I VONA Check-In

I haven’t been regular with my posting these past couple of months. Rest assured I have drafted multiple Field Notes for the Millennial Quran Study Project, and have diligently worked on some other posts. Its just I have had to really buckle down and get out of the way something that I have dragged my feet on, and for all intents, has been a major personal blockage to forward momentum in my life.

Confronting my personal demons on this is a sordid affair. Requiring a commitment that has been difficult to muster up. Its an epic battle of classical proportions, Homer could probably write a whole new Odyssey on my journey if he were alive today.

Besides the excitement of Ramadan, but honestly its sadness on my part because my epic battle continues through a portion of Ramadan, I am really excited to share that I got accepted to VONA/Voices Workshop at the University of Miami.

For those not familiar with VONA/Voices, the acronym stands for Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. It was created as a visceral response too and realization that the culture found in Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) programs were toxic for minority writers. It was a space where peers and teachers marginalized stories- demanding that minority writers take out the Spanish dialogue characters mixed into their language, or worse, to add stereotypical depictions of minority groups. Instead of being a space to explore and push literatures boundaries it created and recast dominant White realities of [North] America.

With this shared experience, Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz and Diem Jones created VONA in 1999. Voices are workshops put on by VONA each summer for writers of color. Bringing experienced minority writers and fledgling writers of color from the margins to a community where their work is centralized and honored, and a place where they can explore the their craft, hone in on their skills, and receive guidance on pursuing their authentic voice in their writing.  

I am thrilled about this opportunity. This whole journey kicked off a year ago while I was at the Millennial Leadership Conference at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While there I was challenged by my peer group to recognize that I was in fact a creative hiding behind my activist title. I also vicariously lived through my friends, a majority of whom were all creatives pursuing their creative interests, but I had excuses for not pursuing that for myself. Last summer in New York, I got called out for this, and in turn it put me on this path to explore an outlet for my creativity.

I never considered myself a “writer” and would not have ever considered doing an MFA. In fact, this blog, it is a hobby, not an outlet for my creative writing. At least, thats how I’ve viewed it for the past ten years. I always saw it as something I enjoyed doing, so I kept the blog going. Yet, this was me being a “writer”, or pretending to be one anyway. For me, Voices, provides an opportunity to explore that creative avenue, without having to commit to an MFA.

Reading the descriptions for the various Voices workshops I was immediately pulled by the statement “Every time folks of color leave the house, we travel.” Travel Writing with Faith Adiele was the workshop I decided to pursue because this statement is true of my own experiences.

I have always shared how I would transition from one culture to another, from the Urdu language to English, when I stepped outside the home. I have constantly done this, and it was a few years ago that I realized that I had stopped dreaming in Urdu. My dreams were in English, always English. This realization made me sad, but it also brought to the surface that I had stopped living between continents in one aspect of my life, my subconscious dream state.

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I once read a quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian novelist I very much admire, that got me thinking about my writing, inadvertently. He said, on providing advice to a young writer, “I would say to write about something that has happened to him.” Yet, for me, I always felt my experiences were not only boring, but they weren’t relatable to people, therefore, I never felt compelled to “write from experience”. I don’t think I stopped myself to step back and ask, who these “people” were, let alone to reflect on how human experiences, no matter what the experience, when boiled down to there universal core, become relatable. Maybe, because I didn’t see myself as a “writer”, I never took that step to try to boil down my experiences, and felt it wasn’t my job.

Two things that stand out- almost a year and half ago I had already began to recognize that this blog was more then a hobby, and that maybe I was a writer! The second thing from this past post was that I saw that I was not embracing my authentic voice in writing, but rather writing about what others told me or I read about. The problem was that I was struggling to embrace this idea of being “creative” and being a “writer”. Labels, they really bother me. Yet, as I am learning, labels are important to refine the essence of something, especially when you’re like me and you skirt around the thing but never really acknowledge the thing to be a thing- does that even make sense!?!

In this vein, travel writing was of particular interest to me because it recognized that travel was not just a physical journey, but it was a genre of writing concerned with (internal) cultural encounters as well as (external) physical journeys (and I do a lot of internal journeying). The workshop allows participants to explore moving back and forth between language and culture, like my experience; embarking on roots journeys or road trips; living as an expat or multicultural family member; being a nomad; climbing from working to middle class; our family’s escape/ exile/ emigration/ immigration; leaving home or dropping out of college; setting out on pilgrimages or spiritual quests; going abroad to study/ research/ witness/ do reportage/ volunteer; walking the road to recovery every day.

All of these things encompass, in one way or another, my life story- in Marquez’s’ words my experience- and the sort of stories I wish to share with others deal with these experiences in that I want to share with people what I learned. Through the workshop I hope to collect, reflect, and write all (maybe some, at least to begin with) of my adventures- around the world and locally, in the National Parks and navigating the diversity that makes up California- into compelling narratives.

I don’t expect to write a novel, or a travelogue.  But at the very least, I hope the workshop is the beginning of the process toward delivering meaningful content on this blog. I do wish to make this blog more then a passing hobby, especially since I have kept it going for a decade now.

30 Years an [North] American

Its a bit disconcerting to be in Karachi celebrating 30 years of immigrating to the United States. Yes, you read that right. I was a little under three years old when my mom and I migrated to the United States. I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. Thirty years later, here I am celebrating my cousins wedding and my having left Pakistan 30 years ago, in Pakistan.

 

If you don’t know, then it helps to understand that my path to the United States started with something the Federal government rolled out after the Immigration Reform act of 1968. This legislative genius struck down the xenophobic barriers- policies really- that prevented non-Western Europeans from getting access to migration status to the US.

 

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Its disconcerting because the feelings I have are of irony, comedy, and reflection. That I find myself “celebrating” this as a milestone when I can’t even recall ever recognizing that my 20 year “anniversary” had passed, and most definitely not my 10 years of being in the States. The dislocation seemed more real back then, but now its not like that. Being back in Karachi, I feel more out of place then I have in my life. Things are familiar in an odd way, yet completely strange.

 

At 30, it feels like a celebration of sorts. To quote The Life of an American Teenager, “[life in America] is like a drive by, you’re happy to have survived.” And I think at 30 years of immigrant life, I feel like I know how to survive as an [North] American, that I am an [North] American regardless of how others question that identity or my patriotism.

 

Being in Pakistan also helps solidify this feeling of belonging to [North] America. Pakistan is not my home, and it never was. Too much of my life had been spent in the States, that the very fiber of my character is molded by that experience. I have such a hard time with things I see in Pakistan, the attitude and culture, while presenting itself as “familiar” on the surface, it is incredibly foreign to me.

 

If Donald Trump has his way (denunciation from the Economist, no less), deporting the nearly 6 million Muslims that call the US their home, then I would end up here in Karachi, Pakistan. Yet, the irony is that while possessing a birth certificate of my Pakistani birth, I can not get even the simplest of government documents, an ID card for entry into a private community, made here.

 

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At the local NADRA office, where I presented my birth certificate, my witness forms with my Grandparents identity card numbers and signatures, along with a copy of my US citizenship papers that state my country of birth as Pakistan, I was unceremoniously told that the documents were not sufficient and that they could be forged. Further, to rub salt deeply into my wound, I was told that my father and mother would have to be present, that they would have to have valid national identity cards, and that I would need my fathers male sibling to attest to my identity.

 

Maybe its a suspicion of Pakistani Americans, where do their loyalties lie? Maybe the CIA is paying them to infiltrate Pakistan and spy? A thousand what if’s roll through my head. Yet, where I find myself concluding is that I am neither welcome in the US nor in Pakistan, that I am truly stuck between continents, a transoceanic refugee.

 

If Trump wins and puts forward his masterplan, I don’t think he’s considered the idea that these receiving countries, like Pakistan and Egypt, would take in all these [North] Americans. In Trumps world, he’s always winning, and in that Canada seems to be the solution for us poor homeless [North] Americans, until Trump et al decide to annex it.

Learning How To Say Allah In Chinese

When you ask people what language they speak in China, the majority of folks say its Chinese. In the US we seem to think that in categorizing nations the simple rule to follow is that everything is derived from its name. So in China the Chinese speak Chinese. People do that with me as well. The other day a real estate agent asked me if I spoke Pakistanian. That was a first, but I regularly experience people asking if I speak “Pakistani.” They get perturbed when I tell them that there is no language called “Pakistani.”

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This makes me wonder why people here think that we can speak “English” and not “American.”

There is no language called “Americanese” or “Americani” or “American.” Even the  Tea Party folks know that we here in America don’t speak “American.”

Yet people still make the mistake out of ignorance, or arrogance, in that they want to appear “worldly” so assume to go with what they think is the right reference.

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Similarly that is probably why you don’t say “Allah” in Chinese since there is no language called “Chinese.”

Its what folks unfamiliar with China refer to as the language, when in fact there are many dialects the comprise what people term as “Chinese”, Mandarin being one of the generally accepted standardized dialects. Cantonese, Min Xiang, Hakka, Gan, and Wu are other dialects spoken in different regions of China. Sadly, because of the monolith perception we apply towards regions and peoples and cultures of the world, we don’t recognize the inherent diversity present.

Here’s a little video on the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin, which to foreign ears probably just sounds all the same, but thats like saying Spanish and English is all a bunch of gibberish.

On Fabricated Hadith, In Pursuit of Knowledge, and On Parental Advice Gone Wild

These dialects, however, share some things. One is their non-Abrahamic conception of the world. But whats even more fascinating is how do you talk about a Creator when the culture and the language derived from it don’t necessarily have the same concept of the Creator, Allah, or in English God.

Over the years I have had a growing fascination with Islam in China because of the fascinating turn of culture, history and politics there. I guess you might say that it started with the oft recited hadith that “a Muslim must pursue knowledge, even if its all the way in China.”

The hadith actually is not real. The Prophet never said that, but it didn’t stop my parents from using it to encourage and cultivate their attitude toward education. What they hadn’t anticipated was that it might lead me to actually follow through on this Chinese adventure.

Its this curiosity of Islam in China that I picked up from the fabricated Hadith, that I picked up “The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi: Islamic Thought in Confucian Terms” by Sachiko Murata and Weiming Tu. 

The book is not for the leisurely reader, in fact, its especially academic as it specializes in a very narrow scope of discussion on Sino-Islamic interactions. However, the introduction is immensely useful at untangling some of the complexity that surrounds Islam’s encounter with China, and its unique development as a cultural phenomenon from which we Muslims in the West can learn from.

What was particularly interesting was that in China, Muslims had to function within a cultural and linguistic framework that was incredibly (if not radically) different than anywhere else. To do so they had to take Islamic concepts and translate them into Mandarin, not just from Arabic to Mandarin, but from Islam to Confucian thought, because so much of Mandarin was influenced by Confucian framework. In that way, Muslims in China brought Mandarin into the fold of Islamized languages. When thinking about this, consider Bengali, a language from South Asia spoken by a majority Hindu population and expressing ideas (born from potentially) from Hinduism, but also spoken by and used to form Islamic ideals, by millions of Muslims.

Talking about God when God Doesn’t Exist as a Concept

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My questions about the Chinese word for Allah, is a good example of the tangle of complexity that wraps up something that is on the face quite simple. Yet identity, ethnicity, language, culture and nationality are complicated topics that we often try to simplify in the framework of modern nation states, or modernity. In a secularizing, liberal, globalized world, the existence and survival of the Muslim communities in China seem to provide an example of [things] Muslims in the West need to draw on.

Chinese Muslims faced this idea of identity very differently then say South Asian ethnicities or Farsi speaking converts to Islam in Central Asia. Sage Learning does not delve into the history of Islam in China in that sort of complexity, so if you are expecting that you will be sorely disappointed, as I was to an extent. Where it picks up is how Muslims in China had to manage the complexity of their communal existence, especially being cut off from the larger Ummah and existing in a society that was not rooted in the Abrahamic tradition, therefore, its reality and explanation of existence (creation) was greatly different, but not foreign from Islam.

I want you to dwell on this idea, a culture and society who’s entire experience was devoid of the Abrahamic concepts of reality. Just let that sink in, because its hard to escape from that reality if you are from any part of the world where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam flourish.

What made the Chinese experience distinct was that its language reflected its non-Abrahamic conception of the world. It also reflected a world without a Central Creator Being (Allah) that interacted with creation (e.g., sending down prophets and holy scripture). This is why we might find it difficult to think in terms of Mandarin, in notions of God wanting to guide his creation by setting an example through the Prophets who were on this mission to help humanity.

Look at the language of Urdu, we use many words for Allah, including the Arabic Allah. We use the word Khudha from Farsi language, or the another Arabic word, Rabh. We talk about heaven and hell, tawheed and shahadah as if they are part of the Urdu language. Yet these are Arabic words for Islamic concepts that have been internalized by the Muslim communities that speak the Urdu language. Because the language represents a diversity of people and a deep history rooted in transnational movement of people and cultures across Asia, it has a significant shared and ordered understanding of Islam. It has internalized Islam, its conception of the world, its metaphors, its stories; and like Turkish and Farsi, it can be considered an “Islamic language.”

Yet, we struggle to take Mandarin words like “Mandate from Heaven” into our English conception, however, we continuously find ourselves having to relate it to our notions of God and Heaven. When we talk about this Mandate, we always imagine that its God. But there is no Chinese central Creator Figure. So the problem faced by English translators, was one that Muslims in China faced, as did the Christian missionaries that went there.

This also has a lot to do with how do we internalize Islam, which has a lot of concepts drawn from Arab culture and society. In the West, I have seen people answer this question primarily in the example set for converts to ethnicize, to take on the appearance of Arabs and adopt Arab names. But Islam in America is no longer the domain of a majority immigrant community. The second and third generation, coupled with indigenous Muslim communities are forming the bulk of the expression of Islam in America. The further removed we become from the cultural trappings of religion, the more we need to realize the authentic principles and values of the religion within our new cultural norms. This is where I got the sense that we have a lot to learn from the Chinese Muslim experience.

Making English an Islamic Language

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In China, Muslims had to compete in the ideas marketplace, and to stay relevant they had to express their ideas to outsiders. These Chinese intellectuals, business owners, politicians, had to understand these concepts, which were based on Confucian and Toaist thought. Up until this point, the Chinese Muslim community were “immigrants” and considered outsiders, Arabs. But when Muslims began becoming embedded in Chinese society, things changed.  In this void, Liu Zhu, took center stage. He syntizied an Islamic worldview, in what we have today as The Sage Learnings of Liu Zhu, that would make sense to the predominately Confucian oriented Mandarin speakers of China during the 15th and 16th centuries.

For Muslims in China, he offered an Islamic learning through the Mandarin language, allowing them to be part of the larger Chinese community and also do Dawah to their neighbors, without becoming a closed off community. This would be critical because the Muslim communities of China would be cut off from the Ummah, as Western colonization and the Chinese response of a closed-door policy, followed by civil war and the Opium wars, made Muslims hostage to geography. Yet Muslims in China guarded the sacred character of the Arabic Quran. They did not allow a Mandarin translation of the Quran to be created for twelve centuries, but finally in the nineteenth century such a translation was produced.

I think this is a sort of model for Muslim like me who are contesting Muslim identity in the West. Syed Hossein Nasr sums up in The Study Quran, this process is important for Muslim in the West, by using English to express Islamic ideas and to weave it within the fabric of the language, is “to take a step toward transforming English into ‘an Islamic language,'” so that Muslims in the West can express their experiences through the Islamic lens back onto other Islamic cultures and societies.

It is also probably what the right wing in America fears. This sort of endeavor creates complications and complexity beyond their comprehension if, actually when, more people will speak languages besides English and express an identity not identical to their lived experiences. But when English is incorporated as a means of expressing Islamic ideas, it already is, they speak of Jihad and Sharia without needing to define it, we have achieved a significant shift in culture. In that way, language is a battle for identity, and ultimately power.

How Chinese Muslims approached this engagement and identity creation process is unique to Islamic history. How China interacts with Muslim countries today is going to be significant in how those communities respond to China’s treatment of the minority Muslims within its border. China is a big player in Pakistan, where I will be spending the next two months. It is currently plying forty-five billion dollars into construction projects, one of them being a major deep water port, Gwadar, and a highway from there, through the Himalaya’s, which goes into Western China.

As China becomes the focus of economic development and trade and geopolitics, China’s Muslim population, which is incredibly diverse as I found out, will also become part of the engagement challenges. So how would you say Allah in Mandarin? Allah. Yeh, thats about it.

Images are from websites that track Tea Party signs and stuff, links are attached to the images. Images of Sage Learning diagrams are taken by my sister on her iPhone, randomly and with no apparent desire to infringe on copyright, just to show the methodology with with Liu Zhu was presenting what is termed as “Neo-Confucian Islamic” thought.

Lets Meet In Quetzaltenango

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“Where’d you go in Guatemala?” asked the lady behind me in the check out line at the local Superior grocery store. She had started the conversation just moments before, observing that the heat was unbearable because it was dry.

“I just spent ten days in a humid heat,” I told her initially. “I was in Central America, it’s a far different sort of environment then Palmdale, and I wasn’t prepared to come back to this heat wave” I responded to her inquiry about my travels. We ended up talking all the way back to our cars about the great need in Guatemala, but mostly her church.

I told her about my trip and found out that she was originally from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, also known as Xela. She had been living thirty years in the United States and hadn’t visited Guatemala once. Part of me wanted to ask her about her legal status in the States, and another part of me wanted to ask her if she had called her family and kept in touch with them. But neither of those things were my business, even though they were connected to my Root Causes Interfaith delegation to Central America.

I refrained from intruding into her personal life directly, but inside me, I still wanted to know more. I let her tell me what she was comfortable with as I told her about my trip, all the while trying to direct (read prod) her to share more. She shared her desire to do missionary work in Quetzaltenango. But it seemed like her Church was not in the missionary business, at least not the one where missionaries go provide services.

As she told me more about her Church, I got lost remembering how I fell in love with Xela. She kept going about her Church services; I felt our conversation had veered into proselytization and I began to get uneasy. I didn’t like the sound of her church, its theology seemed chthonic in the face of my own faith practices focus on service to others and community.

The awkwardness grew, and I thought maybe it had to do with my questions about her church, though she couldn’t have inferred them to be intrusive given how much she wanted to share about her faith.  Maybe I grew uneasy because as an [North] American, this topic of personal faith is not for public consumption. I certainly don’t go around talking about religion every moment I get. I take solace in that she felt she could. I created that space even though what she intended for me to get out of our conversation was not what she probably had envisioned.

Xela, I Loved

Quetzaltenango is the capital of the Mayas, unofficially, of coarse. It is the center of Mayan indigenous culture and its the second largest city in Guatemala. Surrounded by ancient volcanos, some still active, Quetzaltenango seems to be built to survive, to appear permanent in the face of its physical location that places it on a precarious struggle to survive the next cataclysmic eruption. Its fitting that Quezaltenango is the Mayan capital, the Mayan people had to do extraordinary feats to survive into the modern age.

Like the ash that pours out of these mighty earth making giants, buildings in Quetzaltenango have soaked in the gray and sooty character. They are designed to be practical buildings. Those who have the money, painted their homes bright colors, adding accents like columns and blinds and wrought iron bars. This characteristic reminds me of Guatemala City, yet it pales in comparison to the sort of elegance and imperialism that is present in the capital.

Quetzaltenango is also referred to Xela (Shaayla). The reason Xela is a concentration of Mayan people has a lot to do with its historical role as the capital of the Mayan Ki’che kingdom. Xela is also the historical location where the barbarous conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated and killed the Ki’che general prince Tecun Uman. What is interesting is that Alvarado was censored by his peers during his life because of the depravity he showed toward indigenous communities he conquered.

None the less if you were on Alvarado’s good side there were some benefits, like having Xela renamed, from the formal Mayan K’iche name Xe Laju noj (under the 10 mountains) to Quetzaltenango from the Nahuatl, the language of Alvarado’s Central Mexican indigenous allies. Quetzaltenango meant the resting place of the Quetzal bird. Even in this, legend seems to nod at the fact that the Quetzl can’t be caged, representing liberty, and fittingly Xela represents this aspiration of the Mayan people.

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My time in Xela was a reprieve from the past several days of moving around Guatemala and Mexico; which was preceded by the intense tropical humid heat of Honduras. Drinking in the soupy air of Honduras, and the little peculiarities of being on the road made my arrival to the cooler highlands that more perceptible.

I was surprised by the drastically different climate though. With pine tree forests and corn fields draping steep mountain sides, all my reading on Guatemala didn’t prepare me for this. Mornings found the town clouded in mists and volcanos rose up around us in the distance out of the clouds like floating islands. I was caught off guard by the cold climate and found myself clutching onto a wool blanket as I went about the Catholic religious retreat we were staying at.

It was also the first time I heard music blaring from inside restaurants and cars, in particular I heard jazz. The sound gave me a sense of ease. I felt at home. I hadn’t experienced these feelings on the trip up to that point. It wasn’t that I wasn’t uncomfortable in Progresso, Honduras, where we had a permanent home base, but rather all things felt right in Xela.

Which is funny because I have this internal desire to be close to large bodies of water, and for that reason have always found comfort in places close to the ocean- San Diego, Newport Beach, Los Angeles, Seattle and even Karachi. Xela in that very special way stands out because it is high up in the mountains at 7000 feet, and feels like it hovers over all the rest of Guatemala like from the Castle in the Sky.

If a pilgrimage had a promised land as its destination, then for our delegation, and me in particular, Xela, with its green pine forests, dark rich soil, moist and thunderous atmosphere and fresh crisp cool air was that destination. It made sense that after the humid tropical discomfort, and discombobulating learning experience of Honduras, Xela was where we came to end our journey.  The long hours on the road, and the hopelessness of the stories we listened to, in Xela we could find an oasis to reflect on all of this and its weather, location, and climate provided the opportunity for this.

Xela is not only the capital of Mayan culture, but also the capital of Central American culture as I later found out. In fact, Xela has a very active music scene, which explains the blaring music I heard while driving through its streets. This is probably because it is a locus of indigenous cultures and its experiencing an active economic boom that has brought others from around Central America to it.

Xela has, in that way, trumped the general economic malaise that grips the rest of Guatemala and Central America. However, the relative peace is also in place because Xela is the center of narco-trafficking, the organized [mature adult] crime [criminals] keeps the violence at bay, and the chaotic juvenile maneuvering of gangs as well. That fact made for a disconcerting reality.

The Plague of Prosperity

Back to the lady from Quezaltanango I met in the grocery store. I asked her what was keeping her from going back to help people in Guatemala. I guess I could be masking my real question- do you have immigration status? – but that was not my intention. And maybe realizing this added to my feeling of uneasiness as we progressed in our conversation.

Any number of things can hold a person back, including immigration status. For example finances, health, or a variety of obligations. For her, it was really her faith. She spoke of the culture being different, of people not believing in themselves, of how people in Guatemala see poverty as a way to salvation. Which was odd, because thats not what I got from the people I met with, none of them said their poverty was their ticket into heaven.

So for her, it was about how you can provide the Gospel to people who can’t see themselves benefiting from God’s bounties, truly believing that God doesn’t want their condition of poverty to be their reality, and having an attitude that thinks positively of one’s capability to achieve and prosper. That sounded like the Prosperity Gospel.

She told me that she went to a Church that didn’t have any opportunities to do things that were focused on social justice type stuff, but she liked the Church because of the services and messages it provided. After some reflection, I realize that I was uncomfortable with her church theology, or the way she expressed it.

I realized the reason it was awkward was because I had recognized that she was coming from a Prosperity Gospel perspective. I have yet to find something mutually common between someone who follows the prosperity gospel and what my beliefs are as a Muslim. I have found that even if people are from a different faith, it is possible to identify certain values and principles, what can be called universal. But I didn’t find that in our conversation, and that is partly why I understood her being a Prosperity Gospel proponent.

Faith to me is about service to others as much as it is about my personal salvation; faith for her was service to self through salvation. Which is an odd and peculiar sort of situation because my place of faith requires me to act out on helping others with what I have, whenever I can, at whatever cost to me I am willing to incur for the sake of God, in whatever fashion I can. This was a stark reminder to me that not all paths to faith are the same.

She shared with me the name of her church and invited me to the next service. I said goodbye to her, and one more time encouraged her to visit Guatemala sooner rather than later. And we parted ways.

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The Many Names of God, [Material] Prosperity Isn’t One of Them

Earlier when I described the “prosperity gospel” as “chthonic theology” I felt I was being extremely harsh.  Chthonic is defined as dealing with, inhabiting, or having to do with the underworld. To call a theology as hellish is a severe charge. However, when I read about the Prosperity Gospel, and talk to other Christians, the way they describe its theology is similar to the way I, or many other American Muslims, would describe ISIS, AlQaeda or any number of groups that distort and mutilate Islam.

Granted, the prosperity gospel is not murderous, but in a way it is what can only be described as cannabalizing Christian theology. Thats a scary way of comparing theology, but thats what I read between the lines, the prosperity gospel and the extremists ideology both cannabalize theology for their purposes.  On this trip to Central America I kept hearing about the “Prosperity Gospel” and have tried to understand why a theology would be focused on an individuals prosperity to the exclusion of the well being of society and have yet to find anything Divine about this message.

The thing about the Prosperity Gospel is that its key tenet holds that God smiles on the accumulation of wealth in this life and will reward material donations to the church with prosperity and miracles. The assumption being that if you are favored by God in the afterlife, then God will favor you with wealth – material prosperity – in this life.  In this theology, the herd is no longer sheep, but rather consumers; the pastors sell a lifestyle of prosperity. A successful prosperity gospel preacher has to live the life of a successful man, or else the message conflicts with the tenet that wealth equals God’s favor. What good is a prosperity preacher driving around in a beat up 1989 Ford truck when you should be driving around in an Escalade?

It was telling that in one of my meetings, a young bank employee in Honduras, was discussing the payment of “taxes” to gangs. I asked a follow up question regarding whether the gangs tax the Church in Honduras?  She responded, “they don’t bother with the Catholic church, but the big evangelical [read- prosperity] churches, they see them as a business. So those churches build into their expenses when they expand or build new facilities a protection tax, sometimes they take out loans from the bank to help cover the cost.”

Moises Naim in The End of Power notes something similar on this perception of the Prosperity Church as a business, “[i]n this respect, the church resembles nothing so much as a small business launched in a competitive marketplace without funding from a central source; it must succeed on the basis of the members it draws, the services it provides them, and the tithes and collection revenue they can be persuaded to give.”

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I attended Mass at a humble Catholic church in a poor community in the Honduran city of Tegucigalpa.

“Immigrants, indigenous groups like the Mayans in Guatemala, or other communities with needs,” Naim lists, “that political leaders and mainstream churches have neglected, are perfect targets for these new churches.” This reality fits his thesis that the more, mobility, and mentality revolution around the world has caused the power of the Church, both the Catholic and mainline protestant, to decay to the point where these smaller prosperity churches draw in people who’s grievances aren’t being addressed by their institutions giving them a message that focuses their needs on the immediate future prosperity they can achieve if they believe, and make donations to the Church.

What happens to the donations from congregants to the Prosperity church?

In fact, in the United States, where the Prosperity Gospel has its foundational roots, there is clear indication that the adherents of the theology were disproportionately hit by the housing bubble crash. Many mainline evangelical groups including California’s Warren and x have vehemently spoken out against the theology as not just destructive but far from the teachings of Jesus.

While the global market for souls is a free for all, the problem arises with the message that is being sold in the Prosperity Churches. These Churches teach a distinctly hyper individualized salvation message based on the idea that consumption is a sign of God’s favor on the individual. It is a message that removes the universal values that have come to define many mainline world religions- the communal good through individual sacrifice, charity for the sake of charity.

If you wanted to create a religion that justified consumerism, look no further then the Prosperity Gospel, its adherents should be referred to as Consumer Christians. Consumption, and in particular wealth, as a sign of God’s favor is a concept that is detested in the Quran. Wealth is a sign of a blessing, consumption is encouraged, however, neither of these things are tied to one’s status in the hereafter. In fact, both things could turn out to be a test we humans fail to pass.

And it is important for me to identify that my disgust that I experienced above during my conversation in the grocery store parking lot, stems from this understanding of Islam.

The Quraysh of Mecca valued this concept dearly. One of their arguments, when the Prophet Muhammad began his mission was that “surely, God favors us in this life, and if there were a hereafter, God would favor us there as well because of the wealth bestowed upon us.”  Throughout the early years of the Prophets message the Quran rebutted, verse after verse, this idea in its various renditions. Consumption and wealth accumulation, according to God were not signs of Divine favor, in fact, the Quran asks “would a person pious and humble be judged the same as person who hordes wealth and lies?”

 

 

Tecun Uman – Every Guatemalan’s Hero

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The irony of the town Tecun Uman is just beginning to settle in with me. We crossed the Guatemalan and Mexican border earlier today and I sit in the small town of Salvador Urbina in the Mexican state of Chiapas reflecting on some of the images I have been wrestling with from my time in Guatemala.

Unlike Honduras, or El Salvador, Guatemala has a rich, vibrant, thriving and assertive indigenous population today. They are visible in the airport terminal, on the streets, and most noticeably in the marketing material for Guatemala. Starting at the airport I experienced a disconnect with these images and the reality I observed on the ground.

It continued through the streets of Guatemala City and into the Western Coastal plains and into the city of Tecun Uman, on the border with Mexico. The images of the Mayan indigenous cultures are prevalent throughout Guatemala, yet when you get a chance to see the true conditions of the indeginious community there is a great gap between their lives and the lives of non-Mayan Guatemaltecos.

The Indigenous as a Marketing Strategy

While I was visiting La Casa de Migrante in Tecun Uman, I learned about the Mayan Ki’chie warrior king known as Tecun Uman. The true existence of a historical Tecun Uman is subject of ongoing debate. However, Alvarado was a barbaric conquistador and one of the most horrible (incapable and incompetent) administrators of the Spanish colonial enterprise (judged by his contemporaries standards, no less!).

This is not my passing judgement but actually how he was seen by his peers during the time. His battle with Tecun Uman was epic and a turning point in the history of Central American resistance to the colonial enterprise. One piece of evidence to suggest that Tecun Uman lived comes from a letter written by Alvarado himself to Hernán Cortés.

The letter, however, is quite sparing in details, with Alvarado only mentioning of the battle that ensued: “in this affair one of the four chiefs of the city of Utatlán [presumably Tecun Uman] was killed, who was the captain general of all this country.” Whatever his real historical role or story maybe, Guatemala venerates him as the National Hero, and idealizes Tecun Uman as the ideal Guatemalan patriot. Here’s how the legend goes:

In the midst of the battle, Alvarado and Tecun Uman met face to face, each with weapon in hand. Alvarado was clad in armor and mounted on his warhorse. Tecun Uman attacked with the the desire to kill Alvarado’s horse. With the horse killed, and Alvarado knocked down, Tecun Uman was not ready for Alvarado’s next move. He quickly realized his error and turned for a second attack but Alvarado’s spear thrust was on its trajectory toward his opponent’s heart. The K’iche’ prince’s nahual, filled with grief, landed on the fallen hero’s chest, staining its breast feathers red with blood, and thereafter died. From that day on, all male quetzals bear a scarlet breast and their song has not been heard since. Further, if one is to be placed in captivity, the quetzal would die, making the bird a symbol of liberty.

The idea of nahual is most closest to the concept of “animal spirit”. To understand Tecun Uman’s fatal mistake, one way of understanding his action toward the killing of Alvarado’s horse is that it was his nahual and killing it would kill Alvarado. Today, Tecun Uman is seen in light of the ultimate freedom fighter, and the first true Guatemalan. This image of Tecun is a conceptualization embraced ardently by non-Mayans. I wondered if it is shared by the Mayan communities of Guatemala?

Can the real Tecun Uman please stand up?

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Ana Luisa Montufar, crowned Miss Guatemala 2014, wearing a traditional Huipil a required portion of the contest in a nod to traditional Mayan culture found in Guatemala.

With indigenous Mayans being presented as the poster child of Guatemalan tourism, yet living such dismally poverty stricken lives, its hard to buy the national hero narrative of Tecun Uman. If the national hero comes from the same indigenous communities now present in Guatemala, why then do these same communities suffer from such incredible poverty, lack of educational and health resources, and worse, are looked down upon by well to do Guatemalans?

One of my guides in Guatemala narrated how he spent all his childhood and early adulthood throwing off his indigenous roots, hiding his ancestral home while living in Los Angeles and even going to pains to demonstrate that he no longer looked the “indigenous look.” He sadly reflected how even trying to pass off as an educated Guatemalan, who spoke English and was educated in the US, he was still considered “too indigenous.”

The reality is that the Mayans are the orphans of the Guatemalan state, both from its services and judicial system, and are scorned by whiter, read more Spanish, Guatemalans. In fact, former American backed dictator General Rios Mont lead a scorched earth campaign against the indigenous communities. Not to far away from Quezteltanango are the towns and villages where Guatemalan soldiers raped and murdered hundreds and thousands of indigenous folks simply because they suspected them as being part of the rebel movement during the 1980’s. Currently Guatemala is seeing delayed justice played out in the judicial system as Montt and other army officials are being brought to trial.

If convicted, Mont will be the first, and only so far, Latin American dictator found guilty of genocide in the Western Hemisphere. American involvement in this atrocity is extensively chronicled, and one of the leading advocates for Mont was President Ronald Regan, go figure, it wasn’t just dealing with the devil (Iran and the Ayatollahss in Iran-Contra affair) but with Satans Prince of Guatemala himself.

Its not just the legend of the Mayan king, Tecun Uman, but the general use of indigenous cultures and people and their treatment that really got to me. What doesn’t settle with me is the marketing and PR campaign instituted by the Guatemalan government (consciously!) to present themselves as an indigenous haven, when in fact the government carried out a campaign of genocide and collective punishment against the indigenous population during the 1980’s and that this population continues to be most discriminated and marginalized in the country even when this population makes up the majority of the population.

Exploitation: Colonial Policy of Dispossession

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In the US there is a constant debate about how Hollywood portrays minorities. Having friends in Hollywood positions me close to the constant conversations about diversity in Hollywood, in marketing, and the generally changing face of America to an image that is predominately less white. And the US is not far off from this idea of using indigenous communities to market places, there is a rich history of this sort of expropriation of indigenous peoples culture for profit by White America.

But in Guatemala the majority of the population is made up of people who look like Tecun Uman, who are not light skinned Hispanic heritage folks. The minority in Guatemala are the groups of folks who look like the white folks that make up Hollywood and Madison avenue marketing firms. The idea of a minority exploiting the majority conjures up images of colonization for me.

All across Guatemala, all I saw were light skinned Spanish heritage Guatemalans in television, news, and advertisements. Its as if the 70% of the indigenous population didn’t exist in the eyes of popular cultural heads. Politicians were predominately of Hispanic heritage. In fact only 3% of the Guatemalan parliament is made up of the indigenous community, which, again, represents 70% of the population. Where are the folks who look like Tecun Uman on television and in politics?

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Ana Luisa Montufar from her 2011 Miss Earth contest, again sporting the traditional Mayan Huipil alongside with clay pottery.

I guess its not marketable to showcase how white a tropical jungle environment is, so to sell tourists on Guatemala it makes better sense to play up the exotic, especially if the exotic is so prevalent. I want to ask the Mayan folks about how they feel about this. Do they feel exploited? Do they feel that their representation in tourism material helps them? Do they benefit from the economics of having their cultures be the tourism marketing gimmick?

For me the best image of the place of the Mayan community is that of the women facing off with Guatemalan armed military police. It represents the tenuous relationship with the state, the courage and determination of the Mayan people, specifically of women in Guatemalan society. How the state cowers behind the bravado of weapons, shields, and helmets.

But instead we have these spiffy images of Guatemalan beauty queens dressed up in Mayan dress. In fact, as a conciliatory measure to the indigenous communities, it became a requirement for all Beauty contestants to wear an indigenous outfit during one of the main judging sections of the competition. So all these light skinned six foot women parade across the stage wearing indigenous outfits.

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But when you walk around the streets of Sololo or Xela (read more about Xela, which also known as Quetzeltanango here), indigenous woman don’t look anything like the women in the beauty contests. What does that say to these young girls- “you will never be good enough to win a beauty contest, BUT your clothing is important to us, it is what makes Guatemala, Guatemala.” And what does that do the perception of beauty for the indigenous community?

Asking Questions in Guatemala

Asking questions in Guatemala about a tourists experience could be a dangerous tryst with the truth. Especially if it happens to be a tourist like me. I don’t smile and speak pleasant. I note, observe, and find ways to express myself especially in the face of injustice and inequality. Thats why I was happy to be one of those tourist-folks that the Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo (INGAUT) interviewed about their experiences in Guatemala. Even got a little gift for suffering through the process!

Initially the questions were about my overall experience as a tourist in Guatemala, but then the young just-out-of-college-dude began to get specific about the services- roads, means of travel, hotels, restaurants and shops catering to tourists, tourists places, government services. Then the questions revolved around impressions of Guatemala and culture.

So I did what any person of social justice consciousness would do: gave him a soundbite reflection on my time observing Guatemala. It was for the most part the truth, not glossy romanticized blubber. I didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about the Guatemalan bureaucracy, and felt strongly that it was part of the problem, if not a root cause, to why Guatemala remains so impoverished and insecure.

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I emphasized my main issues- Corruption, how on the crossing from Mexico back into Guatemala, government officials tried to extort an entry fee, in cash, when there was no entry fee whatsoever; lack of accountability, how there is no one I could turn too when I was being shaken by the government official, the police or security person was standing right there when this shake down was happening; the fact that the government exploits indigenous culture and peoples to market Guatemala, yet at the same time it carried out a campaign of genocide in a 36 year long brutal campaign for which no one has been held accountable, including the current president who is implicated in mass murders in the Mayan heartland of Guatemala, and for a government that continues to discriminate and marginalize indigenous communities shaking them down and preventing them from gaining self determination and basic needs with laws and shady deals like what I saw taking place along Lake Atitlan.

The INGUAT survey collector was taken back by my responses and my associated examples. What could these folks do, they are survey collectors, they could only shake their head and apologize for what they had no control over. There job is to collect data.

I found this my one opportunity to put on the record precisely what I believe was wrong with Guatemala, with someone in the Guatemalan government. I hadn’t gotten down to the root causes of these problems, complex as they were. But my feeling was that maybe it might just make a difference. Or maybe it would get weeded out. But my conscious said it was the right thing to do.

Either way I needed to be heard (I know selfish!), I had to share the voices of the people I met and discussed issues with, and this was a starting point. It wasn’t its people, it was the Guatemalan government and the narrow interests that this privileged oriented institutions represents.

Falling for Flagstaff

Can you instantly fall in love with a place just by your first impressions? I don’t like Arizona all that much, only recently have I begun to explore it. What ideas I have about Arizona come from the Sonora desert and the politicians that don’t like me or my people. Yet this recent camping trip to Grand Canyon National Park proved me wrong on so many levels. For starters, I fell in love with Flagstaff. Secondly, the Grand Canyon has a pine forest around it!

A travel article published in Feb. 27, 1892 illustrated magazine published in Chicago described Flagstaff and the surrounding country as “one of the most interesting regions between the Missouri and the Pacific.” I can’t argue with that description whatsoever because I found it to be spectacularly interesting.

The article noted that Flagstaff “offered majestic scenery and natural resources such as timber and grazing lands, as well as geologic features and native cultures of great scientific interest.”

Hold on, this article didn’t do Flagstaff and surrounding environ any justice. For starters at an elevation of 7,000 feet, this area is a stark contrast to the low, hot, and humid southern section of the state- Phoenix and Tuscon. This mountain town is of epic geological proportions. It lies smack dab in the middle of an ancient volcanic field- the San Franciscan Volcanic Field. Sunset Crater, as well as the towering remains of a volcano, including the San Francisco Peaks, loom high above the city. This is just two of the over 600 volcanos that make up the field.

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Being just back from Guatemala, this idea of a looming Earth-vent-of-destruction was not just familiar but a soothing sight. The climate too seemed so similar to the drastically different climate I experienced in Lake Atitlan and Queztaltenango. And like that region of Guatemala, Flagstaff too had its rich heritage of indigenous folks.

The reporter writing that piece in 1892 “predicted that Flagstaff would become a truly great summer resort and a world-famous gateway to some of the greatest natural marvels and most interesting native cultures.” But it wasn’t because the indigenous cultures or people made up the area, but rather because in 1853 Congress authorized that a transcontinental railroad route follow the 35th parallel which pretty much cut through the area that would become Flagstaff. And so the epic growth began, except it wasn’t much of a growth.

Nearby were the ruins of the ancient Pueblo people at Wapatki. The San Francisco Volcanic field gets it name from the efforts of Spanish colonial enterprise with the Hopi tribes, in particular one of the oldest inhabited villages in the continental United States, Oraibi. It was recorded as having close to 3,000 residents in the 1540’s when General Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his band of conquistadors arrived in search of the fabled 7 golden cities. They didn’t find the cities but they left Franciscan missionaries who built a mission near Oraibi and a church at the Zuni village of Awatovi. This was how the area began to take on Catholic and Spanish names.

But Flagstaff, it got its name from a group of Bostonians who constructed a cedar flagstaff on the grounds of a ranch while celebrating the the 4th of July. They were headed out West, and the area of Flagstaff, and its potential, was not enough of a draw to convince them to settle down here. In that particular way, Flagstaff seems to be a sleepy college town out of place in Arizona.

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Residents of Arizona and the four corner states seem to have driven up the prices of real estate in the city, making it a vacation getaway. Sedona, not to far away, keeps Flagstaff competing for attention. But in the end its Southern Arizona, Phoenix and Tucson, that seem to pull their weight and the politics of the state. Flagstaff could have become a pretty large city in the upper cooler climes of Arizona, but its relegated as the liberal step child of Southern state conservatism.

And sadly, 120 years later, the natural wonders and indigenous cultures of Arizona seem to be the branding glue that keeps the coffers flowing. Yet when it comes to protecting those natural wonders and looking at addressing, equitably, the challenges of indigenous communities, Arizona seems content with the status quo. All of which I find to be sad stuff, and so much in comparison to how INGUAT (the tourism ministry of Guatemala) and the politicians of Guatemala treat indigenous cultures there.

On Being a Yosemite Virgin

I was heading out to Yosemite National Park this weekend to celebrate Eid al-Adha with the cousins. This is my sixth National Park camping trip this year. Its been incredibly glorious experience with adventure! And this particular trip, coupled with Zion in the later part of summer, have been a bit nostalgic. There was a time where I could only get one trip in during three years. One of those trips being my very first visit to Yosemite National Park back in 2006.

I remember having called Mofat on his bluff and in return he e-mailed me his itinerary from South Carolina to San Diego. In an instant I was snared into a weekend whirlwind road trip with a hodgepodge of San Diego friends. Road trips start with a will, but this one started with an extra special case of randomness only Mofat could bring to the table! Our entire friendship, brotherhood, has been defined by randomness of having been put together as Freshman roommates at UCSD’s Muir College.

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You could call it a bromance, my first one! Mofat has a way to make things seem right. He is spontaneous, constantly searching the horizon for silver linings, and never misses a beat to crack a joke or put you in your place, in a nice Southern gentlemanly sort of way. He is southern Palestinian American, a Texan raised in Saudi Arabia. He was my roommate at Muir College (aptly attended, like by Divine will) dorms while we attended UCSD. I never could shake him off, though. Over the years, as I got to know him, I developed a special appreciation for everything about him.

If road trips start with a will, then to see them through requires a lot of patience. I found myself bound to follow through on a trip to Yosemite with little knowledge of what I had found myslef involved with. That was me back then though, I could only care for the people I was spending time with, not necessarily the place I was going.

Yosemite, according to geologist, is the perfect example of a geological valley and is an a magnificiant preserve. It is refered to as “the uncomparable valley” and with over 1200 square miles of wilderness and 800 miles worth of hiking trails one can imagine the solitude and immensity of the natural wonder that is Yosemite. What stands out most, and there is a lot of amazing stuff here, is a geological feature called Half Dome.

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The plan was simple- hike up Half Dome. Yosemite or Bust, Half Dome or, well, nothing really. I had never been to Yosemite before. It seemed like it would all be fun times, regardless. Looking up at Half Dome, however, made my stomach churn and I felt queasy. I later came to realize that I actually have a slight fear of heights. I wasn’t sure I had brought enough water, and I maybe packed on a few too many pizzas and shwarmas.

There are really two ways to see Yosemite, by car in the happy little valley and meadows and the villages of Curry and Yosemite, where you can catch most of the trails to hike up to various points of interests. Or there is the more involved process of backcountry hiking. Yosemite virgins generally leave off after visiting the valley and making two or three hikes. This time around, I felt I wanted to do more.

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Unlike most people who are content with the first mode of sight seeing, I find myself drawn to the backcountry. Yosemite Valley is neither peaceful or a place of solitude given the millions of tourists that come there to wander in nature. Its a bit of a theme park feel to it. I want to experience what John Muir referred to as “truly get[ting] into the heart of wilderness.”

“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”

John Muir

But that first visit ten years ago, is not exactly how I felt. In my journal I wrote

The most sublime and incredible views of waterfalls. In fact, there are waterfalls in every direction you look. Incredible! And the river filled with cold water, sheer mountain cliffs and meadows dot the entire journey up to Half Dome, but I have to admit, none of this soothes the pain that I felt hiking up this monster trail, to add salt to the wound, not making it up to the top of half dome is an incredible shame. For those making a trip to Yosemite and willing to hike up to Half Dome, I suggest preparing in advance and also brining the correct gear on the trip. But the real important thing is to prepare your body for the strenuous climb required to successfully make it to the top.

Sadly, the will to make the road trip happen was there but my body just wasn’t having any of the other plans. And now so much of my perspective has changed. I long for that “going alone in silence” that John Muir referred to some hundred years earlier on his visit to Yosemite.

Its one of those sad stories- literally its a sad and pathetic state of physical and mental reality I was in- I didn’t have the amount of pain and problems climbing up Angles Landing and Clouds Rest at Zion National Park as I did here. That was what two years of laziness and coach potato-hood impart.  And the old ladies and six year old girls climbing to the top doesn’t make me feel any better. No bag of M&M’s would allow me to survive this hike. Something was going to change…

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…like I never made it out to a camping trip after this one. I made up for each of the past six years this year now. I am not sure when I am going to try to hike up Half Dome again, but one thing I know is that while I am on this trip with family, I am preparing myself to journey into the backcountry, alone if necessary. Something about that backcountry opportunity excites me. It calls me. Look forward to sharing more about that in the future!

On The Politics of Small Business

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I was traveling in Honduras, Guatemala, and Chiapas, Mexico, finding individuals who were making a living in entreprenuering ways. Much of this was done outside of the official economy, and it was everywhere, yet this was a “business culture” not unlike the one we have in the United States. What set the two places apart is that the business culture in the United States is supported by a financial system and government policy that supports the risk taker.

I grew up with this idea that [North] America is built on the hard work of small business. Its this romanticized notion that to be a small business is as [North] American as it gets. Yet the irony of this is that small businesses are derided for their inefficiency, lack of customer service, and a general lack of business sophistication. As [North] Americans we hate the idea of the small business itself in our economy, but we love the idea of what it means to be a small business owner. From this aspiration grows the millions of small businesses across the nation.

The US has a long history of this. The French traveller Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in his book way back in 1835, how astonished he was during his trip to the United States not by “the marvelous grandeur of undertakings” in the newly founded nation, as much “as the innumerable multitude of small ones” he found everywhere. Everyone was in business for themselves- industrious, capable, and invested were the [North] American qualities. But what a small business was in 1835, to what we may consider a small business now is quite a different reality, as is the politics of business.

First consider one of the more astonishing claims I ran across in my business accounting class that suggested that 99.7% of the employees in the United States of America were employed by some 22.9 million small businesses spread across virtually every neighborhood across the country. That means that small business employs close to 56 million people in the Untied States. The Small Business Adminstration (SBA), where this information came from, also said that these same small businesses create more new jobs than larger firms.

When we frame our understanding of the economy through this lens of small business, its possible grasp how astonishing this statistic is. It took me a bit of time to process that places like Ambala Cash & Carry in Cerritos, a suburb of Los Angeles, and thousands of these sorts of business employs the vast majority of employable adults in the US. Yet my mind considers retail giant Walmart as the largest employer in the country, 2.2 million employees, pales in comparison to the collective employment of small businesses.

So I am not surprised that the 2016 Presidential candidates are all talking about small businesses right now.

Like Ted Cruz, within minutes of becoming a candidate for the Republican Party, was talking about how his wife created a bakery while in high school. He told us that this was a ‘small business’, I see that as a small business.

Then there is Nish Acharya, a contributor at Forbes, who wrote in a July article that Hilary Clinton, the leading Democratic Presidential nominee, gave “the most substantive economic address of the 2016 campaign to date.” Again, Clinton in her speech, brought small business owners to the center of the presidential politics. Promising to streamline government, make it easier to start businesses, procure from government, comply with regulation, and stressing the importance of access to capital for small business owners, the implication was that the economy of the nation was small business.

This ‘small business’ talk started with President Reagan framing the American Revolution being led by the interests of small business owners according to Mansel Blackford in A History of Small Business in America. That was a time when economists saw these sorts of enterprises as sources of economic rejuvenation, after large firms had failed to produce the steam necessary to get economic growth going in the United States. “We came to Washington confident that this small business spirit” extolled Reagan in his address to the nation, “could make America well and get our economy moving again. Well, it’s working.”

Remember Japan was knocking our big businesses around- from Toyota to Sony- we faced a “Samurai invasion” from the West. In the East, West Germany had risen from the ashes of World War II, all the while in France there was still talk about American colonialism in Continental Europe. For Reagan, and the Economists of the 1980’s, small business was a source of pride. In fact, it was these small manufacturing firms that were leading the US Space program to new heights.

We currently live in a similar reality, post 2008 economic collapse, big business has not been able to produce the jobs or the economic benefit across our economy. This is partly why I believe its become fashionable again to center policy in the 2016 Presidential race around small business. The cynical me thinks about how politicians are pandering to their constituency by placing small business at the center of the North American economy, after years of lauding the multinationals in a globalizing economy.

Small business is back as the poster child for what built the United States, and how it will keep building the nation. Clinton refers to “small businesses” receiving government contracts, which sounds a like a lot larger business model then my perception of “small.” A lot of my millennial friends are self- employed, entrepreneurs who are building their own form of a “small business” because of the economic turbulence left them on the curbside of the flailing economy. Yet, their business seems more of a “micro-entriprise” then a “small business” politicians are talking about.

So what precisely are we talking about? I think thats important to understand given all the stuff being tossed out in the political discourse. For me also, I seem to be thinking about development work and the role of small business in places like Honduras, Guatemala, and Chiapas, versus US multinationals plopping down maquiladoras in the hopes of creating a pathway to the middle class.

A Prayer from Central America

I carried a prayer with me during my travels throughout Central America this summer. One of the teachings of the Prophet is that the prayers of a traveller are accepted, if their trip is with good intentions, so I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity. I prayed the prayer for the soul in worry, in anxiety, in need of bravery. At the time I thought thats the prayer that would cover all aspects of the trip. I realize now that the prayer has taken on a new dimension after my travels. Reflecting on how my understanding has developed, I wanted to share the prayer.

Origins of the Prayer

اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنْ الْهَمِّ وَالْحُزْنِ وَالْعَجْزِ وَالْكَسَلِ وَالْبُخْلِ وَالْجُبْنِ وَضَلَعِ الدَّيْنِ وَغَلَبَةِ الرِّجَالِ

But first, prayer, or supplication, in Arabic is referred to as Dua’ (pronounced Doo ah). The actual prayer Muslims perform are the five separate prayers, which involves physical movement. So this prayer is more of a supplication

The prayer is memorialized advice by the Prophet in Saheeh Bukhari, a collection of sayings and teachings gathered by Imam Bukhari. Muslims learn that the prayer was consistently read by the Prophet and that he encouraged his companions to keep it on the tips of their tongues at all times. It goes- By Your Mercy, Allah, I seek refuge in You from worry and grief; from helplessness and laziness; from cowardice and stinginess; and from overpowering of debt and the oppression of other humans. There are other variations to this prayer as well, but this is the one I memorized.

Anyway, I learned this particular prayer during college when I was plagued with worry over debt. Later, it was the prayer I recited repeatedly while faced with doubt over life decisions. I’ve carried it with me over time in relation to the events happening in my life. If I am overly worried about something, or the idea of taking out loans for education, I keep reciting this prayer. Its a mantra of sorts.

Because it was so simple and relatable to my lived experiences, I always viewed the prayer from that personal perspective, compartmentalized to specific problems. But in Central America this individual perspective of the prayer changed to something substantive about the nature of and relation of worldly problems to spiritual wellbeing.

Evolution of Understanding

According to the Prophet worry, grief, helplessness, laziness, cowardice, stinginess, debt and oppression were things to seek refuge from, and that Allah was the best place to get refuge. Each one is paired, conjoined together- like worry AND grief. I always saw this pairing as a poetic style of Arabic, the words rhymed when paired together.

On the trip to Central America, I began to see how there was a much deeper sense of meaning in the pairings. For example, all of these things affect a persons psychological well being but also are directly tied to their spiritual well being too. When I look at the pairings in the duah, I notice that the pairings are similar- one is a rational existence item, the other is one that deals with the spiritual aspect of a person. To me this pairing then can be understood as the rational and spiritual realms of ones self, and these two things together can wear down a person psychologically and spiritually.

In Honduras I heard stories of people worrying about their next meal, having gone three days without eating a tortilla (with salt and lime not even beans!). This is a sort of situation that leads to grief about one’s circumstances and existence. The same is true about cowardice and stinginess. The people in Honduras fighting against mining interests were some of the bravest people I heard from, willing to put down their lives to keep their land and customs. They also the most generous in providing us with what little they had. These people were driven by a deep rooted faith, or what in Arabic is referred to as imaan. I was mesmerized by that.

The Prophet warned Muslims that “Iman wears out in one’s heart”. There are things, internal and external, that act or eat away at faith, over time or at the point of contact, that drastically reduce the potency of our faith. Or as the hadith continues the simile “just as the dress wears out (becomes thin)” so does the imaan in our heart. When we look at corrosive factors, there are things that are more abrasive, and wear down on our iman, meaning that not all iman abrasives are equal in their affect.

The understanding really drove home the point how faith is an action. Our faith is acted upon by external factors. When we are faced with temporal problems, we also face spiritual existential crises. These attacks come in pairs. I always thought that the prayer was good for just particular problems I faced in my daily life- grief, worry, debt. But these things roll out in pairs, when we have fears of debt, there is always the coupling of oppression from other humans (or human institutions). That reality is incredibly true of Central America.

When Rev. Blackmon said go looking for the Divine in Central America, I didn’t really know what exactly that entailed. But it has manifested itself in this new understanding of the prayer, and I see where people draw from the deep reservoirs of hope and faith. I am eternally grateful for this.