Introducing the Quran Year Project

Thanks for stumbling onto this blogpost. The purpose of this Quran Year Project is laid out here, however, if you are looking for more, try the content guide which you can check out here.

 

“To truly understand the Quran you have to learn Arabic,” said a well meaning friend. “It is in the Arabic, not just colloquial, but Fusah Arabic that you’re going to understand the power of the Quran.” And thus, my little motivation fizzled away. I had to admit that reading the Quran in English translation would diminish, but to not start at all was incredibly embarrassing to share. However, I would put it off to the distant future when I would have time to study and learn Arabic properly, is just pathetic.

Just like that I let others tell me what to do and when to do it. I fell onto my own sword of procrastination and putting things off. I guess I was looking for an excuse to keep myself free from investing the time necessary to reading the English translation, since it was a significant undertaking. Learning Arabic, Fusah for that matter, is no easy undertaking, especially if you live and work in the West. But I understand where my well meaning friends were coming from.  The reward is to understand something that is profoundly earth shattering- the message of the Quran.

And this perception about learning Arabic to appreciate the Quran is true, to an extent. Consider the story of Omar, it was a handful of verses that he heard that moved him to shift his entire being from hating with a passion Muslims and Islam, to becoming one of the ardent supporters and followers of the Prophet SAW. He didn’t just hear “[t]here is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger” but rather he heard the complicated relationship altering ideas that were built into the Arabic language that the Quran was revealed in.

The Quran is the soul of the Muslim religion. It is what gives this religion its spirituality. Aisha RA, the wife of the Prophet, related that “The Quran was the Prophets character.” That is a staggering statement. Not only does the Quran speak to the human soul, even when you don’t truly understand what is being recited, I feel that it is the essence by which humanity can be refined toward the perfect. Perfection being the domain of God, we can only try to emulate, get closest to, the character of the Prophet which was the perfect human character.

Listening to the Quran does move me. Especially when recited by a wonderful voice. Which makes complete sense because the Arabic word “Quran” literally means the recitation, an indication that this was a text meant to be heard, not just read, therefore, its power lies in its auditory nature. Sadly, the auditory experience alone doesn’t develop an understanding and association to Islam, as 90% of the worlds Muslims don’t understand Arabic (like me, I understand Urdu and am fluent in English).

There shouldn’t have been any reason whatsoever for me to put aside my seedling desire to read the English translation of the Quran for so long. As a believer, I should have sat down with the Quran and studied it thoroughly. The fact is the first verse revealed required “reading.” When you look at Islamic civilization there are no images of God, but rather there is the Quran. To know God, one has to know the Quran.

But come on, truly out of the billion Muslims around the world, how many of us have sat down and studied the Quran? And that same question can be lobbed to Christians, how many self-identifying Christian have sat with the text from cover to cover? But this is not an excuse for me to not have read a Quran. I profess Islam as my faith.

I admit, I let these small statements from well meaning friends become actionable leverage pieces for Shaitan to whisper and dissuade me from delving into the Quran. But conversely, if you consider the tenuous relationship individuals have with the Quran, why would any Muslim offer such misguided advice that has the power to weaken a persons intention to learn more about the faith and to get closer to the Quran? If it were one person, I would say its a off hand remark, and I was being stupid. However, the fact that it was multiple people from various regions of the West coast suggesting that learning Arabic is the only way to appreciate the Quran, the implication being that an English reading would be a waste of time, suggests to me that there is this culture ingrained into the psyche of Muslims that legitimacy in religion is derived solely from Arabic. I don’t think I can process that statement fully here, nor is it my purpose with the Quran Year Project to delve into that.

This endeavor is motivated in part because its time. Second, its inspired by a friend from NewGround who recently spent the year reading the Bible and Quran. Finally, its inspired by non-Muslims who have spent time reading the English translation of the Quran, like Lesley Hazleton and the blog “A Christian Reads the Quran” in which Jason Knight endeavors to better understand Islam by turning to its principle text, the Quran. One of his conclusion struck me really hard:

Maybe my biggest realization came about halfway through the year when Muslims began to find and comment on this blog.  What I discovered is that if I really wanted to understand Islam, reading the Qur’an is only the beginning.  In fact, I am wondering now if I have read more of the Qur’an than some Muslims I have talked to this year (not the clearly learned Muslims who were kind enough to take a lot of time to educate me about their religion).  I was mistaken when I thought the Qur’an would unlock a thorough understanding of Islam.  I would say now that if one really wants to understand this esteemed religion one would be best served by reading the Hadith, the traditions and sayings of Muhammad that have been collected since his death.

(Bold emphasis is my doing, not Mr. Knights) Its true that he read more of the Quran then most Muslims, but then again majority of Christians don’t read the entirety of the Bible either. Something that he acknowledges in his other blog posts. But I don’t want to get into the comparing business, the fact is I felt incredibly guilty because that was precisely my position in relation to his.

I am a Muslim, and the most time I spent studying the Quran was when I went looking for things, or the tidbits I picked up here and there through articles and talks. There was no concerted effort to spend time with the text. To spend time with the text is to know God.

I also want to point out that I have been trying to be more conscious about the Quranic imperative to be reflective. I wrote a little about this in my post “The art of reflection“, but this was in relation to having an intentional effort to reflect deeper on my Central America traveling experience.

Reflection though is creeping into other parts of my life and being intentional about following the Divine request to engage with the Quran is something that required practice. Here I am now. Ready to reflect. Ready to get the Millennial Quran Reflection going. Oh, that maybe, should be the name for what I am doing- the Millennial Quran Reflection Project (MQRP)… okay, will work on the naming more.

Hacking the GoToob for the Gym

Being the aging Millennial that I am, I search out shortcuts that guarantee time for other things. It works; I won’t waste time re-figuring out what I need; therefore, I like to stick to what works and experiment with other things, like electronics. So I got pretty tired of not finding the travel sizes for my hygiene products at stores. At first I just refilled the random travel bottles I had collected from hotels with my product, then I got generic bottles, and now, I finally settled on these refillable silicone bottles. First by GoToob, and then hacking the iNiebo, a Chinese knock off brand, for the ultimate travel/gym experience.

I ran into this hack revelation when my refillable lotion bottle, after numerous years of use, never made it back home from a trip. I stumbled on these silicone bottles while trying to find my lotion in travel size. After going through the merits of the hard plastic bottles and various other ones, I settled on a pyramid shaped silicone bottle, which I wasn’t all together happy with, but felt it would do the job.

Low and behold, it was pretty spectacular while I was in New York City. All the things I thought it would fail me for, proved wrong. It squeezed down to accommodate my packing. It didn’t burst open and explode in my toiletries bag. It allowed me to use the very last drop of it without having to open the cap and smack the crap out of it.

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All this got me thinking why not get more of these silicone bottles to replace the other regularly used hygiene products I take for camping!?! So on my Central America travels I bought a set of HumanGear GoToob’s. They sell 3 silicon bottles, each 1.25 ounces, in three transparent silicone tinted  colors- frosted Clear, Green, and Blue. They had the similar no drip valve to the tricone, but had the added bonus of a really cool content identification system of labels, and you could even write in your own label if it didn’t have one. The one problem I had was fumbling around with them to and from the shower stalls, in a dormitory like setting I was staying at in Honduras. But they worked, so I didn’t think much of it

Then I found myself swimming regularly and using the gym shower stalls. I thought,” why not use these silicone bottles in the gym”, since I absolutely hated the high-school-hormonal-AXE crap they had put in the stalls for complimetary use. While showering, I thought I could set it up so it won’t be such a hassle taking in a caddy or resigning myself to fumbling around with multiple bottles that might fall from the small shelf the gym provided in the shower stall.

Revelation! I realized maybe I could conveniently put all the shower hygiene bottles together in some sort of system. And the internet delivered as I googled random word combinations! Apparently someone else haf this ame problem and delivered a market solution in the form of the ShowerLine Caddy (selling for 20 bucks, including shipping. Its not eligible for Prime, so you have to pay for shipping regardless).

It utilizes a lanyard that allows you to hang it from a shower head or knobs. It was great….Except, their biggest problem is that they do not use refillable silicone bottles. The other problem being that the bottles are a mere 1.5 ounces, which would require almost weekly refilling if I were to use it at the gym or pool. This was, I instantly realized, something I could easily hack.

Being the conference junkie that I am, I had a few lanyards lying around I could use for this hack. I just needed to find silicone bottles that would allow me to hang off the lanyard and also the right mechanism to hang it from.

I purchased the iNeibo Silicone Travel Bottles, found an old lanyard from a conference I attended and bought some caliometers. Viola! I got my own handy dandy little hanging shower products dispenser for traveling, camping, and the gym. 3.3 ounces, had the same identity mechanism, leak proof design with 3 layers of protection to prevent drop, leaks and spills.

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Whats interesting is that ShowerLine actually sells a set of 3 1.5 ounce bottles for 4.50 (shipping an added 6 bucks). If you wanted to you could buy these bottles for 16 dollars cheaper then the iNeibo Silicone ones, and use a lanyard you have sitting around at home to hack your own ShowerLine caddy, for half the price of buying the Showerline version.

All of these still meet the TSA requirements so you can take the hack to the gym or on your travels, or both? Either way, your adventure will all that more exciting as you won’t be worrying about your toiletries.

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.

27 Years of Being a “Smooth Criminal”

October 24, 2016 marks 26 year anniversary of the release of Smooth Criminal by Micheal Jackson. I have to admit that my first introduction to Micheal Jackson was at the age of five. Jackson’s music has been a pretty titular presence in my life. So it was with great appreciation that I enjoyed the traditional Japanese flute cover of Smooth Criminal by Yoko Watanabe. It was a marvelous rendition.

It got me wondering what other “traditional instrumental” covers exist out there for Smooth Criminal? I could only think of one other, Ahmed Alshaiba’s “Smooth Criminal (Oud Cover).”

Can you think of any other “traditional instrumental” covers? I was hoping maybe a “tabla” cover might exist, or even a bag pipe version, but alas thats asking too much of the Desi’s (though there is Creep Qawwali) and I am thinking a bagpiper might not be able to pull off the multiple chords in a solo rendition.  However, there was this 2Cellos classical rendition that is worthy of being shared.

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.”

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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!

Whispers from Atitlan, Zion on the Horizon

There was a lot swirling in my head as I sat behind the wheel of the SUV driving in the dark. At that moment a list was forming of all the things I had to take care of when I got back from this camping adventure. But it was hard to focus on the future when Central America was still part of my immediate present. What I learned, experienced, felt- all of it- needed to be processed.

Having just got back from Central America, I found myself in the deepest most hottest of heat waves gripping Southern California this summer. To say that I wasnt prepared for that was off the mark given that I’d just spent the last few days in Guatemala soaking up the western highlands cool crisp summer storm air. Lake Atitlan and the alpine climate. My head floating somewhere near the islands in the sky amidst the ocean of clouds.

Being in Southern California’s heat wave was like being dunked into the waters of the Boiling River. I was shocked at the drastic change in weathers, and jetsetting already discombobulates you! Regardless, two days after my arrival I was tossing my Camelback day pack into a rented Chevy Tahoe several hours before even the faintest rays of dawn would begin to creep and driving for Utah’s Zion National Park with the family and two of my cousins.

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Everyone was curious about my trip, but they all seemed to want that one minute version of my three weeks of travel, and worse, I didnt have sound bites for people. I had 500 years of history, politics, culture, and foriegn policy swirling around in my head like a thick frothy glass of lassi, not your glass of waterdowned Roafzah. If I don’t provide a soundbite, I get the same response, “well you obviously had to have had some sort of experience to share.” But if my sharing took more then a minute, the eyes glazing over and this sense of “well I wasn’t looking for that” starts creeping into our interaction and makes for a uncomfortable reality.

Its not that I need time to reflect to create soundbites. I need to reflect and process also because I feel challenged in so many ways. Integrating back into life in the States is a significant exercise in toggling with adjusting to multiple realities.

In fact, I was questioning everything. From that cup of coffee I was drinking to the clothes I wore. I felt like I was betraying the things i learned, the emotional tugs i experienced, the resolve i had made to not be part of the system. Revolutionary betrayel confounded me and I was upset with my own weakness. Plus I still couldn’t get my head wrapped around the idea that the promises of globalization I had ate up were rose colored theories. What takes the place of globalization?

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But this was a family camping trip. Check. I needed to get the right mindset for the trip. Check. I was back home. Check… maybe.

I found the concept of “being back home” a bit strange. To me the the idea of having a sedentary life, to not be on the move again is difficult to adjust to. I so quickly slip into the life of the itinerant. For me its easier to slip into that lifestyle then it is to slip back into “being back home.”

Benjamin Button deserves being quoted on how it feels to be coming home: It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you. Its simply that everyone kept on living their lives, whereas I was coming back to that point in time I had left. Worse, I was coming back with ideas challenged, incubating radically different perspectives on things. Wrestling with whether the old and new could exist together or a totally new framework for viewing the world was necessary.

After a trip like mine, its hard to just pick up and start living where I left off, for that particular reason. I was finding myself smack dab in the middle of some of the very ideas I was wrestling with in Central America. Namely, here on this camping trip to Zion National Park, with the intersection of indigenious communities, national parks, and the politics of these two.

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I was at Zion National Park, a place that had its indigenous people pushed out violently to be settled by white Mormon settlers. When its natural wonders were first recognized it was accorded the status of a National Monument with its indigenous name- Mukantaweep. When the National Park Services directors moved to make the monument a fully protected National Park they decided to change the name to Zion, for branding purposes and to appease the local Mormon population that continued to refer to the area as Zion.

Snapping Back to Reality

Its happened to me a few times now, I get back from traveling abroad, find myself trying to get acclimated back into my life. Its jarring to experience. People refer to this as a type of culture shock. To me its more shock then it is culture. I might be sitting at the dining table or getting out of my car, when I wonder if any of the trip I was on was real. Did I just experience that?

But I was caught in this discombobulating moment where I was brushing my teeth at night. I took a sip of water and immediately spit it out. I had this fear that I would get myself sick because I just drank untreated water.

That was a major concern for me while traveling throughout Central America. Past experiences with water while traveling resulted ICU visit and saline drip lines. But for that moment I was caught in a state of confusion as to where I was. I was no longer at home but in Honduras or Guatemala or Chiapas. I had to reassure myself of my locality.

The truth is, the feeling doesn’t start while traveling, it starts when I am on my trip. While visiting incredibly poor areas, seeing the poverty all around me; I can transport myself out of there. I find myself back in the air conditioned room, eating a full course meal, talking to people about things that just seem superfluous given the real needs of people i just met.

This is a constant flux in my reality while traveling abroad. But lately the idea of people suffering and there not being hope to change has taken me into this weird place of apathy and a-politicalness. Its one thing to see how things aren’t changing toward the ideals I have, and a whole other to see first hand how the United States has let down its principles of democracy and equality and justice in other countries. It is why I asked Rev. Blackmon about how I should approach my trip. She responded with “Go search for the Divine in Central America.

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I was able to move past my hesitations. Instead, I had to worry about water and food, about insects and not being left wandering alone outside. Those were the concerns preoccupying my time. But then there were the people I met. Listening to their stories. The hardest thing about this trip to Central America was toggling between the really poor humble circumstances of the people I was talking with and then handling things like the thousand dollars of technology I carried with me. That was incredibly surreal as well.

The world is mixed- rich, poor, the continually marginalizing middle class- layered on top of each other, interacting constantly. This is what I take away from my experiences with settling back in. This year I had a chance to experience this first hand.

While the rest of the world is layered like this, I realize here in the US its not like that. Here in the US we can hide away in our suburbs and hilltop gated enclaves of privilege. That is the reality we constructed. The ghetto’s of the inner city, they aren’t places where we readily go. We call this “white flight” and its a common theme across the country, people who can moving out of the large cities into suburbs, especially out West. And when these folks with means decide to reclaim city centers in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, we see the process as gentrification.

But I realize that on my Union MLP trip to New York city, I was confronted with the homeless and the poor, on the subways, in the streets. New York City’s pricer neighborhoods aren’t all that “cleansed” of this reality. At first it was surreal, but after some time I felt familiar with it. Thats how the neighborhoods of Karachi are. Its like that in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. You can live behind walled mansions but at the end of the day you are confronted with extreme poverty. The vast majority of the people live in that condition of poverty.

I do wonder if what I experience when I return from my travels is what humanitarian aid workers, or even Peace Corps volunteers and even journalists, feel to a greater extent when they return home from their time abroad. For instance, there is the well documented experience of [North] American soldiers returning home from the many theaters of war the US was engaged with had a hard time transitioning back to their civilian lives. A component of that has a lot to do with PTSD. There is also the psychological condition of vicarious trauma for those who are engaged and surrounded by trauma.

One of the main instances of this dire contrast was the last night in Guatemala, after meeting some incredibly poor people. In particular a indigenous woman who travelled two days to meet with us and who didn’t make enough in a year to cover the cost of her travel. I sat at this restaurant called Los Cebelliones.

My meal there comprised of the amount of money this woman would make in 3 months. I can’t fathom that. The reality of the sort of buying power I have as an [North] American consumer is insane. But my ability to enjoy this is a privilege, and this always comes at a cost to someone. The simple reality is that business is all about the ledger and in accounting you balance out the sheets. If privilege is an asset then it comes as an expense or a liability or is left over as retained earnings from some transaction.

I am grappling more then ever with this idea of what my privilege costs. Before it was easy to live life through theories. Globalization is good for everyone. But what sort of globalization? I don’t have an answer to this. I am not anti-globalization. I actually think the idea of free movement of people, ideas, money has many advantages. But what I saw first hand in Central America, its tilted to those with money and power.

NYC: A Tourist Attempts to Escape the Crush of Humanity

…or my failed attempt to get some alone time in New York City.

One thing that I just don’t get about New Yorkers is how they can live with so many people all the time. I found it taxing to constantly be in a sea of people, having to find myself thrust into their conversations and life stories when all I might need and want so badly is quite alone time, like a quite commute home. But the subway and the streets are not quite spaces. In fact the bathroom probably was the most quietest space I found and it was claustrophobic.

My Union experience with MLP had been going awesome (read here), except three days in, with constant socializing and conversation making, I found myself feeling antsy and curmudgeonly. I needed wide open space, where I could be left alone, and not have to socialize for a block of time.

I went looking for that elusive New York space and thought I found it in Central Park. Boy, was I wrong! But i guess I am a west coaster like that, where the premium isn’t on real estate, we have so much of it that we don’t have to be economical in how it is utilized, we turn millions of acres of mountains and rolling hills into National Forests and inundate entire valleys with water for hydroelectric plants. This sort of attitude changes the way Westerners not only relate to land, but what we expect from it. Unlike in New York City where its a premium, land is used and related to in a very different way. Those wide open spaces leave us with a lot of land to disperse across, and thats something I take for granted.

The Marvelous MET

AndulusianIntererior_MET_Shaikh

After seeing how horribly crowded every nook and cranny of the northern portion of Central Park was, I resolved to spend the allotted reflection time we had in the MLP program on pursuing other sorts of intimate moments. There’s nothing more intimate then art. Art, good art for me, drags you into it and lets you be lost in it. And the MET had a lot of art, in particular, it had a sizable collection of Islamic art.

The Museum’s collection ranges in date from the seventh to the nineteenth century. Its nearly twelve thousand objects reflect the great diversity of Islam. Incredible works can trace the development of art and culture from Spain in the west to Central Asia and India to the east. Not just religious works but also everyday objects like wash basins and seals, the collection reveals the mutual influence of artistic practices such as calligraphy, floral ornamentation, and the intricate complicated geometric compositions. This was stuff I could pleasurably get lost in without even thinking about the huddled masses around me staring and banally discussing the pieces.

Like the beautiful folio illustration called “Yusuf freed from the well” which was on display in the galleries. This amazing piece, with an intricately marbled border, depicted my favorite Prophetic story about Yusuf, or Joseph.  This miniature, which I pulled off the MET website below, is from Turkey and had this superb composition that reminded me of postage stamps.

Yusuf

The galleries went under massive renovation in 2003, and now represent some of the most striking pieces in Islamic art and the exhibition challenges the stereotypes held about Muslim cultures. Sheila Canby, the curator in charge, acknowledged that showcasing the galleries’ objects provided an alternative to the predominant political narrative while discussing a new the MET. She told NPR news, “After things like Sept. 11, after things like the destruction of ancient sites in northern Iraq and Syria, museums serve as a place where people can come to this idea of Islam through the material culture, not just through what they’re being told all the time.”

I love art because of the culture it expresses and creates. In art history, identity, emotions, and life are wrapped up into a very human expression of it. Art, some could say is an exercise of the divine, but for me its an expression of creating and channelling the divine. Art is so much for me, yet, I spent a long long time thinking that I could only consume it. I was the facilitator, the organizer, the activists, never the artist. That shit got called out by my peers at the Union MLP program.

I Love Art

While it may be hard to catch all 15 galleries, its true that the art challenges these stereotypes, as well as challenged my own conservative perceptions of Islam and the cultures that grew out it.

For Met curator Navina Haidar this is certainly true. She put together the brilliant Sultans of Deccan India: From Opulence to Fantasy, a special exhibition. I couldn’t visit all of the fifteen galleries in the four hours I had, and this exhibit made it even less likely. The fact is, this particular exihibit hit close to home. As a Pakistani Muslim, there was much here that touched on my South Asian Muslim heritage.

I came to a place where I accepted this conservative perspective on art. I was most challenged by what I saw at the Met. I found myself internally conflicted as in the same breath I was whispering condemnation for the things I saw and at the same time wondering how I became so closed off to alternative interpretations. I love Islamic art, but I never thought of it being more then the geometric and floral and calligraphic stuff. But Haidar told the NPR that, “ [t]he interesting thing about the arts of the Islamic world and courts is that there is always a wonderful tension between … the stark[ness] of beauty of [the most austere traditions] contrasted with a kind of opulence and a love for color, for texture; an imagination, a feeling for romance and beauty;… So, you know, you have both ends of the spectrum and to somehow be inclusive in one’s thinking is the best way to go.”

I was challenged and inspired by what I saw at the Met. I felt a wholeness I hadn’t experienced for some time. Part of it is that with activism, work, and academics I haven’t fed my creativity. The reason I love adventuring in the wilderness is because it inspires me to reflect on God’s creation. But I need to take the next step, to be a participant in creating, thats what has been missing. I was able to identify this because of my MLP experience.

So the question I left with was what next? With all this legacy what do we Muslims have now? The debates about radicalization and jihad and the advent of globalization bringing in a world culture largely influenced on [North] American popular culture. Those are the sorts of things that set up this sad reality of art having to deconstruct stereotypes. The formal idea of Islamic art stops in the 19th century at the Met, but the reality is that we [Muslims] need art more then ever now.

Sorting Out this Travel Experience from Central America

Why am I going on this trip to Central America? I keep asking myself this question over and over again. I promised to be reflective, as an act of worship as much as an act of internal probing about this trip. I came to the conclusion that I don’t need to justify this trip in anyway. As a human, and as a Muslim, I believe our policies and actions have to be centered around the human. But theres a fine line there, something to do with enabling and handouts and teaching people to fish.

Regardless traveling has allowed for deep reflection. I just didn’t get lost in the experience. I wasn’t a tourist trying to run away from reality. As a fellow delegate, Sarah, stated on the trip, someone pays for the dream that we try to live out as a reality.  Also, traveling, while it has become easier and safer, is still fraught with insane uncertainty, I mean I travelled to the most dangerous places on the planet, like San Pedro Sula (number 1), San Salvador (number 13) and Guatemala City (number 25) according to Business Insider. Its one of the reasons why the Prophet Muhammad stated that a prayer by a traveller, with good intentions and earnestly asked, is accepted by God. But even the idea of travel is something Muslims are encouraged to pray about, its a major decision. Yes, reliance on God through prayer is a recurring issue for Muslims.

Every Muslim invokes the same language and thought in their prayers before a major decision: God, if this is good for me in this world and the next, then facilitate this for me; but if not, please do not facilitate this for me. Thats why when the barriers to this trip were removed it seemed like I had nothing to do but listen to God’s invite and go (though I wish God had invited me to go on Hajj, but maybe this is the path toward that). However, I was wrecked with uncertainty and doubt about the purpose of the trip. Its why I discussed this feeling with Rev. Blackmon at the Millennial Leadership Program this summer. And she had some brilliant advice to give.

Part of the internal process also was grappling with this idea of why a Muslim [me] is going on this trip? Followed by the idea about how this is a Muslim issue? Its party this idea of figuring out how to market for my fundraising, but also to figure out my place on this delegation. (But isn’t migration a Muslim issue? Look at the current summer of Syrian Refugees flowing into Europe, or the Rohingya fleeing genocide in Myanmar.)

But here’s the thing- we don’t need to justify this trip to sell it beyond the fact that the Prophet was sent to be a mercy for mankind, and its my responsibility to find how to serve that role of mercy. If we need to find historical justification, then the Prophet was a refugee. He lived a period of his life in a refugee camp, when the Quryash elders forced the rest of Mecca to boycott the Muslims. He went from place to place, people to people looking for generosity and refuge, thats how the Prophet ended up in Taif. His people were persecuted by gangs opposed to ideas and willing to perpetuate their reality through violence. His people sought refuge with Christian communities in Ethiopia and were granted this opportunity. This is the Prophetic tradition Muslims are beholden to.

The other thing is this- I too come from a family who immigrated to the United States through a visa lottery system. I saw my parents go through the struggle of adjusting their immigration status; of leaving behind their lives to begin to make a path for their children’s future. I never questioned my status in the US, but at the same time I grew up feeling like I was an outsider: like at home I spoke Urdu and while at school my life was lived in translating from Urdu to English.

I am intimate with the reality of living life as an immigrant, as well as the reality of the refugee experience. My grandparents were refugees of the partition of India and Pakistan, who grew up as outsiders in their own land because of the brutal colonial policies, and who left behind their lives in search of safety and possibilities free of discrimination and threat due to their religion.

My friend Sheikh Jamaal Diwan, who is with the Safa Center, responded to this idea of “How is this a Muslim issue?” by reiterating this idea of the “Muslim experience” connected to the larger [North] American experience on his Facebook post:

This is a Muslim issue. Our issues as a community are rooted in how to develop a sustainable existence in this country. This trip is part of an interfaith tradition of witnessing to injustices and gaining a deeper perspective on how they affect us and our families at home. The issues they will be exploring on this trip are directly connected to local issues of economic justice and immigration that are very much tied into the Muslim experience as well as the experience of many other noble and good people.

Sh. Jamaal mentions that in his post about “interfaith tradition of witnessing to injustice.” We lack the symbiosis of ideas and practice that other faith communities have developed in the US. This will hurt us moving forward, especially if we want to build our strength as a civically engaged community. So maybe this is my role in this trip from a Muslim community perspective?

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