Going for it.

To be honest I am all over the place in a way.

But I can tell it’s coming together. It’s not for nothing. I am a living brainstorming session.

Today I realized that I need to be writing this down. Again.

So here it is – bored to death by a job I think I only ever took because I was wrapped up in the idea of how good it would look on my resume and because I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And I can. But I am not doing it – not very well anyway – because I don’t believe in it. And I am distracted by things that seem more important.

Here are the things that seem more important:

I have a business. I own a Market America/Shop.com franchise and I believe it has a lot of potential. I am learning to sustain the energy to grow it even when I am exhausted by the necessary overtime at my current day job.

I have a gorgeous son who is three years old and thinks I am the most interesting most beautiful most fun person in the world. I would like to spend more, less exhausted time with him.

My husband, too, is amazing. I may have mentioned him before. We have been through some unique experiences together. I was living in Casablanca, Morocco – teaching English – when we met. Over the years we lived in Turkey and the UAE as well as traveling through India together on what was a long month for him(!) before we ended up int he USA. Just over three years here now and we have spent the entire time day dreaming about when we can get out. We came to study and to gain experience, to give birth to our son and the whole adventure has always had an undefined but clearly necessary end point. Now he works literally an opposite schedule from me as a cook in a hip Cambridge – Harvard Square – restaurant. I see him for a max of 8 hours a week  – the only amount of time that over laps when we are both awake and in the house. That isn’t fun. I want to change that yesterday.

My studies. I started this blog just after I earned my Master’s degree. Almost two years later, I know that I want more more education. Lately that looks like a PhD and I have been trailing Tariq Ramadan among a few others in hopes that I can start a relationship with one of them that will lead me to a PhD program at an interesting school. By interesting, I mean – a school that will fund me to explore the impact of Islamic Feminist and reform movements in the West on Islamic thought in Islamic countries. By interesting, I mean not in the US. (I do not hate the United States. I get it. I see what it offers. I have benefited very much from being born and raised in the USA and I do not take that for granted but I also know to leave a party before it all goes fuzzy like a reflection in a fun house mirror).

Finding my passion and earning a living from it. ASAP. I am 16 weeks pregnant with my second child. A few calculations have strongly suggested that I cannot actually afford to go back to the job I am bored with. The cost of daycare and the breaking of my heart at the act of leaving a 12 week old baby in a daycare would make it economically idiotic. So I have essentially 6-9 months to make this work. Some may think it was irresponsible for me to go ahead and make another child when I know I can’t afford it. But I will make some thing happen and I suppose in some way I knew that a new child would send me into action like nothing else.

I will be exploring my options here.

I am thrilled by all of this in the way that one is thrilled by the horror of riding a steep roller coaster or some other amusement park death-defying contraption. I don’t know that I really want to be on but the ride has already started and anyway, I am not the type to turn back.

So for a little while now, this blog is going to be about going for it. All of it. Following my passion and earning a living from it. Making those things that are important to me central to my life, rather than something I long to do in my “spare” time which I never seem to have any of.

It has occurred to me to start a new blog to dedicate to this but I still think the premise of Border Intellectual is relevant here. Still on a journey, still standing on many frontiers, aiming with great pleasure to capture it all in my lasso of truth. I will make it tell me a story and I will pass that story to you. lasso of truth

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Ramadan Karim

The second of Ramadan. I had a late cup of coffee and now, unable to sleep, I have decided to use this midnight hour to come back to my beloved blog.

Ramadan Karim. Ramadan is generous and bountiful. This could sound coninterintuitive to non Muslims. A time when a believer will go without food, or drink , refrain from using any of the foul language that has crept so casually into many of our vocabularies, and refrain from sex, among a few other things from sunrise to sunset does not seem to jive with our usual sense of bounty and generosity.The phrase Ramadan Karim asks us to reconsider the meaning of these concepts. I am greatful for that.

My time spent in Arab culture has given me the opportunity to hear about the bounty Ramadan has to offer. It is said that those who practice Ramadan by fasting, praying and otherwise consecrating their general existance to the Cosmic Oneness that is Allah for the duration of the 30 day month have the opportunity to receive many blessings. Prayers are more valuable and more powerful, the act of fasting in itself is prayer like (At this time of year in North America, it is a 17 hour daily prayer, with sunrise coming just after 3 am and sunset just after 8pm). During Ramadan, Muslims stay up late at night to pray for many hours longer than usual. It is a concerted meditation, physical and vocal and a very energizing and emotionally powerul experience. This is the bounty of Ramdan for me – it brings people together. It helps build that spiritual energy that occurs when tens, hundreds and tens of thousands of people all open their hearts and quiet their minds together.

And therein lies the challenge of practicing Ramadan in North America. For five years I fasted in Arab countries – for the first three of those years I had not stopped to consider whether I was actually interested in the religion itself but simply sought to synchronize my life with the lives of the Arab people I enjoyed living among and learning about. I went to mosques and prayed the eveing prayers. I broke fasts with families. I listened and I learned and I began to feel inspired and I began to enjoy the feeling of the communal, consecrated fast.

And then we moved back to the USA, just about 2 months before the start of Ramadan 2010. 8 or 9 months pregnant at the time, I did not fast. And I missed it. I watched my husband fast and longed to join him but it did not makes sense for me at the time. The following Ramadan, I began to write my Master’s degree thesis while working a full time job the same week that Ramadan began and again I did not fast for all 30 days. Now, in 2012, I have begun to fast again. But I am missing somethng. It is not like it was in Morocco or the UAE. Busy with a very full time job, opposite schedule from my husband and taking care of our young son, I do not go to the mosque for evening prayers. Wrapped up in what I have experienced as a very fast paced American lifestyle, I have not found (or taken) the time to seek and join a community of Muslims here even though I live in the extremely diverse city of Cambridge, MA with a mosque not 15 minutes’ walk from my house.

It is a conumdrum. I long for the Arab world more than ever at this time. I miss the radio stations playing the Qur’an all day long – the recitation rhythmic and soothing. I miss the slight shift in the work day schedule- most schools and offices will open an hour later and end an hour earlier or otherwise adjust their timetables to allow everyone to at least try to get the amount of rest necessary for people who are fasting and spending a significantly longer amount of time praying each night. It is an allowance for spiritual rejuvenation which I am so hungry for but feel unable to completely take hold of in my busy life in the US.

I miss being surrounded by many others who are also fasting – those who can look at one another and understand.

My conversion to Islam came, in great part, from my love of the community and culture that it grew out of and that have grown from it. I will be spending this Ramdan honing my new, heightened consciousness of what bounty and generosity can mean in a time and place where my gut reaction is that my life is lacking in the space and time for spiritual rejuvenation.

I am hoping that other fasting Muslims in the US and abroad will comment here. I hope that I will be able to rebuild a bit of the sense of community I am missing so badly in this time.


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Nomadic Homesick Blues

When you are a nomad, what does it mean to be homesick?

 I currently take Harvard Square for granted. Today, I walked into the Harvard book store and read five pages of a book that made me cry. I looked around the room and I saw this very cozy, very warm and stable room, anchored down with books. Ten years ago I sat here all the time. I would come and pull a pile of books and sit on the floor and read them. I’m not sure I was supposed to do it that way, but no one ever told me not to. Then I went away. Like I have told you before, I went to Morocco and Turkey and the UAE. From those places, I went to India, Thailand and Oman and maybe some other places that are slipping my mind for the moment. And while I was in those places, I would think about the Harvard bookstore. I even had a friend take a photo of it for me once and bring it to me when she came to Morocco. I stared at that photo and I felt homesick. I longed for Harvard Square. I missed the familiar feeling of it. I missed the people around me reading books. How those people have many different thoughts and perspectives and how it is often possible to sense that those people accept the differences among them.  I missed it being a place where I could go and disappear. In most of the countries I named above, it is incredibly difficult to disappear. Everyone stares. Americans don’t stare nearly as much as they must want to. Don’t we want to?

So now I am back here. I even work in Harvard Square. I walk past the Harvard bookstore every single day. I rarely go in, due to my grown-upfulltimejobmotherhood lack of free time. But it’s there. Here. It’s here and I am here. And today while I waited for the bus, I looked out across Harvard Square and I realized that I take it for granted. And for a moment I stopped. I looked at it and I felt the feeling of it -the lovely brick buildings, the ideology of American education that is Harvard University, the gutter punks, the tourists, the shops and the famous old newsstands, the subway station and the Unitarian church with the rainbow flag waving. I breathed it in. I am in one of the most liberal cities in the USA. I love all this.

But damn, am I homesick.

Moroccan taksheta.

I haven’t hennaed my hands since before my son was born in September 2010. My clothes have gone quite conservative – jeans and trousers, turtleneck sweaters, blazers, and clogs as I naturally begin to blend in with those around me. My Indian “suits” have slowly disappeared from my wardrobe, along with my long flowing scarves, catching the wind behind me as I glide through an Emirati mall or an Indian bazaar. Our hefty collection of oil-perfumes: musks, frankincense and amber is dwindling. My husband never wears a djelleba or a gondora here. I miss the endless cups of tea and the circles of women, gabbing or the circles of men playing drums, drinking wine. I am mashing all of my countries together. I am missing everything and also very specific things. Aren’t I from these places too? Wouldn’t it be better if…? Wouldn’t I be happier, wouldn’t I feel fulfilled, won’t things have finally all come together when we finally get back to….. Fill in the blank. I seem to say these things about every place I have lived in and then left.A Turkish engineer in Bursa once referred to me as Marco Polo. The Arabs have their own Moroccan born Marco Polo, called Ibn Battuta, travelling the globe, fitting in – finding himself everywhere he went. So the legend says.

Do the Bedouin long for the seaside in the winter while they camp in the desert? Do visions of the chilly winter desert nights tug at their heartstrings while spending their summers fishing in the Gulf? Is it possible for a nomad to ever be completely in the present? Hasn’t she left little pieces of her heart everywhere she has been?

Categories: Morocco, Nomadism, UAE, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Can we afford to relax in the USA?

Lying on the massage table this morning – redeeming a birthday gift certificate for this pricey spa – sent me into a reverie of remembrance of all massages past. My massage history is probably a little unique. From a rather painful, but somehow wonderful three weeks of traditional massages on a Thai island, on to steamy and cleansing bath house massages in Morocco and also including an overpriced Ayurvedic doctor in Rishikesh, India, where I was kneaded and beaten with soaking hot tea bags full of medicinal herbs, I have come back to America to be massaged all too infrequently and expensively. That got me thinking about how accessible personal care and the art of relaxation is a bit lacking for my taste in the USA.

I grew up in a world where only money can buy a person the time and the place to nurture the mindbodyspirit with some spa activities, family vacation or even a few days off from the daily routine. I think I always thought that was normal – downtime is expensive. And then, at 21 years old, I set foot in Morocco, and everything changed. I should preface this by underlining just how ignorant I was about Morocco or any place, really, outside of the US. I think I had internalized, after a life time of public school the idea that America is an oasis of opportunity, liberty and dream-realization. I don’t want to say that all of that is wrong. These ideas can be true. They did not spring from nowhere. But they are not equally true for everyone who lives here and, more importantly to me, it is not only in the USA that people can feel free and realize their dreams.

But what I really want to talk about here is the Moroccan hammam. The public steam baths of Morocco have revolutionized the way I think about caring for myself and people should know about them.

A hammam is a bath house where Moroccans traditionally go to bathe, relax and purify. Although most Moroccan homes these days have some kind of bath tub or shower, some of them may not have hot running water and the hammam is commonly regarded as the only place one can go to get really clean. The first hammam I ever went to was in Marrakech, deep inside the souq around the corner from the shop where I met my first Moroccan friends – the first of those boys in the street I have spoken of before. From the outside, like many other buildings in the medina (the traditional, walled-city quarters of Morocco), it looked plain, maybe even a little scary – a concrete, windowless building with mysterious doors leading to nowhere that could be perceived from the street. I walked past it for weeks or maybe months, listening to the grand legends of the luxurious Moroccan bath houses all the while, wondering, and daring myself to get up the courage and go inside.

A men's hammam in Marrakech. Many of the traditional ones in the medinas look like this - plain, simple, and if you can't read the sign - mysterious.

I finally did go inside, accompanied by the American woman with whom I had traveled to Morocco. We were awkward. We stumbled, naked except for our underwear, through the three dark, stone-walled rooms – the level of intensity of the heat and steam increased as we passed to each room – trying not to slip. Hammams are either equipped with separate chambers for men and women or designate different operating hours for the genders. So we tip-toed among the women and children, also naked and sprawled out on those hard, sloped floors. They were surrounded by a littering of buckets of water, sponges, scrubby mitts, cakes of soap, bottles of shampoo and 1.5 liter bottles of fresh squeezed orange juice.. The floors were designed to let the water run down into drains. Women washed their hair with henna – dyeing their white stands to a shameless bright orange and as they rinsed it away, the watery brown past ran in rivulets to the drains. We learned the hard way that day that you shouldn’t sit on the down slope in front of anyone else or you will be swimming in their dirty, soapy water as it makes its way out.

This particular hammam, being a hammam populaire, that is, a cheap (about 1 dollar for entry with no time limit) no frills hammam made to serve the function of providing a place to bathe for the common people of Morocco, was a very particular kind of anthropological experience. Back in 2000, when this first hammam visit took place, there was not a word of English being spoken and even French, so widely used in the street, seemed to have no place in here. Since we were suddenly enveloped, by default, in the mysterious women’s world at a time when I had yet to discover myself as a woman who could relate to Moroccan women, the whole experience is sort of dim and cloudy and awkward. Though, I suppose that could be due to the fact that I was in a dark steamy hot sauna bathing with a gaggle of strangers.

Seeing myself as something of a cultural purist – not wanting to be perceived as a European descendant of the colonial citizens who came to Morocco with French, Spanish and some Portuguese ruling, I spent the next several years going only to this type of hammam. I eventually became quite adroit at navigating the dressing room, tipping the women who guarded my bag of dry clothes and learning how to communicate to the keysala that I wanted a scrubbing. (It is possible, and common to have a woman, a keysala, who works in the hammam scrub you from head to toe like a little child. She will scrub you until the dead skin starts rolling off your body in little black rolls. No wonder Moroccans feel truly clean only in the hammam!) I knew there was a more luxurious option but I avoided it in what I saw as an effort to preserve my integrity among the lower to middle class Moroccans I had befriended. In retrospect, I am not entirely sure that my insistence on doing everything “the difficult” or the most foreign way was always entirely necessary. But taking the road less traveled is a continuing theme of my life.

Traditionally, Moroccans visit their local hammam once every week or two. Although I did not always keep up a frequent schedule of hammam bathing, I was able to benefit from them as often as I wanted to for very little cost. As time went on and I eventually moved to Casablanca, I began to discover more varieties of hammam. Later, when I met my husband, I experimented with the hammam his mother preferred because it had private rooms you could rent. Still a steam room with a faucet, buckets and a bench, this room allowed me to close the door and take my time. No matter how many years I might spend in Morocco, there will never be a way to deflect the constant stares a western woman receives in the traditional public hammam, so sometimes this private room option is nice.

Finally, I was pulled out of my stubborn public traditionalism by a good friend who didn’t have the same weird chip on her shoulder as I did about forcing myself to be absorbed by old school Morocco.

She took me to a more expensive, luxury hammam. Topkapi hammam in Casablanca is modern, beautiful and decked out with a large circular central room where bathers can sit on benches at individual sinks and also disappear into a sauna room for heightened purification. This hammam uses olive tree wood to stoke their fires. The smell of that wood in the sauna is divine. Back in the round room, there are massage tables in a circle around a central pillar and this is where one can stretch out for a good scrubbing and a massage. The price of all of this amounts to less than 12 USD. And that is somewhat expensive.

This hammam is actually in Marrakech, but Topkapi looks a bit like this on the inside.

The lesson learned here, folks, is that there is a lovely quality of life in Morocco – a place that may be called a “third world” country in some contexts. At least in some ways. What I witnessed in the country that has become my second home is that Moroccans know how to relax. They know how to party, how to spend good time with their friends and family. They know how to take time for spiritual nurturing and how to rest and purify their bodies. Why can’t we figure that out here in the US? Even with the relatively new-to-the-mainstream trends in yoga, natural healing, and whole foods eating, it all still feels a bit inaccessible. All of those things are expensive to procure in the USA and people who do not earn enough money or who live outside of a city or some other progressive community may not come into contact with organic farmer’s markets or a reflexology practitioner.

I tried not to mourn this as I was having my 90 dollar massage on a table in a quiet room in Cambridge, MA. I tried very hard to enjoy the skillful touch of my excellent massage therapist. But I could not help but wonder how American life would change if there was a hammam in every neighborhood. How much would be a fair price to go for a nice soak two or three times a month?

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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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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

Asalamu alycum

Good evening. I begin this blog almost furtively as I hear my 17 month old son waking up in the next room. I guess I took too long messing with the background design and I have missed my beautiful sweet window of solitude-time that comes with his nap. He’ll be barrelling out of our room any moment. What can I manage to say before he does?

I have come to write any of this after much encouragement from others. And because I know that I will enjoy telling my stories. And because I have come to understand that I am a writer. A laptop has taken the place of my childhood notebooks.

Right now: I have a freshly earned Master’s degree, inspired by more than a decade of living in North Africa and the Middle East, Islamic practice begun at almost 30 years old, marriage to an adventurous Moroccan, the delight of French and Derrija (Moroccan Arabic dialect) on my tongue, and more…

Right now: I have big plans for the future and among them – to keep up this hot-out-of-the-oven momentum I have built in the proces of finishing my thesis.

I have no idea of how this step into publicly sharing my writing will go. It is an experiment and I am looking forward to the surprises. Whatever they may be. For the moment, my dear child has arrived…

A bientot, c’est sure.

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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