A Ramadan Away from Home

Detail

They keep asking me where I like Ramadan more: in Hebron or Montreal.

They ask as if they’re clueless, but their eager faces betray the fact that they’re sure Ramadan in the East is superior to Ramadan in the West. For many people, it is. For me, I thought it would be, too. But it’s a bit more complicated, as I’ve learned…

They keep asking me which country I enjoy Ramadan most in – Palestine or Canada. What a distressing question for me, if only they knew!

All my Ramadans before 2017 have taken place in sweet, sweet Montreal. In Canada, I am often in crowded rooms being the only one refraining from food and drink. But this has never been an obstacle to having a spiritually and socially enlightening month. In Montreal, I always celebrated Ramadan with my parents and siblings. Being in the company of my two youngest sisters Wisam and Rania during taraweeh is a fundamental part of the night prayer experience. Eating from homemade atayef mostly prepared by my sister Rwan is a delicious and traditional element of the Ramadan vibe. Listening to my brother Mohammed reading Qur’an with me to practice his tajweed is a refreshing pre-iftar routine I love. Driving to the masjid in my dad’s van at fajr time is a luxury I try to take advantage of when I am not too sleepy to stay awake a little while longer after suhoor.
But this year, I am spending Ramadan in a completely different setting. I am fasting and Ramadan-ing it up in my native homeland of Palestine.
It is wonderful here.
The streets are decorated for Ramadan.
The traditional seasonal sweets are sold at every corner.
Everyday you’re invited to an iftar feast.
The athan echoes throughout the day, adding beauty to the wind.
It’s almost perfect.
But where are my multicultural friends’ faces whom I always run into at taraweeh?
Where are those STM bus drivers whom I don’t realize are Muslim, but then loudly exclaim “Ramadan mubarak, salamu alaikum!”
Where is my usual stash of fair-trade 70%+ dark chocolate to break my fast on?
Where is my jar of thick rich honey to sweeten everything the light touches?
Most of all… where are some of my favourite people in the world to break their fasts with me at the exact same time?
See, half my family came with me to Palestine, but I miss the other half. Sorely. I miss my family left back in Canada. Two months have passed but it feels so much longer. As much as I love and adore my relatives and extended family in Hebron, nothing and no one can replace the fondness and nearness that Rwan, Wisam, Rania, Mohammed and my father occupy in my heart.
Half of my heart is literally stuck in Montreal, in an unknown location. Maybe you’ll find it in a smoked salmon bagel cafe like Hinnawi Brothers, in a sushi restaurant like Sushi St.Jean, in a chocolate-loaded place like Coco 70, or in a beehive loaded with honey somewhere…. My heart ironically yearns for the place where the streets are NOT decorated for Ramadan, where Arabic sweets are NOT the norm at every corner, and where the athan is NOT visible from your home but is only heard from the inside the mosques.
And yet, Ramadan in Montreal is absolutely perfect.
In Montreal, the atayef tastes just right. They even look more appetizing! (I have only enjoyed one actual atayef in Palestine this whole month. It just ain’t the same.) Maybe it’s because the hands that make them (Rwan’s) are full of a sacred care no one else can provide. Maybe it’s because the syrup that sweetens the atayef is made by my lovely mother. Maybe it’s because as a family, members of us gather around the Qur’an together and discuss it more frequently as a group than in other times of the year.
And maybe… probably… it’s just because the small group of people in Montreal I love, I love with a fierceness greater than my love combined for everything in Palestine.
atayef

Photo of Rwan’s masterpiece dessert.

Nothing can replace the bond of a sister or brother – so how to explain that as wonderful and gracious that everyone is in Hebron, nothing can replace four sibling bonds… even if those bonds are limited to social media right now with a 7-hour time zone difference. How could people even ask me such a question? It’s infuriating sometimes! Honestly, what a blessing Whatsapp, Messenger, Snapchat, and TextPlus have all turned out to be for me. Thank God!
I don’t mean to be harsh on people. They mean well, and I know it. When people ask me where do I enjoy Ramadan more, they usually assume that my definition of ultimate satisfaction is measured by the number of feasts I attend and number of people I greet. But how to explain that all the pecks, formalities, and kisses on cheeks over several months totalled up, do not amount to even one simple “yo” exchanged with my brother? Do not amount to just one bone-crushing hug with Wisam and Rania? Do not amount to one pre-bedtime rambling conversation with Rwan?
Between you and me, dear reader, here’s my personal truth: Ramadan in Palestine is really nice. But Ramadan in Montreal? It’s just perfect.
All praise to Allah for everything, alhamdulileh. I am blessed to be spending this holy month in a holy land. And thank You for the blessings of technology, which make it easy to keep in constant communication with those physically far, far away from me!
Until we hug again, my friends! Shout out to Mohammed, Rania, Wisam, Rwan and yaba for making me miss you so much. That speaks to how wonderful of human beings you must undoubtedly be.
And God plans Best.
-A.S.

A Poem by Nahida Izzat

This has always been a powerful poem for me when I first read it almost a decade ago. Now, it still applies, but multiplied to other countries on top of Palestine. God be with oppressed people everywhere.

By Nahida Izzat:

So, let me get this straight:

You tear my veil to free me

You jail me to rid me of my terror

You kill my beloved to liberate me

You shoot my baby to erase my misery

You starve me to show me how to vote

You threaten me to bring me to my senses

You wage war on me to help me find peace

You slay my people to teach me compassion

You humiliate me to aid me live with dignity

You insult me to illustrate freedom of speech

You crush my bones to save me from my evil

You demolish my home to elevate my morality

You uproot my tree to raise my ethical standard

You steal my resources to bring me social justice

You assassinate my leaders to bring me security

You bomb my town to train me into democracy

You destroy my history to educate me about progress

You dehumanise me to coach me into humanity

You wipe me out to push me to civilisation

You scorn my faith to bring me salvation

Thank you sir

How can I -ever- pay you back.

Montreal is Rich

Miniscule Bundles of Colors
Montreal is rich.

The aroma of so many languages
Each language carries a unique cultural baggage
Each language containing an alphabet with clues to
Specific perspectives and world views.

So many people with different coloured skins
So many stories for every person
Each person from a different place
Each place with a different space and taste.

The unity                                                                                                                                          In diversity…

Montreal is rich.

A.S.

Some Things Need to Break in Order to Work

Some things need to break in order to properly work.

Like your heart.

Don’t deny the pain or run from its inflicts. When you feel it breaking your heart, accept it as a guest that is here to give you a gift.

A gift of a powerful, unforgettable lesson.

Embrace the wound as a strict but very knowledgeable teacher.

Beg it to break your illusion into a million shattered pieces.

Only worse than a broken heart, is a broken heart with illusions still clung to.

Let the wound take the false thinking and unrealized hopes you harboured in your heart for so long – and break them.

Break them into countless grain-sized pieces of glass.

Like sand.

Let the desert wind take them away from your heart and scatter them in unreachable places.

Let your heart break when it does.

Let it bleed with the pain of unfulfilled wishes.

Let it turn all those ocean-deep illusions you swam in, into mere foam.

Or dust. Sand.

Let the desert wind blow them away from your heart and scatter them in untraceable places.

Into the wilderness of nothingness.

They were nothing. But your real potential to be is everything.

Let your heart break so that your resolve solidifies and makes you the person you were always meant to be.

False notions and disappointing expectations no longer holding you back.

These unfounded whims, these vain desires, these mere dreams never meant to be…

Know they were making you weaker.

Your heart breaking is the freedom you need to let go and reach new heights.

This may be hard to believe now.

I know your heart is broken now.

I know your whole being feels like an ache in a sea of bottomless despair.

But reality is not your enemy.

The reality is, what you thought was good for you is not.

These shattered dreams may have turned into a living nightmare.

The One who holds your precious heart chose to break it – temporarily.

So that your spirit, your fierceness, your resolve, are not broken – permanently.

My mother always says an Arabic proverb: الله يرحم من بكاني

May God have mercy on the one who made me cry.

(This is not referring to tears caused by someone abusing another.)

This refers to someone who speaks an unwelcome truth, that it ends up hurting another.

Unwelcome, but true.

A truth which breaks our carefully thought-out dreams is unwelcome to us.

But truth is not the enemy.

The truth is, some things have to break.

Some things need to break in order to properly work.

Like the heart.

When you feel your heart break, let it.

When you feel those cracks form, let them.

I promise it will get better.

Be receptive to the light that comes in through the cracks.

Let your delusions crumble.

Crumble into sand and dust.

And may the desert wind blow these particles far, far away from you.

Before you know it, your heart will become lighter again.

You will swim to the top and keep flying higher.

You are more worthy than you realise.

Your fate is in His hands. (What better hands to trust your fate!)

Let your heart break, because it must.

But grieve not over the broken dreams.

You are yourself a dream being realised.

~
“When we least expect it, what’s in the way is the way. The broken door lets in the light. The broken heart lets in the world.” (Mark Nepo)

And God knows Best.

A.S.

Quran Reflection: On Being Pleased

*Note: I am not a scholar. This is but a self-reflective piece.

God tells us at the end of verse 58:22 of the Quran:

رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا عَنْهُ ۚ

This part of the ayah in surat al-Mujadela catches at my throat every time.

Why?

I have yet to understand, perhaps I never fully will, why somehow my heart’s walls fracture at these words, and why my defences of all my baseless excuses crumble.

We like to think we can read other people’s thoughts, but we can barely understand our own. But here, I will try to analyse myself. I do not know why this part of the Quranic verse – translated Allah is pleased with them, and they are pleased with Him – makes me want to collapse in tears. There are likely many reasons. I decided I needed to reflect on this much deeper and try to understand myself through it. I think I have found one reason why this powerfully resonates with me:

To have God pleased with you, and you pleased with Him.

Oh, to have His pleasure. Always striving to make that the end goal and the waves that transport me as I sail with the means. Yet so many times I am not grateful. I may have the appearance of patience, but wars constantly rage within: an army of thoughts remind me to be content with the state of things in my world and to trust that the future is in good hands; and an opposing army of thoughts assures my ego it is justified in wallowing in its own self-misery. Could one have His pleasure if he is not continuously pleased with His flawless plan?

Although Alhamdulileh: all praise is due to God is always on my tongue, I wonder how truthfully and effectively this reality is translated in my heart of hearts. It is a reality for sure, to this I have no doubt – but am I spiritually living this reality in an authentic way? When I grudge things beyond my control – but yet that are – is this not a form of ingratitude on my part? Is this not an indirect expression of discontentment with God’s plan? And if I am not pleased with His plan… how should I ever imagine Him to be pleased with me?

رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا عَنْهُ

A Shephard

If He is pleased with you, what else matters? Everything pales in comparison to the pleasure of your Lord. And if He is not pleased with you… honestly… of what from all the skies and galaxies of creation will really matter?

So I pray to the One, turner of hearts, to make my heart sincere and firm. Oh Allah, the All-Merciful, allow us to be of those whom You are pleased with, and who are pleased with You.

For you, and only You alone, know, and have ever known, Best.

-A.S.

[video] The Streets of Palestine

Dedicated to the birthday girl, Rania.

I know French and Palestinian culture don’t go together. However, a week before I left Canada to visit Palestine, I stumbled across the bilingual song “J’ai Cherché” by Amir, and now both this song and my trip to Palestine are, in my mind, helplessly intertwined with one another and seem perfectly compatible to me.

It was hard to doze off in any road trip or car ride because the streets and mountains along the road are a dazzle to see. Most of the footage I took with my cell phone camera… which obviously doesn’t do anything justice. Nonetheless, when I have nostalgia for Palestinian streets and mountains, I’ll just play this video which I just produced.

Presenting to you, “The Streets of Palestine”.

The Streets of Palestine from Aya Salah on Vimeo.

Art as an Escape

lighthouse-painting

Oil painting “Lighthouse in Prince Edward Island”- 17 hours of my life was poured into this. Totally worth it.

 

I’ve always thought of art as a powerful means of awakening a sense of wonder in our otherwise dull lives. Art as something that grounds us in instinctive knowledge, but that can elevate our thoughts and souls. Art has the capacity to change not only the viewer and appreciator of art, but the artists themselves. This quote from the book Native Science beautifully explains this:

“The ceremony of art touches the deepest realms of the psyche and the sacred dimension of the artistic creative process. The sacred level of art not only transforms something into art, but also transforms the artist at the very core of his or her being. This way of doing and relating to art makes the process and context of art-making infinitely more important than the product.” (Gregory Cajete)

Lately, I have been making a good effort to increase more time in my weekly schedule for artistic processes. The more I immerse myself in these artistic processes, the more I question why exactly I am captivated by it. I have no plans to become a famous painter, calligrapher, writer, or video producer… then why do I keep painting, learning calligraphy, keep up creative writing, and create videos?

Increasingly, I’m seeing art as more than something that ends up looking nice and to be admired. I’m experiencing things in a new light. My personal experience is not necessarily giving me an insight that is different or exclusive from the above views… but rather one that acts as an additional layer to it.

Art is an escape; an escape that depends on us moving nowhere.

What kind of escape? It’s an escape from the hustle and bustle of a long active day of work and meetings. It’s an escape from the chaos that our uncertain thoughts cause within us. It’s an escape from our unrelenting running footsteps that we focus on more intensely than reminding ourselves to take magical depths of deep breaths.

Art is an escape from everything, by forcing you to to stay put. Art tells you, Nothing in this world matters right now, except that your painting strokes on this canvas are precise.  Art tells you, Nothing matters except that your poem has a rhythm when you read it out loud. Art tells you, Yeah, you might feel like a mess, but all that really matters is that your calligraphic letters are curved just right with your ink-dipped bamboo pen.

Creating art puts you in the present moment without a sound, and you find yourself self-reflecting a great deal. 

You realise that even in your hustle and bustle of a schedule, you can still extract moments of serenity and quiet. Creating art slows down our jumbled, loud thoughts until we accept that it’s okay to not have all the answers at the same time. Creating art settles your feet so that they can stop leaping over hurdles and give you a chance to take ocean-deep breaths.

my-busy

So don’t for a moment think that creating art is a waste of time. Art is one of the few streams of sanity in an insane world. A timeless Lil’wat principle of teaching & learning I think applies so well to my own art process:

“Kat’il’a — finding stillness and quietness amidst our busyness and the need to know.”

Create the kind of art that brings you joy and peace. It is an escape to a better you. Art is an escaping adventure that brings you home to Him… if you allow it to.

And Allah (God) knows Best.

A.S.

 

 

How Deep is Our Multiculturalism?

Jordanian Folklore
My experience as an Arab, and a hijab-donning Muslim woman tells me that not everyone really understands how multiculturalism works. Not everyone gets it.

From what I have seen, embracing multiculturalism is often celebrated with food and dance and clothing displays of the “other”. That’s a good place to start, sure… the eye craves visual flavours. What is agreed by all as important, is the differences in spices, famous dishes tastes, and traditional clothing styles.

And yet, how is this same level of urgency not inclusive to understand the life values, and most importantly, the experiences of the “other”? To understand what brings them pain, and what brings them joy? To understand how multidimensional identity aspects of their being can play out in their day to day world?

These more important matters that concern a human being’s soul, their thoughts, their feelings – that is not touched. As long as the physical outer appearance is embraced, and what’s on top of their bodies is acknowledged, there is no need to delve deeper into the messy things that actually make us human.

Except, I think there is.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’ll say this: lots of people just aren’t aware that there are unaddressed issues because they don’t have to deal with them on a constant basis. I’m not writing this post to point fingers of blame at anyone – that’s not what I do. Much of what I say might equally apply to me; I’m just thinking out loud here. I’m hoping to shed some light on shadows the mainstream narrative prefers to keep hidden… because if revealed, it challenges the dominant narrative, the status quo.

“Multicultural tolerance and the settler narrative suggest that even though Canada is open to all comers, the recognition of difference is limited to that which does not threaten white settler domination.” ( Carol Schick, White Resentment in Settler Society)

So, as long as multiculturalism doesn’t threaten the benevolent, open, tolerant image of the multicultural country… it’s allowed. As soon as it starts to reveal cracks in the system, intolerant behaviour ensues. It’s slyly disguised as “we are so tolerant, why are these people being so ungrateful now!”

Perhaps an example would help make sense of what I’m writing; just look at Aboriginal people in the West.

“Multiculturalism has been used to defend schools against the need for education for and about aboriginal peoples, in spite of ‘racism and colonialism.’ Ironically, ‘multiculturalism’ operates as a talisman that further relegates aboriginal peoples, along with their culture and history, to a museum-worthy site.” (Carol Schick)

Museum-worthy, eh… Yeah, this strikes a bell. Sure, do let us celebrate clothing, food and music. (No sarcasm, I mean it. Really, let’s!) But if it has to include listening to how racism still exists around us, and if it includes facing the impacts of colonialism that are ever still present…. why, it becomes too controversial for conversation. So controversial, in fact, to even include in educational curricula. While the winds are slowly changing on that front, there is a tremendously long way to go.

Many people will justify their decisions to not take a stance in matters of colonialism or occupation, as “I am neutral.”

Neutral? NEUTRAL?

Woman,

Man,

There is no such thing as a neutral stance in matters of oppression. When you’re silent about defending those stolen from, you are automatically validating the thief.

Hey. I get it. Talking about matters of diversity and lack-of, white privilege, sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination… it’s not easy. It’s not always pleasant. I get that, okay? I’m a person of colour, a visible religious young woman, but that doesn’t mean that I am always in the mood to talk about how terribly insensitive people can be to one another.

But when the conversation is opened, it shouldn’t be shut down on grounds of “neutrality” or “well, I don’t see colour.” That’s a pathetic non-excuse to excuse yourself out of a potentially awkward conversation.

In Nayyirah Waheed’s crystal-clear resonating words:

do-not-trust

As a Palestinian, I have had to live with similar sensations my whole life. I have grown up in environments where my cultural food is celebrated, my Arabic music is enjoyed, our dancing is admired, our fashion is welcomed –  but our hearts, our minds, our experiences, are not worthy enough.

Spotlight

Our history is silenced. Our ghosts are in our heads. In the name of “neutrality”, I have been shunned instead, ignored, silently told “your suffering is not worthy.”

Of course this would be the message: in a land that has yet to fully reconcile with its Aboriginal peoples, who am I to expect that they’d care about the Indigenous peoples of another faraway land? This narrative only causes resentment.

“Anxiety and ambivalence rise in the conflicting desires to be the good, non-racist citizen/subject while maintaining one’s way of living as entitled and superior. The inability to resolve the contradictory and destabilizing stories that have to be told – about racial stereotypes and putative white innocence– are also grist for resentment.”

If you feel like you have to prove your self-worth to someone, then know their company is not worth yours. It shouldn’t be your burden to carry the guilt off of guilty shoulders – even if they don’t know what they are guilty of. Instead, be patient and kind with them until they realise the invisible weight they’re carrying. Whatever you do… don’t haul it onto your shoulders instead. Your mental comfort matters, too.

“it’s not about making you uncomfortable. it’s about making me comfortable.” (“reparations” by Nayyirah Waheed, salt.)

There are so many people and initiatives out there sincerely trying to make the world a better place for all. When I meet these people I am overwhelmed with gratitude to find such goodness. I just pray that more and more of us can fall into this wonderful group – myself included. It is not enough to be a person of colour to absolve blame of blameworthy traits like judgment, discrimination, other forms of privilege… I hold myself accountable just as much.

All praise to the One who puts sakeena and inner tranquillity in hearts. May He put it in yours, whoever you are that is reading this.

Baby Steps

And God knows Best.
-A.S.

It’s Because of Hijab, Not Despite It

Yellow Roses

Once every while, in the midst of a conversation with someone newly met, I get a certain statement delivered my way. It is meant in the warmest of intentions, I know, but…

Here is that magical phrase:

“It’s really great that you are confident mingling in society and seem successful in your career, despite your hijab.

Interestingly this is usually said to me by Muslims, who feel open enough to point it out, as opposed to others who’d rather prefer Islamophobia doesn’t exist. I appreciate the sentiment, and the instinctive side of me wants to automatically nod in agreement – I mean, what is so wrong about that sentence?… It’s true, is it not? I’m apparently confident in my skin, engaged with my community, and blessed to be employed in a great environment… DESPITE my many colourful hijabs.

So why does it instead strike me the wrong way? Why does this seemingly innocent observation irritate me deeply?

Today, while daydreaming about completely different stuff, I finally figured it out. Here is the reality of my situation:

I am content and doing well not despite my hijab… but because of it. And here’s why:

  • Wearing the hijab is a constant visible reminder to myself that no one has any claim to me, my mind, or my body. Sometimes as a human being, I get insecure and wonder what others are thinking about me. But then I look at my reflection when I am out in public, and where others just see a piece of cloth, I see a reminder to myself. I am powerfully reminded that no matter how many things I might feel attached to, the only real lasting thing my heart can know is Allah. I am God’s and God’s alone, and this is liberating.

“Yet she belongs, finally and truly, only to God. The hijab is a symbol of freedom from the male regard, but also, in our time, of freedom from subjugation by the iron fist of materialism, deterministic science, and the death of meaning” (Abdal-Hakim Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, 29).

  • Just as hijab hides certain physical aspects of a woman’s body, like her hair, curves and skin, it is a metaphor for me to guard my heart away from the harm that others can inflict on it. I protect my heart by being meditative, listening and speaking with it, and discovering who I really am without waiting for a messed up world to tell me who I am supposed to be. Hijab is not the sole means, but a helpful ingredient certainly, to reminding me that my heart is precious and full of a deep beauty that does not need to be given freely to just anyone who wants access to it. Hijab is my personal physical reminder that within lies a spiritual reality that wants to be realized, and that I have a right to this inner life.

“Hijab narrates self-efficacement for the sake of the Face of God. But it is not a cloak of invisibility, or Bilbo Baggins’ magic ring. The woman in hijab turns in, but stands out. (Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, 82)” 

“Hijab indicates freedom from the monoculture, but also freedom from the visual theft of her beauty. It is a denial of the Other’s right of appropriation. (Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, 95)”.

Hijabs means various things to different people, and each woman will have her own story to say.

Let’s never make the mistake of assuming that all Muslims think, act and are motivated by the same motives.

As someone in a workshop said very eloquently:

Inline image 1

In my case, hijab has made me more my own by connecting me more closer to God. It has made me more confident to be unapologetically me. It has made me want to excel in all that I do, whether in relationships, faith matters or career goals.

All this not despite my hijab, but because of it.

That is my story.

And Allah knows Best.

-A.S.