Monday, February 17, 2014

teacher stuff

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'm 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'm slightly concerned that half of what I point to she calls "family" -
but it's better than a squeak. 

But I did manage to teach one little girl the alphabet so far, and she often surprises me with little secret accomplishments. I'm 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'm 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, 7 doubts are those which invalidate the prayers, and 6 are those which should be ignored. And the remaining 9 doubts are valid doubts.

Sometimes waswasa overtakes us. It is what its name sounds like. Little whispers trying to trick you. Don't let them. 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.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Big Questions

Every once in a while I think of something that I really want to teach my nephew- some sort of life lesson or amazing fact. Usually it leads to him thinking deeply about it for a moment and then asking follow up questions, none of which I know the answer to, making my knowledge of the world less and less credible in his eyes. So I have learned to deliver the information confidently and as if I have read a whole book about it. And sometimes I have - like the infamous "Armenian Genocide" incident of 2006. I was enrolled in the Politics of Naming, one of the few courses I will actually remember, and really into that week's reading. Also, I thought it would be funny to hear a four year-old say "Armenian Genocide." And so he did. And then he wouldn't stop talking about it. And then he started drawing pictures of what he thought it looked like- black clouds mostly.

But I did learn something from it!

Each time I deliver one of these impromptu lessons, especially the scienc-y ones, I end with, "that makes sense, right?" to get out of the way any lingering confusion that could later be translated into drawings. The question encourages him to agree with me and accept the gift of useless knowledge I am trying to impart.

And sometimes I really do need to ask myself if I am using the right terminology for a four year-old, or making it more complicated than it has to be. The thing about little kids is that their brains are like sponges. They can, and will, quote you at a later date.

Up until last year we mostly talked about outer space, but once he turned six he became much more concerned with his Aqida, and he asks me all of the questions he has about Allah, the prophets and comparative religion. The younger one also asks about the "Christmas people," but the older one will sit thoughtfully for a while and then ask an impossible question that is poking holes through his story; the one where everything is right with the world, and everything is black and white.

I hate that I will be the one to have to break it to him.
There is a lot that we have to take on faith, without intellectually understanding it.
But providence was rooting for him when he was born into a Sufi family. Inshallah, he will be taught the appropriate vocabulary to articulate the black and white, and then he will teach it to his own children some day, without the least bit of uncertainty and using all the right words.






Friday, October 11, 2013

Hello, out there!

At the end of each prayer, we turn our head one time to the right and one time to the left to say our salaams. They say: "this is not exclusive to those who are actually present: it encompasses everyone on one's right side [when giving salaams to the right, and everyone on one's left side when giving salaams to the left], even if far, all the way to the furthest point of the world."

Hello, out there!
They say that it’s okay to cut out just one hand waving because it is only one small part of the body and cannot sustain life on its own.

So there is a paper chain of different colored hands taped on the walls of my classroom. They are stuck there by way of a tack in the middle of two of the hands.
There are big ones and little ones and brown ones. They are all saying salaams to every one of each thing on their right side, and salams to each thing and everyone on their left side.

They say we’re all connected, like a paper chain of male and female figures holding hands strung up as a decoration crossing continents.
The whole world is having a party.
The women are wearing dresses. Nobody has eyes.

Are we connected? Are you thinking about me?

Oh, it’s you again! Asalaamalaikum.

Yes, it's me. Oh- yikes. Sorry-
I can't shake hands with you. But woah, look! - you know what I just noticed? Your pants are connected to your boots. And your pants are connected to your shirt. Are you the janitor here? Are you here to clean up my mess?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


According to Al-Tuhfa, it is unlawful to wear clothes that have pictures of animals, even if the picture is of an imaginary creature, such as horses with wings. The condition for the unlawfulness is that the pictures include what the creature cannot live without, such as the top half of the body. However, if the picture is of some part of the body that does not normally support life, such as the picture of a head, a head and chest with no abdomen, a hand, a foot or the lower part of the body, then it is not unlawful to wear. This is according to the relied upon position of the great scholar Ibn Hajar, in disagreement with the great scholar Al-Ramli.

So II’ve been trying to figure out how to dismantle all the heads from the bodies of my bird things. As the years go by I seem to have less of them. Soon stuff like this won’t be a problem.
We are back in Amman and still in a temporary space while they finish the new apartment. It is across a dirt path from the school where I teach and the shop where I buy my vegetables and milk. The masjid will be under construction for the next couple of years, across the street diagonally backwards, if you are facing the Qibla. From my bedroom on the roof I can see the whole city, or what I imagine to be all of it. It’s all there somewhere, just some of it blurry.

My nephew likes to stop by and watch the progress as things start to neatly fall into place to resemble a future home. Hinsists that he wants to marry a construction worker, because “they’re so important.” My sister reminded him that he has to marry a girl, and so he’s changed his tune to “No, I meant I want to BE a construction worker when I grow up.”
Then the younger one said, "I want to be a doctor like mama."
Then the littlest one chimed in, "I want to be a tissue." Then he poked me.

I’m not teaching math this year and so I’m officially just an English teacher, now that I’m grown up. I usually tell my Kindergarten class that they aren't allowed to draw animals, but yesterday during art time I told them it's okay to draw just the heads. The children did not respond well to this unfamiliar position on the matter. Hands shot up to tell me what baba says. Then looking back into the horrified eyes of little six-year olds, I recanted. No bird heads allowed, I said. But you know what I love more than anything in the world?  ... SHIPS! Let's all draw ships!
So we did. World order was restored, and they are slowly starting to trust me again...

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


I visited the local tailor and he gave me a present even though I told him his rate was too expensive for me and that my abaya cost me less than he was charging to shorten it. He didn't believe me but did decide to become friends and asked if I had seen much of Amman and then offered to "take me anywhere I want to go." I declined but did get permission to take photos of the walls of his shop, now with one less framed verse of the Quran tacked up in the spaces between pictures of him when he was a young man.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


The first time I came to Jordan I was twelve and wearing my brother's old wide leg jeans and long sleeved Nirvana t-shirts- of my own volition.
We kept coming back through here by bus so as to get to the other surrounding countries one by one, and each time we passed back through we would stop at "Mat3am Alia" for dinner. I couldn't believe that there was a restaurant named after my sister, just like I couldn't believe they were charging us for water.

The waiter for our table had a crush on my sister and kept us entertained with his advances throughout dinner. I wondered why this random waiter was so obsessed with her and decided it must have been because he thought his workplace was named after her. He brought her extra helpings of colorful, glistening vegetables and eyed her from the corner where he was huddled with the other waiters.
As we were leaving to board the bus he casually whispered, "I love you."  My mother laughed but I was completely traumatized. 

After a couple of healthy years of living in the Middle East and being proposed to in-passing by a few cafe waiters myself, I think I get it now. It's all part of the social contract. Nothing comes without a price. Travel to a faraway land, eat the shiny food- get propositioned by the cafe waiters. It's the social order.

And always a potential last resort to keep in your back pocket in case it becomes increasingly clear that you will have to marry a man whose first language is not English so you don't have to feel bad when he doesn't laugh at your jokes.

Another reason to make sure your abaya has pockets- along with concealing masbahas, pretzels, and other general types of smuggling.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


I'm back  to my baking self.
I'm going to try to bake myself into a cooking self. Or bake a new self and keep the old one just in case life, in a general way, doesn't work out for me.

But first, I'm tinkering with egg/dairy/nut free recipes for my nephew, who has been plagued with all the allergies in the family. We often put effort into making him think he is eating the same thing as his brother and sister, strategically giving them tall, opaque cups so he can't see what's inside, or preparing foods that are the same shade of orange. Today, while his siblings were dipping warm chocolate chip cookies in fresh milk, he sat with them, pretty sure he was eating the same thing but still somewhat suspicious, taking bites of barley bread dipped in water. 

I was searching for a vegan snickerdoodle recipe in the hopes of cutting down on some of my trickery, and found the recipe collection of a girl who named her website something like the verbal equivalent of her haircut. As her picture loads alongside the list of various forms of deliciousness that go into a snickerdoodle, we find her wearing an apron and with big black framed glasses.

Well, yeah, Su. Of course that's what you look like. 

Then my niece beside me asked, 
-Shifu Khala- is that your picture? Why is your picture on there?"

Get off my case, kid! Can't you see I'm a new woman?!

-That's not me. Why would there be a picture of me on the internet?

Note to baking self- for real this time, get all pictures of former self off the internet. 
Or at least run them through the photo editor "hardened woman" filter, then "soften edges," then "softer."