How to find light in the darkness

There are conversation that are hard to forget; hard to forgive.

A few years ago, a conversation with a friend turned awry. During our conversation, she brought up the topic of religion. She started with the question: “What does Allah mean?” I explained that the word was an Arabic term for the word God or dios.

I thought that was the end of her curiosity, until she responded with “Allah is not God. My God is not your God.” I was confused my her remark, so I responded with, “Well, there is only one God.” She went on to explain that her God is one of love, mine was one of war. I was deeply hurt by her comment, but I approached it gently. I told her that she may have misunderstood from the media what the meaning of Islam was (I reminded myself that she had never been exposed to another religion).

She was physically worked up; angry that I did not accept her explanation. I began to realize that she was purposely trying to provoke a reaction.

I remember feeling my throat closing and a sharp pain in my gut. The same reaction I feel when I am about to cry and cannot run away.

Then, she said to me, “Everyone knows the evil in your religion; how you have to deceive and befriend Christians in order to “get by” in the world. I don’t know why you are the only one blind to it.”

My friend, whom I treated as part of my family. One of the only people I trusted to care for my children. I felt like collapsing. It is so different when a keyboard warrior attacks you, but when it is a person that you hold in high regard turns on you, how do you respond? I wanted to physically collapse.

I ended the conversation by calling her an “ignorant person” and asked her to leave my home. After she left, I cried a lot.

The details of the conversation are much worse than I can write.

One week after the confrontation, she called to apologize. I accepted her apology and have since tried to repair my relationship with her. We have become friends again, but it has been almost a year and I still feel very hurt when I remember that conversation. The words that hurt the most were “everyone knows about the evil in your religion”. For the past year, I accepted those words from her. I have second guessed many things; the sincerity of my friendships, my Muslim community, among many other things. I have found myself avoiding talks of religion and any conversation that may reveal that I am a firm believer. For the past year, I have been truly afraid that another person I trusted would turn on me, like the comment section of a social media post gone incarnate.

I have become very nervous when people around me bring up topics surrounding Islam. The words, “everyone knows about the evil in your religion” has made me second guess my family and friends, feelings that they are simply to scared to lash out at me in the same way my friend did at my home.

It has been really hard to forget this particular incident, although I have chosen to forgive her. I hold no ill will towards my friend. Although she was wrong, she is not completely at fault. I have accepted to believe that there are many other factors at hand that have influenced the way she reacted that day.

I try to have hope that forgiveness, especially with your loved ones, can start a process of healing for oneself and the world at large. I try to hold on to this idea.

Today, a friend announced that he would give his first sermon at his Methodist Church. He asked the social world for prayers. A prayer that always makes me surrender myself to God on important days came to mind, the Prayer of Light, also known as the prayer of the prophet Muhammed (pbuh). I hesitated to send it to him, but I went ahead and did so in support of his calling to spread the word of God. I had not shared anything Islam-related with anyone in a very long time, so was a little bit afraid of his response. He responded with gratitude and went on to say how beautiful he found Islam. He further explained that he enjoyed the Quran and recitations. His response made me cry. A Christian, a pastor, validating my beliefs as ones that are good.

It took me a few hours to respond emotionally to the message. Tonight, I have cried a lot. I remembered the scar that my friend left a year ago. That feeling of invalidation and spite towards the path that I hold dearest to my heart; that path through which has penetrated every part of my being with Light.

I am recovering from an encounter that has greatly affected the way I express myself religiously, because I am afraid to do so. Today, my pastor-friend’s message has started the healing process.

There are so many other things going through my mind. How are people able to find common ground despite their religious differences? How do we use framework of our chosen religion to better love others? How do we transcend the human limitations of our chosen religion to connect with people from all walks of life? Is that still possible in today’s world? I know it is possible and I need to hold on to this thread of hope to continue to heal emotionally and grow spiritually.

Stereotyping, Orientalism & a Total Conversation Fail

Strike 1...2...3...you're OUT!

Just had to republish this piece…It never got much attention the first time I published it, but maybe it’s because it had a not-so-sexy title. I still wonder whatever became of “Hot Sauce Guy”…

Conversations with strangers who approach me because they identify me as a Muslim (via my headscarf) are usually quite interesting and always leave me thinking. Yesterday, however, a conversation that took place at the check-out aisle of a grocery store continues to puzzle me and even disturb me; hence my blogging in hopes of getting it off my head and transferring it onto yours…

As I said, I was at the checkout aisle at the grocery store. I came with my Muslim girlfriend, her husband and her 3-year-old daughter. As we were checking-out of the empty grocery store (with over 10 registers), a random white dude in his mid-thirties and a Cardinal’s jersey stands behind us with one item in his basket: a bottle of hot sauce. I looked at the hot sauce, then to the empty isles to my left and my right, concluding that he hated the self-checkout aisles as much as I did and was patient enough to wait behind us for the one cashier.

guy: hi (speaking nervously)

me: hi (with big stupid smile on my face)

guy: how’s it going?

me: great day, can’t complain.

guy: are y’all a big family? (y’all=my girlfriend, her husband, her daughter and I)

me: They are husband/wife and this is their daughter…I’m their annoying friend (I smile nervously at his disappointed pause)

guy: you’re just their friend? (Did he expect me to say we were a harem?)

me: yes…

guy: do you have many friends?

me: Yes. Well, no….I just have a few good friends…

guy: yea, I have good friends too…

me: that’s what’s important right…? (awkward moment…)

guy: do you go to school or something?

me: i’m a grad student…

guy: oh, wow. hey, could we meet some time for lunch…or coffee?

me:……(How do you say, “hell no, dude! I don’t even know you!” in a polite way?)

guy: …or would that be inappropriate?

me: (Yes! that’s the word!…..inappropriate…!) Yes, it would be…

guy: oh, right….who should I talk to then? You mother? Should I meet your father?

me: (No, I don’t have a “representative” at this time, but thank you for asking)…..Nobody…I mean, just don’t have the time right now…

guy: not even to talk in a bench somewhere…like in a park?

me:…..no?

guy: I get it….

me:….

(Mind you, at this point I am dying inside because I don’t know where to run and my friend’s three-year old daughter keeps playfully encouraging conversation with this man by asking: “What’s your name?”…All the while, I know my friend and her husband are laughing at the fact that I am always somehow part of the strangest conversations/encounters)…

guy: My name is Nathan (he answers the three-year-old, but directs his introduction to me)…What’s you’re name? (this time, he directs the question to me)

me: Cristina (Oh, no! He will realize that I was a Christian-turned-Muslim and he is going to stab me or something, like Michael Enright did to the Muslim cab driver in NYC)…

guy: You know, I watched a program the other day and was hearing how Arabs are facing lots of discrimination nowadays…

me: Yes, that’s true, but….I’m not Arab…I’m Cuban American….

guy: Oh! I’m so sorry if I offended you…

me: It’s not offensive to be Arab…they’re Arab (pointing at my friends)

guy: Oh, you know…my friend speaks Spanish…

me:…. (should I tell him that Spanish is my second language and that I don’t like burritos? No. I don’t want to shake his entire universe all at once)

guy: …But you know, they mention that Americans should make more efforts to understand Arabs…

me: you mean Muslims?

guy:….

me: there’s a really good mosque around here and they would be more than glad to give you information about Islam…

guy: …right….this line is real long…it was nice meeting you… (I think the awkwardness of the conversation finally dawned on him)

me: have a good day, Nathan…(guy checks out at light speed in the lane next to ours)…

Why did he choose to speak with me? My girlfriend was inches away from me, but I was the lucky duck. While hijabi’s are sometimes approached when alone, they are rarely approached when accompanied by a man (perhaps due to the stereotype that Muslim woman don’t speak without permission from “their men”?). I commend Nathan for taking this “risk” and talking to an accompanied hijabi. But why me? Perhaps my zebra-printed headscarf  (yes, I wear animal print, don’t judge me) and clear, native English was inviting? Whatever drew him to me, this man’s goal was to start a conversation with the girl in the headscarf..

I am quite sure he wasn’t trying to ask me out on a date. I honestly think he just wanted to learn more. Not really about me, but what, in his mind, my headscarf represented.

Do you know when you attempt to do something new for the first time? Like sing karaoke or speak in front of a large crowd? Your voice tends to crack, you turn red in embarrassment, yet, you continue clownishly? This guy was something like that. I believe that talking to a Muslim was his attempt at something new. I will not argue that this attempt was utter failure in so many ways, but even failures teach us lessons. If he were to reflect, would he approach another Muslim with the same set of assumptions with which he approached me?

Was this his attempt to extend a hand of friendship to everything I represented (apparently—the Arab world)? Or, did he have some ulterior motive? Like to smash the bottle of hot sauce over my head and yell “dirty Arab”…? (yes, this crossed my mind!)

The one thing I did realize was the danger in becoming an object of representation. Muslim women who wear headscarves have become a representation of so many things. I was an American before I became Muslim. Thus, my annoyance is not in being mistaken for Arab. No. My annoyance is in having to carry the load of all the negative connotations that the headscarf, a piece of cloth (!), has come to represent (oppression, terrorism, foreignness). Realizing that I represented so many things in this man’s mind, I kept replaying the conversation in my mind. Did I represent my religion in a positive way? Did I help dispel misunderstanding about Muslims? Could I have been friendlier without being suggestive? Could I have educated him more about the fact that good Muslims don’t support terrorism? Should I have dramatically yelled, “we are good people, tell your friends!” on the way out?

I needed more time to tell him that I recycled my paper bags and reused plastic containers because I was a tree hugger! And I had to tell him that BBQ sauce was much better than hot sauce, how dare he? Oh, and that I was also a baseball fan, and actually watched a Cardinals game when I went to St. Louis! Yes, the American sport and I was a regular American girl too!

But who was I kidding. I stood like a billboard in front of this man. My identity and purpose cleverly designed and published by the American media.

Like any Muslim who loves his or her religion, we want to explain ourselves. But sometimes we simply aren’t prepared with all the right words because we are too busy being normal human beings. Thus, I stood as an awkward person dragged into an awkward conversation.

And yet, I think everything went as it should have…

Another Conversation with Mami

It isn’t often that I find good moments to talk with my mother about Islam. The first time I told her I was Muslim, we were stuck in traffic jam for an hour. We talked a lot that day. Soon after that conversation, I haven’t really found the time nor the place…nor the courage….to bring up the subject again. I am so afraid to hurt her, that I do not want to bring up a subject that may cause her confusion, discomfort…

Well, today she got stung by an insect. Her foot swelled up real bad. She said that perhaps she got stung by the bichos (insects) that give lyme disease or yellow fever. I told her I have no idea what she was talking about…She said her bones hurt and that perhaps the small insect bite would be the rotten thing that kills her…. I told her it would stop swelling if she puts her foot in a hot bath…She agreed. So, I prepared for her a water bath for her swollen foot. She threw in fresh mint. She said it would kill the bacteria. We both sat in the living room together without the television and she asked me why I wanted to leave in a week.

Me: I need to get work done…

Mom: But school doesn’t start until late September…you will be so lonely there.

Me: I know…but I think I just want to go back.

Mom: Don’t go back so soon…I will be lonely here.

Me: The truth is mom…

Mom: …

Me: You know, “we” celebrate Ramadan.

Mom: (laughs) who is “we”? and what is Ramanan?

Me: Ramadan is the month that Muslim fast, mom. Remember, I told you that it’s one of those main things “we” do besides pray and give money to the poor…remember?

Mom: Oh, yea…so what is the problem with celebrating Ramadan here with us?

Me: I am afraid you won’t understand….

Mom: Well then tell me what I have to do…

Me: You dont have to do anything. I will fast; not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset.

Mom: So why can’t you do that here?

Me: Because you are always trying to feed me…and you put ham in my food last week… remember…?

Mom: it’s was just a little ham, hija. I didn’t know…I forgot.

Me: I know you forgot. I know you don’t know…

Mom: It was just little pieces of ham, I didn’t know. I thought you just couldn’t eat pork…

Me: Yea. I don’t eat any pig product. I don’t eat gummi bears anymore, you know…

Mom: Gummi bears? They’re just gummi bears…

Me: But they are made with Gelatin. It’s a pig product…so I don’t eat them.

Mom: Wow…gummi bears…

Me: Yea.

Mom: Well, I want to respect you “things”… So, what kind of food should I make for you?

Me: Just make a lot of rice…but without ham or pork. And beans, I like your black beans, they’re good…

Mom: Ok, just tell me what to cook for you…

Me: Ok…but remember…please, not before sunset, ok?

Mom: Will you stop celebrating Christmas with your family now?

Me: I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I will still buy you presents.

Mom: How about the Christmas tree?

Me: Yea, I guess. Can we call it a holiday tree?

Mom: Sure…(laughs)

Me:…(laughs)

Mom: How about the pork on Noche Buena?

Me: No pork, Mami…

Mom: It’s ok, I can make you some chicken on Noche Buena, so you can eat with us too.

Me: I like chicken…

Mom: Do you cover your head?

Me: sometimes…

Mom: Oh… Does it get hot?

Me: It’s hot without it…

Mom: true…

Me: I always wear it to pray…

Mom: When do you pray?

Me: Everyday…remember mom? The 5 “main things” I told you about?

Mom: Oh yea…you Muslims pray a lot. But praying is good…

Me: Yea…

Mom: Do you tell everyone you are Muslim?

Me: Some people know, some people I don’t really care to tell them anything…

Mom: Oh…

Me:…

Mom: just ten cuidado, hija. (“Be careful, daughter”).

The People Who Want to Save You

This post is inspired by a monologue taken from The Hijabi Monologues tited, “The People You Meet”. In the monologue, the character takes you through the typical conversations that hijabi’s encounter. It is tongue-in-cheek, but also contains a lot of truth of the almost-predictable conversations that we often encounter. One of the “people” that this hijabi character meets is the feminist who wants to “save you”.

I am extending that piece a bit further by thinking of all the typical characters I have personally met who I sensed wanted to rescue me from the “dark pits” of Islam.

Let’s start with the old high school, U.S. Marine Corp male friend who has just found out the “sweet girl” he knew back in Catholic school has just joined the “cult of the enemies”. I told Jonathan I wouldn’t reveal his name, so let’s just call him Mike. Mike recently Facebook friended me after a good 3 years of no communication. Immediately, he sends a personal message asking if I converted.

Me: Yes, I did.

Mike: . Although I’ve lost many military friends to this radical religion, I totally supported your choice because I am open minded and support freedom of choice.

Me: I am sorry you lost friends in war and thank you for your blessings, Mike.

Mike: No problem, you are a good girl Cristy. Just please please do NOT change your name nor cover your face.

Me: I am glad you can see goodness past my “Muslimness” and thank you for supporting freedom of choice.

Mike: Sempre Fi!

Me: Mike, do I have your permission to wear a Darth Vader mask instead of a burka?

How about the mother who wants to remind you where you came from? Yes. My mother, after telling her that I became a practicing Muslim, said she couldn’t really approve (as a believing Catholic that she is) but she also could not disapprove. She made efforts to be “open-minded” and supportive of my decision. God bless her soul, really. That entire day, I prayed and thanked God for giving me such an understanding mother, but little did I know she had already started planning a scheme to save me. The next day (Sunday), I wake up around noon and find a little wooden cross on my desk.

Me: Mom, is this yours?

Mom: No, I got it for you in Church this morning.

Me: But mom, yesterday I told you that I am a practicing Muslim.

Mom: So what? Can’t you be both?

Me: Well…not really…

Mom: Well, what’s wrong with the cross?

Me: Nothing is wrong with it, but it is a symbol of Christianity. If someone wears the cross is means that they believe Jesus is God.

Mom: So what?

Me: Well, Muslims do not believe Jesus is God.

Mom: Oh….Bueno, para las moscas, hija. (Translations: “Well, for the flies, daughter,” meaning “just in case”).

Me: Mom…did you understand that I am a Muslim now?

Mom: You don’t want the cross? (She is trying to guilt me now).

Me: Yes, mom. I want the cross. I will keep it as a gift from you, but I can’t wear it.

Mom: Why are you putting it in the drawer?

Me: Mom…I cannot wear the cross. Thank you, mom.

Mom kisses my head.

How about the youtuber who private messages you because he/she noticed (by your screen name that contains the word “Muslim”) that you happen to be just that, a Muslim. I think to myself “no shit Sherlock” but instead answer, “yes, what can I do for you?” Before he/she responds, I decide to look up the comments he/she has made on videos only to find out that this individual writes harassing comments on virtually every Islamic-related video.  I look into my mailbox a few minutes later only to find two questions from this user, “explain the following verse to me: ‘Kill the infidel,’ Surah 9:5” and “why doesn’t your voice count equally to a man in Islam?” Instead of responding, I decide I should make better use of my time rather than explain myself to this individual who already has his/her mind set on making a point…

How about the Muslim brother who makes it his duty to guide you on the right path? See Facebook Islamic Police for more rants on this.  We’ll call him Bob.

Bob: Sister, I heard from a friend that you recently converted.

Me: Well, it’s been almost a year, alhamdullilah.

Bob: Yes…and what a Christian name you have…

Me: Yes, my mother gave me that name.

Bob: Sister, I also heard that you have been really active in the MSA this past year and I wanted to perhaps get together one day and chat about a project I have in mind.

Me: A project?

Bob: Yes, I wanted to start some kind of outreach program where we can get more non-Muslims involved with the MSA.

Me: Sure. That sounds cool. Let’s get a group of people interested together next week and we can brainstorm…

Bob: Well we can go and grab some coffee right now. I know it’s just the two of us, but I wanted to talk to you about a few things.

Me: Things?

Bob: Yes. Well, I also heard you were hanging around X-sister who is said to have weak imam. From what I’ve heard, they say she is involved in haraam things….

Me: Um…Actually I don’t know. It’s not my business, really.

Bob: As a brother, I make it my duty to make sure a new sister is taken care of and you need to surround yourself around positive people especially as a convert (he says “convert” as if it’s a disease)…How about that coffee?

Me: Thanks, but I’m real busy. I’ll see you around.

I thought to myself? Is this guy serious? He just advised me to surround myself with positive Muslims, yet in 3 minutes he manages to spit out gossip about the entire town? Get real.

More coming soon 🙂

Facebook Islamic Police

“Make things easy for the people, and do not make it difficult for them, and make them calm (with glad tidings) and do not repulse (them).” (Sahih Bukhari)

Who would have thought that the infamous religous police of Saudi Arabia, the Mutawas (Islamic religious police) would have made their way into the United States! Instead of long unruly beards and white thobes (I’m not judging, I swear), they have come in the form of Muslim facebook “friends”.

So, I have been struggling in wearing hijab while in Miami for many reasons. For one, my parents simply don’t like it. I already told them I am a practicing Muslim and that went incredibly well. My mom actually said she has only seen positive changes in my character since becoming Muslim, so she couldn’t object. On the same token, she asked that I don’t wear hijab around the family because they are simply not accustomed to it. I thought this was a fair deal considering that I am not 100% committed to hijab. I have been trying, but I strongly believe in taking small steps when making big changes. God knows I yearn for the moment I will be fully committed, but that moment is simply still in the works.

Back to the tale. So, yesterday was my birthday and I went to dinner with my family. I had the most amazing time and took absolutely gorgeous photos with them. The pics, naturally, were without hijab. So, I (unapologetically) posted my photos onto facebook. A few minutes later, I receive a message from a brother (Let’s call him Fred) saying, “Advice from a friend: I wouldn’t put pictures of urself w/o hijab on facebook.” I don’t even know this guy. Fred is a Muslim who became Christian and later reverted again to Islam. Alhamdullilah! Fred came back stronger than ever, but from the few conversations I’ve had with him, I got the sense that he’s on a mission to prove himself good (not to Allah, but to the community who saw him leave Islam for a few years). I know the feeling of wanting to make up for loss time, but seriously. Don’t get into others’ personal spiritual affairs.

I received a second message that said, “As a muslimah who has put on hijab, for Allah and Allah only, it should remain on. The reason for wearing it is because it is a commandment from Allah, not for others.  When u post pics up revealing urself w/o hijab, it takes awayfrom the reason Allah has commanded for it. I know ur situation is tough and I see why u wouldn’t wear one at home, but I advise u not to put it up to where the world can see@”. I am not saying he is wrong. In fact, Fred is totally right. All our struggles are for Allah alone. And if hijab isn’t in my heart at this time, why would it be for Fred?

Why did Fred feel a duty to search facebook for Islamic incongruities? Does he really believe that I am so dense in the head that I posted non-hijab pictures by “mistake”? Hell, what would he even know about my struggles?! As a fairly new Muslim, I really value advice from friends, but not chiding from strangers. If we all go through spiritual struggles, doesn’t it make more sense to work out our own problems before becoming missionaries? If I didn’t have strong faith on the purity and truth in Islam, I swear that the self-righteous attitude that hoovers over my Islamic community would have driven me away by now (as it has done to many reverts who simply don’t want to put up with the social scrutiny).