Saturday, December 22, 2012


It's hard to fall off the map.
Especially for a girl who loves maps.
Traces them, embroiders them, doesn't scoff at others who claim to love maps. Saves them, mounts them, frames them. But then, everyone frames maps. 

I can't help but want to be part of things.
And I can't get over this obsession with wanting to befriend bedouins. They are my neighbors and I think we could be friends. At night I hear their footsteps as they rummage through the trash bins for thrown-away things of value. There are so many broken tiles in the trash and on the side of the road. We could make mosaics together and mount them on the walls of their little huts.

Today I found a toilet on the side of the road. It led to an opening in the tiny hill so you can peek through at the rolling hills and houses across the valley. A fertile place to make fertile friendships. But I fear my bedouin befriending days are over. We don't speak the same language and I'm not as approachable as usual when I am veiled. But I like to think I have a warm glow that says "I'm smiling at you from under here."

Global warming feels like a big hug from the universe and the infamous Jordan winter has yet to set in. The lines on the map are begging to be embroidered into the patterned cloth that I bought from the flea market but instead I spend my time drawing number bond worksheets and baking pumpkin cakes. A fertile place for a simple plan. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Huda Sha'rawi St.

The walk from home to school is short but it spans two neighborhoods. On the way the monotony of Jordan beige gets broken up by colorful garbage and fast red cars that will surely be splashing me with mud once the winter rains arrive. 

My roommates tell me not to take the scenic route after dark but it looks like djinn territory and I feel I am safe because I am shrouded in black like a little traveling cloud with not even the tiniest bit of red. They wouldn't want me even if they found me. Clearly a prude.

From the long road that overlooks the rolling hills that make me go "[Sigh] ya Allah I love Jordan" I take Huda Sha'rawi St. down to the neighborhood. 

Huda and I go way back. I first heard about her in Intermediate II Arabic, by means of an Al-Kitaab reading assignment made especially painful by my inability to understand the meaning of the words that I am struggling to correctly decline.

Huda was a champion. She fought for the rights, education and welfare of women and children. There was also this one time in 1923 that she removed her hijab in public as an act of defiance and it went down in history as a pivotal moment for Egyptian feminism. I understood very little of the text as a whole, but my teacher translated that last part.

He didn't translate any of that other stuff she did when she wasn't de-veiling on trains.

So as a new hijabi, I felt it was my duty to make inappropriate mutters of disapproval whenever we read about Huda.

...way to go Sharawi.
Thanks for making me look like an oppressed douchebag."

Needless to say, nobody appreciated my attempt to interact with the text, not on the outside, probably not on the inside.

But Huda, I kept you with me.
I know you're watching over me when I walk up your creepy street, barely breathing from the uphill incline, thankful that my veil is hiding the signs of distress on my face.

And I feel you watching over me as I try to make light of my increasingly complicated sartorial situation and in the process, create more of a barrier between myself and other people that the "hijab" ever was in the first place.

Ok Huda. You win. This is serious stuff.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


It feels like I have made it across the looming moat of depressing career paths that involve reporting to a fluorescently-lit office where the microwave always smells like popcorn and soft rock is playing in the copy room and everyone hates their job and they all ask me if I'm a hipster.

I managed to wiggle my way out and escape to a far off land, to a little room with a little window teaching Kindergarden and reading books about ships.  

Teaching feels like acting. Everything I say, I say on purpose, for a reason. Not to be confused with "always saying the right thing," as I suffer from faulty reasoning, as a general condition. My job is essentially to teach English to the children and to not traumatize the children, which is surprisingly difficult. But Allah is merciful and gave me some wiggle room by putting me here, in this particular place, and at an international school. A handful of the students don't understand English, so I get a couple of chances to explain myself and take back any words that would have been better left unsaid. Now I just have to figure out how to take this wiggle room with me, wherever I go, and wearing an abaya twice my size, just in case. 
Of course, the working goal is to eventually not need it. Something about the word "wiggling" makes me feel like I'm better off without it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sartorial Shifts

My camera took up the niqab a few weeks before I did. I started using the new type of instant film, and as if the polaroid itself doesn't attract enough attention (I promise, not all of us who use polaroids are doing it to get attention), this one requires that as soon as the picture slides out of the camera with a "bjjjoom" sound, it needs to be shielded from the light until it fully develops. I discussed it with my camera, and to my surprise she had decided all on her own that she wanted to wear niqab, especially if she was ever going to fit in in the neighborhood where we live. I felt like one of those mothers whose daughter decides to wear hijab of her own volition. And unlike many of these mothers, I gave her my full support and pointed out that this way, we would "go together better" and I said things like "I feel like you get me" and she said things like "your eyelashes look like spider legs." She's a total weirdo.

I am still just getting used to the niqab and learning all the tricks (any given article of women's clothing comes with tricks), but I am proud to say that I have stopped forgetting that it is there and trying to drink from water bottles over it. This is a big step. Also, I have concluded for sure now that when it blows over my eyes while walking, I should STOP walking. 

These are little things. I think most things are little things, when I look at them closely. Or a lot of little things in a small space all stuck together. The point is that once a person has made the decision to lead a simple life, wearing niqab in a neighborhood where all of the other women also wear it, is not a big deal. I just blend in. And that is fine. 

It feels like the equivalent of being that girl that comes to the cafe everyday and sits in the corner with a notebook studying Arabic, and watching people and writing about them. Except better, because I am sick of being a regular at coffeeshops. And because I can know for sure that bothering to leave the house is not just an excuse to wear a pretty dress. And because I hate that girl and her boots and her vintage dresses.

That being said, I am still totally willing to move to that creepy part of the medina in Rabat and become a "public writer" with my very own umbrella and public desk on the dirt road near where they sell the only decent baisara in the city. I could repurpose my old florals. I could be my own umbrella. For now, I am my own island and my own camera.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Kashmir is one of those places on the map that is not filled in with a solid color, but instead, covered with angled parallel lines indicative of a special case. Like many parts of the Muslim world, it is often grouped in with the Middle East in academia and the media, and is given minimal, sporadic coverage, overshadowed by more gripping reports from countries in transition. So I follow the news from back home on Facebook, to glean an understanding of when tensions are erupting. I can tell based on whether my sixteen-year old cousin’s status update is a stream of transliterated Kashmiri freedom slogans, or an invitation to rate how cute she is.

kashmir butterfly map
I am closer to my family than ever before because of the popularity of Facebook in Kashmir, but I know I am not alone (I know through investigative journalism that at least one other person feels this way), in my initial discomfort with some of the graphic images and links that I have been tagged in over the years, relating to the Kashmir conflict. At some point in the early trajectory of my Facebook years, “tagging” went from being a way to identify when someone is in a picture, to being a way to insinuate that someone you are friends with has something to-do-with that picture. This has been tricky to navigate, because I try to keep my internet identity as light-hearted as possible, but also felt that since I was dedicating all of my time and energy into learning and writing about the Middle East instead of Kashmir, the least I could do was stay hyperlinked to gruesome images of police brutality and mothers grabbing at their faces in horror and overwhelming grief. As we migrate towards our impending fate of eventually existing entirely online, we have stumbled on a new form of non-violent protest at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. Alongside the stifling weight of state censorship across the Muslim world, to un-tag myself would constitute its own form of censorship, because these are the facts on the ground, even if the images make me wince and are not as delicately stated as my embroidered Kashmir map, shaded accordingly to indicate disputed territory. 

Enmeshed in a complex politics of identity and belonging, the valley in question is nestled between two fiercely stubborn and competitive nations that both lay claim to the territory. Any outside actors that have expressed a desire to support a peaceful resolution between Pakistan and India seem to be waiting to bring it up until everyone is in a good mood, or until the situation becomes categorized as a threat. As an interested party, at the mention of the continually evolving turmoil in Pakistan, I am met with that sinking feeling that we are inexorably caught in the mess of our nuclear neighbor to the west. I do my piece as an informed person and skim the news reports, and then indulge in the best part of any news article on Kashmir- the comments section. This tail-end gem is active not only for analytic pieces, but also for reports and general statements of what the author assumes is fact. Reactions are passionate, often in all caps. They range from hilarious to hateful, mostly from people that are emotionally connected to the region, and the intermittent Dan or Mike who think it was a really well-balanced article. This is likely why I find it really difficult to write about Kashmiris at all, and any attempt at it usually ends up being about my mother, or about goats. Not many people are informed about the conflict, and misrepresentation understandably increases frustration. For those who construct their own identity around Kashmir and the words used to describe it, contesting authoritative interpretations and giving voice to one’s own version of things is a form of protest. And everyone knows that the best place to vent frustrations on things is any sort of comment section on the internet.

In my forthcoming foray into journalistic writing (my poems now come in the form of embroidered creatures), I want to know what people believe about their own set of circumstances. Because this is what we act on. And when enough people believe in the same thing, sometimes there is a chance for things to move forward. Have we not been inspired by the Arab Spring? If we set aside any understanding we might have of the complexities of the events and resulting circumstances for the many countries involved in what falls under this romantic umbrella term, is it not an inspiring thought? So enchanting, and with so much room for weather metaphors. It makes one think of morning dew, summer rain and a handy umbrella, all at once.
Kashmiris are an inspired people. In the face of limited freedom of speech and biased media reporting, the new generation of the Kashmiri disenchanted is following in the dewy footsteps of their Arab neighbors by using creative modes of resistance to air their grievances.
This feels like a fertile place to start from. Warm like the belly of a goat.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ramadan du'a for a house, for a mouse, for a spouse


It was the thirteenth place I saw that week, and the best one. 
To prove it I took pictures of all of them.

Breaking bread for a housewarming, I hummed a familiar tune like, 
"I wanna live in a pretty pink kitchen. And raise chickens."

I said a prayer over the new table and saw a tiny shadow escaping.


"One of the hardest things to do is to catch a mouse." 
I explained it the way I do to my mother when I'm trying to smooth something over 
by insisting that it's a "thing" in American culture. 
"It's always on TV and stuff. There are all these sayings about it, like, 
'it's as impossible as catching a mouse.' 

She asks me about them daily and calls them "Mickey."


I found a book at the local halal mart with a chapter of prayers for a spouse
extracted from longer prayers for a strong heart and a good home.
It took me three days to memorize them.

My mother read them one thousand times over water 
and told me to use it to bake bread for dinner.


There is a recipe for love potion somewhere in Kishtawar.
It only works if you say your prayers morning and evening.

I brought it to the table using shoulder pads as oven mitts
to celebrate hearth and home in a seamstress's kitchen.
I pretended the mice were pets and gave each of them names
after famous celebrities and they kept me company.


A good home with a heart that won't quit.
I'm getting better at getting to the point of the prayer.
They are succinct and pronounced with both hope and fear in near perfect Arabic.

"OH, GOD! I am in absolute need of the good You send me!"
times one thousand, times thirty days and thirty nights.

waiting out the days

Monday, July 16, 2012


Plans are not panning out. So, new life plan. Thank you, Ismoo.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


You remember your little village, your little kitten, your little river.

We made dresses out of throwaway fabric modeled after Barbie clothes circa 1988.

The girls in the community have an old Indian USHA sewing machine from 1947. It uses a hand-wheel on the right side and when the needle moves forward it makes the sound of a train. The needle can't go backwards but it is easy to maneuver the fabric to reinforce the stitches. The machine has been in the family since the partition. It feels like a tiny factory.

In a family of dressmakers, the little girls hem the edges of the skirt while they wear similar skirts.

The little chaps make a puzzle for the kids to play with because they try to keep the needles away from the children.

The girls have a puzzle of their own by trying to make sense of the old foreign patterns. These sorts of things used to be casual but for today's woman are unusual. Most of them are eager to learn new things and think it is funny to try them on and stuff the ruffles in the chest with pieces of scrap fabric and leftover shoulder pads.
The boys are not allowed to watch.

each hand holds hands with another hand
each neck fits into another neck
each hip fits into another hand
each neck is fit for a face
each piece has two faces.

When I got to use the machine I was like a child, overexcited by the sound of the train. I
 made a series of pockets to keep all of the pieces in.
We made two hundred and forty three pieces in real color.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Do you see what I see?
I can't hide behind my bangs anymore and I'm still getting used to it. I see more 'things' when I look up. - more socially aware of what is going on in the top half of the world.

While thesis writing, I have been forced to think a lot about the legitimacy of personal observations and ethnographic writing. The freedom to rely on subjective qualitative data is probably why I pursued anthropology, and also why so many people hate it. The haters make me think that I need to prove-things-better by citing someone else who also saw what I saw. Someone who was perhaps also often mistaken for a prostitute. And living off of cheap soup. And naively friendly with pirated DVD salesmen. And got more than they bargained for.

So I read articles and guidebooks to make sure I'm getting it right according to the general public, so I can say "even the guidebook says..." The articles talk about hidden gems of Tangier that I have heard of but never experienced because I couldn't afford them. Things involving fancy dinners up on the mountain and old villas and stables and horses. But no one should ever have to quote a guidebook unless theorizing about guidebooks. I trust my tangerine reflections.

(Tangier: "It's not what it looks like."
Me: "I know what I saw.")

I managed to make my thesis not a love-letter to Tangier but a performance of labor, an appropriate reflection of what my time there might look like on paper. Not a love-letter, even if she deserves one after I abandoned her like a fair-weather friend. Or an absent mother. Or a wife who just needs some space. Performing the labor and abandoning it later.

I could be nearing the end of my academic road. It looks something like Boulevard Pasteur, lined with cafes, mostly, where I go to sit and write everyday, with strange clothes and heavy books, perfecting my sentences and whispering Arabic vocabulary aloud to myself.

After years of it stewing in my brain and months of writing, the sum of my parts is assembled on paper and laminated and bound and will soon start collecting dust in the Kevorkian Center library. It is a monumental achievement in the art of disguising a personal obsession as a scholarly pursuit. It will make you laugh and cry. There are quotes from three guys named Mohammed, cited as Mohammed 1, 2 and 3. I included at least twenty unnecessary references to Beni Mekada. There are pictures. And maps.

My thesis is complete and would make a beautiful love-letter some day, if Tangier ever decides to take me back.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hijabalogues Part IV.

If I look up once and don't look back about half the people on the street look like hijabis. There are a whole bunch of them in my peripheral vision. It adds a comfortable false sense of camaraderie to the feel of the new neighborhood. I often mistake small African-American boys in hooded sweatshirts and winter scarves for my kinswomen of faith, so long as I don't let that first perception last longer than a second. Same goes for all the winter-geared women that let their pashminas drape over their heads with a few strands of hair open in the front in the style of pretty journalists reporting from Arab countries.

I do not actively scan the urban landscape for hijabi companionship- it doesn't mean much to me. But my secret favorite thing is when I end up sitting beside one of the Orthodox Jewish men reading the Torah on the morning train into the city, or a cute old lady reading the Bible. Me with my little Quran, her with her little golden Bible, Jewish guy with his giant Torah. I wish I could take a picture of it so you could see how cute we are and you would love it too.

I described my typical stance as public worshipper - my interpretation of being a public servant - to my sister, to make sure it wasn't too scary. Taking this measure is also a way of serving the public- taking responsibility for looking scary, and trying not to.

A report was recently released revealing that the NYPD has been monitoring Islamic Student Associations at universities across the country, specifically SUNY Buffalo and NYU (holla! two for two!). It is mostly cyber-related and sounds like the most boring assignment ever, except for that one guy that got to go undercover on a rafting trip. Maybe he just really wanted to go rafting, like that time I re-joined Girl Scouts in high school so I could learn how to farm and keep bees. Clearly the NYPD does not realize that most of us join the MSA to find a future husband. And because, while nine times out of ten praying in the dusty aisles of the stacks in the library is not an issue, there is that special 'one-time' that makes it pretty awesome that NYU has given us a really comfy prayer room with a beautiful view of Washington Square Park. Good job, NYU! I promise never to steal paperclips from the library and to actively try not to scare people. Girl Scouts honor.

Repeating short phrases of praise on prayer beads ('dhikr') is less obvious than offering the mandatory prayers in public, with all its prostrations. But sitting still with your eyes focused on nothing in particular with your mouth moving and no sound coming out also has some fear-potential, according to my reflection in the subway window. Religion aside, it makes you look INSANE. Especially when I keep my beads in my coat pocket 'so as not to attract attention' and then just end up struggling to moving my hand around until it gets to the point where I have to take the beads out just to be sure everyone is clear on what I'm up to and not up to.
I decided it is better to keep the beads public. Keep things kosher. I wonder how many candies are on candy necklaces? One hundred, perhaps? What would Alla say?

Dr. Alla is my Iranian dentist. He shortens his last name to make it easy for his patients because there are about twenty letters after those first four. While he subjected me to many hours of mouth-torture and I felt my soul slipping away, I clung to my prayer beads with the hopes that they could protect me from the potential for harm by a dental student paying me to be his test subject for his board examinations. I see the situation now for what it was- a hopeful guy with the fate of his future in his hands, paying me to let him put those same hands in my mouth while he nervously fumbled for success.

When it was over, Dr. Alla apologized for taking so long and went to shake my hand.
I twisted mine together in a weird way and held them close to my stomach. "Oh, I don't shake hands." I hadn't figured out if he was Muslim or not and hoped that was enough to explain it.

"It" was an on the spot decision, just to see what would happen. I have seen my mom do it so many times, but she somehow manages to be extra cute when she explains herself, like she and the other guy are buddies sharing a secret.

I think I was making a wincing face as though he was still torturing me with those shaky my-career-depends-on-this hands.
He also looked uncomfortable. How quickly the tables turn!
"Oh, it's ok." He looked around at his peers to see if they were watching, and for some reason they all were.

"Yeah, sorry. It's sort of funny, since your hand was just in my mouth for like, five hours."

Look, Ma! No hands! Also, another guy that does not laugh at my jokes! Just when I thought I had seen them all, thinking I'm in the clear, making appropriate jokes, being an appropriate person...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Getting Over the Hump

What I've learned from perusing hijab blogs and tutorials is that I don't learn much from them. Most of it is common sense, but the girls are cute and working out their hijab issues in their own ways, and I know they are like-minded folk in that their way of sharing their adventures and frustrations with life in general is to write about it on the inter-web. The latest one I found plays the Willow Smith refrain "I whip my hair back and forth" as she demonstrates how to assemble the khaleeji (of the gulf states) style, which involves pinning giant flower poofs under the hijab to create mass volume. This is something of a controversy in the hijabosphere, owing to a hadith from the Prophet peace be upon him that "There will be in the last of my ummah, scantily dressed women, the hair on the top of their heads like a camel’s hump. Curse them, for verily they are cursed." [At-Tabarani and Sahih Muslim]
So there is often a mini-disclaimer in hijab tutorials, whenever that step comes where the clip goes on it is accompanied by a nervous giggle and a "now this step is not necessary, but if you do it, this is how you do it."

Well, what to say? My hair has a mind of its own and I'm not super concerned with this in relation to my own head, but I was definitely surprised by how many other girls actively avoid the 'camel hump.' And power to them.

If your approach to hijab can straddle the line between the let's-do-what-is-fashionable category (a dangerous one) and the identifying-what-you think-is-wrong-and-then-avoiding-it-category, then of course, it is necessary to figure out what "the wrong thing" is. When it comes to something as personal as how we dress, especially for western girls who decide to cover, it is natural to want an explanation. As much as we might strive to follow the ideal of not needing an explanation and just being cautious for the sake of Allah, hijab has become one of those things that is difficult for a lot of girls, even those of us that know it is "the right thing."

But that is just hijab as a concept. On the ground, we are dealing with things like the camel hump. It has become the standard, fashionable way to wear hijab across the Muslim world, which I didn't realize until I moved to Jordan. And it has made its way to America, and I suspect it is from here that the blogs first started getting called out for encouraging haram stylings, accompanied by hadith-posting in the comments section, and the resulting, often hilarious comments of hijabis of the world. Ok, I secretly love comments sections of Islamish-websites because you can find the most insane conversations between humans, fully documented and time stamped. But I don't recommend reading it unless you want to understand the concerns of the modern Muslim youth who either have no one else to ask, or just prefer to ask the internet.

For some, avoiding the camel hump is about avoiding the attempt to look pretty. But then what about the flowy dresses and the rings and all that crazy stuff we can do with our eyelashes? And what about that girl over there who is already so pretty? I'm just trying to wear this on my head and still look like a girl. The issue is an expanding universe of its own. Others say it is about avoiding deception because it makes it look like you have a lot of hair even when you don't. But I really do have that much hair! So wearing it some other way would be a worse deception! And then, my favorite. Hey girls! Guess what I asked my brother and his friends and they don't even think it looks good! They think it makes you look like an alien! 

So there's that approach. But when the dominant dress code for women worldwide is based on what is attractive to men, it makes sense that Muslim girls would think this way. Is anyone teaching them anything else?

There are levels of naiveté but I think for the most part we know what we're doing and intention is everything. Hijab for a woman who is wearing it begrudgingly is obviously not as fun as the game I'm playing, (which I have named "OK. Let's Do This"), and for a defiant woman living in a country where it is imposed on her, it is often a way to slyly defy authority. I can't relate to that. I'm from the land of the free and the home of the brave. If a policeman or politician had forced me to start wearing hijab when I was 12, there's no telling how that would have played out. It's hard to wear hijab in America, but yes, we are the lucky ones.

 I do feel bad for those Persian girls in that one stock photo that is used online with any discussion of "improper hijab." I personally first found them when I was trying to figure out why Persian girls are so cute (still a mystery). More often, the point is made using along infographics captioned with grammatically incorrect one-liners about modesty, likely created by college students who clearly have not studied the fiqh of images representing living things or the adab of using caricatures to get your point across. I'm not saying the point doesn't need to be made, but don't be a jerk about it. And have someone revise your grammar.

I think every woman who is making an effort to dress modestly and still look cute deserves a medal. It's not all fun and games. And even though I already know most of your tricks, ladies, as a somewhat lonesome Buffalo hijabi, I have loads of fun following your adventures in modesty and it is comforting to know you're out there somewhere under the same sky struggling with your hijab pins having an ironic dance party to "Whip my Hair." Plus, I get to use words like "loads" because that's what the khaleeji girls say.