Friday, August 27, 2010

The Imam's Gatekeeper's Rats and Me

For a few months when I first arrived in my village Al-Khawkah, I lived in a small dwelling that had once been the gatekeeper's house beside the palace of a powerful Imam. The palace had long since crumbled, and the gatekeeper had been dead for fifty years when I arrived. The house was in a small compound with an outdoor privy (a hole in the ground with a concrete pad above it with two footholds). The building was about twenty feet by ten feet, with one room and a staircase leading to the roof. The "realtor" neglected to tell me the gatekeeper was buried in a crypt beneath the staircase when we first looked at the place. It had its ambiance though: There were a few date palms in the courtyard, the eerie remains of the palace forming the south wall of the enclosure, a beautiful view of the Red Sea, and 363 of the clearest, star-filled nights anywhere on earth. It rained once in my village in two years, for four days.
The only furniture in the house was a "Tihama Bed" named after the coastal region on the Red Sea. The bed was a tall frame with woven twine and a small foam cushion for the westerner. The four legs of the bed sat in coffee cans, a measure against scorpions and other nastier things. I hung a mosquito net from the ceiling over the bed. Directly behind me was a recess for the one window, and on it sat most of my precious possessions. Everything else sat in my footlocker/safety deposit box/coffee table. It had dirt floor, and the women of the refugee camp soon wove me grass rugs. I had an old hurricane lantern for light. It really was a sarcophagus in more ways then one, but it was mine for awhile.
Sometimes, I would go up on the roof and listen to the Call to Prayer and watch the sunset. I had to be careful though, as the Yemeni did not approve of people on roofs, I suppose it was a privacy issue. I was at the far end of the village, and had 3/4 electricity for a few hours a day. I tried to listen to music, but my two favorite artists at the time, Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, were already slow and deep. 3/4 of 3/4 is, well, you get the idea.
It was very hot in the area, and I had no ventilation in the room. I pulled up the mosquito net as it inhibited whatever scant breeze came my way. There weren't many vegetables in the market that time of year, and I was eating a lot of onions and tomatoes. One morning, I awoke and discovered my fingertip was bleeding. I went to school and was talking to the teachers. I told them about my mysterious malady, and one of the Yemeni teachers told me to show me the finger. He looked and moved close to smell it. He said in Arabic "Yes, onion, rats." My hand had dropped over the edge of the bed and a rat had sat up on its haunches and taken a bite out of my finger. I know this definitively because I saw it happen a week later. I was sick with a fever, and barely awake. Throughout the night I swore I saw rats everywhere, even playing on my mosquito net. Eventually, I took it all for a hallucination and turned over and reached down to the mats to pick up my sandals. I saw a rat approach slowly, rise up, and bite me. The stinging pinch let me know this particular apparition was real. I sat up on my bed and turned my lantern up as high as it would go. In that instance I saw four rats scamper back to the small hole I never noticed in the corner of the gatekeeper's crypt. I could even hear their tiny feet rustling over the grass mats. I was not pleased.
In the morning, after my fever broke, I formulated a plan. I would go to the market and buy every trap imaginable and dispose of my housemates. I would even use onions as bait. Ten dollars (100 Riyals) and a week later, I had no dead rats but three fresh wounds. Undaunted, a new plan, born partly of the general sense of ennui I lived with, came to me. I gave it about a 5% chance of success, but 100% of high entertainment, at least as entertainment goes in a small village in Yemen. The new plan only cost me two dollars, the price of big hammer in Al-Khawkah.
That evening, I came into the house and placed a cut onion in the corner of the room opposite of the hole my adversaries emerged from. My bed was in the adjacent corner. I took a short nap and woke up at around 2am. I turned my lantern down as low as it would go and sat in bed, hammer in hand, very quietly. I waited until I heard the familiar rustling on the mats. In one swift and terrible move, I flipped the lantern light up, jumped out of bed, and placed myself between the rats and their refuge. They were very confused and darted in different directions. In an instant, I chose one fleeing vermin and hurled the hammer at him. I missed, but not by much. This theatre went on for about thirty days without fail. At the end of the month, I had killed 8 rats. My fingertips bled no more.
I often wondered what the Yemeni, or anyone for that matter, would have thought if they had any idea what was happening in that small house by the sea every night. Looking back, I couldn't swear I would understand the grand adventure if I hadn't lived it myself. I think I hoped the game would go on, but I guess the remaining rats had had enough. They left and I went back to a very sluggish "Fast Car."

This Time for Gratitude

It is Ramadan, and I am thankful for many things. I love the discipline of fasting and paying extra attention to my prayers. Remembering to make time for prayer, and having hunger and thirst as steady reminders keep me focused on the purpose of this yearly devotion. Literally dozens of times each day, I think about my faith, my good fortune, and I empathize with millions of other humans who do not choose their "fasts" freely. I am thankful.
It has been a difficult year for me, I can't remember having this many transitions to deal with. My job search was long and arduous, and there were many times that I thought I might not find a good situation before our savings were exhausted. It has been more than a year since I have had an easy, peaceful sleep. These days I am sleeping a bit better, the fasting helps I think. I break fast after eight pm with a few dates and a glass of buttermilk. I pray then have a light meal. I try to sleep by eleven, and I wake at five to have some water and fruit. The schedule is comforting.
This Ramadan does bring hope and clarity. My job is challenging and I can immerse myself in it. I am pretty much alone though, living in an efficiency apartment on the third floor of a house. I know I just need to keep my head down and keep moving forward. It has also been a revealing month - there have been several old friends who have resurfaced and really boosted my faith in myself. There have also been a few who have retreated, allowing me to apply some much needed distance. All in all, my world is much clearer than it has been for the past several years. I am thankful for this.
No matter what is coming, I have this month to keep the right things in my life in focus. I am thankful for my family, for the multitude of blessings I have received in my life, and most of all, I am thankful that Allah has given me the skills and motivation to help others. I have done this my entire professional life, and I know there are small, sporadic pieces of the earth that are a bit better because I cared. I am very thankful.

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Conversion

I have often been asked how, why, when, and where did I convert to Islam. I always hesitate before I answer. Not because I don't know, or I am at a loss for words, or I don't want to share - my faith is a deeply personal thing for me, and those things have always been hard for me to discuss with others. It is now Ramadan, and I do like to revisit that life changing decision during this holy month.
The decision was twenty years in the making. It began when I accepted my second Peace Corps assignment in Yemen. Honestly, when I got the call, I had to run to a map to find the country (I did have a rough idea). I was not wild about the assignment, but I had learned that my expectations were often wrong, and I was sure such a new and strange environment would be exciting. I gave little thought to religion when I went, I spent more time on language and culture. And for a long time, I believed the things I saw there were cultural, but I was wrong.
From the beginning of my experience in Yemen, I had ambivalent feelings about my interactions with the people there. I saw a lot of things that I did not like or understand, but I also sensed a deep sense of dignity in many of the people I met. True to my nature, I focused on the negative, but did not forget the positive. It was those positive images that planted the seed that eventually brought me to Islam.
The Yemeni language trainers I worked with were amazingly patient and kind to me despite my occasional obstinance. I wasn't always a good student, but they took it in stride, and when my primary post didn't work out, several of them asked for me to be placed in their home villages. I was very humbled, the first of many times in the next two years.
Living in the refugee camp was wonderful and terrible at the same time. I loved the simplicity of each day. I had a sterno stove and boiled vegetables for my dinner. I ate tomatoes and onions with a little vinegar and oil, and made tea with fresh ginger, cardamom, and cloves. I sat in my wheelbarrow and washed myself with water from two buckets. I learned to wash very late, because it embarrassed me when the Eritrean women would insist to pull the water from the well for me. The women had woven grass rugs for me and even crocheted a very colorful throw for my bed. Every night I would try to read while the kids rollicked through my tent. It was the closest I had ever come to comfort and peace. This sense of contentment was often broken though by illness, violence, and death.
I began to realize that my admiration for the people in the camp was a reaction to their profound sense of faith. They had seen horrors I could not imagine, and yet they were still kind and compassionate, and very patient with me. I watched as they lived their lives, day to day. How they overcame tragedy, how they laughed at everything common and good. I had so much more than they, yet it was I who was empty, poor. I envied that inner tranquility that guided their lives.
After I left Yemen, I maintained contact with many Muslims wherever I went. In graduate school, I taught a Saudi student who eventually became a great friend and boss. He reminded me of so many Muslim fathers I had met - very loving and gentle with his family. Perhaps it was my own failings as a father that struck such strong chords witnessing these men interact with their children. He also had a very deep sense of dignity without the righteousness I had seen in other men of other faiths. I followed him to London and worked with him for a year in an Islamic school. We made great strides together, but I never came close to modeling the professional and compassionate posture he maintained always. I like to think I did learn though.
Upon returning to the States, I eventually ended up in Oregon, where I found myself pretty much alone. I spent long hours thinking about my life and my deep sense of disconnection. I wasn't looking or searching for an answer, I simply returned to that place where I had seen and felt a great deal of what I lacked - Islam.
I had many Muslim friends in Oregon, and I enjoyed spending time with them. I had another friend who lived overseas who was also a great influence on me. She was much younger, but was very poised and practiced her faith with quiet passion. I admired her very much, and I valued her friendship greatly. She was the first person I contacted when I converted.
The decision was very easy in hindsight. It was shortly before Ramadan three years ago, while I was visiting the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles of all places. I remember watching a woman who was introduced as a Holocaust survivor (she was three when she left the camp) discussing anti-Semitism and other issues. The presentation was interesting, but I was very upset with the final portion of it. She showed a piece about the alleged slave trade in Sudan. I had studied this issue, and knew that many governments, the UN, UNICEF, and dozens of other international agencies had condemned the reports of the Christians in Sudan allegedly "purchasing and releasing" Muslim slaves. I realized that in the course of her talk, she had showed Jews, Blacks, Native Americans, and many others being victimized in the past and present. There was no mention of Gaza or Palestine, nor of the massive fences and concrete barriers I had seen in Jerusalem, segregating and degrading Muslims. Instead, her presentation ended with a few Muslim "slave traders."
It wasn't my anger over the portrayal of Muslims or the omission of Israeli bigotry that prompted me to convert that week. It was the peace I felt every time I went back to those interactions in the camp, with my boss and his family, with my friend. I also knew that it was time for me to "submit" to my God. I had not submitted to anything for a long time, an inheritance of my youth - I survived my step-father and hadn't bowed before another man since. It was time for me to open my heart and allow myself to forgive, love, and live.
I don't pray like I should, but I am trying. I work hard to live my faith. It is not just a matter of not drinking, smoking, being promiscuous. It is a matter of living like a man who has the contentment of God's love in his heart. I hope people see that, not for my vanity, just my salvation.

أنا كثيرا ما سئلت كيف، لماذا، ومتى، وأين أعتنقت  الإسلام.دائما أتردد قبل ان أجيب .ليس لانني لا أعلم أو ليس لدي الكثير من الكلمات أو لا أريد أن شارك قصتي لكن إيماني هو شي شخصي عميق بالنسبه لي.
وهذه الأمور كان دائما من الصعب بالنسبة لي مناقشتها مع الآخرين.
الآن هو شهر رمضان  .وأنا أتطلع لإعادة النظر في هذا القرار المصيري "الذي يغير الحياه" في هذا الشهر الفضيل. وكان قرار عشرين عاما في طور التكوين.
وقد بدأ هذا  عندما قبلت بلدي الثاني مهمة فيلق السلام في اليمن.
بصراحة، عندما حصلت على دعوة، وكان علي أن أذهب  إلى خريطة للعثور على الدولة (وقد أخذت  فكرة تقريبية).
لم أكن وحشي حول الاحالة، ولكن كنت قد علمت أن توقعاتي كانت في كثير من الأحيان خاطئة، وأنا على يقين من أن مثل هذه البيئة الجديدة والغريبة ستكون مثيرة.
عندما ذهبت إلى هناك أعطيت القليل من الفكر ل الدين والمزيد من الوقت ل اللغه والثقافة .ولفترة طويلة اعتقدت أن الأمور التي رأيتها هناك كانت ثقافية لكنني كنت مخطئا
. من بداية تجربتي في اليمن، كان لي مشاعر متناقضة حول المعاملات التي أجريتها مع الناس هناك. رأيت الكثير من الأشياء التي لم أكن أحبها أو فهمها، ولكن أنا أيضا أحسست بالاحساس العميق بمكانة و كرامة كثير من الناس الذين التقيت بهم. استنادا إلى  طبيعتي ، ركزت على السلبيات، ولكن لم انسى الإيجابيات . كانت تلك الصور الإيجابية التي زرعت البذرة التي اوصلتني في  نهاية المطاف إلى الإسلام. 
كان مدربي اللغه اليمنين الذين عملت معهم صبورين و لطيفين معي بشكل مدهش. لن أكن طالبا جيدا دائما ,ولكنهم تقبلو ذلك . عندما لم تنجح مهمتي الأولى "الابتدائيه" العديد منهم عرض علي أن امكث في بلدتهم.كنت متواضعا "خجولا من تعاملهم الجيد" كانت الأولى من عدة مرات قادمه في السنتين المقبلتين.
العيش في مخيم للاجئين كان رائع ورهيب في نفس الوقت.  أحببت البساطة في كل يوم. حيث  كان لي موقد للطهي و الخضار المسلوقة للعشاء. أكلت الطماطم والبصل مع وقليل من الخل والزيت، و حضرت الشاي مع الزنجبيل الطازج، الهيل، والقرنفل. مكثت  في عربة وغسلت نفسي بالماء من دلوين. تعلمت أن اغتسل في وقت متأخر جدا وذلك لأن المرأة الإرترية تصر على سحب الماء من البئر لي. وقد نسجت النساء لي سجادة من العشب و غطاء سرير مليء بالألوان.
كل ليلة كنت أحاول أن أقرأ في حين كان  الأطفال يلعبون  بكل فرح و سرور بالقرب من خيمتي. كانت  الأقرب لي من أي وقت مضى للراحة والسلام. هذا الشعور بالرضا في كثير من الأحيان كان يكسر بواسطة  المرض والعنف والموت.
وبدأت أدرك أن إعجابي بالناس في المخيم كان رد فعل لاحساسهم العميق بالإيمان. 
أنهم شاهدوا فظائع لا يمكن أن اتصورها، وحتى الآن كانت لا تزال الطيبة والرأفة، وكانوا صادقين جداً معي. شاهدت  كيف عاشوا حياتهم، يوما بعد يوم. كيف  تغلبوا على المأساة، كيف أنهم ضحكو على كل شيء  .كانو لا يملكون الكثير ولكنهم سعيدين وكنت أملك أكثر منهم بكثير ولكنني كنت فقير وفارغ (اذا لم يكن لديك الإيمان فأنت فارغ).أني احسد هذه الطمانينه و الهدوء الداخلي الذي يرشد حياتهم.
منذ أن غادرت اليمن، وأنا  اتعامل و اتواصل  مع العديد من المسلمين أينما ذهبت. في مدرسة الدراسات العليا، كنت ادرس طالب سعودي الذي أصبح في نهاية  المطاف مدرب و صديق عظيم . ذكرني بكثير من الآباء المسلمين الذين التقيت بهم والذين كانو محبين ولطفاء مع عائلاتهم. وربما كان ذلك  القصور الخاص بي كأب هو  الذي أصاب تلك الحبال القوية حين تشهد تفاعل  هؤلاء الرجال مع أطفالهم. كان عنده الإحساس العميق  بالايمان "كان شخصيه دينيه جدا " ولكنه لم يكن يتحدث عن ذلك ولا يتباهى بذلك كمعظم رجال الدين.وتبعته إلى لندن، وعملت معه لمدة سنة في مدرسة إسلامية.  كان هادئا,مهنيا و مراعيا جداً. وأنا لم أكن  بتلك المهنية والهدوء.
عندما عدت الى الولايات ،  نهاية المطاف كانت ولاية أوريغون، حيث وجدت نفسي وحيدا الى حد كبير. قضيت ساعات طويلة أفكر في حياتي واحساسي العميق بالتفكك. انا لم اكن انتظر و ابحث عن اجابه .ببساطه عدت الى ذلك المكان حيث شاهدت و شعرت بقدر وافر من الامور التي افتقدتها "الاسلام"
كان لي العديد من الأصدقاء المسلمين في ولاية أوريغون، الذين استمتعت بقضاء الوقت معهم. وكان لي صديقه آخرى في الخارج حيث كان لها تأثير كبير علي. كانت أصغر مني  سنا من بكثير، ولكن كانت متوازنه  وتطبق إيمانها بعاطفة هادئة. أعجبت بها كثيرا، وقدرت صداقتها إلى حد كبير.  وكانت أول شخص اتصلت به عندما دخلت الاسلام. كان هذا القرار سهلا جدا. كان قبل رمضان بقليل قبل ثلاث سنوات، حين كنت في زيارة لمتحف التسامح في لوس أنجليس لجميع الأماكن. أنني أتذكر انني شاهدت امرأة  قدمت كأحد الناجين من محرقة لمناقشة معاداة السامية وغيرها من المسائل. كان العرض مثير للاهتمام، ولكنني كنت مستاء للغاية مع الجزء الأخير منه.حيث قدمت قطعة حول تجارة الرقيق المزعومة في السودان.كنت قد درست هذه المسألة، واعرف أن العديد من الحكومات، والأمم المتحدة، واليونيسيف، والعشرات من الوكالات الدولية الأخرى قد أدانت تقارير المسيحيين في السودان والذي يدعى "الشراء والإفراج عن" العبيد المسلمين.ادركت هذا خلال حديثها حيث تحدثت عن اليهود، والسود والأمريكيين الأصليين، والعديد من  الضحايا الاخرين في الماضي والحاضر. لم يرد ذكر لقطاع غزة أو فلسطين، ولا للاأسوار ضخمة والحواجز الخرسانية التي رأيتها في القدس، العزل واللاإنسانية تجاه المسلمين. بدلاً من ذلك، انتهى عرضها مع بعض المسلمين "تجار الرقيق". لم يكن غضبي على كيفيه  تصوير المسلمين أو إغفال التعصب الإسرائيلي الذي دفعني إلى دخول الاسلام هذا الأسبوع. كان السلام الذي شعرت به في كل مرة عدت الى هذه المخيمات، مع مدربي وأسرته،و صديقي. عرفت أيضا أن الوقت قد حان بالنسبة لي أن "اخضع " إلى إلهي . حيث أنني لم اخضع لاي شي منذ زمن طويل ولم اخضع ل زوج امي في شبابي ولا لأي رجل منذ ذلك الوقت.
حان الوقت بالنسبة لي لفتح قلبي وان اسمح لنفسي بان تغفر،تحب، وتعيش.انا لا اصلي وادعو الله على اكمل وجه ولكنني احاول. أنا أعمل بجد لاعيش إيماني. أنها ليست مجرد مسألة عدم الشرب، التدخين او ان تكون غير اخلاقي. أنها مسألة العيش مثل رجل  لديه قناعة محبة الله في قلبه.امل ان يرى الناس هذا ليس لغروري وانما لإخلاصي.