Saturday, November 03, 2007

The voice of Samina S.

Assalamu Alaikum,

I walked into the kitchen last night and told my mother, "I just realized again that I'm the only black woman teacher at the school." She laughed and asked was this new? That's a joke between us because my mother teaches at a well-known university and has for over 20 years. She's been the only black woman teacher in her department the entire time she's been there. She probably understands the ins and outs of that feeling more than anyone else.

I'm not. NOT NOOOOTTTT going into racial politics here. Just pointing out a nuance of the environment where I work. It's interesting working in an Islamic school, especially in an area where there just aren't as many Muslims. I was spoiled in DC; there are Muslims of every stripe, color, belief... here people ask which masjid you go to and from that know everyone you've met at that center. It's a different world.
Class has more to do with my feeling off-kilter than race, I think, but both are involved. The majority of my students have affluent families. During Ramadhan I was invited to some of the most amazing places for iftar; what was comforting was the fact that despite the cushy surroundings I managed to fall into comfortable, grounded, real company, the few sisters whose invitations and interactions have put me at ease.

Samina S. is one of those. She doesn't have a blog, but late on the night of October 31st she wrote something that hit home and told more about the atmosphere at the masjid and the center than I could describe in my little post. She said I could feel free to post if I wished (thanks, Samina!) so I'm doing so... let me know what you think.


Many first generation kids can relate to my story: I was born in pre-Disney Orlando, Florida a year after my professional parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. They worked their way up the career ladder, sacrificing much to send us to the best private schools, carpooling to Sunday schools so we could learn Islam, trying to learn enough of the American culture to understand us, yet fervently praying inside that we would not assimilate too much. This mish mash of experiences provided a breeding ground for a variety of incidents that ultimately shaped my generation’s identity. Yep, we were the brown kids in kindergarten who had the only smelly tuna sandwich as an alternative to the lunchroom hot dogs. We were the second graders with the braids who wore the long dresses and pants in Florida’s 95 plus degree summers. When Thanksgiving came around, our moms would bake a chicken (because they did not know where to find the halal turkeys) with all the side items so we wouldn’t miss out. We didn’t get the Christmas presents even though we sang “Rudolph the red nosed reindeer” and “Jingle Bells” at the top of our lungs from October to March, and our Eid holiday was in the summer! Middle school was another world altogether. The excuses we made for not attending homecoming dances and football games were pretty ridiculous. I wonder if anyone really believed we had to be out of town coincidentally every weekend such events occurred. When high school came, all bets were off. We had the dads whose one look would scare us away from lip gloss altogether, forget the “real” makeup. Dating, ha-ha, God forbid if a guy from class called about a homework assignment and the conversation lasted beyond five minutes… And I had the cool parents, not all my friends were so lucky.
So did I have an unhappy childhood? No way! Despite the inferiority complex my generation has collectively inherited, most of us survived intact and recall happy youths. When I look back I know there are a few key things that allowed this to happen. First and foremost, Allah blessed me with parents who loved me unconditionally and did the best they knew. I cannot even imagine the culture shock they experienced coming to this country leaving behind their families, culture, religions, and ultimately their whole identity and trying to adapt to this “whole new world.” (That would be a completely different essay someone else would have to write, but remember that the next time you meet that new doctor from Pakistan who’s driving the Mercedes SUV and his ‘hoity toity’ wife is carrying the aqua Gucci bag with the matching sandals on the perfectly manicured feet). Anyways, getting back to the point, my parents also socialized with people of similar backgrounds and luckily for me they had kids my age that often attended my schools. So we went to the desi parties, the one place we actually fit in, and ran around, giggled, sang, ate the same food as everyone else, begged our parents for sleepovers, and basically had fun. Looking back, I realize those get-togethers and the lifetime friendships they formed were essential to maintaining our (and I suspect our parents’) sanity. So when we went back to school on Monday morning and had as I would later call it, a “low self esteem” moment, we had our friends and weekends to fall back on.
Sunday school was our other saving grace. We were blessed with a teacher who was an African American convert. She taught us Islam the way it should be taught- in a clear, straightforward way with “normal” English and lots of patience. Her lessons began in her own modest home over vanilla wafers and fruit punch. Only later did our community have a masjid (a large result of her commitment) with a full time Sunday school. She taught us the basic pillars of Islam, what they really meant, how to pray, how to fast, stories of the prophets, and what it meant to be a Muslim. I honestly believe her commitment to us learning our religion was one of the greatest blessings in my life because she instilled pride in the religion. I do not know how Islam is taught to kids in Muslim countries, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Even though I do not follow my Islam perfectly, the foundation of knowledge is there, Alhamdulillah. I also regret that our community as a whole did not give her the respect and worth she deserved (and I think this is a common flaw in the Muslim communities), but Allah will reward her inshaAllah.
High school and college were probably the toughest times for my friends and I. We had the usual identity crises, magnified by where we came from, rebellions, etc, etc. The details are better left alone, but as a whole we came out on the other end all right. Most of us followed “the mold” of college, marriage, careers, and kids. And here I am in my thirties, married, having the career, and trying to figure out how to do it right with my kids….inshaAllah.
It’s funny people are frequently interested in my perspective. Is it because I am an ABCD, because I married one, or because I have the outward appearance of worldly success? Here’s a secret or two, I don’t have any more answers than the next person, my whole generation has an inferiority complex that we try to mask with professional careers and guess what, we find that hoity toity Pakistani lady I mentioned above quite intimidating.
Anyways, here’s a few things regarding raising my kids that are important to me. After having been that only brown kid in the class trying to hide the fact that no Santa came to my house, I want things to be different for my sons. Yes I had a happy childhood, but my Muslim friends made a huge difference. Feeling like you belong to a community is very important to childhood development. Of all the valid reasons to send kids to an Islamic School, this is my number one. My 4 year old “fits in.” It may sound funny, but being able to eat what everyone else is eating is pretty cool. He is singing, “Ramadan, Ramadan” and “We are Muslims” instead of the Christmas carols I learned. He is learning stories of the prophets instead of stories of old St. Nick. Islam is our identity and being in this environment allows him to be proud to be a Muslim. I hope this builds his confidence inshaAllah, so his generation does not have to hide its identity.
Now here’s a whole other potential essay: the pros and cons of an Islamic school. Can’t do that justice here, but a few things I have to address. Some of my friends think our school is not Islamic enough. Maybe so, but the intention is there, and there’s only one way to go. Trust me it’s still better than the alternative. If you still don’t agree please do me a favor and don’t bad mouth the school in public, it discourages others and that hurts us. And one more thing, politics are everywhere. I went to the best private high school in Orlando and the politics were disgusting. Same thing for the teachers, even the best schools have a few bad teachers, and believe it or not sometimes you learn more from them. Other peers think sending your kids to an Islamic school shelters them and makes them ill prepared for the “real world.” I believe there is no better preparation for facing the “real world” than having confidence and knowing who you are. And trust me, even though my kid goes to an Islamic school, he knows about Diego and Pizza Hut and of course, Disney world. I don’t worry about him being out of touch with the ‘pop culture’. As far as academics goes, certain basic standards are necessary, but remember each kid has strengths and weaknesses. I have a friend who graduated from my high school class, went to Dartmouth and is now a drummer in a rock band (not to knock his career choice). Once again, If you still don’t agree please do me a favor and don’t bad mouth the school in public, it discourages others and that hurts us. Strength comes in numbers and if we want improvements we need our numbers.
So getting back to the point, and I’m beginning to forget why I am writing this myself, someone from our Masjid administration recently asked my husband to meet with us to discuss our outlook as an “open minded” representation of what our generation was thinking. That along with an interesting book I am currently reading (Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith) inspired me to write this.
The masjid in our community is probably one of the most beautiful masjids in the country. Tours are given here to the public and MashaAllah, people walk away truly impressed. I remember the feeling I had when I first saw this masjid, I could not believe something so elaborate existed in this country. May Allah bless the generosity of the people who built the masjid. This institution is well respected in the city and the inter-faith efforts on behalf of the administration are truly remarkable.
Now what would people of my generation want out of a masjid? To put it simply in one word, Inspiration. After all the ultimate goal of every Muslim is to serve Allah and improve our faith. How do we do this in a culture where we are so busy with the fast life of work and kids? If only we could come to the masjid and each time we walked away be inspired to become better Muslims, inshaAllah. Or imagine when the public tours are given, the spirit of inspiration is so strong that the desire to learn what Islam really is about is piqued. Recalling the success of my long ago Sunday school teacher, I think a few simple elements are essential. To begin with knowledgeable teachers with command of the English language is essential. With all due respect to our elders, my generation has a tendency to “tune out” if the lecturer has an accent or does not speak clearly. And I can only imagine what our kids (or visitors) will do. I don’t ever want them to be bored by the masjid, especially one as beautiful as ours. Also knowledge is a cornerstone of our religion. So ideally an imam with such qualities would be great. In the meanwhile, if we have members of the community blessed with knowledge and a commitment to teach, I would hope politics would be pushed aside and such teachers would be given the opportunity to teach us how to practice our religion and improve our iman. These are the jewels of our community who should be given the utmost respect and encouragement. We should also invite as many scholars as we can on a regular basis. Yes in post 911 we have to be careful of who we give the platform to, but let’s not make it reach a level of paranoia. Any teacher of Islam with true knowledge will relay the message of peace that is the cornerstone of our religion.
In a nutshell, we would like to see the inner beauty of our masjid match, if not exceed, the exterior beauty of the facility. To do this, the ugly head of politics, egos, and arrogance needs to be removed. Instead we need an open platform where people can express their concerns with a certain level of administrative accountability and transparency inshaAllah. There really is no choice here because the alternative of not doing so includes dividing the community, having ego wars, boring (and losing) our youth, wasting the beautiful facility, and looking bad to the non-Muslims. This would truly be a loss; one that our generation is not wiling to pay.
Well, here’s the viewpoint of one ABCD trying to figure it out. By the way, I wonder what they’ll call the next generation of ours: any ideas? One last thing, no offence if you drive a Mercedes, own a Gucci bag, or match your shoes to your purse.

~Samina S.

I'll probably be commenting further tomorrow. Sis. Umm Zaid reminded me that it's NaPoBloMo so I'll do my best to post every day (!). InshaALlah.

Twenny Two

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