“Nice hair”

“Nice hair,” snickered the old man from his car at me and my mother, both of us wearing headscarves, as we entered the doctor’s office. My mother didn’t quite catch what he was saying and glanced at me, as she adjusted her black scarf with white polka dots. I am now unable to recall the look in the man’s eyes because mine were frozen at his mouth, registering the two words that had rolled off his tongue.

My mother ushered me inside. When I repeated to her what the man had said, she naïvely responded, “But we’ve covered our hair.” I explained to her that he meant to be offensive and that I couldn’t believe we didn’t speak up. As we took our seats in the waiting room, my mother tried to assure me that it was in our best interest not to retaliate in the moment.

That’s when I decided: I need to start blogging again.

For the past few weeks, I have been writing tremendously. However, I didn’t find the incentive to share anything. Such rich literature already exists that I felt a stronger urge to invest days pondering on those works instead of expecting anyone to skim through my material. Yet, this morning propelled me to write with a purpose. Having more time on my hands the past three weeks, I have devoured as many books as possible and the writers have provided me with the fuel with which I write today.

I first thumbed through The Autobiography of Malcolm X on 20 January, 2017. The day Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. A Muslim White friend of mine, inspiring in more ways than one, had sent me a copy in the mail. After putting it down for a few months, I finally finished it last night. The voice of Malcolm X and the African American’s struggle for freedom continue to reverberate in my ears alongside the two reviling words from this morning.

Another powerful book that I recently finished on race relations is “Americanah,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author. The fictional character, Ifemelu, writes about what blackness means in America in her blog titled, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” As an immigrant, she feels most free when she chooses not to straighten her hair and not to hide her Nigerian accent. She feels liberated in embracing her African roots while writing boldly about building a unique identity in America.

Similarly, to me – a colored, Muslim woman from eastern Africa – the United States represented the land of opportunity and diversity. I was proud to breathe on this soil. However, instances here and there manage to disgust me. For example, when President Trump hints at a system to track Muslims in America. 

Naturally, I felt drawn to Anne Frank’s diary, the raw honesty, the preserved experiences of a thirteen-year-old girl who went into hiding with her family, targeted for simply being Jewish in Nazi Germany. Last summer, I visited the house in Amsterdam where Anne and her family hid in concealed rooms behind a bookshelf.

On 16 March, 1944, she wrote, “The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings, otherwise I’d absolutely suffocate.”

For the same reason, I have been writing for years. And plan on sharing some pieces more regularly, in the case that doing so may enable me to connect me with other struggling souls.

After all, when your sanctuary is ruptured with a mere two words on a mundane, rainy morning, don’t you wonder how many speeches and writings will it take to prevent history from repeating itself?

The blue sky of Amsterdam, 2016

On February 23, 1944, Anne Frank wrote, “The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.” (Her words rang powerfully in my ears as I watched the open sky in Amsterdam, 2016)

The Little Girl in the Red Skirt

I capture moments while travelling because I do not trust my memory. However, this weekend was different. What the human eye perceives in real time can almost never be recollected in flat photographs. The camera struggled in my fastened, floral backpack. For the first time, a close Mexican-Pakistani friend, Lali, was visiting my current home, New York. She was probably the second best thing that happened to me in rural Oman two years ago. (The first being my progress in Arabic fluency. Bound to happen when you can’t speak to anyone, literally anyone, in English for weeks on end during your stay!)

Two days are not enough to catch up on the past 730 days or to explain the vibrancy of NYC. Or the air that is shared by American Dreamers and the homeless sleeping outside the beautiful Columbia University buildings. So, I became a tourist with Lali, eight fresh pairs of eyes exploring the city together. (Both she and I wear glasses or contacts.) Little did I know that while keeping my camera (mostly) away, my eyes would experience the city in a way different from all the years lived here combined:

Day 1. 12:30PM. It all started with a decent cup of tea in the East Village. The Strand is a haven for book-lovers, founded ninety years ago. I followed Lali and we happened to encounter a section I hadn’t noticed when perusing in the past because my mission usually involves poetry/travel/fiction. Across us stood a small collection dedicated to tea and coffee. For the past few weeks, I had been brainstorming gift ideas for a Chinese co-worker who shares my love for tea and sarcasm. And here was the perfect gift, a satirical book on the history of tea and recipes for baked goods fit for an invigorating conversation, peppered with witty banter.

Day 2. 6:10PM. If only someone could serve us a warm cup of tea right now! Our hats and mittens were not sufficient to shield us from the icy evening wind attacking our shivering bodies. However, the cold didn’t stop the African-American man in Times Square dressed in a light jacket. He bellowed at the tourists focused on clicking the perfect selfie, “Let me introduce you to Jesus! He can save you! He can bring us up!”

Day 1. 5:25PM. We went up indeed. Not to the skies, but to the top of the Empire State Building. The sun disappeared behind the skyscrapers as the Hudson River came to life. I looked below for the dancing fountains, my soul transported back to when I was studying in Dubai. I was at the top of Burj Khalifa with my circle of five international students: American, Danish, Egyptian, Nigerian, and Pakistani. Diversity, that’s what made my soul come to life. Diversity, the most precious gift New York had offered me.

View from Empire State Building

View from Empire State Building

Day 2. 1:40PM. Here, religions, ethnicities, languages, identities came together, befriending and clashing and growing simultaneously. A man in his forties in Central Park protectively carried a wedding veil, while two photographers guided the groom (wearing a Kipa, the Jewish cap, I learned after moving to the US) and his bride, dressed in an angelic gown, white flowers embroidered on her shoulder and arms. The exciting start of a new life. The picture of the couple and the entourage brought a sad smile to my lips.

Day 1. 2:30PM. The most magical works of art are paintings, moving ones that encapsulate humans laughing and crying and walking and sitting with dogs and without. When god uses his brushes and then frames His creations in windows taller than us. I had just finished praying at the New York University’s Global Center. My third time here, my first to notice the life-sized painting through the windows overlooking Washington Square Park.

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park

Day 2. 12:10PM. A girl with dark-brown curls and the perfect mascara seated at the table behind us at Sarabeth’s scrunched her eyebrows. Her eyes focused on her iPhone’s camera, hovering at an angle. Once satisfied that justice had been served to their brunch, she allowed her partner to begin eating. Patient, but starving, he immediately attacked the omelette with his fork.

Day 2. 1:20PM. Atop the infamous horse carriage in Central Park, a woman rode like a queen while the driver watched the road ahead. Her fingers were clutching an iPad, religiously videotaping the view from her elevated position. Around her smiling eyes appeared thin wrinkles; perhaps, she was Skyping with a loved one abroad and enjoying the experience with him. Ah, the possibilities. My eyes lingered a few seconds more on the purple blanket she had wrapped around herself. Was it as warm as the one I had?

Day 2. 3:50PM. An elderly Asian man was jogging in Central Park at the same speed at which Lali and I were powerwalking. All three of us were watching a father on a bicycle encouraging his son to pedal faster on his tricycle. Slowly, the Asian man picked up his pace and ran in front of us. Three generations in a single snapshot.

Day 2. 2:55PM. Outside an apartment building, a little girl bid farewell for the day to her best-friend-forever, who lived in this building. The little girl’s father was placing a bike helmet on her head, preparing for the bicycle ride back home.

Day 2. 4:25PM. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found my inspiration to write this post: a little girl wearing a red skirt sat on the floor, a drawing book in her laps and an open box on her right filled with color pencils. Her only care in the world right now was to capture what her heart saw in the shelf of oddly shaped pots. Papa often chukled to Mama in Kachi, “We didn’t know our little girl in the red skirt would accomplish so much. Do you remember the tears wouldn’t stop flowing from her eyes on her first day of school because she didn’t want to leave us for the day?”

The Little Girl in the Red Skirt

The Little Girl in the Red Skirt

Day 2. 4:29PM. I would forever be a little-girl-in-the-red-skirt for my parents. I wondered what adults would give in exchange for a few moments as a child again. Isn’t that the most important struggle of life? To live responsibly, yet allow time every day to follow one’s heart? My thoughts took a backseat as my eyes followed the hairpin of a woman in her early thirties. Her long, silky, black hair was secured together with a pin shaped as a row of seven small color pencils.

Day 2. 4:36PM. I pointed out the cool hair pin to Lali and we followed the lady to another area of the museum. She led us to a 1920s French marble carving called The Angel of Death and Sculptor. The Angel holds a bouquet of poppies, symbolizing eternal sleep, as she interrupts the sculptor’s work. To me, the memorial signified the passing of time, instead of its cessation. The last time I saw this memorial was three years ago, when I was a third-year college student, worrying about getting into graduate school. And here we were again, I had recently accepted an offer from a PhD program that had won my heart even before I had first started applying to programs.

The Angel of Death and Sculptor

The Angel of Death and Sculptor

Day 2. 8:05PM. Like the sculptor, wasn’t it crucial to continue pursuing to the last breath what excites your heart? To live to the fullest? I finished reading on the train on the way back home, having hugged Lali good bye, with hopeful plans of meeting in another city in a couple of months. The weekend ended as my eyes drank in Rupi Kaur’s words:

i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like

when i am sad

i don’t cry i pour

when i am happy

i don’t smile i glow

when i am angry

i don’t yell i burn

the good thing about feeling in extremes is

when i love i give them wings

but perhaps that isn’t

such a good thing cause

they always tend to leave

and you should see me

when my heart is broken

i don’t grieve

i shatter

North Carolina: A Mystical Journey

“The human thinks he has control over his life, until he realizes not everything is in his hands,” concluded Sheikh Mohamed AbuTaleb, after narrating an incident that he had witnessed a few weeks ago. As soon as I heard these words, peace enveloped me in a warm embrace. Twenty-four hours ago, I was worried about having to explore a new city on my own, after my friend who was going to show me around had to fly out of town to take care of family. And now, 8:30AM on this warm Saturday morning, I was seated at the front row of a Quran class at the Islamic Center of Raleigh, sipping kahwa (coffee) and nibbling on a piece of date cookie.

I had flown into North Carolina to interview for a graduate program at Duke University on Friday. Fortunately, I had enough time during the day to find the York Room, on the second floor of the Gray building connected to the Divinity School, and attend Jummah (congregational Islamic) prayer . When I entered and took off my shoes, I noticed that in front of the Imam (prayer leader) who was about to lead the khutba (sermon), a group of women was seated alongside a group of men. Having always prayed behind men, I naturally sat down on the carpet space at the back. That’s how I met Aydin.

york_room

Khutba (sermon) at Friday prayer

Since the lecture hadn’t started yet, I introduced myself to her and thus began a conversation that would transform my trip in a way that I hadn’t imagined. When asked about the Muslim community on campus, Aydin explained that the students came from diverse backgrounds, with varying, yet respectful, perspectives. For example, some women insisted on their right to pray alongside men, instead of behind and this had led to the fairly new seating space I had observed. The beautiful adhaan (call to prayer) drowned out our voices and we shifted our focus on prayer.

After the prayer, a rabbi joined to share an interfaith announcement, followed by lunch, which involved pizza, topped with halal beef. I was too nervous to eat due to my ongoing interviews, but I stayed back to speak to Aydin. She is an undergraduate studying cultural anthropology, on the pre-medicine track. Like me, she too had spent two months in Istanbul. She shared that she had used this opportunity to interview Uyghur refugees from her family’s hometown in Turkistan. While I was eager to discuss with her my interest in refugee mental health, I was also grateful to her for introducing me to Noura.

duke_university

Duke University

Noura is an Egyptian-American research coordinator, and also goes by “Mama Noura.” One of the sweetest people I’ve met, she picked me up the next morning after sunrise, along with three other girls. Aydin, the first Muslim girl I met on campus. Mahnoor, a Pakistani-American who would help me successfully bargain over a cute recycled piece of art at the Durham Farmers’ Market (which coincidentally opens only on Saturday mornings). And Lateefa, a Sudanese-American who reassured me that she has lived in North Carolina for a long time and feels safe wearing her hijab (headscarf) here.

The ride together to the Quran class transported me to a decade ago. Every Saturday morning, I would take the bus with other young girls, riding past the fresh smell of the ocean in Tanzania towards our madrasah (religious school). Today, the crisp day would fill with new memories. The varying colors and shades of men and women who had gathered in the Quran class. The “#noban sundae” on the specials menu at The Parlor in downtown Durham, where proceeds went to Church World Service to aid refugees. And the warmth that flooded my heart in a foreign city because of a welcoming group of diverse women.

A human can meticulously prepare a hundred and one plans. With one small change, all plans can dissolve. And then, an experience awaits, more fulfilling than she had ever imagined.

chapel_inside

Peaceful inside Duke University Chapel

chapel_outside

Awestruck, looking at Duke University Chapel

The Pigeons of Iraq

“La ilaha illallah! La ilaha illallah!” I looked up from my book of supplications to hear a horde of men carrying a long rectangular box, clad in black. Curiously, I put on my glasses. As clarity hit me, the hairs on my body stood up in alarm. My first time seeing a coffin. Less than ten feet away from me. Merely a few hours ago, the human being now inside the box was breathing. Like me. Soon, I will replace this corpse as my loved ones form a line behind me, pray for the forgiveness of my sins, and leave me six feet within the dark earth.

In an hour’s time, seven dead bodies came and went and fresh tears escaped from my eyes. Windows to our soul, they say. This was the last morning I spent in Iraq. How befitting that it was here, in the shrine of Imam Ali, that I found the truth behind our fragile existence, for which I had travelled 10,000 kilometers. To feel death after having seen it so close behind the wheel at midnight two months ago, a time when I cried out Ya Ali thrice and Ali immediately came to my rescue. The relationship between life and death, between fear and peace, so delicate.

In “A Life Apart,” Neel Mukherjee writes,

“If he could only push the inevitable away to some unspecified point in the future when he was old enough, a proper adult, he would be able to deal with it efficiently and well, but no, it really was happening now. It wasn’t the luxury of a safe mind toying with dark imaginings in terrified fascination any more. At thirteen, he thought twenty-five was the right age for dealing with Big Events; now, at twenty-one, the notion of a safe age turned out to be a mirage, receding further into the distance as one approached a moving boundary. Perhaps there wasn’t really any safe age for him.”

Are we ever ready?  To face the challenges of this transient life. To let go of grudges and heartbreaks, the pursuit of power and wealth. To focus on self-education that benefits oneself, the community, and life after death. It’s now or never.

How befitting that I am on the way to the birth celebration of Fatima, my namesake, the revered wife of Ali, the daughter who soothed the eyes of her father, Prophet Muhammad. Today, my soul returns to Iraq. Yearning for the peace I felt in the shrine of Imam Ali. To be one of the hundreds of pigeons flying inside the shrine, chirping in resonance to the call of prayer calming that last morning I spent in Iraq. To be free.

The Pigeons of Iraq

A boy runs toward the mosque of Imam Ali in Kufa, Iraq. Sunrise, Feb 2016.

Metanoia in Oman

Metanoia (n.): The journey of changing one’s mind, heart, or way of life

Two years ago, I had no idea I would be here again. This time, not to visit as a foreigner, but to live alongside locals and learn Arabic. Language is a key so miraculous that it allows you to embrace a culture and explore in a way a tourist can merely dream about.

Living in Ibri, Oman, during the holy month of Ramdhan, I am learning not only Arabic, but also the importance of searching for peace. Below is my first attempt to experiment with Arabic poetry and to discuss how what we choose to pursue in life transforms our definition of success and happiness. I am forever grateful to Ustaadh Said Mana Al-Ghafri, one of my Professors here, for guiding me through the writing process.

Surreal view in the city of Nizwa

Surreal view in the city of Nizwa

رمال جافة ممتدة بلا حدود في الأفق

السماء تعكس فساد شاحب

هناك حيث الصبار يعيش ويزدهر

الذين يفتقرون الشوك سيعانون

ليبقوا بدون نهاية حازمة

يواجهون الدهر والأرض الخشنة

عقيمة هي جهودي في البحث عنك

سرابٌ قاسٍ شبه تام ولكن كاذب

تحت الشمس الساطعة ارتعش في ضجيج

في عقلي أصواتٌ وشغبٌ ينمو

تائهةٌ في اِتجاه المجهول

يدّعي الوقتُ بأن جهودي لم تثمر

إعياءٌ يُغلّفني بذراعيه

وأنا أسبر خيالك وجمالك

واحذٌ فقط يمكنه انقاذ روحي الضالة

ويعطيني القوة لاكتشاف الصراط المستقيم

 لو ادركتُ فقط قوته وقدرته

حياتي سيغمرها النور المُبين

Wadi Zahir

Dry sand stretches unbound in my sight.

The sky reflects a colorless blight

where the cactus exist and thrive.

Those lacking thorns may strive

to endure without a resolute end,

encountering time and again harsh land.

Futile are my efforts searching for you:

a cruel mirage, almost perfect yet untrue.

Under the glaring sun, I shiver in unquiet

amid voices in my head, a growing riot.

Wander I in a direction unknown.

Time pretends my labor was not sown.

Exhaustion envelopes me in its arms

as I fathom your illusion, your charms.

Only One can salvage my soul astray,

give strength to find a stronger way,

if only I realized His power and might

life would again permeate with warm light.

Well, hello there!

Well, hello there!

The Persian Goldfish

1

I was the goldfish, brilliant as the sun.

3

Alone in my bowl, deceived, I was free.

Lounging in waters, calm, my trough,

spent I eternity eyeing the gold coins below.

9

Until some force, a shine, Sublime

showered upon my round universe

spring, along with a myriad of signs:

a drop of vinegar for patience in hard times

for health, chunks of apple and garlic

wisdom from the rays of a candlestick.

My vision, much clearer, I witnessed

the water, now a bright pink, stressed

with love for the soul and hyacinths galore.

4

In the glass bowl, I saw not my reflection

but blossoming sprouts, a reincarnation.

Now, I live to comprehend the Merciful One

and become a goldfish, obedient as the sun.

Sara's Haft Sin!

Sara’s Haft Sin!

Haft sin is a spread put out for the Persian New Year as the sun completes its cycle. Iranians and several Muslims celebrate the first day, Nawroz, also the first day of Spring. The beautiful spread above is the work of a dear Iranian friend of mine, Sara, who lives in Istanbul.

Inspired from the haft sin, I wrote a poem as 1394 begins. I wish us a peaceful upcoming year complete with love, travel, success, and fulfilled dreams. Although I don’t have a haft sin to share, I have a few photographs of mine that I hope will lend us color and inspiration.

Raison d’être from Kapadokya

As soon as I laid my eyes on you,

the ten-hour-long bus ride felt true.

You brought me into a novel world

of blues and browns, handsome herald.

Longed I to stand under your clear sky,

to confirm the rumors, to be nigh;

I knew not you’d give me the raison d’être

to forever guide my life, Kapadokya. 

Moments lived in your valleys lent

an escape, liberated breaths well-spent.

Fairy chimneys, hot air balloons,

an elderly couple selling ragdolls amid runes. 

Here I was on a simple escapade

away from society, its deceitful trade,

in search for a reason to live

not just to survive, to merely take and give. 

I found it in the reflection of a handicraft

as I left a pottery site, a magical shaft.

I saw myself in the misty, carved mirror.

I smiled back, a reason so simple, so austere.

Seen at the pottery site

Seen at the pottery site

One of the highlights of my stay in Turkey last summer was visiting Kapadokya (also spelled as Cappadocia). While in Istanbul, one can see water and people from every angle, Kapadokya is unique for its rocky terrain and peaceful silence. 

If you look closely, you'll see faces in the enveloped rocks!

If you look closely, you’ll see faces in the enveloped rocks!

Often, we experience ordeals that make us evaluate our existence. During these times, one fact we should firmly hold on to is: pursue what brings you happiness. The most magical blessing in the world is you. Live for yourself and those who care for you.

Grateful to have had the opportunity to visit and photograph this fairytale-like place