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.