Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Get Nervous Seeing Juan Williams

NPR has now fired news analyst Juan Williams because he spoke his mind on, "Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor."

"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country," Williams said. "But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

I know.

I know, Juan.

Believe me!  I know.

Actually, Juan, I hate to go to the airport for this very reason.  I know I make you nervous when I show up at the ticket counter in my hejab.

Mind you, days before journeying, I have carefully chosen what to wear to the airport.  It's not as if I'm like other Americans who can just throw their clothes on.  No!  I have to think of how I'm going to get perceived or rather misperceived. 

I can never wear black when I fly.  I realize that freaks you out the most.  You equate black with death wish.  You think black means extremist rather than size-slimming chic.  I have to wear happy, colorful clothes in very American styles; too ethnic means to you that I hate America.

I also have to be careful with the style of hejab I choose.  Not wearing a hejab is not an options, by the way, as I see modesty as both a mandate and a protection from Allah.  I was once fired for wearing a hejab, yet I still wear it and believe I am rewarded for it.

I cannot wear my big, comfy, triangle scarves.  Nope!  These actually would be my first choice when traveling but they, unfortunately, connotate backwards thinking to you.  So, I have to wear my long scarves which I have to carefully pin and wrap and pin and wrap again. 

However, any hejab means body search.  Wear what you like, Juan, and walk on through.  Me?  I'm a danger with that fabric on my head.  Other women wear  many baggy layers which could conceal a multitude of sins.  But me?  Nope!  I've got to have some woman with a security officer badge sticking her wand up under my thin, stylish, carefully chosen, colorful scarf.

Wonder where she'd stick it if I was wearning a black galabiya and niqab.

But no matter what I wear to the airport, I get stares.  I know you are frightened I'm going to blow up your plane.  Sorry!  Remember that it's my plane too.  If you were to look downward, you would see my tight grip clutching the tiny hand of my young son.  I love him so much and pray for his safety every time we leave the house.  Would I really endanger him?  He's too little to see your stares.  By the time he is old enough,  I hope you will have realized that stereotyping us is wrong.

Until that time, I have to avoid many things.  I have to avoid saying the name of God, "Allah" outloud as I'm traveling (even though I usually invoke it throughout my day).  I absolutely cannot say Arabic names of family members and friends like Usama and Hussein.  I have to avoid praying in public.  I have to be careful about reading the Quran while on the plane. 

Even then, my son and I have been the target of a death threat while up in the air.  The white teenage boys behind us didn't feel any shame in discussing how they would shoot us.  It took the head flight attendant warning them that I could demand an emergency landing and FBI removal to get them to stop.

Is it like that for you, Juan?  Do you have to monitor yourself so much?  Fear for your safety?  Fear for the well-being of your children? 

You know what's funny? You should be happy that Muslims are on your flight!  Most likely, the Muslims on the plane have said a special prayer for travel; asking for God's protection on everyone---you included.

And I pray that you use your time away from NPR to reflect upon why they fired you.  They were right.  You were not in the public eye to add fuel to the fire.  I always thought you were the voice of reason and watched current event shows which featured you because I could count on you to be sensible.

You let me down.  You let Muslim-Americans down.  You took the easy way out and talked about fears in your self which you have to examine and eradicate.  I took years to write a book about Thurgood Marshall and the Civil Rights Movement but you failed to learn from the very words you wrote.

Yes, you are black AND you are a bigot.  You can be black and yet be blind to the struggles which other Americans face.

For Muslims reading these words, please take a look at my other blog endeavor so that you can widen your understanding to those in the LGBT community.  Let's not focus our indignation on someone's ignorance and lack of compassion while forgetting to look at ourselves. 

May Allah forgive all of us who judge others unfairly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

MAKING HIJRAH 9 "Arriving Alone"

Egypt at night is a reprieve from Allah after hot days.  The breeze blows away the heat and everyone relaxes in the freshness.

Except, I couldn't relax that night.  I was traveling with a man I didn't know.  He was a driver hired by my former brother-in-law.  He kept offering me food which his wife had sent along.





I was still full of the food which Mama had lovingly prepared.  Saying goodbye to her was hard.  I missed her already.  As I looked out of the window at the speeding scenery, I wondered when I would see her again...if ever.


I remembered Allah and lifted up my worries to him.  The whole reason for my journey was truly to please Allah.  With that in mind, I smiled at the thought of a new life on my own.

Sure, I had wanted to feel the protection of the outlaws but there is a stiffling effect which comes along with that protection.  I might never truly explore this country or myself if I were so intertwined with people who no longer were my family.  How healthy is that?

No, I'd be OK.  We'd be OK.


My phone rang.  It was AbuBoo and I let him know where we were.  Actually, there had been many phone calls back and forth because of all the arrangements.  Everything had been pleasant...until now.

He had arranged for me to get picked up tomorrow and taken around to look at apartments.

That's when the fight began.  My son was asleep in the car.  The driver was pretending not to listen.  And I just took out a week's worth of culture shock and anxiety out on my former husband. 

Bottom line was that I couldn't trust anyone sent by AbuBoo and I told him that.  So, it was better not to send anyone.  I hung up and did my best to explain that the man on the phone was my boy's dad and not my husband any more.

Then, I remembered how I needed to keep my mouth shut.  That is hard for Americans.  We want to blurt out everything and then some. 

I shut up and looked out the window.  It was time for isha and the call to prayer was on.

I tried to calm down.

Why was it that a man who wasn't even married to me anymore thought he could call the shots in my life?  Just because I had his son with me didn't mean that..


It didn't really matter.  I was here and he was there.

Where was I?

I had to ask the driver.

It was one of many, many times I asked the driver where we were.  I was literally lost without him.  He was the man I needed in my life at that moment.  He would get me to my next location.

Close to midnight he did just that.  He pulled up to the gate of the school and I wondered how this was all going to work.  In the dark, I felt like I was in the middle of nothingness.  He got directions to the nearest hotel from the gas station and off we went.

Was it the bomb-sniffing dogs that put me off?  Or was it the alcoholic drinks getting poured in the lobby?  Or maybe it was the lounge singer?  No, in the end, the thing that put me off the first hotel was the price.  It was over $200 a night.  I didn't have enough to stay more than three nights. 

My goal was to stay at a hotel only long enough to find an apartment.  How long would that take?  I really didn't know but I knew it wouldn't be in one day.  I had to be careful with my money.  There was no other money until the school reimbursed me for half my plane ticket.

The hotel staff were very nice and called around.  We got the name of another hotel which was cheaper so we headed over there.  It was good enough and it was late enough to think that almost anything was good enough.  So, the driver and I started negotiating my stay.

It was not the same price which had been quoted me over the phone.


I didn't have it in me to pile in the car again and try another hotel so I did the only thing which we desperate women must do.  I acted like a royal b. 

It was truly acting since I wasn't mad at the people.  There must have been a miscommunication somewhere but  I needed that cheap room I had come for, even if they didn't want to offer it to me.  I knew that being in Egypt meant showing upset when I needed something done and done now.  So I fumed in English and Arabic until they gave it to me.  Alhumdulillah I got what I needed. 

"No breakfast," was the managers way of recouping some of the cost of the room.

Slow burn and then I replied calmly in Arabic with all the righteous indignation in my body, "Subhanallah.  I'm a Muslim.  I'm fasting.  If you don't want to bring me suhour tomorrow..."

And the men behind the counter replied in unison, "No! No!  Sorry!"

I had shamed them into giving with the room.  And seriously, who else needed that food more than we did?  We no longer had a family looking after us. 

The bags went up to our teeny-tiny room and the driver went back to his wife on the coast.

I was alone with my little boy in the biggest city in Africa.

I had begged, borrowed and ...ok, not quite stealed---but darn near---to get that room and that food.  I was inshahallah going to get three hours of sleep and begin the next day's fast.

The next day would be momentous to say the least.

Chapter 10

Saturday, October 16, 2010

MAKING HIJRAH 8 "Staying or Going"

The morning of my interview at the school I dressed to impress:  the pressed pants, the high heels, the long red tunic top and carefully pinned hejab.  I left my little boy with his grandma and headed out with the oldest nephew.  I was going to be open to the possibilities.  Maybe being in town with the family was better than going back to Cairo.

The interview went so well.  I had every paper he asked for.  I answered every question with enthusiasm and intelligence.  At the end of our school tour, I wondered if I could find an apartment nearby.  Yes, I could see myself walking to school each day with my boy in hand. 

Originally, I had thought to leave town by now but the interview had kept me staying longer.  Now, I was adding another day so I could meet the school's headmaster.  The family was excited for me.  Maybe I would be able to raise my son with them.  There were a lot of hopes.

Yet, the next day was a completely different story.  I returned to the school to meet the headmaster, who was absolutely indifferent.  He was a beefy British man who was unconvinced about me and my abilities.  He curtly dealt with me as if I was wasting his time.  What's more, he could not promise my son a spot in the same school.  He could however get him a spot at a school nearby.

That was the deal breaker.

During my planning, I had always known what a hardship the move overseas would be on my son.  He would not know the language.  He would not have familiar faces or places.  He would be be counting on me more heavily than ever before. Seperating us was unthinkable.

My hopes for staying in the town were dashed.  I walked out shaken from the experience.  Why had I stayed two extra days?  For this?  To be treated with such disregard?

The recruiter tried to talk to me afterward.  He couldn't believe that I had not secured the position.  He tried to offer a different position at a different school.  I didn't feel it.  I felt like I had to leave and leave NOW.  I had wasted time dreaming of what was never supposed to be. 

When I returned home, I got a super big hug from my boy.  He needed me.  I felt it in the hug.  I could have cried but didn't.  Single moms can't afford the tears.  There's no one to dry them.  You have to be incredibly strong to feel so weak and to suck it up and keep going. 

May Allah reward all the single moms.

Keep going is what I did.  I informed the family that I had not gotten the job and that I had to leave as soon as possible.  I honestly didn't know how I was going to do it.  We had four large suitcases.  My former brother-in-law arranged for a car to take us after dinner.

I was leaving.

I was really leaving.

As I packed, that reality sunk in deeper.  I was not meant to be here.  I had a different plan and it was waiting for me; about ready to unfold. 

I saw my camera and took it out.  I aimed it at the photo on display in my bedroom.  It was Baba Ahmed's picture.  He had always cared for me and for Mr. Boo.  I had not made it to his grave.  I had wanted to go and hadn't gone.  I clicked the camera and captured a memory. 

The past really is dead to us.  We can't live in the past.  We truly have no choice but to move on.

So, down the steps I went that night.  Down the steps was easier than up and I prayed that the next part of my journey, my hijrah, would bring about more ease; not just in my life but in the life of my son.

Friday, October 15, 2010

MAKING HIJRAH 7 "Breaking My Fast"

In my pursuit of a breezy day at the beach, I had completely forgotten everyone and everything---including the time.  I arrived at the house about half an hour after the iftar had been consumed by the family.  There was the family; my outlaws.  I had forgotten about them too!  Suddenly, I was dealing with a houseful of interrogators, an empty stomach, a light head and a heavy boy asleep in my arms.  It was too much.

"Kullu qwis!"  I tried to tell them everything was fine.  They didn't believe me.  Egyptians don't.  They want to really ask again and again because if there's a problem they want to make everything better---which of course makes everything worse.

I ate with everyone talking loudly around me (and about me).  I ate and enjoyed the fish and rice.  Mama was still a good cook, even if she was no longer my Muslim Mama.  She was always going to be my boy's grandma.  And the others?  Ah, it was nice to see them from a distance afforded me by the divorce two years before. 

I had already been told, "Oh, no, Yosra!  Enti fat!"  which perhaps doesn't need translating. 

It's the strangest mix in Egypt of force-feeding until you could burst and then ridiculing anyone who gains weight.  For me, I couldn't blame Egyptians for added pounds; I knew that I had been stuffing myself (and my sadness).  On the first day of Ramadan, I steadied myself to once again conquer emotional eating.

I looked around the room.  The little girls I had last held on my lap were now young ladies.  The baby boy was now a school boy.  Young moms were now older and tired of a life of cooking, cleaning and children.  It had been seven years.  The last time I had been with all these people was...

I caught myself.  Yes, there was a lump in my throat.  I knew there were two people missing:  the father and the son. 

Mama asked me to show the pictures I had on my computer.  I showed everyone the pictures of AbuBoo.  There were lots of grimaces and comments.  I guess while I was too fat, he was too thin.  They all worried out loud for him. 

They eyed his Egyptian kids now living in America.  What a strange sensation to be once again the facilator between the family and those kids.  During our marriage, I would take the photos which the former-and-current wife would send to America (but not to the grandparents).  I would make copies and send them back to Egypt.  Here I was again trying to bridge a gap.

My boy woke up.  He was so hot and sweaty that he refused to wear clothes---just his tiddy whities!  All the pictures I have of that night are of the Egyptians, dressed like they are in chilly climes, right next to my Jungle Boy in his loincloth.  Funny!

He loved being with his cousins.  I loved seeing him enjoy the time.  He was given his first toy fanous; the Ramadan lantern.  I had to keep herding all the cousins away from the balcony for fear of my guy going over the edge.  As long as there was a pretty girl on the couch, I could get him inside.  One cousin in particular was so sweet with him and she loved him up with hugs and kisses.

The whole night made me want to stay--and not just for one more night but permanently.  I wondered if my slated interview with the school recruiter might lead to a job offer so that we could stay.  We could perhaps live in the same town with the family ---if Allah decreed.

Chapter 8

Friday, October 1, 2010


Asalamu Alaykom,

The first day of Ramadan in Egypt was also going to be an anniversary of sorts.

 Earlier, in America, I had contemplated whether to leave or not, and if so...then when.  One look at the calendar and I knew that I had to (inshahallah) be in Egypt and by the first day of Ramadan.  It seemed like a sign.  The first day of Ramadan would also be the anniversary of meeting my former husband. 

Eight years!

So much had happened in those eight years!

And now?  I would come full circle and be ready to accept the start of a new life.  That's what it felt like to me.  I would open myself to whatever Allah had in store. 

The day began before dawn with a drum beating,  "BOOM!  BOOM!  BOOM!"  I had no idea that someone went through the streets waking everyone up so they could eat suhour. 

It was so intriguing to me that I actually tried to catch sight of the drummer to see what he looked like.  It took three mornings but finally I did spot the tall, thin man dressed in a white galabiya.  I saw him banging on his drum and smiled from my balcony as big as if I'd seen Santa Claus himself.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I'm still talking about the very first morning of Ramadan.  I ate the food Mama had laid out for me.  Though she was no longer mine to claim, I loved her still for being the closest I'll ever have to a Muslim mom.  My own mother has never ever made me a suhour or shared one with me.  Mr. Boo's Grandma (God bless her) will always be special to me for sharing a part of my life which my own flesh and blood cannot seem to fathom.

We read Quran; her from a book and me from my computer.  We prayed.  We slept.

When I awoke, I couldn't believe the heat in the apartment.  What had happened?!  Turns out that my former sister-in-law was helping Mama cook a turkey.  So, my adjustment to the heat of Egypt now had to get bumped up a few notches.  I had to get used to the heat of Egypt with the oven on full blast.

I couldn't handle it. 


Mr. Boo and I readied to depart.  I had toured the city before so I promised them we'd be alright and we went to the beach.  It would be the second time I'd gone there.  As I thought about the moonlit walk I'd had before with my former husband, I remembered that this day was also the anniversary of us meeting.  In all the preparations of the day, I had pushed that to the back of my mind.  Now, it occured to me again but I knew that it was no longer the most important thing in my life.  Allahu Akbar!

We walked and we talked--in English, of course.  As we talked, we were stopped by a man who had overheard us.  He asked if I had any teaching experience.  I laughed.  Yes, I was here in Egypt to teach.  Turns out he was a recruiter.  If I wanted, I could interview for a position in this city.  I could live in the same city as my former in-laws.  I thanked him and went on my way, thinking of the irony; in the States I couldn't get a job to save my life.  Here?  I was being offered jobs on the street.

We had a beach to conquer.  The air was cooler by the waterfront.  I was so glad to be out of the apartment.  I thought about how funny life is.  My ability to identify my own discomfort (with places, jobs, marriages, and people) often meant change but it always felt better to get my needs met.  I could have stayed inside; melting away like so much turkey fat.  Instead, I had sprung us free to a glorious world of opportunities.

There was the ocean!  Majestic!  Subhanallah.  You see a lake and you feel good.  You see an ocean and you feel great.  The waves gently washed upon the sandy beach.  There was a relaxed easiness to the place.  I took off my sandals and felt the wet squooshy sand between my toes.  Off went Mr. Boo's shirt and into the water he went.  I took pictures of him cavorting in the waves.

"NOT TOO FAR!  COME BACK!"  I'd yell like the over-protective mother I had to be.

I was alone with my baby in the ocean.

I looked to my right and saw the honeymoon hotel where I had once been held by a man who would let me go.  It hurt.  It did.  It was bittersweet to see my boy...our boy...laughing and playing in the surf and not to be able to share it with a soul.  No tears.  I didn't cry or anything.  Those tears were done.

I collected some shells; thought of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's "Gifts from the Sea," and made a castle.  The castle would not last, of course.  For a time, it would be beautiful and then it would wash away.  No sadness in impermanence.  Nothing lasts forever.

There was a kind of wudu from the waves.  I ran in laughing.  My long, flowing skirt was not really a bathing costume but it didn't matter.  Many, many things simply didn't matter any more.  I was "here" and I was loved.  Maybe I had wanted love from a man and felt satisfaction when I received that love.

Now?  I did want the love of Allah.  I did.  I needed that blessing more than I needed any man. 

I looked behind my shoulder once more.  There was the beautiful masjid I had seen from my hotel.  I had never gone inside.  I made up my mind to pray inside the masjid.

I had lost track of time there on the Mediterrean coast.  Not only did I need to pray asr, but it was almost time for magrib.  I prayed and prayed again.  I was expected home!  What had I been thinking?  Okay, I'd been making peace with past and the present.  But I was in a bit of trouble. 

I walked out of the masjid and the streets were dead.  I mean NO ONE.  I had walked so far.  My mother always would tell me not to swim out farther than you can swim back.  Well, at the end of my fast, I was too far from home and too tired.  I couldn't walk back...but I had to.  We had to.  And if my little guy couldn't handle the walk, I would have to carry him.  There was no other way.

Off we went and I hoped it was in the right direction.  The setting sun made shape-shifting shadows on every shop.  I was surprised at how I was losing my way. 

"Ya Rab!"  I prayed to Allah. 

Here was my first day of fasting and I was really screwing it up.  I hadn't cried earlier but I could feel the tears well up in my eyes now.  Then, I heard the clop-clop-clop.

A horse carriage!

I jumped in and took the ride.  I told him where we needed to go.  He started off.  With every minute I wondered of what was happening now at the house and how much this was going to cost me in the end.  He began to give me a tour of the town.  I had to stop him.  No, I really needed to head back home.  The jolly old guy could barely understand me. 

I put my camera away and, in doing so, found Saleh's business card which I had been given the other day at the barber shop.  I called him and he gave the man directions.  I thanked God once again for the seemingly unconnected incidents which have always been planned to aid the believers.

Alhumdulillah, we made it home.

Chapter 7