyclopedias,
textbooks of every subject, histories, diaries, fiction, poetry,
political manifestos, fables and folklore- and no one had ever made
such a claim, of infallibility, of supreme confidence, of ultimate
challenge. Even the most widely-accepted scientific knowledge was
mostly considered theory. Every textbook was in its umpteenth
edition; why? Because mistakes or updated knowledge had been
discovered since the last edition. No one- not Einstein, not Michael
Jordan, not Criss Angel, no one- had ever claimed to have done
something which could be neither surpassed nor approached, even in its
details. No one, of course, who had not been subsequently made a fool
of, if they were not already known to be a fool, and summarily erased
from history.

No this, this shocked me. Only God could say that, I thought. If
this book was indeed of a miraculous nature, then it was the greatest
miracle of all time. Why? Why would a book be greater than Ram’s
stringing of Shiva’s bow, or Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, or Jesus’
revival of the dead Lazarus? It was greater because, again, if it was
indeed a miracle, if there ever was a miracle, this was the only one
left standing.

No one claims to have Shiva’s bow, and even so, long deceased are the
witnesses of its stringing. The Red Sea- and I have been to its coast
and talked to someone as he sailed across it- is definitely back to
normal. And Lazarus has since died again. But the Qur-an, if there
is any miracle about it, is still standing, and the one in my office
is no different that the thousand year-old copy in Uzbekistan, or even
the oldest hand-written original. Anyone who can read Arabic can
verify that.

So is it a miracle? It welcomes your doubts as it still does mine.
Read this example:

“He has set free the two seas meeting together
Between them is a barrier which they do not transgress?
-Qur-an 55.19-20

Still not convinced? Check out the introduction to King Leopold’s
Ghost, a book about the Congo by Adam Hochshild. It describes how
this river pushes out into the sea for a great distance without its
freshwater mixing with the Atlantic. It is said that Jacques Cousteau
was the first to photograph this barrier phenomenon, which I’ve yet to
verify. At any rate, it is a known scientific phenomenon, and
research is even being done to use freshwater barriers to prevent
saltwater seepage.

If Muhammad, may Allah Bless him and Grant him peace, had invented the
Qur-an, how could he have known this? He was illiterate. Even if he
was educated, this knowledge was not available at the time. Supposing
he made it up and happened to guess right, for one, he would have had
to guess right for all the other scientific discoveries the Qur-an
preceded, which is impossible if not unlikely. Further, what value
would such a claim have had at the time? Because it was irrelevant
and unverifiable, and not altogether fantastic, it would have done
nothing to convince people towards Islam.

I did my research, and decided that that this verse, and the many
others like it, was a sign left by Allah not for the early Muslims,
but for all the generations that would follow them. As every copy of
the Qur-an is identical to the original scrolls, they are proof of a
wisdom that could only have come from above. They are a taste test
that everyone can individually scrutinize individually and openly.
They are miracles. Just as such verses were unobservable but
ultimately proven true, so, the Qur-an argues, is the case with its
claims of resurrection, recompense and reward and much else.

But there was something else, too, something besides all the eloquent
logic I was starting to read in translation. Something inside me. I
felt like I was finding something I’d already found, something I’d
known inside me like the vague, disparate recollections of a dream.
The signs I was reading were confirming and explaining signs I’d been
seeing in my self for years, great and small. Years earlier, without
knowing why, I’d resolutely given up eating pork. When I was in
Australia, I once fasted from morning to night for one month. I just
felt that it was right, that I needed it for strength and discipline.
I had stopped shaving because I found it unnatural. Also when I was
in Australia, I woke up everyday at sunrise and prayed, then washed. I
had begun to see it as an obligation to give, and in New York, let me
tell ya, there are plenty of people to give to. And why, I asked
looking back to my childhood, did my brother and I have a habit of
prostrating on our foreheads before we went to sleep? Maybe you can
imagine how many times my heart stopped, or how many times my eyes
still burst in tears at finding out that what was in me was true

As an intellectual, I’d made the world my classroom, and people and
places had become my books. I was a scribe of the spoken word, with a
library that catalogued thoughts and lives. That’s not to say that I
wasn’t well-read. I was, and perhaps extraordinarily so. In time my
interests turned toward religion. I don’t think I was looking for
something to believe. I just found it all interesting. Soon, and I
presented this theory at Sydney University, I surmised that all
religions were variants of some original, and differed on grounds of
culture based on the parts of the world they were in. After all,
language limits and allows the concepts its speakers are allowed to
think in, so it seemed natural to assume that the same religion would
vary on the surface across cultures. Some form of prayer or
meditation, asceticism, and other elements seemed to universal to be
independent. As such, I postulated that God must have spoken to
somebody somewhere, and that, those words and none other, were exactly
what I wanted to read. So I decided to study Hebrew and Sanskrit,
because those were the oldest languages I knew about, to find and
decipher just what God had said. I guess I was looking for something
to believe in.

Arabic is not the oldest language, but it does contain the oldest book
which is universally held to be untainted. Moreover, and this excited
me about my theory, Islam seemed to contain all those universal
elements of religion, in a unified, congruent system. It has the
asceticism of Buddhism without going to the extreme of monasticism.
There is the rhythmic profundity of the Vedas with no contradiction or
mystery.
The all-embracing love of Christianity is honed with discipline, while the
moral guidance of the Torah is found without descending into formalism.
The social code is as comprehensive as Confucianism, and the
unifying theory of nature resonates with the principles of Daoism and
many other natural/mystic belief systems. It even deals masterfully with
the skepticism and rightful demand for the right to inquiry of atheism,
agnosticism and modern science.

I have suffered, admittedly at my own hands, for so long. It took me
years of searching to even realize I was searching. And now I
realized that I didn’t have to find my own way, that I had something
to which I could bring my doubts, and that I had been right, in some
way, all along. The Straight Path stretched before me. I took my
first step one night by declaring that there was no deity but Allah
and that Muhammad was his Messenger.

So what happened, right? Did my parents kick me out of the house?

Well, I wasn’t living at home at the time, for one. And knowing my
wiles and caprice, no one probably took it seriously at first. But
from surrendering to Allah, I started to affirm his truth, with the
hopes of one day perfecting my self and practice. I think that has
kept me, elevating my struggles to strivings and tempering my
successes with humility. I’m a better grandson, son, nephew, brother
and cousin than I was before, and I think my ties with my family are
stronger because of Islam, even though we differ about it. To be
sure, I lost a few friendships, but some of them were very surface and
false anyway, so I don’t miss what I never had. Anyway, who’s to say
we wouldn’t have fallen out of touch anyway, as much as I move around.
Due in large part to Facebook, I have to admit, many, many of my
friendships are graciously intact.

I still travel, still love nature. I spent a year teaching in the
lost valley that borders Mexico. There was a beautiful bird sanctuary
with a crocodile there, close to the Gulf of Mexico. I traveled to
Pakistan and got married, and saw the beautiful hills of Murree at the
foothills of the Himalayas with my wife. My Spanish came in handy in
Mexico City and Monterrey, where I met the bravest and most innocent
people I can remember. After a year in Oman, where my daughter was
born, I was relieved to see the rain and lush green of northern
Thailand last summer. And I’ve still got miles to go before I sleep.

I’m as aware of wrongdoing Muslims as anybody, but Islam is not
constituted by the Muslims. It’s a framework. One looks through it,
and acts within it. I do not feel that it limits my vision or walk.
Rather it frees from the debilitating, inhibiting effects of the
faults that we all have, the false lures of life, the limitations of
ignorance, and the misguidance of satan. It is a window without
walls, through which I invite you all to look and transcend.

And peace be upon whoever follows guidance…
-Qur-an 20.47

i thought that i was living all along but i was wrong… (my improbable journey to Islam & a lot of other places, part II)

Little did I know where it would take me. I landed in Perth, as far from Sydney as I could afford, and tried my luck with a hostel that promised a job. I needed a change. I needed to change. My logic was that the further I was from everything and everyone I knew, the easier it would be. After a while I met a Dutch guy who was driving around Australia from Sydney to Sydney. He invited me to the rest of the journey. I said I didn’t have enough money. He said he didn’t either, when we ran out of dough we’d just pick fruit or some other work. So I said why not, and we recruited two others and began.

What I saw was more than a frame should attempt to hold, wonders so beautiful that they only belong in the heart, and so permanent that nothing is lost if they’re forgotten. What I felt was absolute freedom- no cellphone reception, no task except our next target, no walls except the horizon. We went to places where the only signs of human life were us. There was Shell Beach, whose name is self-explanatory. We visited the Pinnacles, a white sand field where meters-tall calcium deposits stand as the sole survivors of millennia of erosion. We even saw a shark, just a baby who didn’t know where it was supposed to be hunting, but I met a surfie who had seen her friend get snatched off of his surfboard by a Great White. And kangaroos. They were like deer in Texas, in the desert, on the beach, everywhere. Sunsets replaced television, and the moon and stars, freed from their competition with city lights, reassumed their natural role. And yeah, I picked a lot of fruit, canteloupes and capsicum to be exact. I even did 3 weeks as a glassie in a bar. This was a 3-month trip, mind you.

But what impressed me the most were the signs. Everything I saw was awakening thoughts in my mind. Everything was too beautiful, too calm, too perfect and utterly real to be a mistake. I started to see the order and notice the cycles of living and life, and realized that I could have died before I’d ever lived. In fact, I realized that I had been dead to a higher reality that I was just beginning to awaken to like a sleeping man jolted fully awake by a tremendous roar of thunder. My heart was racing. My mind was reeling. I was filled with two sentiments. One was shame and guilt at the death I’d been living.

The other was God.

Who, after all, decreed the ‘laws’ of physics and nature? How are such laws maintained to immutability? Where, to refer to the Big Bang Theory, did that infinitesimally dense particle of matter come from? Why, if you think about it, did explode at all? Why did it explode exactly when it did, instead of not later or sooner? Who provided the force behind its explosion? Most of all and after all, why?

Didn’t there have to be a one wise with all wisdom? An undeniable authority? An independent creator and source? One who sets time and is at the same time free from it? An unsurpassable power and strength? A chooser with the power to fully execute any choice? A love eternal and unconditional?

At my furthest straying, I’d never stopped believing. But I’d forgotten that I believed. And I was born into my fading beliefs, I’d never consciously chosen them. Now, I asked myself, as I thought of the thousand nights of parties that celebrated nothing, filled with fake friends covering our misery with fake smiles, hiding our isolation behind smoke, drowning our thoughts in music, gyrating our tormented selves as we blinded our consciences with poison. Now, why do I believe in one thing and not give it time or energy, and not believe in another, but give it all I’ve got?
My life was completely backwards. I’d wasted all of it. But one thing gave me hope in all the despair

I was still alive, more than ever and for the first time…

uluru uhuru

nothing’s so fast
as choosing your own path
further we fled
breathing peace after being dead
and it’s not just uluru
it’s that and everything
every little thing

take your turn, your turn others take
as we share this air, so we share this fate
and the water’s clear for the coral’s sake
not a single soul can the whole earth sate

wake by sunrise
when it sets we die
so we live each life
like the first and final tide
and it’s name’s not ayer’s rock
’cause he don’t own a single thing
noone owns a thing

take your turn, another’s turn take
as we share this air, so we share this day
and the water’s clear for the coral’s sake
not a single soul can the whole world sate

even birds understand:
it’s more than just songs that they sing
at the end of the road that’s paved for me
there’s nothin’ but me

* “uluru” is the pitjantjatjara name of ayer’s rock, australia’s inselberg of many colors
* “uhuru” is swahili for “freedom”

i came to the fork in the road and went straight… (my improbable journey to Islam & a lot of other places, part I)

i came to the fork in the road and went straight…

I love travel. It is a love that began without me noticing. I grew up in Texas, far from my mother and father’s Rhode Island and Virginia roots, so annual trips to see the grandparents were probably my first travel experiences. Those were road trips, by the way; it’s expensive to fly four kids cross country. My dad’s parents had bought a huge recreational vehicle, or camper, and I still remember our trips through forests and up and down the Atlantic coast.

After that, sports took me a long way. Between basketball and soccer tournaments and track meets, I’ve spent as much time on a school bus and crammed in a van as I can stand. All us cool guys would sit at the back of the bus, but that was also where going over a speed bump can pop you out of your seat, or jolt you awake from a nap. Once on the way to a soccer tournament, I was the only guy in the van who couldn’t speak Spanish. Someone would tell a joke and they’d all laugh while I waited for a translation, only to find that the funny part was often untranslatable.

Travel came to me with a sense of adventure. The colleges who recruited me flew me to their campuses in my senior year of high school, and I saw all different kinds of climates (Imagine a Texas boy seeing snow in May!) and people. I broke up a fight on the streets of London, and then literally had to flee- for my life, I presumed- back to my hostel. During a trip to Europe, I saw currencies, languages, architecture and geographies change several times in less than the time it took to drive across Texas. I was an extra in the Matrix II and got free entry to premier nightclubs because of people who had seen me there. In many ways, my life was like a movie, and I won’t say what rating.

I love nature. After 3 semesters at Columbia University in the thick of New York City, I enrolled at Sydney University (Australia) as an exchange student. The orientation took place in the Blue Mountains, so named for the hue it reflects from a distance. After our first night there, I walked out of my cabin, took a breath, and smelled nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was clean fresh air, as far as I could remember for the first time. That one moment, that single impression, has left more of a mark on me than any book or lesson or song or conversation.

It was a sign.

I almost got killed. It was all a mix-up where someone’s bag was stolen that looked like mine, and the word got to the local gang, who felt there ethnicity had been slighted by an outsider. They pulled a gun on me. I don’t brag when I say that I wasn’t scared, but I wasn’t, so what else can I say? I didn’t beg for my life, I just played it cool, my usual strategy. But I was nervous, sorta like how you feel walking toward your new school for the first time. What’s gonna happen once I go inside? Bottom line, I didn’t want to die. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but the next day I asked myself what would have happened if they’d killed me. I wouldn’t have just died. I would have died for nothing. To date, I’d achieved nothing with my life, had made no contribution, had left nothing worthwhile behind.

This was the fork in the road.

My intelligence told me to run, that the danger was sure to resurface. The guy whose bag was stolen came back at the gangsters that threatened me, but how many more people had gotten the wrong story? My ego told me to stay. I had the Friday night set up at the local nightclub, with DJ Smoove and the Turkish Delights, two twin dancers from Turkey! I wasn’t gonna let that money or prestige go. Besides, I wasn’t afraid anyway. Then I chose the other path, the one that wasn’t really being offered. I wasn’t going to go right or left. I followed my heart and went straight…

jahiliyyah (part 1)

each night & every nap i dream

i can’t remember what happens

i don’t know what they mean

maybe shaytaan is playin’ wit’ me

are these visions of events my eyes will soon see?

what’s gonna happen to me? i aint ‘fraid

i’ll give my life but i wanna die in Peace

i remember when my whole plan shattered to pieces

i & my friends scattered like winds on stormy beaches

i walked the desert & faced the sun

i learned from my deeds, every one:

i used to tell lies to my own mother

i hid & ran for cover in the lives of others-

the others were those i was trying to be;

but an image & crew couldn’t make a new me-

i used to die in my sleep:

i woke & couldn’t move or even breathe

my whole life was a game:

the goal was to get mine before i got old

or went insane

when you’re on the way to nowhere

the journey never ends

when you’re nowhere you’re alone,

even with friends everywhere you turn,

you’re still trapped within

your escape is to repent

while you still can…

* ‘jahiliyyah’ is árabic for “period of ignorance”