UnmosquedPosted: September 2, 2014
Poetry as dhikr.
– Warsan Shire
This past Ramadan I threw myself head over heels into poetry.
I struggled this Ramadan, with my health, with my temper, with my solitude. But the one thing that kept me grounded as I moved forward with the month was words. Writing isn’t just a form of expression – writing is how I process my spirituality, it is how I calm my chaotic thoughts, it is my way of connecting not just with other people, but with myself.
I challenged myself to writing a poem a day during Ramadan, and invited friends to join me. I created a secret online group where the only rules were that you had to introduce yourself and you had to create something daily, though sharing wasn’t compulsory. Though most people identified as Muslim, it wasn’t mandatory. Within a couple of days my group of five had turned into fifty, as friends invited friends and the connections spread. I was amazed. What had been intended as a small project for a few friends had turned into an online community space of Ramadan connection and poetic love.
When Ramadan began, the poems flowed easily, simply. They were short pieces about hunger or cravings. But as the assault on Gaza began in the first week of Ramadan, the poems began to take a turn. They became emotive and intense. People who had been hesitant to share poems out of shyness began sharing poems because they couldn’t keep silent when atrocities in the world were happening. How can you stay silent when kids are dying?
As the month progressed, I eagerly checked the page every morning, wanting to see what people were feeling that day. In those few minutes every morning – those few minutes of every fast – I lay in my bed, scrolling through my phone, reading the beautiful words of people across the country. What a beautiful way to begin each fast.
I didn’t know most of these people in the group. But here we were, pouring our hearts out in an online community. All in the name of Ramadan.
Ramadan has ended. An artistic ceiling awning stretches over me, tall and immense. The dark wood paneling on the walls intimates coziness, and the echo of footsteps down the corridor reminds me that people here are always on the go.
For tonight, this place will be my mosque – surrounded by the travelers, the drinkers, the Muslims and the misfits.
I tap the mic and welcome the crowd that has congregated in a bar tucked in LA’s Union Station, “Salam alaikum, and Eid mubarak!”
We moved around a lot when I was a child. My dad was the electrical engineer on the perpetual search for the bootstrap dream. For me, it meant always being the new kid in the new town, every year. We lived in California, Illinois, Tennessee, and even, for a little bit, Saudi Arabia. As a shy girl, I hate it, but for my parents, it was part of pursuing their immigrant success. It was their survival story.
My folks were able to find community, no matter where they moved, no matter what city we were in. Going outside was a constant game of “Spot the Desi Muslim.” In grocery checkout counters, parking lots, or just on sidewalks, my Mom would size up every brown person that walked by. With a quick salaam, my mom could strike up a conversation in Bangla, Urdu, Hindi, English, or, sometimes, broken Spanish. She figured out where the closest mosque was as well as the best deals on rice and dhal. Sometimes, she’d even walk away with a handful of seeds from the homeland.
In those days, I remember community being created in three ways:
First: every Friday and Saturday night, we went to house parties dressed up in uncomfortable, itchy clothes, with chairs awkwardly lining the perimeter of each room.
Second: every few months, someone would rent the community center in their complex and lay white sheets out on the floor. The children would open the stage with performances, wearing poorly-wrapped saris and dancing robotically to music crackling over a tape deck. Afterwards the children would run off to play in corners as the grown-ups whipped out hand scribed Bangla songbooks and circled around a harmonium that had been pulled out of nowhere.
Third: meeting in makeshift mosques – empty office complexes, strip malls and abandoned buildings on the seedy side of town. In these empty spaces, with nothing but Arabic posters on walls to mark it as a mosque, it required constant fundraisers to make the rent, electricity, or buy carpets. I was reluctantly dragged there every Sunday morning for Arabic class with the other immigrant kids.
This was how my parents’ immigrant Muslim generation created community. There were no brick and mortar mosques, cultural centers or town squares. Spaces were makeshift, created in living rooms, parks, or wherever people could congregate. Back then, every man was an imam until funds could be raised to hire one. Prayer was held in one open space where there was no boundary separating the women from the men. People were connected by phone trees, conversation and poetry. People bonded over memories of home, language, food, and faith. They didn’t need a dedicated space – they created their own. This was their simplicity.
It wasn’t until the curtain of grief descended on our family that I understood the deep connections created in these ways in my parents’ community. It was Jhanghir Uncle who took care of the logistics at the mortuary. It was Dhalu Aunty who told me what words to say as we did dhikr on the thosbees late into the night. In the washroom before the burial, the aunty leading the rite understood my loss of prayers. As I left the room, she handed me a palm-sized book of prayers, the corner of the page turned down to mark prayers for a funeral.
Over the years, I had distanced myself from my parents’ community, but it was in the outpouring of love through the grieving process that the true essence of community came through. They had survived immigrating to this country together, they had fought together, they had formed belonging together. They loved each other in this created extended family. This was community.
How do you let yourself be loved, when you don’t have a lover? How do you find love when partners, and babies, and mothers slip through your fingers? By being more loving? Where does love reside? How do you belong when you struggle to be heard? Who will love me, who will bury me? Who will hold me? How will I find love, when I don’t know what love is for me anymore?
A couple of weeks after the event in Union Station, I was invited to perform at another Muslim poetry spot in Los Angeles. As I tried to exit the space after the show, I was stopped by an older white man who had been in the audience.
“I don’t know how to say this without being offensive,” he said stumbling over his words. “But, I am a Christian man, born and raised here in the U.S. Now you said in your poems you are a Muslim. And with everything going on in the world… you see what is happening with ISIS, and they say they are Muslim. How do you resolve being a Muslim, when there are people like that who say they are Muslim, too?”
He paused, expecting an answer.
I felt like I had been slapped across the face. It took me a second to realize what he was trying to say. He was older, he was white, he was a man – I found myself falling into that role of having to respond. “Well, there are all kinds of Muslims in this world. What one small group of extremists are defining as their Islam isn’t how I define my Islam.”
“But, you aren’t answering my question. How can you be okay with that? How come more Muslims are not speaking up against all these terrorists?”
“Taz, we have to go,” my friend said, swooping me in and pulling me to the door.
I left. But not before he said he appreciated hearing the poems I had shared.
By the time I got home, I was furious. Once again, I had fallen into the role of having to be the token Muslim defending all of Islam to a white man who felt empowered and entitled enough to approach me and demand an answer. I felt patriarchy, white supremacy, gender dynamics, and ageism wrapped up in those questions. I felt like I had been cornered and caught unaware.
What I wish I could have asked him is, how does he resolve being a white, Christian man with the KKK, slavery, Ferguson, Gaza, Trayvon, drones, and wars?
I thought I had been sharing my poetry in a safe, progressive, Muslim space. I picked out pieces that were vulnerable, like-minded and challenging. As a brown person, as a Muslim person, as a woman – there are not many places where we can be in the world without having to be on the defensive all the time. It is by creating brave spaces for people to share their whole confused, vulnerable selves – something so rare for people on the margins like me to be able to access – that real bonds can be built. This is how we learn to listen, to be heard, to be loved. This is how we build friendships and relationships.
The word “radical” to all intents and purposes means to go back to the root. Isn’t that all we crave in these created radical spaces, to be heard from our root, our core, our heart?
The Ferris wheel on the pier illuminated the sand with rotating pinks and blues and yellows. The four of us sat in a diamond shape, thosbees in hand. It was late and dark. A few brave stars fought the smog to shine on us. The beach stretched for miles, disappearing into the darkness and rhythmic crashes of the waves.
It was June and the summer had just began. The beach had been calling me, or maybe it was just Mom who was guiding me to go to the beach. She had always loved it there. It was the third anniversary of her death, and I wanted to do something meaningful to honor her.
Azeem led us through dhikr in his sing-songy voice, the thosbees as our drumbeat, and the waves as the tanpura. Naaz led us in dua in her beautiful Arabic crafted from years of teaching the language. And Nasia shared her stories of grief, seven years before mine. But, in that moment, it felt like it was just yesterday. Mostly, we sat together in silence, listening to the waves crash, sitting in memories and grief and faith that there was something bigger out there than this world.
She came that night. My mother. I felt her in the seabreeze that tickled my ankles. I felt comforted in knowing that she saw me surrounded by people, by faith, by love. I was proud of these friendships I had grown and nurtured. In our own ways, we are creating community spaces for us to be heard, and for us to pray.
For that night, the beach was our mosque, the night sky our dome, and suras drifted in on the crashing waves.
And I knew that she was telling me it would all be okay.
Read more columns by Taz, here.
Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles currently working as the Voter Engagement Manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. She was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny, and was recently published in the anthology Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women and both zines from Totally Radical Muslims. Her personal projects include curating images for Mutinous Mind State and writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she just co-produced Beats for Bangladesh: A Benefit Album in Solidarity with the Garment Workers of Rana Plaza. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar.