Falling in love

People fall in love. To my naïve ears, the phrase used to sound like a one-step action, occurring due to sheer fate or coincidence. He taught me otherwise.

Falling in love is a process, a struggle between me and my beloved. If his love were a well and you were to look inside, there would be no end to its depth. Each sunset, as I reflect at his well, mine grows deeper.

The struggle lies within the paradoxical nature of our love. His love for me is complete and boundless. Mine is finite, but growing. The deeper I fall for him, the higher soars my heart. In my falling, I rise.

The spider ascends, slowly, along the first silver thread of its web. With the slightest movement of light, the thread becomes invisible to the human eye. Yet the thread continues to exist and the spider resumes its unhurried dance. Each creature is on its own journey.

A few hours before dawn, when the universe sleeps, I feel the closest to him. He listens to my complaints, my fantasies, my regrets. With his gentle embrace, my insecurities slip away. He is the first and the last one privy to all the buried thoughts within my heart. The only one aware of the exact curves of my body. The feel of my skin. The shape of each of my teeth. The parts of my being that I appreciate and those that I criticize. He assures me that I am perfect, just like his love for me.

During this intimate conversation of two lovers in the final moments of darkness, lightning strikes. The hairs on my arm stand up in distress. My beloved holds me tight as the fresh smell of rain envelops us. He promises that the first ray of sunlight is near.


Allah, my beloved, my Creator, my One and Only God, has hundreds of beautiful names. One of my favorites is Maalika Riqqi, the Master of my Freedom.

Imam Hasan Al-Mujtaba (peace and blessings upon him and his family) was once asked, “What is the distance between the Heavens and the Earth?” He replied, “The cry of an oppressed person in supplication.”

On this sacred 23rd day of Ramadan, “Ya Maalika Riqqi, free us from the chains that we have built, shackling us to vain pursuits. Teach us to drown in your love, for in this drowning lies our salvation. This upcoming year, let your two angels keep us ashore, the left arm supported by your final Book, the right arm by your final Prophet and his family.”

Shrines of Iraq

Shrines of Iraq, 2016. Heavens on Earth.

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“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)

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.

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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.

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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.

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Peaceful inside Duke University Chapel

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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.

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.