Between Now and I Don’t Know

June 13, 2010

‘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.

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. Perhaps that is why I like having her as a neighbor. I can observe past a windowpane everything I have never been.

I must decide within the next three months whether I will stay in this country next year or not. In my last letter I mentioned I wanted to work as a school teacher. I was working on that until I had a phone conversation with my mother, where she said she’d prefer if I settled in Egypt next year. After a robust conversation about my future that included some healthy protesting, we hung up and I gave some serious thought to it.

Papaito, this is what it came down to; I don’t mind what country I settle in, but wherever I go, I want to feel useful. I want to make sure I am part of something larger than myself. In spite of my political involvement in college, I didn’t feel this in Egypt. Whatever work I was able to do in my college campus, any Egyptian could have done it instead of me.

Most of the issues I identify with today, the ones that inspire long hours of though in me, are here in the West. While not oblivious of the issues that plague the Middle East, I want understand how Western Muslims negotiate religious and national identity, the space for self-realization we are afforded in own respective countries, and the limitations we experience in secular public spaces, to name a few things. While I don’t think of myself as irreplaceable here, I do see there is a lot of room for learning and teaching in this side of the world, and I can visualize where I may be able to jump in.

It has never been enough for me to marry well, have a nice home and a high salary.InshaAllah, it will never be. To accept this fate would be to assume the world is already an ideal place, with no room for improvement. Acknowledging this isn’t the case entails a responsibility for social commitment. And this isn’t a nicety, or even about others. We either help shape the societies we live in, or we let others shape them at their will. Ultimately, those decisions will come back to us -and to the nice families we all want to have- in the shape of very tangible limitations and possibilities.

The means for striving for a fairer system for all are relatively accessible in the Western world. In Egypt, I used to feel that in order to achieve social change, nothing short of a revolution would be needed. The Emergency Law was frustrating. The government was frustrating. The limitations on public speech were frustrating. I saw how grassroots social activism is curbed by the regime, and how NGOs are routinely under scrutiny, many of them never getting the damned licenses they need to operate legally.

Living in that society, and seeing how these things worked expanded my understanding of democracy (without idealizing this system either) and it gave me an appreciation of the things that can potentially be accomplished in less restrictive spaces. I still think a lot needs to be changed in Egypt, but I don’t feel I am the most qualified person for the job. Shouldn’t social commitment also entail finding our place to serve, as opposed to haphazardly chasing every worthy cause?

I am, at the end of the day, a Muslim Western woman, and while I plan to be socially committed wherever God takes me, I learn with time to to recognize the places where my background, skills and identity may best enable me to serve God by serving His creation.  Who knows? I may continue to understand over the years the wisdom behind not having been born a Maria Bernardita.

As for my mother, it takes a woman who has dedicated her life, her home, her family and herself to a greater cause to understand her daughter’s need to do her share. I am confident that inshaAllah, she will support me wherever I decide to go.

J.

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