Monthly Archives: March 2012

Maktoub: Learning to Let Go

Maktoub,” he said, smiling and calm, telling me a story of how he realized his destiny, how life worked out for the best. And I knew what he meant in a flash. This North African man reminded me of how to let go. “Maktoub” is an Arabic word meaning, “it is written.” I know some will be put off by the idea of a predestined course of life and there is also a part of me that does not understand this concept. Can’t I decide? Can’t I set the direction of my own life?

The idea that everything that happens is already known to the unified cosmic knowledge that is Allah is very soothing to me. My driven, independent, willful and impatient nature appreciates the break. Being American always makes me think of the immigrants who started this country and continue to build it. In spite of the many negative things we could say about the founders of this nation, they were adventurous, they were determined and they faced hardship and many unknowns in their efforts to make their lives better, to take the reigns of their own destinies. And that’s great in a lot of ways. Inspiring, even. But it also makes me tired. And my personal experience of the modern USA that I live in is that we feel like we have to control everything. We are always in a fight or flight mode, trying to make life go the way we think we need it to. Sometimes that isn’t necessary. There are times when it is okay to let go.

They’ll tell you that in your local yoga studio and I’ll be the first to advocate for loose hamstrings and steady headstands as a way to get closer to learning the art of letting go. But it is Islam and my life in Morocco/with Moroccans that has really shown me the value of putting faith in the natural rhythms of the universe. Things are going to go forward. The sun with rise and set and rise again. It is necessary to participate, to create a life practice of working, playing, loving, but I do not have to drive everything, charging forward, white-knuckled grip on my heart’s desires. I know this now. I am working on living it.

So last night, I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes and thinking. “Why did my life work out exactly as it has so far?” And more particularly, I allowed myself to slip into the kind of language you hear among the religious (and aren’t I religious?): “Why did Allah want me to write my books, start my blog, and create a huge next step in my life while I have a very young child and many other challenges taking up all of my time – time I could be using to study and edit my work and make myself into the star writer that I know I am and long to embody?”

I laughed as soon as the thought was finished. Maktoub. It couldn’t happen any other way. There is no perfect condition. If I didn’t have a full-time job or if I had a nanny to stay with my son or if I had not yet had my son – there would be other things to distract me. Maybe I wouldn’t realize the value of my time. Maybe I wouldn’t be so motivated – being a mom has motivated me to set an example by living my dreams. With all of the distraction and responsibility I have now, I am motivated to follow Rumi’s advice:

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love.” And by the stronger pull of that which is maktoub.

Oh, I am much more relaxed now.

This reminds me of letting go. It was a lovely, dream like place to live for 2-3 weeks of my life, but only after I got past the snake in the bathroom and the rodents in the roof above my sleeping head...

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Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Henna: Beauty and Border-Crossing

I had this henna done by a woman in the street in New Delhi.

I first encountered henna in the Djemaa El-Fna in Marrakech, Morocco. This is a large public square that has been around, thriving in varying degrees for give or take 1,000 years. There are snake charmers, acrobats, kiosks selling dried fruits and fresh squeezed orange juice, and in the evening the place fills up with wheeled restaurants serving up traditional soups, skewered kebabs, a variety of salads and sweets, even  roasting whole sheep heads, so you can eat the brains and the cheeks directly from their origin! (I have not indulged in this particularly delicacy). The place is a circus. A beautiful, enchanting and mysterious mix of traditional North Africa, the tourists milling through it and everything that happens in between…

An important feature of the Djemaa El Fna buzz is the population of “henna hustlers,” so accurately dubbed by Lisa Butterworth, master henna artist, or naqasha,  in Arabic. These ladies are covered from head to toe in a djelleba and face covering of opaque anonymity. In my first experience – my henna hustler approached me (everyone approaches you in Morocco and this is exponentially true in the Djemaa El-Fna) and offered to henna my hands. It was only days after I had arrived in Morocco for the first time. I was with my closest friend at the time and the two of us were reeling from the feeling of having stepped through the looking-glass. To make a very long story short – our naqasha had cornered us in an alley just off of the main square and forced a childish scribble of black henna onto our palms. She then, in all essence, robbed us of most of our cash for the day – her fee. I couldn’t possibly tell you how much we paid for this first henna treatment. I’ve told this story so many times over the last 12 years that I am sure I have exaggerated and anyway it would be far too embarrassing. Later that day when we met up with some new Moroccan friends – “the boys” I wrote about last – we were teased endlessly for letting that happen. We’d been taken in the Djemaa El-Fna. A mandatory rite of passage.

Later that year, we met a PhD student from Montreal who was living just off the square herself, studying Moroccan women in the workforce- with a particular focus on the henna hustlers of the square. She spent hours everyday, sitting with them on the black tarmac, overturned milk crates as their chairs. This student became a naqasha in her own right and she came to henna our hands (mine and my friend’s) more gently and artfully than our first experience.

Traditional Moroccan henna -Berber Style

In spite of this poor introduction, henna struck a chord in my heart. Though I sported a black blobby stain on my palm for weeks, I was surrounded by examples of exquisite henna design. I was invited to weddings and other gatherings where I saw women’s hands and feet delicately swathed in swirling flowers or the geometric asymmetry of traditional Berber style henna designs. Never one to wear lipstick and mascara, I was smitten with this ancient, traditional make-up.

My love for henna grew. To me, it represented tradition and beauty in this North African/Arab world. Typical of the bulk of my time in Morocco, I admired Moroccan women and their henna – brides and older ladies, mostly –  from afar. In Casablanca where I later worked and lived, women only hennaed their hands on very special occasions and the women of my generation were working, dressing in modern western style fashion and not so interested in this traditional art.

When I went to live in Abu Dhabi, I encountered an intensified henna culture. With more money and more leisure time, Emirati ladies can generally  afford to go to salons or even invite the Indian, Filipina and Sundanese naqashat to their homes for the serious business of creating stunning designs. I immediately joined them. It wasn’t long before I would go alone to the henna salon, where it reeked of some crazy chemicals – I can’t imagine what they were using to make the stain darker and longer lasting. I did not care. Beauty and femininity were my agenda and like many women before me, I was willing to take a risk for it. This was another element of my bond with Arab women in the UAE. I learned which salons employed the best designers, offering the best prices and what time of day to go in order to avoid a long wait.

from a popular salon in Sharjah, UAE

Like I said, some of the younger Arab girls and women have been perplexed by my fixation with henna. For them, it seemed comical for an American to feel fine going around at work and  in casual public settings covered in henna. And this is where my thoughts pool. Right here. I have thought a lot about the aspects of Arabic or other “oriental” cultures I choose to adopt. I have a closet full of traditional Moroccan robes and dresses. In the UAE, I wore some of them to work, on other days I wore Indian sarwal kameez, which I had made for me from scratch at the Pakistani tailor, guided by my Pakistani friend who took me around the fabric shops where we drank tea while the shopkeepers unfurled roll after roll of beautiful prints, cottons and silks for us to scrutinize and choose from. For all of my life until my encounter with these cultures, I wrinkled my nose at typically western beauty traditions. In Morocco and the UAE, I embraced these traditional things with an avid passion, willing to spend time and money to perfect my look.

Applying henna often happens in large groups. The salons of urban UAE are always swarming with women of all ages. Brides from India to Morocco and many places in between sit for hours a day or two before their weddings surrounded by friends and family while the beautifying henna is carefully applied to hair and skin. Community, story telling, songs, teasing and caring (and for me, language acquisition) bloom from this tradition.

Walking down the street, an Arab woman will notice the henna on my hands. She will recognize me. A secret language between the two of us. It says: “I know a little more than you might have thought I would.” She’ll speak to me,  ask me questions, I’ll get to practice my Arabic, be invited to another female social function.

Henna has been more than just an aesthetic pleasure for me. Wearing henna has often been one of several keys into a realm that may not have been wide open to me otherwise. Without any effort at all – boundaries have been broken down. Two women who may not have had anything in common were suddenly chatting: “Which salon did you go to?” “Oh, no, no, next time go to the one on Airport Road, they only charge 50 dirham for both hands.” “but your color is really beautiful.” “Next time we’ll go together.” And bam! we could suddenly feel comfortable where we thought we never would. Bam! We are sharing stories, asking shy questions, learning languages and really knowing for real that we are a compatible pair, that our differences are irrelevant – even if only for the few hours spent in the henna salon.

Categories: Feminine Consciousness, Morocco, UAE | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Happy International Women’s Day

My first year in Morocco, at 21 years old, I was rambling out in the streets of the old medina of Marrackech, searching for adventure. I spoke to almost anyone and was up for diversions, digressions and a good wander off the beaten path. This approach to Morocco put me in contact entirely with men. Although Morocco was new to me, I was not new to Morocco. Years of French, Spanish and Portuguese colonialism followed by years of European and American tourism meant that Morocco knew exactly what to do with me. It treated me like a man. Public social realms in traditional Marrakech were not ideal places for respectable Moroccan women to spend their time. I met male friends in the streets and cafes. We smoked and drank and bless those guys, they were my cultural guides, my protectors, my French teachers and my very first Arabic teachers.

When I was invited to the homes of my new Moroccan acquaintances, (and when I say new, I mean that I found myself in the sitting rooms at the family homes of young men I had met only hours or days earlier)I was always led through quiet, empty hallways and up staircases to terrace-top chambers to sit with the boys and men of the house and enjoy the parade of refreshments: mint tea, hot buttery croissants, sweet sesame coated biscuits, blended juices (avocado with sugar and milk! oh!) and furnished with an ashtray. I loved it. I was a Queen! I got lots of attention in the beginning. To some it could have been annoying but I was mostly thrilled to be privy to the intimacy of these meetings. I was an accidental anthropologist, invited into the heart of the soceity I had come to observe. Or so I thought.

As time wore on, I became persistently more aware of the boundaries of the rooms I spent time in. The view into a hallway from a door left ajar revealed evidence of another world. The hem of a brightly colored dress floated past, a girlish giggle followed my contact with two or more sets of bright young feminine eyes peeking through to see me. Once, upon waking from a nap in the family home of a male friend, I opened my eyes to find a small collection of pre-adolescent girls assembled at the edge of my bed, just looking at me. As I tried to open up conversation with them in a terrible mash-up of languages (French-Arabic-English), an adult female appeared and shoo-ed them away. She smiled apologetically at me and was gone as soon as she came. I listened to her scolding them good-naturedly in derrija (Moroccan Arabic dialect) as she made her way back to wherever it was that the women of the house conducted their lives. Where was that female place?

It took me a matter of months to fully understand that my normal American social conduct was regarded as male behavior in Morocco. It took me years to slowly recognize that I wanted to explore my own feminity in Arab-Islamic culture.

Meeting my husband, becoming close with his family and spending time over meals and tea and holiday celebrations gave me some more access to women through his sisters, aunties, nieces and mother. But my friendships and my day to day contact was still primarily with the young men who were his friends. It was not until I moved to Abu Dhabi, at 28 years old, that I experienced a complete immersion into the female culture of an Arab-Islamic society.

I came to the UAE as a teacher. I worked with a consulting company on a government-initiated education reform program and I was assigned to a team of teachers of various primary and secondary school subjects. My team and I worked in a boys’ primary school. We went to school every morning and stayed throughout the day, following the school schedule, working alongside the local teachers, administration and students. We ran pedagogical training sessions, we modeled good teaching practice and we even served playground duty in our efforts to meet the outcome goals determined for success of the program. My specific role was to hold English language classes for the teachers and train them in using English as the medium language for teaching math, science, IT and, of course, English classes to the children.

Every day for three years I went to work with women. There were the 6-9 other women on my consulting team. They were from England, South Africa and Australia with some Iraqi and Egyptian Arabs as well. The rest of the people in the building were native born Emirati nationals and some Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Tunisian, Syrian, and Yemeni teachers who were employed directly by the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Education. All women.

In the course of my work with creating schedules for English class meeting times, other meetings and observing the teachers in action in their classrooms, there was a lot of “downtime” spent sitting with them in their staff rooms, drinking endless cups of tea, very weak coffee brewed with cardamom and saffron, juices, and more. We nibbled on cakes and chocolates, Lebanese savory pastries, and sometimes whole family-meal style dishes of rice and meats, pasta with spicy Egyptian tomato sauce and so on. We talked about everything. They felt free to ask me questions and I asked them as well.

This was all part of the work. If you think about it for only a moment, it is easy to imagine that some aspects of our teacher training program were not very much welcomed by the teachers. Some of these women had been teaching for more than 20 years and any change can be intimidating, espcially when it is being administered by someone 15 years younger than you, someone from the other side of the world.

I knew my social time with these women as an essential part of the relationship building that would be necessary if I was going to be able to do my job. But more than that, I began to fall in love with these ladies. They gave me much respect for already having spent a good deal of time in Morocco (where I had been, on and off for almost six years, when I met them). They actually called me “Moroccan” sometimes – they were fascinated by my marriage to a Moroccan – and asked me about how Arabic was used in Morocco, differing vocabularies and pronunciations, for example – as though I was some kind of expert.

When they saw that I had made an attempt to color my hair with henna – they brought me huge bags of the green powder: “This is from Yemen, where my mother comes from. she only uses Yemeni henna, try this one next time, you’ll be beautiful. Your husband will love it.” When someone’s cousin or niece or sister was getting married, they invited, brought me ball gowns of their own to try on and choose from, brought me to a salon to have my hands and feet hennaed the way they did.

Eventually, some of them began to invite me to their homes. This time, I was in another room – the women’s room. We sat on beautiful tapestry-covered furniture, sipped more tea, played with children, talked about families and our cultures and Islam. There were risky conversations, frank moments of disapproval(their of me) and shy but curious questions. Then again more weddings and family parties, more food, more make-up and laughing and falling asleep in the mid afternoon – to be woken by the steam and aroma of more tea and coffee, hot flatbread made by the Filipina house maid with homemmade butter from a cousin’s camel farm.

As I write this, I realize that it is only an introduction to all I need to say about the amazing women of the Arab world who have taught me much about female camraderie, the feminine role in a family – as daughter, mother and wife and of course, about women in Islam. I am brimming now with the stories I need to share. And I will continue to do so in this blog. For now, though I would just like to thank all of my women friends and family – and particularly the Arab and Muslim women who have helped awaken my feminine consciousness and recognize the feminist identity that I am now growing into.

Thank you ladies for your care, your attention, your good food. Thank you for accepting me even when I must have seemed so strange! I miss you all terribly and I pray, ncha’allah we will be together again soon. Happy International Women’s Day.

Categories: Feminine Consciousness, Morocco, UAE | Tags: | 1 Comment

Tariqa (“the way”)

Last night I brought my husband and son to a Sufi center in Boston. We took the subway to this neighborhood full of beautiful brick row houses. We rarely come here. It is out of our way and we live on oppossite schedules, a childcare tag team.  It was cold and raining. We were late and I felt a late winter flu taking over my body – weak muscles, chills, stuffy nose. We walked quickly through the rain and I was worrying about the lateness – I hate being late.

We finally arrived and I rang the doorbell. There was some awkwardness, some nervous comedy as we struggled up the slippery steps with our enormous stroller. When we we couldn’t fit the thing in the door, our host called to a younger man to help my husband. Meanwhile, Son and I disappeared into the warm and silent front hall, removing our jackets and shoes, placing them on the shelves and in the closets our host pointed to as we made our way to the large majliss.

At some point I stopped to shake hands with my host. What I saw was a small aging man.  I already knew he was Iranian. He was dressed like any American grandfather, though, in a pair of light blue jeans – coming up high at the waste – and a zip-up windbreaker. He wore clean, bright white  gym socks. And I noticed the softness of the carpet under my feet.

We came here seeking (again) some solace in Islamic practice. In my typical fashion – nomadic, as some have called it – I have been unable to settle myself into a spiritual practice. Ever. I chased yoga for years – hoping I would be the enlightened yogi my friends came to see me as – but I was not. My yoga practice served me in many ways but for many little reasons that may come up as reach deeper into this blog, it became clear to me that yoga wasn’t going to be the long term medium of my spiritual practice.

I have thought and written at great length about the transition from yoga to Islam – which came after almost a decade spent living in North Africa, Turkey and the UAE. Much of it was situational:  the practicality and relevance Islam held in my life as I adopted the cultural consciousness of these places, married a Moroccan man and built  friendships with other born Muslims from Islamic cultures. Now my husband and I and our 17 month old son have been in the US for just under two years. Occupied with settling ourselves, finding work finishing my Master’s degree and making a home here, we have not had a moment to build a spiritual community around us. My personal practice is once again elusive and erratic while I see signs of spiritual despair in my husband as well. I decided, with a little help from a friend, to seek  community in a Sufi group. I chose this one because they showed up first when I googled, the photo of their majliss was beautiful, and because they have twice weekly meditations, one of which meets on a night that both my husband and I are free. When I began emailing the center, a certain Mohammed began emailing back and urged us to come visit him on a night when the group would not be meeting.

So here we are, I have just observed Mohammed’s white socks, noticed the soft carpet beneath my feet and my husband has come bounding up the stairs from where he left the stroller at the basement entrance. There is so much quiet. We go into the majliss and Mohammed disappears into the kitchen to make tea. Our son, at this moment, goes completely wild. He begins running up and down the length of this beautiful room, bookshelves filled with Sufi literature, floors outfitted in thick carpeting – the only seating in the room is pillows organized against the walls all the way around the room. He yips and yells, shouts and squeals. Mohammed emerges from the kitchen with tea and sits silently indicating for us to join him on the floor. Meanwhile, our son runs to grab a large framed photo sitting on a low table at the front of the room,  presumably of the sheikh, or the Sufi master of this Sufi order. He notices a sound system with buttons, knobs and wires and lunges for it, he goes to the kitchen, he comes back, he tries again for the photo….My husband and I chase him, hold him, try to walk with him, try to show him things, offer him snacks, dates, tea, milk, anything to distract him and all while trying to maintain calm peaceful faces, like this is no big deal, like we are not embarrassed or exhausted, sick or annoyed.

The entire meeting went like this. Mohammed began to ask us a few questions about where we had come from, what brought us to the Sufi center and so on. He explained that the center holds silent dhikr – meaning “remembrance” in Arabic – a Sufi meditation practice which often invloves reciting one or many of the 99 names of Allah (Al Asma Al Hossna) in repetition in a way not unlike yogis chanting the sanskrit scriptures. Members of this Sufi order also volunteer at a homeless shelter, cooking for the people who come, offering them companionship, sometimes gifts at Christmas time or other special occasions. He talked about  tawhid, the oneness of God. He quoted Rumi – I can’t remember the exact words now -but he said that if we have 100, we don’t need 99. If we have God, we have it all. And Mohammed went on at length about love – the love for Allah that is all – that equals the love for others and for yourself.

He was quiet and unsmiling most of the time but still managed to look kind. As our son thrashed about and we took turns chasing him, Mohammed manged to continue his explanation softly and slowly, speaking to whichever one of us was sitting in front of him at the moment.

My husband slipped into the bathroom with our son to change his diaper.

Mohammed asked me how I felt about what I was hearing. He asked me if I was interested in the Sufi center and I told him that I was. He said that if I wanted to take care of anyone else, I would have to take care of myself first. He encouraged us to come to the group dhikr, but suggested that we could call to make appointments to come at other times if our family obligations made it impossible to make the group meetings. I felt tears well up in my eyes as he said these things so I looked down, took a sip of tea, and we sat there silent until my son burst back into the room, ready for another round.

Somehow we left. Mohammed, it seemed, could have sat there all night, but we needed to get home. The young man who helped with the stroller appeared again. He told us he was from Bahrain, we shared some knowing looks  and evaluative comments about other Arabian Gulf countries and he exchanged some Arabic conversation with my husband. The stroller got stuck in the doorway again and at the end of another scuffle, the three of us spilled out onto the street, speeding through the chill of the night toward the subway station.

To be continued…

Categories: Sufism, Uncategorized | Tags: | 1 Comment

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