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."

Monday, April 22, 2013


In my fifth (and Ya Allah hopefully my final!) trip to the tile store where I get to be a little black cloud shooting videos of different shades of wood, an Arab woman approached me. She immediately spoke English because she probably heard me narrating the descriptions of textures and colors of the wood into the camera.

She got right to the point.
Excuse me, do you have a sister here in Jordan?
Since I do, in fact, have a sister in Jordan I assumed she must know her and started to describe her.

But then she kept going.
Is she married? 
Do you have any unmarried sisters? 

Since I do, in fact, have an unmarried sister, I started to describe her too.

Does she look like you?

A curious thing to say to a girl who is 96% shrouded in layers of black. 

But this woman was not interested in me, but a girl who resembled the 4% of me that was showing. As if to say- almost, but not quite. I don't wear a ring, but she assumed I was a claimed woman. Maybe my eyes "look married." Or maybe she wanted a girl whose hands looked only kind of like mine.

Although I recognized this as an opportunity for adventure and ridiculous conversation, I shut her down with a simple no because she spoke perfect English (YAWN). I know not every encounter has to be an Arabic lesson, but I need to focus on finding situations where I can practice saying the important things:

How much are the apples?

My ____ is broken and I don't know how to fix it.

Do you have this in black?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

From the Backseat

Halfway to Marj al Hammam, the taxi driver with the cigarette dangling out of his mouth suddenly got friendly and was asking me all kinds of things that I didn't understand and so I did my usual thing and answered yes and said "inshallah" and "alhamdullilah" at random intervals. It took a few minutes before I figured out that he was actually on the phone, wearing a headset, probably talking to his wife or his kid, judging from the occasional "baba! what's wrong with you!"
I think this is a thing. The mother of the kids I tutor calls her husband every half hour so he can yell at the kids for refusing to do their reading. The older one has taken to saying he "just want to die" when I show up to teach them.

So this guy was probably also yelling at his kid. I think he assumed I was talking to myself. Safe assumption- how can I resist? After so many years of doing it on the nyc subway with my Arabic flashcards in my lap as if to say- don't worry- I'm just studying. Although, the occasional passenger would get even more concerned with my presence once they saw what I was studying. 

The taxi drivers are my only communication with ordinary people in Amman, and they get really happy when I answer the usual question "are you a new Muslim or were you Muslim 'from the start.'" The driver on the way home from Marj al Hamman nodded his head in approval and said "Subhanallah." And then I said "Subhanallah." And then he asked if I was married and I ignored him and continued trying to casually eat a banana under my niqab. In Morocco I would have said "shame on you!" but I'm not sure if that's a thing here.

The route across the city is so beautiful and I have plans to ask the next driver to drop me off near that spot where there are randomly a bunch of camels, plus some nearby sheep. It would be too expensive to have the driver wait around, but I have faith that some woman will feel bad for me and pick me up like they do when it's raining, and like the drivers in Morocco do for the elderly. I can't resist the camels. I can hear them calling to me.

"C'mon! Take our picture! You know you want to. Look how random we are!"

Or maybe it's an echo from some other corner of the city. But I'll probably give in anyway.
I know me. Even if the city hasn't met me yet.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Voiced and the Voiceless

I saw a little girl and an older girl throwing pebbles at each other from adjacent balconies. It didn't look like it was happening in jest or merriment- they really wanted to hit each other. The little girl was winning and the older one was getting frustrated. She couldn't have been more than twenty, but was definitely old enough to know not to throw stones at helpless children.But I didn't judge her for it because that little girl looked like a real terror, and on her side it appeared to be a hate crime against the foreigner. Plus, that other girl was wearing the best boots.

Okay, it was me. That little monster needed to learn that just because the other person is bigger doesn't mean they will be the bigger person.

After she threw her final fistful I yelled "I'm going to tell your mother!" but later I saw her mother, and she was terrifying.

I've been saving up my Arabic for the elderly couples at Cafe Paris that like to talk politics because I tell them I'm Jordanian. But I know better than to talk to strangers and so more often, I keep my thoughts to myself and see if I can translate it into Arabic in my head. Knowing that I can do it is enough of a comfort for me, like a warm blanket of guttural and emphatic cross-woven threads. Mint green ones. The voiced and the voiceless, holding hands.

If I can't come up with the whole translation I take the advice of my Arabic teachers for "whenever you are not sure about (obscure grammatical rule or vocabulary word) - ask someone who speaks Arabic." So every couple of minutes I ask whoever is sitting next to me, how would I say (monster, tornado, etc.) in derija? and reserve all cases of casual conversation for when I get to use the fun words that deserve practicing out loud, namely "I'm confused / I was confused," where the K, guttural Kh and hard Q all combine side by side into one magical mess of sounds. And if I put it in the future tense I get to add a "gh." It's a party in my mouth, like bastilla and plum tagine- my celebratory dinner for my second last night in Tangier.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

You had me at Smehli Ukhtee

 I met an enchantress today. A real siren. She gave me directions when I lost my way home from the tailor after I promised him I knew how to get back home. The neighborhood boys tried to help me and I tried to shoo them away, and then the seas parted and there she was. She looked like Tinkerbell. Her hijab was up in a bun and tied in the back the way the local girls do but something about it made her look dangerous. The crowd of boys clearly had respect for her. When she smiled she had four silver fillings on the right side. Or maybe they were teeth. Both possibilities seem unlikely for a Moroccan girl from the medina, so it could have been something else. Maybe she ate glitter.
Whatever it was, it was magical. 
I can't stop thinking about her and wishing I had asked if I could take her picture. I think about going back to find her tomorrow but I know I won't, and that is how I know I am not a photographer at heart. Not really. I saw her, you didn't - finders keepers.

I have not used any of the instant film I went to great lengths (and several fake-crying incidents at customs) to bring without passing through a security scanner.
It's not that I am no longer enchanted by Tangier, but that I have already taken all of the pictures, and now it is just the same pictures with a different camera.

I believe Allah inspired me with this sentiment as a blessing. The Islamic permissibility of photographs of people is disputed territory, and I am better off safe than sorry.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


I keep mistaking strangers for my few remaining friends in Tangier and it keeps me feeling safe on the street. I realized that the reason I can never get a realistic perspective on modern-day Tangier is because I have only only befriended crazy people. People off their meds or damaged by years of drug use, or just senile. 

I complained to my favorite pizza man about still being single. He just got married five months ago and told me I "missed my chance." He reminded me that he asked me years ago and I denied remembering.

In my broken derija/fus'ha: "It must have been a long time ago, when I still had my beauty. Now, there is no man in the world that wants to marry me. Poor girl."

Another boy chimed in: "Any man would want to marry you. Anyone. Ask anyone."

It was inappropriate and heartwarming. I took my pizza and fled to the sanctuary that is Cafe Paris. Where no one bothers me and the waiters seem genuinely relieved that I am still alive. I successfully got all of them to call me Hajja Shifa. I announce it to anyone who remembers me because it's the best thing I've ever done, and like to follow it up with "I have a new heart!" in desperation.

I suspect this may have been the driving force behind "Tangier: Case Closed." To claim that I have a new heart and I don't need the old one, wherever she is, lying in a gutter somewhere. Probably in Beni Mekada.

Incidentally, I also learned a new way to spell my name.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

She's at it again

Back to the land of wakha, shkoon, khssni, and bzzef! Those words that lie in concrete in my brain, sharing bunks with all of my fossilized errors. Maybe I can bring them back to life so I can kill them. And then fossilize them dead.

In Amman there are no old guys sitting on haystacks looking out into the distance. On the train through Morocco heading north, there are tons of them. It’s useless to keep score. Morocco will always win. For “Tangier Take 5: Case Closed” I’m throwing projects out the window, and all I intend to do is sit and stare at the sea and try to understand the conversations happening around me.

O, how the tables have turned!

I once yearned for a space where no one knew me or knew my last name and where I could sit and write about the funny things around me like chickens wandering around cemeteries and cats climbing ladders.

But it is a new era and I should just be thankful that I am not “lost in a gutter somewhere” as my mother so lovingly puts it. But Mom, I find some of my best things in gutters!
Scribbled notes.
Little baggies.
Doll heads.

I didn’t expect the hijab to make such a marked difference in my public presence but it is truly a whole new world out there. I have not been harassed at all with one exception, and even his delivery was so sincere it was more like he felt bad for me. In fact, most strangers have been overly nice to me and I suspect it is because they think I am a Syrian refugee. Sometimes they ask me if I am and I don’t deny it.

And Tangier is taking good care of me.
Swaddled in 30 Dirham wool pajamas, I wake up to pancakes every morning, which I buy from the shop before the sunset prayer each night and put them in my purse for safe keeping.

Monday, January 7, 2013


I'm mostly by-the-book, except for those in between times when I forget to bring my book, or the book ends. Then it's my job as a teacher to figure out a way to make the complexities of the world a little easier to understand, all on my own and often using the gift of mime. Because honestly, sometimes I have no idea if the kids actually understand English or are just pretending and following along with the lesson by looking at the pictures.

Reminiscent of that time I tried to teach my third grade African-American students the meaning of "prejudice" (did not go well), today I got to teach about slavery. The reading lesson in Ahmed's book was about Harriet Tubman. It took a while for him to understand what I meant by "people who worked all day but got no money and just a tiny bit of food and if they didn't listen- bam!" (It's really easy to mime "beating," which was one of his vocabulary words.) 

He asked the usual questions- 

1."How come they didn't escape?" Then he reenacted three scenes from Home Alone to show what the slaves should have done to trick their masters.

2. "How come people thought black people were different from white people? Allah just made them that way!" A few minutes later he looked at me in horror and asked "Am I black?"

3. "Why do we pay our servant? She has black skin. I'm going to tell my mom to stop paying her..."

That last one was his idea of a joke to lighten the mood. I think he could tell that I was trying to teach him something "important" because I looked so uncomfortable. It is just so strange to teach kids about the very concepts of racism and prejudice through a historically rooted context as "truth", y3anni, "this happened" - even while these ideas would never occur to them on their own.

Ahmed got really sad that Harriet's husband John didn't want to go North with her and cheered himself up by making up his own tune and dance to "Go Down, Moses." I am worried he might try to teach it to the housemaid.

When I asked him to retell the story, he looked at the pictures and as kids will, tried to conjure something up that could resemble a narrative. In the last illustration, Harriet was basking in the sunlight with her arms up in triumph. 

"So, at the end, she lived in the North, alone, without John, and no kids. But she was making money, so it was okay..."

I asked if she was happy. "Yes, of course, look at her." He then began to more closely inspect the spots on her face where her skin was glistening from the sunlight, tracing them with his finger. His eyes grew wide and he looked as if he had cracked an impossible code. 

"Oh my God! At the end then she became white!"

It's times like this that I wonder how much it affects my students to be getting my version of things, filled with hope that somewhere in the pile of my American English, facial expressions, miming, illustrations and stifled laughter, they are gleaning some gems of truth and isn't-that-amazing's and that's-just-the-way-it-is's. Because sometimes the pictures work against me.

For today, I successfully stopped a kid from thinking that the slaves of the American South went North so they could become white. I've done my job.