Strange Marriage, Part 3

i come in

  turn on the lights

 and see i’m alone-

i live in a house

but don’t have a home

 

i leave and say “salam”

  but no one replies

 i go earn my pay

   but find not my prize

 

all praise to Allah:

  i haven’t died

   but lived-

long enough to see love in your eyes

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.

“As-salamu alaykum.”

“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

The Ivy-League chauffeur. How's my tie?

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…

To be continued…

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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 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”