Friday, November 21, 2014


People would ask me why I was so obsessed with Tangier and I would get this look on my face like I'd been spooked and whisper, "I don't know."

They say we were all created from the earth of different parts of the world and that same place is where we will eventually be buried. This must mean we have a special connection to this unnamed place, where it tugs at the hem of the skirt anytime we think about it or when we see it for the first time as the train pulls up. And we can hate it, just like we can hate ourselves.

I can only assume I was made from some little mound of dirt in a tiny corner of that wretched little town. It keeps calling me back but hasn't had a chance to kill me yet. If I am buried here some day by some curious circumstance, that's how we'll know for sure. And then I'll say it from my grave, in my spooky voice, "I called it!"

But I'm hoping it's not that.

Alexandria is just like Tangier. Not in the tugging-at-heart way, but in the sleepy, falling apart by the seaside and bursting at the seams sort of way. Like Cairo, Alex (as I now endearingly refer to her) is decidedly creepy. Everything is so old, there must be jinn around every bend. So much of the city looks like a dilapidated circus, peppered with old men sitting on the curb with just his feet sticking out from behind a clump of multicolored balloons.

On the ride into the city, I saw a faraway wonder, palace-shaped and decorated with silver sparkling lights. I assumed that it must be the Bibliothequa Alexandria or some other celebrated relic of the Hellenistic age- a broken-off piece of a face carved out of marble where a museum had been built, to celebrate the former glory it once symbolized. As we sped towards it at a steady speed of 120 mph down the Alexandria Desert Highway, I began to decipher its features as being those of an old castle or fortress. But then closer, the circus-like quality of the town began to manifest and I resolved it must be an amusement park. It looked more like the other structures along the coast, speckled with primary colors and flickering lights, which I had also decided were amusement parks. It wasn't until a few more minutes of the cars speeding and near death experiences that we drove clear alongside it, and I must have made a sound or a face or both because the driver stared at me sidelong as I found myself staring at nothing more than a factory. Fat cylindrical tubes connected vats to smokestacks with a winding staircase around its perimeter, suggesting there might be a little man up there, overseeing all of this, and plotting something. Parts of it seemed to be alive. It mostly reminded me of Batman's lair. Did Batman have a lair? Actually, from a distance the whole city looks like Gotham. From on the ground, scattered collections of ruins strung up with lights.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sinking Ship

During my short stay in that magical land where I am an arts & crafts teacher and I love my job and everything will be fine, I successfully led several girls and unmarried women of a marriageable age into a deep love affair with silk ribbon embroidery. I feel like I am helping to sprinkle the neighborhood with beauty, with a few innocent homes as collateral damage along the way, soon to be decorated with uninspired ribbon knots embroidered into random cloth-covered publicly displayed items. Not everyone has the dexterity required for needlework, but ours was mostly an issue of lack of experience, which made my job easy because then I could just say "ok now you try!" and then they poke themselves with the needle and they will have learned something new. A few of them kept accidentally sewing their projects to themselves, but that was the worst of it. No poked-out eyes, Alhamdullilah, and only one disheartened spirit.

In Tangier we would call her a shakhseeya qawiyya. In America, a free spirit. There was one giving me some trouble at the visa office yesterday and her sympathetic colleague jokingly referred to her as a "hard girl."

I have been unsuccessfully tutoring the former in English using a children's book about the Titanic. I do not especially enjoy teaching this book because I am never quite sure if I am meant to be teaching a moral to the story. We can speculate, but really we don't know anything about why the Titanic sank from a retribution standpoint, and so I would rather leave that interpretation of events alone.

The book is not meant for beginners, but I was confident that I could explain the difficult parts to her in Jordanian Arabic. I learned too late that the Arabic terminology I was using to explain the sequence of events was somewhat archaic and specific to the Quranic story of Noah's Ark, and not all ships and voyages. She has convinced herself that she cannot learn English and I spend most of my time with her in a state of mime, searching for signs of life behind a blank stare from eyes lost in a sea of issues with authority. She adopted a similarly hopeless stance on her capacity for ribbon embroidery after the first failed attempt at a rose. I tried to convince her, also through mime, that if you get enough twisted ribbon knots all gathered in one small space there is bound to be a flower out there somewhere that looks like that, at some point in its life cycle, or postmortem. She rolled her eyes, but couldn't deny it. We worked on it over the four weeks and eventually, she came to me with a perfectly shaped red-ribbon rose that she had completed.

"It looks beautiful!" I exclaimed.

She rolled her eyes and in Arabic, replied, "it looks like a sinking ship."

I vote this a mini forward-moving motion, even though I had to report her to the principal for rolling her eyes.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Seeker's Guidance

I have a balcony that overlooks the city and at night I can peek out from the in-between spaces in the curtain lace and see the stars- crazy amounts of them. There is a constellation in the shape of a question mark that is always flickering a little bit extra, like it is made up of stars that a great wind or breath is teasing with the possibility of being extinguished.

I remember "buying a star" at the grocery store decades ago, and wondering how I would ever find out which one was mine. Now I am sure it must be part of that little guy looming over me like a heavy shrug, calling "?..." 
And I reply with another, bigger shrug.
Or that twisted face that inspires other people to make the i'm-going-to-punch-you if-you-don't-stop-making-that-stupid-face face.

Mostly it just reminds me that I don't know very much about anything. And how so much of the time, when I think it's one thing, it's actually the other thing. And how many times I've been left with a sinking feeling and wishing I had done the other thing.

I can even see it out my window right now- now that I'm living on a roof with a balcony where I can see things more clearly, and not back in Buffalo where people can buy stars at the grocery store. 
I'm pretty sure it was a fundraiser for cancer research. It was part of the candy isle.

And so what if I'm just answering one question with another question. At least we're taking the time to ask questions and inshallah getting somewhere. 
Somewhere in the vicinity of deciding to embroider a constellation onto my black winter sweater. And somewhere beneath all those countless little lamps in the sky, we are being constantly reminded of the countless blessings of Allah.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stand Guard

...devil on the loose again.

Anyone who knows me or the reality of life knows that I'm not referring to the cake. But to the actual devil. He's out of his chains after a blessed month during which I often had to face the fact that at least a few of the dumb ideas I have are really just my own.

And while it's definitely not the devil's food, I'm starting to feel like Banana Nut cake is not on my team. So I felt it was best to keep it trapped in a jar and put a ribbon on it which immediately suggests "not for you."

Monday, June 30, 2014

and per se and ...

Dreams come true all the time. I spent three weeks with the official job title "Arts & Crafts Teacher." Ampersand included. My mission was to develop crafts suitable for four to five-year olds with Islamic themes using recyclable household materials. "Islamic themes" was loosely interpreted, as we did end up doing several bug projects. But Allah created bugs. And that's what we call Islamic pre-school art. The possibilities are endless.

Growing up, I too created a portfolio of art with Islamic themes, my best work emerging at the age of nine- a painting of Hell. I entered it into a school-wide contest challenging students to reflect on the theme "Anything Can Happen." When I asked my nephew if his drawing of big black scribbles on black paper was Jahannam, he said "Of course not, it's a tsunami- see the little guy?"
I did see the little guy, flying through the air.
"He's not a bad guy. He's a good guy."
Alhamdullilah, double-win for Team Make Sure the Kids Don't Take After Khala. They don't draw pictures of Hell for fun, plus they understand that even good guys can get caught in a tsunami.

I hope to make this Ramadan more than just a basic fight for survival. We pray Taraweh (Ramadan night prayer) on the roof in the breeze. We can see the whole city from up there although of course no one is looking. But I know it's there and sneak peeks as we go through the Salah, two by two up to 20. A bunch of the kids that were in the crafts program come to the prayer and squeeze their little bodies into the back row. I don't watch to see if they make it through all 20 but when I was their age I definitely used to try, and would make a list in my head of all the things I could think about while I was praying that would keep me from falling asleep standing. I'm not sure what these guys think about except for when they see me standing next to them and get a look of wonder on their face and can't stop staring to see if it's really me. She does things other than crafts? What?

The best part, by far, of seeing kids at Tarweh is during the last raka of Witr when we delay bowing down and instead remain standing to recite the dua qunoot before going into ruku. Kids tend to forget this. It's late, they're tired. So down they go, waiting for the Imam to say Allahuakbar and it just doesn't come. And so they wait, and wait, and then eventually a few little heads start to peek around and try to figure out what's going on. But most of them don't even notice and just maintain great patience and understanding that everything is going great.

And that's what I miss. But aside from not being a child anymore, things actually are going great because Allah has given me a job where I have to at least partially think and act like one. But there's a time and place for it, and this month is about moving forward and not backward. And apparently, according to the schedule, for me to learn how to macrame. And then to learn how to teach kids how to macrame.

Ramadan Kareem.
As the guy who put together the youtube Tafsir lectures I listen to would say: "Plz Keep me in UR duazz and PRAY I get all Az & A+z on my examzz."

Monday, May 19, 2014


A woman stopped me in the street to ask if she could write an article about me and my community. I told her that it would be inappropriate, and suggested she write some short fiction instead. Plus, I'm a "writer." I write about myself all the time.

I spent years convincing Americans that I am fascinating. It's ME. I am the intriguing thing. I do not even need to be doing anything special. I'm a phenomenon. With one boot in one boat and the other boot in the other boat, I stand there, wobbly and casually, talking about boats. Playing it cool,
overhearing conversations about the young ethnic Muslim who unsuccessfully tries to straddle a world of religious devotion and one of secular charms. This discussion takes up about half a page. Then they illustrate it with a drawing of a prayer mat that looks like a dollar bill.

I was trained to believe that this is something worth writing about. I have tried to convince myself otherwise but I can't seem to shake it. The subject is brought up and I smile bigger than before and then proudly nudge the guy beside me and say, "Hey, look. That's my kid." But it is mostly a sham, because what happens to a lot of us is that the juggling act fails and we make concessions. There is nothing really all that fascinating about someone dropping one ball and picking up another. And every so often scrambling around trying to scoop up lost balls.

Living in a heavily Westernized Arab city, there are no longer two worlds, just one big boat full of wobbly Muslims. I am finding that even over here in my little corner of the world, there are constantly choices to be made that are not so much the difference between right and wrong (Alhamdullilah, those are becoming easier to spot, and will inshallah continue to do so) but the choice between caution and "taking it easy." These are the tricky ones. They are not as flashy as the ones that came before, and require more care, sincerity and presence of heart. It takes work for the seemingly fuzzy things to come into focus as clear cut. Then after work, they go change into their party clothes and come out wearing all black and white. Not even so much as a shimmer from a sequin to leave me wondering, wait, what color is that, actually? Or thinking, that would look even better in gray. But it takes work, knowledge, mindfulness and obedience. These are blessings that can only come from Allah, and I hope and pray that I can fill my little lifeboat with them all, just in case this ship sinks.

Like most things, I can best illustrate the situation using crafts.

"What's the rule for playdoh?"

"NO MIXING!" the kids yell in unison as they mush the yellow and green into a tube shape, smash it, then cheer, "Machapichu!"

Monday, February 17, 2014


I was explaining to the kids that we capitalize the names of dieties and religious texts because they are holy. 
It set off sparks.

A little hand shot up, and one of the nine-year-olds insisted that she would not be capitalizing the names of other people's gods, her face resolute and unswerving. "Because they aren't holy. They aren't real. They aren't anything."

"Ok," I murmured, swerving, and wondered if I could just let this slide. "But they are names though. I mean, they are capitalized because they are names. Of things. Even if they aren't real."
She thought about it for a few seconds then resolutely replied "But it's Kufr. So actually we can only capitalize the name of Allah."

This seemed like a good time for slide-letting. I'll just think of it as developing her critical thinking skills.

Later in the lesson, the little hand shot up again. She took offense to the sentence, "The Muslim girl wearing hijab distinctly stood out in the crowd of people at church." It wasn't a great sentence, but it got its point across.  

"But the sentence is wrong," she explained, "because a Muslim girl would never be in a church."

 I tried to explain that since it was physically possible though, hypothetically, for this to happen, the sentence was in fact grammatically correct. But she was sticking to her guns. She gave a look of disapproval to the girl sitting behind her who had thought of the sentence, and who immediately recanted and tried to come up with another way to use the word "distinctly."

I still can't tell if it is a fail or a win for me as a teacher, but I'm leaning towards win.

Lesson learned: Faith trumps grammar.

Meanwhile, I am failing at trying to teach a little Arab kid how to speak English. She starting from scratch and still answers me in squeaks and other meaningful "cultural noises." I am slightly concerned that half of what I point to, she calls "family" -
but it's better than a squeak. 

And as I struggle to get her to speak, I am comforted by the thought that floating in the overall-failing are mini forward-moving motions accompanied by colorful stationary in a large ziplock bag labelled "incentives."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Good Company

There are 22 kinds of doubts which one can have while praying. Out of these, seven doubts are those which invalidate the prayers, and six are those which should be ignored. And the remaining nine doubts are valid doubts.

Sometimes waswasa overtakes us. It is what its name sounds like. Little whispers trying to trick you. They say not to let them, or they
will bury you. Don't do too much, and don't do too little. Just do the right thing. You know what that is, don't you?

They say the remedy for waswasa is good company.

Hey you- will you be my neighbor?

Monday, December 30, 2013

Sharia Rainbow

Getting out into the city was the first good idea I’ve had in a long time.
I’ve stopped carrying around my camera in an effort to give up photography, but today I saw so many beautiful inanimate objects that I wish I had captured. Signage, mostly.

I did not find the charming little junk store or the shoes I was searching for- not even at the cute old niqabi’s shop, which once provided me with so many ridiculous heels that I invested in before I realized where I was living. I gave them away soon after and can’t help but wonder if I will be punished for facilitating some other woman wearing them.

I tried to buy a belt from the old woman for good measure but couldn’t find change, and so she just gave it to me.
Yes, that’s how we do it in Jordan.
Free belts, cheap bread and strangers who pick me up from the side of the road and drive me places when it’s raining.

Today was perfect for venturing out of the neighborhood, and inshallah will be a good day to sit on the roof balcony and remember how I used to say that this is what I always wanted.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Big Questions II

I am reading a short story about the Titanic with my third grade boys. There is a moral being conveyed, but unlike the carefree days gone by of former years we don't get to say  "and the moral of the story is..." in unison and a sing-song voice. Third grade is serious stuff. The messages are subtle.

As with our last book, Pompeii: Buried Alive, the story teaches us that catastrophe strikes when people turn their back on God, or forget about Him.

My six-year old nephew is determined to read all the books that I'm reading with the older boys because even if they are too scary to play with in the dirt patch, at least he'll know that he's just as smart as they are. After he read Titanic, I explained to my nephew that the people who had built the Titanic claimed that "Even God Himself cannot sink this ship." Here, I opened my eyes as wide as possible to convey the gravity of such a declaration.
He thought about it for a minute, as he usually does before deciding to believe something I tell him.
Then he asked, "Were the people on the Titanic Muslim?"
I answered truthfully that I did not know, but probably not.
"So then if they said that even God can't sink the ship, they weren't talking about Allah, right? Because they don't think Allah is God."
I agreed.
"So then they weren't actually saying anything wrong because whoever they think God is probably couldn't sink the ship. Like if their God was a rock, or just a regular person." Then he laughed to himself. "Because that would be really silly, right?"

Aside from my obvious conclusion that this kid is awesome, what is amazing to me is that he always insists on finding a way to defend the people of the past with unshakeable confidence that no matter what happened, there was always a chance that maybe, just maybe, some of them became Muslim before they died. Particularly in stories where it is not clearly stated whether or not the characters rejected the message of Islam (most stories). He even goes so far as to say probably. "If they weren't bad people, then they probably became Muslim before they died," he often concludes.

As the resident Khala, this puts me in situations where I have to wonder, should I just agree with him, to encourage him to have confidence in his own intellect, or should I say what I think the average American non-Muslim's reaction to this would be. Something like you shouldn't think that someone has to be Muslim just because they are good- there are good "Christmas-people" too. Or should I prepare him for the harsh realization that there are many non-Muslims that are also good people, and they won't ever become Muslim. That doesn’t mean they won’t go to heaven, but it does mean that they will be held accountable for rejecting it because they were blessed enough to have the gift of a Muslim in their lives who taught them about Islam- and hey guess what- that person is you!

It's one of those points of aqida that troubled me as a kid but was eventually sanded over by faith in the justice of Allah. Still, it took a while.

I would about all those kids I was friends with who knew nothing about Islam except that "Shefa is one." My sense of personal guilt was fully formed into its own creature by the ripe age of six (she has pigtails) and she wondered- will they remember me on the Day of Judgment? When they finally learn that Islam was the truth and then they're thinking what?! but the only thing I know about Islam is that weird stuff that fat girl used to tell me at recess. And now it's too late...

And then I would feel really awful about any recent friendships I had forged.
Then I would picture some sort of moat with people drowning in it.

This imagery may have been a result of too many hours spent playing King's Quest, or is from something some adult told me once and I believed them without the same sense of caution that keeps my own nephew's aqida bubble wrapped and safe from the little jabs of adults who irresponsibly try to explain important stuff to formative minds without any prep work.

But this little guy is a thinker, and he’s catching on that I don’t always know how to answer his questions, as I more and more frequently resort to an old standard for self-respecting Khala's across the world –

Go ask your baba.

Because I refuse to be responsible for any kid to be terrified of the afterlife because he is plagued by a vision of some sort of sci-fi moat where all his friends are drowning. And it's getting trickier, now that the kids are getting older. Old enough to remember what I'm saying and to wonder about it later.