Dear P,

I purchased a used copy of Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune for three dollars.  I have just now been flipping through the pages, and hearing my old school classmate Paulina say to me,

‘Is that the Bible you’re reading?’

She knew I was Muslim, but she was mocking the thickness of the book.

“This?’ I pointed to the novel,  pulling myself out of Chile 1850 unto Quito 2001 with  difficulty. ‘No…this is…’

I was sitting on my pupitre at the back of the classroom, and the time was between class periods. We were usually given five minutes between classes to go to our lockers and get the books we needed before the next teacher came into class. In reality it was was socializing time, and it ended when the student popping his head out the door alerted us all about the approaching teacher.

Ya viene la Mariana!‘ He’d yell. ‘ The Mariana is coming!’ and we would all rush to our seats.

While I also liked to socialize, sometimes I preferred to use that time to learn what had been happening to Captain John, or to lady Eliza Sommers while the math teacher had been explaining all those useless equations. So I’d take out my book, and immerse myself in that world, sparking the curiosity of classmates like Paulina who coudn’t understand my fascination for Bible-length books.

Ten years later, and several countries apart, flipping through the pages of an English version of Daughter of Fortune, I too am puzzled by the fact I could read a 500page fiction book in only a few days.  What was the book about? I skim read over passages and try to remember the story. Eliza Sommers wished to elope with her secret boyfriend? She became pregnant and lost her baby during a harsh sea journey to California? She hid from her family for four years? Yes, of course. I remember now… Wasn’t that when she met the Chinese man? Or was it…? and I read this story when I was fourteen years old? What did I think of Eliza Sommers then? Did I not mind the ways in which Eliza’s life ran counter to my Islamic values?How aware was I of my Islamic values to begin with? My current wonders do seem a bit anachronistic.

I try to recall the feelings the novel produced in me at that age, but all I can remember is Paulina’s mocking words, and the image of a fat book smuggled into lab or math class under my classwork folders.

‘Oh, so if it’s not the Bible, it’s the dictionary you are reading.’  Paulina said to me insistingly.

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Khalid’s Death

June 20, 2010

Dear P,

I woke up this morning to bittersweet memories of Egypt. Names like Stanley Beach in Alexandria and Corniche el Nil in Cairo bring sweet memories of lemon slushies on hot days, lattes and carrot cake on long cool evenings overlooking the water, dust and din, laughter and quiet, squinting eyes tracing the contours of the landscape, or fixed on space in inward gaze; watermelon with white cheese, qasab juice, writing.

But today Stanley Beach and Corniche el Nil bring news of death, impunity and a people brought together in grief.

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‘I envy Bernardita’s constancy, her ability to call this street home and the predictability of her life. I envy how she sees tenants move in and out of the very room where I write these lines, and yet remains unmoved and untouched… No life-changing decisions for her, no farewells, no confusion, and very little margin of error.’

Dear P,

Another warm evening. I write from my desk, surrounded by books, capless pens, yellow and blue highlighters, two notebooks, a purple NYU flag, an ICNYU placard, and more books.

Have a peek. Some of the books’ titles read; Politics of Piety, The Evolution of Fiqh, Islamic Legal Orthodoxy, Islam and the Blackamerican, and An Illustrated guide to The World’s Religions. Together, they tell the story of my academic interests to this day. What I have studied, what I have read, the classes I have taken following my program’s curriculum, or by persuading my advisors they related to my long-term interests (That is how I journeyed mid-masters to medieval Africa, or to contemporary Muslim communities in America, even though my program was in Near Eastern studies). Go through this mini-library, and you will learn a bit about where I have been. Don’t try your luck asking a question about my future though.

Outside my window and besides the road stands Maria Bernardita the Tree. Every so often, my eyes wander away from my writing in unconscious search of her ensnarled silhouette. I look at her and delight in familiarity. I know that in contrast to Astoria’s gray night sky, she will be all blackness now. I know she will block my view of the empty lot across the street and the cars passing under my window, neither noticeably larger nor smaller than yesterday. She will be Bernardita, predictable and changeless, fixed in time as she is rooted in cement. I envy her tonight.

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No Golden Egg Geese

June 3, 2010

Dear Papaito,

Do not pray for a goose. It will all be a lot less glamorous; I will apply for many jobs, and never hear back from most. I will make a few phone calls, and hopefully be called for a couple of interviews. Then, after a lot of sweat and tears, someone will offer me a job, inshaAllah!, which I will take because by then so much time will have passed my bank account will be emaciated to bones. Once I have the job, or the job has me, I will get up every morning and go to an office, do stuff working people do –whatever that is-, and then get money at the end of the month. Routine will kill my imagination and consume my time, and when that happens, I will not even remember golden egg geese ever existed. Why, I’d even be lucky to remember myself.

The other alternative is becoming a teacher. They call it a job, but I am so passionate about teaching I may gracefully overlook this little annoying misnomer. If I get a teaching position at a Muslim school, I will face a routine, but I will get an opportunity to be around teens. I will have less time for my independent readings, but I will be able to learn from them. People are often the best open books, if we only we pay close attention. So while I will not have too much time to dedicate to my project, my time will be spent getting to know the group of people I intend to serve through my project. So this option seems perfect. Of course, the only tiny reservation is that it pays really bad, especially if I want to teach in a Muslim school in NYC. But this may be an unavoidable downside, because I simply see no other alternative. I refuse heart and soul to apply for a job based on economic considerations.  I don’t want a highly paying job, I want a job that makes sense for what I want to accomplish.

So you see, even without golden egg geese, my options may not be so grim after all. Now, if you do want to pray for something, pray that I get a teaching position somewhere where I am able to grow and to contribute to my students. On the meantime, I just need to have patience with myself and trust that everything will fall right into place. I’ve only been out of school for two weeks, God! I really don’t need to rush so much.

Time to go to bed. Good night!

J.

“But let’s not talk about dying geese because that’s no fun. Let’s talk about beginnings. Last week I spent a little fortune on Amazon.com. It took me half an hour to find the books I needed to buy, and three days to justify the expenditure to myself. I know the goose died. I know!…”

Dear Papaito,

It is 10:30pm, and the weather has finally cooled down outside. I have opened both windows in my bedroom, and all other windows in the apartment, but the afternoon’s hot air likes it better inside. Stretched to the four corners of this room, it hovers around me comfortably and thoughtlessly, as one who doesn’t know he’s unwelcome in a place. If you were here Papaito, we would go out for a walk, and let the hot air have the room for itself. Do you think we would still find it here when we return?

I had mentioned to you one post-graduation development, and that concerned my first attempts to speak to Muslim teens. These first trials were encouraging and inspiring, and they set some preliminary foundations –albeit modest ones- for future exercises of this kind. The second development concerns my writing. Shortly after the graduation commencement, I wrote an article about the new Miss USA. As is the case with all my writing, I did not plan to write such a piece, it simply happened. The article was quite successful for being my first., alhamdulilah. It first appeared in Altmuslimah.com. Then it got quoted in an opinion piece on The Guardian. Then in another piece in The Huffington Post, and finally, an international feminist blog, Gender Across Borders, cross-posted it today.

This short piece has traveled a lot more than it had intended, going places it never thought it would go (a feminist site?). Like the first development, this one was also encouraging. It showed me that if I work on my writing, perhaps I can find a stable outlet for this passion of mine. And who knows? If I am good enough at it, maybe I can even find someone who will pay me for it. They call it job. Have you heard this word before?  I don’t think you are missing out on much if you haven’t, but unfortunately, it is something I need to think about now because my goose of the golden eggs, aka scholarship, died  last month.

But let’s not talk about dying geese because that’s no fun. Let’s talk about beginnings. Last week I spent a little fortune on Amazon.com. It took me half an hour to find the books I needed to buy, and three days to justify the expenditure to myself. I know the goose died. I know! But I needed those books for my project of becoming the next Gabriel García Márquez, or Isabel Allende. Since I want to write stories about/for Western Muslim teens, I had to buy a bunch of books on Muslim Youth in America for my preliminary research. I also had to buy some used short story collections to begin to study this genre a bit more systematically. Finally, I bought a book about writing tools for beginners, and three beautiful red notebooks for artists. The latter was probably a bit excessive, but I can consider that my graduation present to myself. It’s all good, inshaAllah.

But going back to geese, -since not everything in life can be fun, and I do need to talk about it- I need to find another one, preferably one that will not die on me after two years.  Maybe I had an old rich uncle I never met, and he left me a fat inheritance I am not even aware of. The mere possibility would justify a fact finding mission, don’t you think Papaito? The second option is finding a grant. The third is a fund raiser. The fourth is a job. But a job will leave me no time to write!  So which possibility will you bet for? (bets are haram, but you know what I mean). The grant? The rich uncle? The job? I go for the rich uncle.

I will keep you posted Papaito, on the meantime, pray for a goose.

J.

‘These are girls growing up in a post 9/11 America,’ I think to myself as I listen to them share their stories with the group. ‘Their faces, demeanor and words tell me this is a world where there is little room for weakness.’

Dear Papaito,

It is past midnight, but I haven’t the slightest desire to go to bed. Instead, I wish to be seating on a wooden bench somewhere, looking out to a familiar lake, waters sparkling with the last rays of a setting sun. In lack of better means to transport myself there, I write.

Papaito, for the past four days, my mind has been occupied with a couple of new developments. Let me tell you about one of them this evening, and the other may have to wait till a next letter. So will join me on this bench? Nothing would please me more than to enjoy the silence as I anticipate an immaculately dark night, free of city lights. The honesty of an unambiguously dark sky would suit my spirit tonight.

Last Thursday I visited a Muslim school in Queens. My roommate, the religion teacher, invited to come speak to her students. I readily accepted the offer. Sharing some of my personal stories with middle school and high school students is something I have contemplated doing for a very long time. Hence, when Karima first brought this up, I immediately saw it as an opportunity to finally start working more seriously on shaping these ideas into a project. I would prepare one story, and see how responsive the girls were to the experience I narrated in it. Hopefully, we would also get a discussion going about these girls’ dreams for their future, and what they perceived as some of the greatest challenges and obstacles to accomplishing these dreams. We did not have much time, so my goals for this first encounter were simple, straightforward, and limited in scope.

I believe the sessions went well (four of them, and I spoke for about seven hours straight), and the experience was eye-opening to me. I think the groups that impressed (or should I say affected?) me the most were the seventh and the eight graders. It is one thing to read about the challenges of Muslim minorities in the West, and quite another to hear a twelve-year-old narrate a story about being called a terrorist on the subway train.

And yet, perhaps the most unsettling story of the day was one by another twelve-year-old, who had been asked by a random stranger in a park what she wanted to be when she grew up. The girl replied she wanted to be the president of the USA one day. The woman mocked her, saying she’d never get a vote dressed in the rugs she was wearing (the veil). Upon finishing her story, a few tears rolled down this young girl’s cheeks, which she promptly brushed away, her facial expression turning inscrutable and surprisingly hard[ened] again.

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“I do find it ironic that I have been this eager to move on to the next phase in my life when I spent so much time last December and January agonizing about it… I did give up security and predictability… But subhanAllah, what I have been enjoying the most for the past few weeks is precisely that same uncertainty I dreaded for so long…having no strings attached or ready-made plan is surprisingly empowering and exhilarating.”

Dear Papaito,

I graduated. You were in my thoughts during the ceremony, as were my parents and family. But don’t worry. I was not too disappointed that you could not come. I realize some things are just not in our hands. Perhaps you’ll join me next time (white roses would be nice, thank you).

My feelings that Tuesday (convocation) and Wednesday (commencement)? I felt ‘como diablo en botella.’ ‘As a genie in a bottle,’ eager to get out. I could not wait to be done with both ceremonies so that I could finally declare this phase of my life officially closed. I reflected on these feelings on my way to the Convocation, and this is an excerpt of what I wrote on my journal during that subway ride:

“Strange that I need to drag myself to this thing. It’s supposed to be my big day, sort of like a wedding, except that instead of a husband I get to take a framed paper home. That aside, we dress up, there are flowers, family and friends come, our names change, etc. Yet, instead of being excited, I just wish this whole thing was over. Not that my experience at NYU was bad or anything. Far from it. The past couple of years have been two of the best in my life, alhamdulilah. But still, I feel exactly what I felt when I graduated from High School in 2002, and college in 2007; that while the experience was great, everything comes to an end at its due time. Any additional minute would be

excessive.”

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Blame my MA Thesis

April 29, 2010

Dear Papaito,

Something very interesting happened to me today on my way back home from the Islamic Center (I was there to pray Maghreb after class). I could not wait to write to you about it, so I wrote you a letter from the subway train. But because I need to have my thesis approved tomorrow, I do not have time to transcribe the letter from my journal right now. So you will have to wait to hear about it tomorrow inshaAllah. I hope it makes you curious, because it it really was very interesting. Are you curious?

Yes blame my thesis for the delay. This is actually my one grudge against my MA; not being able to write what I need to write, when I need to write it… I have so much to say tonight! And I am actually very annoyed that I cannot write right now, alhamdulilah, and I am annoyed at my thesis, and annoyed by a few other things related to it… And I’m stressed about it, and overall, I just want to throw it out the window… which I cannot do, because it is actually in my laptop, and if I throw my laptop out the window, then I wont be able to write to you….

Much annoyed and grumpy,

J.

ps. It was very interesting…very, very interesting

“…while my education has been great, it really was the Islamic Center at NYU that convinced me that I would not have wanted to go to any other university for my MA.”

Dear Papaito,

A quick note to let you know that it was completely worth it going to the Farewell Ceremony at the Islamic Center at NYU. Yes, thesis and all. The ceremony was beautiful, and I think I needed some kind of closure, or farewell from the IC. I have been too busy lately to think of how much belonging to this community has meant to me, but this doesn’t mean that I have for one second forgotten it. When I have some more time, I will write to you more about this, but for now I can tell you that I have no doubt in my mind or heart that I would not have been happy at NYU without the IC, and that while my education has been great, it really was the Islamic Center at NYU that convinced me that I would not have wanted to go to any other university for my MA. How would I have survived that incredibly difficult first semester at NYU without the IC? Like Sumra said in her speech tonight, going to the IC between classes became part of my daily routine, something without which I would have felt lonely and empty.

And you should be proud of me Papaito, because the ICNYU awards a few people every year, and this year I got an award! I am very touched that someone out there thought of nominating me! the award if for ‘Education,’ and it reads, ‘Janan D, For inspiring us through your words, your actions and your example.’ How touching is that?!? mashAllah, it makes me tear up just to see it… and when the Imam introduced me, he said something about inspiring others through my stories and writing (I admit I was not paying too much attention, because I was playing with Mariem’s kids, and I was not expecting Khalid to be talking about me…and then he mentioned my name and I was a bit confused at first…)

How exciting is it to know Papaito, that at least one person out there, or two or three, have been touched by one of my stories? It is a very humbling, beautiful feeling. See? I’m come a long way from being that mean selfish kid who was happy when her classmates did not get to eat two sausages instead of one. And I have moved on to better things in my life that ruining my mother’s flower pots with my corn and potatoes… (I’m still trying to guess what you think of me after the past two letters I sent to you , but it is difficult to read your silence).

MashaAllah, what a beautiful evening it was, and how blessed I have been to have come to NYU, and to have been part of NYU’s beautiful Muslim community… So many right things about the past couple of years, and now they are quickly coming to an end!

May Allah always make us grateful Papaito, and conscious enough to recognize His mercy and kindness towards us. Ameen!

J.

Dear Papaito,

I learned that my parents will not be able to come to my graduation ceremony on May 12th. If you plan on coming, please let me know as soon as possible, so I know how to distribute the five invitations I have.

Best,

J.

ps. I have told my mother that now I will really have to pursue a PhD, so that she can attend one of my graduations (when I graduated from AUC, it was also very difficult for her to come…me and my penchant to graduate in foreign countries, I suppose). She didn’t like the idea though. She told me that there are many other things I can do that she can inshaAllah attend, like get married so she can attend my wedding, or have a child, so she can attend her birth (I will have a girl inshaAllah). But I insist that she must attend at least one graduation ceremony. So a PhD it is. And if not then, then a post-doctorate.