For the Don
Eid was last Thursday.
Today is Monday.
The Don is leaving tomorrow back to California – my dearest friend here in New York City. I hugged him at least eight times today, upward of fifteen times in the past week. I felt as if each time we touched, I was trying to keep a part of him here.
I noticed you haven’t written about Eid, the Don said, a half-smile on his face. It took me a moment to respond, but there are things we say out loud and then there are things we say to ourselves.
Out loud: I’ve been so tired. Don, do you think I should write an Eid post? Definitely, said the Don.
Inside: I can’t bear another goodbye, not even to Ramadan.
I had quite a bit of fun during Ramadan. I attended Eid prayer at the NYU Islamic Center. Later, I walked to Chinatown and the Canal Street Area with H, my gracious new friend and host to the Islamic Center from an earlier post. We met my brother for dim sum, scrupulously avoiding the pig. Shrimp rolls, turnip cakes, chicken feet, dumplings, green onion pancakes. We went to an Italian cafe in Little Italy for gelato and iced coffee. Italians replaced by Chinese replaced by an-answer-in-flux. We laughed together. Our chatter filled the room and mixed with the chatter of other groups. What are we all talking about?
H’s friend from Baghdad joined us, a vivid man, slender and youthful, whose smile was an oversize shirt. He learned English in a year. The two of them left to pray. Justin and I remained, idly talking about our difficult past. It was a good interaction. I apologized for things I’ve said and done in his presence. Things that made him feel helpless and angry and hurt. Things he doesn’t seem to know how to forgive. Do any of us know how to forgive other people, or for that matter, ourselves? He talked about these old wounds that are fresh for him. Yet they somehow remain bandaged during our conversation, and we are calm.
One person I spoke to about our interaction called you a bitch, so I stopped talking to him. I thought it was crazy that he said that so I stopped talking to him. Oh?
I remained calm. Why do we say choose to say some things and not others? Who is the speaker? Who thought I was a bitch?
I still have a hard time setting boundaries with you, Justin says, looking at the remains of a past that is dissolved Cappuccino in a silver goblet. The wound reappears, disappears. A flash.
My brother who struggles to manage his feelings toward me came to spend Eid with me. In time spent, even in difficulty, we find each other. Family.
We ended without fighting. That felt great because I cannot control what other people say to me. I can control myself. I am practicing not fighting. It’s going okay. I’m not great at it. It means choosing to be okay with people with whom I have conflict.
The boundary with which I struggle is the one that defines me.
Justin walks with me to find the subway station. In a dazed rush, I catch a train to Westchester with Roopa where we have Eid dinner with her friend, M, and M’s family. We had not caught all of each other’s text communiques, but running onto the platform, I hurl toward Roopa who is waiting on the platform. Finding luck.
M is an out queer woman to her family and to her broader Egyptian community. She is tall and lean; the lines of her face are sharply etched – I imagine with bravery and resistance.
Our meal is a beautiful festoon of lamb and rice, fig-filled cookies, and fruit and cake. Her family welcomes us with open arms. Everybody in the family is a poet. Roopa and I join in an impromptu poetry circle. Roopa singing. Me reading from a phone.
When M drives us to the metro stop, I talk about my Eid prayer experience at the Islamic Center. M says, Did Roopa tell you about what happened when we went to the mosque?
No, please Share.
M begins, Sometimes I get so angry. I wonder how can anybody not get angry when they go to a mosque?
http://sideentrance.tumblr.com — a website the Don told me about earlier during the fast.
M’s story is a narration for the website: Roopa and I went looking for a mosque for Iftar the other night. We went to 3 or 4 where there was a full meal laid out. The men were gathered around breaking their fast. But there was no space for women to pray. Imagine, you cook all day and you bring them food, and you cannot break your own fast there.
The mosque we finally went to was actually better than other ones I’ve attended. At least this one wasn’t a prison cell, and the microphone is busted and the women are cramped together in a tiny, dark space. At least it was just a windowless room and not in the basement. I don’t want to sound like a Western Feminist, she says.
(Roopa and I make low sounds, reassuring M.)
M sighs. Her jaw muscles clench. I can see her face in the rear view mirror. It fills with frustration. I feel such an outpouring of sympathy for her struggle. How difficult it is to change things within Islam when there is so much Islamophobia out there. So much prejudice and bias and racism that we cannot speak honestly about our own communities without fear of thousands of Westerners breaking their talking sticks upon the backs of Muslims.
I understand the error: how one comes to stand for the whole. How can a poet learn to use metonymy?
I understand how we must be silent; we must be perfect, because we are not supposed to allow our people to be judged by those whose true agenda is feeling better about themselves. Those same people come to us in the name of aid and curiosity, praising “diversity,” but they really want to win the race and culture wars.
Whenever I try to win, I spend so much time being scared of losing.
At the Islamic Center, I was surrounded by hundreds of other men, in the front of the room, and other women, in the back of the room. I enjoyed the breakfast. I met a convert who asked me, after hearing that I’ve been fasting for Ramadan for years, why I didn’t convert. I told him that it was private.
This person asked me the same question again, as we realigned in orbit around the room. At first, I felt frustrated, but then I realized that it did not matter – all the complexities of that answer were not something I was going to be able to articulate. But this time I wanted to answer. He seemed to have some need to know — that can be a gift. What would a public answer be to a private question?
The first thing I blurted out was: it’s because I’m queer; I can’t convert to a religion that will make me feel like I am less after all my past religious experiences made me feel that way. I don’t want to be told by conservative men how to have my relationship with Allah, I said. As I spoke, this man’s wife nudged a young man next to her.
I remember the young man’s eyes. They are large, luminous, and careful, as if they could fill with tears at any moment. He seems vulnerable. I stopped talking when I saw the woman nudge him. I wanted to acknowledge this attention, if only for a moment.
I’m a transsexual, he said, and I have been thinking about these same things. He was so comfortable with himself that for the first time that day I truly relaxed and at home in the room. He is a dancer and a writer.
I asked him to walk with me for a moment to get some food. He came to Islam because so many of his favorite people, and people he lives with, are Muslim. He seemed a little doubtful – that perhaps it was less legitimate, his journey. I felt the same way about my journey. We talked about wanting to feel good, about our doubts as to our place in Islam, but also about our relationship with Allah.
Us queers, people of color, wandering a prayer room, during Eid, finding solidarity, afraid of the discoveries that lead to rejection, but we are present nonetheless.
Later, we were joined by H, my new and gracious friend, who talked about how there is a mosque out in California somewhere whose Imam is a woman. We talked about the Sufi mosque in Manhattan where the women and men pray side by side, though still separated. So many roads to Islam.
The funny thing is – I myself came to Islam through a very specific set of people/relationships.
In many narratives the successful story arc is because the reader cares about what happens next – if nothing happens, the story tends to flop — unless you’re the kind of writer whose beautiful words and eloquent phrases obviate the need for motion. Plot often feels like an accidental series of events whereupon the protagonist connects with certain people. By the end, these occurrences which have previously just happened bring the reader some sort of meaning.
Some of those people happened to be Muslims.
Some of those people happened to be Catholics.
Some Hindus Some Jews Some Daoists Some Buddhists
Some Polytheistic Some Santeria Some Sikh
Shinto Zoroastrian Pagan Mix
Some of the strident Atheists demanded that all
Fundamentalists be removed from their perches,
The rain comes, hit all the stones.
The grass sprouting out of the cracks turns to sky.
I walk underneath the Arch
thinking of You.
I am moved by the Muslim community in the same way that I have been moved by lovers, changed thoroughly whether or not I remain in their lives.
I have been to so many churches and temples at that point, but somehow this community called to me. I want to explain it. I really do. But how can anybody besides Allah truly know I am alive?
Kindness converts me every time.
Life itself shapes us, its current smoothing out the rocks.
The story of an enlightened being: I will be glad to explain what I have seen to each and every one of you, very soon. I also plan to do a TED talk on miracles and the awe we feel in discovering patterns in something we once thought was random. I hear it took the Buddha hundreds of years of meditation in a secluded cave to develop a power point good enough for a general audience. Some say he has never emerged.
I hear this whispering in my ear. Don’t worry about boring the pious. They are already sleeping.
I tell my new friend with the liquid eyes the story of my fasting for Ramadan, its humble beginnings in romantic (queer) love, and the stumbling my way into continuing to fast, how I honor my spirituality by participating in this way in organized religion, how I am engaging, and how, ultimately, it is my friends that keep me fasting and teach me about Allah.
How many words are there for love in Arabic?
We expect our religious moments to be some grand thing, but instead we learn to recognize the spirituality of our daily lives – that is how we bless our living.
Coming to Allah is a long walk through Prospect Park.
Over there is the Lake. The Bridge. The drum circle. The woman selling berry smoothies. The man waving his arms by the grass. He could be doing Tai Chi or just keeping his arms from losing circulation. He reminds me of my grandmother. The couples with their dogs can be annoying. Or, they can be cute. The softball field is full of children. The soccer game. The people running reproach you with a look when you get in their way. They are tired; they are sweating and even their ears are hot – those ear-buds. Here we are on the path, and the leaves are falling. Our feet are shaped like gravel. There is the Arch again, coming into view. Beyond that the library. That is the old woman sitting on the bench wearing hijab. The sunset is approaching. There is another woman next to her. I cannot see her face.
We are becoming each other.
When I come to the end of this walk, I am changed for having gone through this walk. It’s just a loop, but each moment in the circle feels fresh and new, even if we take this walk each day. Each detail. Each happening. These were all events shaped by Allah. These are all as holy as a sermon.
I have come to trust what happens in my life. This is a sort of peace.
There is more than one way to Allah.
During Ramadan, I kept a blog, a Ramadan journal inspired by my fast and various poets, especially Rumi and Kazim Ali. While I was fasting, I found it impossible to write fiction. I only had the energy to digest poetry and to pluck away at these journal entries. As soon as I finished fasting, I was dismayed that I had not finished any of the stories I was supposed to complete this summer.
A few days before Eid, John Keene, a writer and teacher of mine at Rutgers, asked me how my writing was going in our e-mail exchange. I said that I had not been productive. He writes me back. He has read not only the Ramadan post I sent him, but read backwards through my previous Ramadan posts. He tells me that this journal is writing – that I am sharing my vision with others. He encourages me to continue.
I am writing.
One of my favorite titles of a poetry book is a volume called, The Subject Tonight is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz, trans. by Coleman Barks
In his Khutbah, the Imam of the NYU Islamic Center, Khalid Latif, began by telling a story. I’ll paraphrase his sermon:
Human Beings are Allah’s creation. They are the most beautiful and divine parts of this world.
We shouldn’t be building more walls between each other. We should be respecting each other and especially women.
Finally, the Imam reached the end of his Khutbah.
Having fasted for this month of Ramadan, what will you take with you from Ramadan? You have shown discipline. You have refrained from drinking or eating during the day. You have prayed. Now that Ramadan is over, what will you bring with you into every day of your life? You have achieved peace during Ramadan. You could not respond to things that troubled you in the same way when you weren’t so hungry and so thirsty.
You have found peace. How will you let Ramadan continue to change you even though it has ended? Continue to live in peace, to be humble, to be with Allah. Do not give up your peace for anything less than heaven, than paradise.
Do not let yourself succumb to irritation and annoyance. Allah created you and so knows that you will make mistakes, and while you may not be able to forgive, while you may be angry, Allah is great and Allah can forgive. Allah continues to love you. Allah does not make mistakes. And when you lose yourself, when you make a mistake, you can give yourself to Allah, who will hold you in his infinite kindness and compassion. Allah who is peace. Allah who is love. Allah who is divine.
There is alchemy in how the mystery of each day is revealed. `
To be present, the Don reminded me, even when we are stressed or trying to say goodbye, is important. We don’t know what will happen next.
During a quiet moment today in a coffee shop in Ditmas Park, the Don stopped during our conversation to take a picture of the street. We were discussing family – how hard it is to speak to them, especially when we have built up so much frustration, especially when we do not know how to ask for what we want. Sometimes we don’t even know what we want. We are scared of what we want. We are scared of getting it. We are scared of not getting it.
I want to be okay wherever I go, wherever those I love go.
As he looks into the golden intersection, the Don tells me how this place fills him with such love. His enthusiasm is contagious. I love it here too, more so because he has helped me to find a home here.
Newkirk Avenue is flooded with such mixed emotions. He might really be leaving, I thought. Why else would he take a picture of a building he sees everyday?
Beyond the brick apartments all I can actually see is the light filtering down between the green leaves of a tree. Something about the branches is a frame for the light. Something about the tree extending its arms into the sky reminds me of prayer. The camera inside us is a holy thing. We take pictures during these moments when we experience our strongest feelings.
What is this love I have for another person?
As I walk him back home, the Don takes pictures of the pink hydrangeas blooming next to his apartment building – for his mother. See, he explains, I am always thinking of her.
Not the object, nor the subject, but the light that allows me to see the world.
After the Don leaves, I take a walk and stop in my favorite Halal restaurant on Coney Island Avenue, MashAllah. The guy at the counter recognizes me from my many stops, looks at my droopy face. He hands me two pieces of fish. Eat this, he says, while you wait. I pick up some biryani thinking of all the biryani I used to eat with Saima O’Husain. I pick up an extra kebab sandwich thinking that it would be so great if the Don could eat it with me.
I walk down the wide streets, past the kids playing basketball. One of them is shamelessly traveling, just like I used to do, intimidating the other kids with his bravado. Several women pass by me carrying babies and pushing strollers. The street is hushed, the only noise the sound of a leather ball rhythmically chunking at the pavement, as if sharing my reverie. The Don has gone to his final kickboxing class. I feel empty and hollow. Is this how change feels?
The Don and I agreed earlier on not having a tearful goodbye. He said, Because you’re my friend from Los Angeles, and we knew each other before we came to Brooklyn, I feel like we will continue to be in each other’s lives. He’s right, I’m sure.
I walk through the co-op’s grocery aisle. I don’t have the heart to buy the eggs or produce I intended to bring home. I am weighted down. Instead, I pick up some hummus I don’t need. It is light and won’t break if I drop it. I walk a block down toward my home and
I didn’t get a last picture with the Don!
I text him.
He calls me immediately.
Where are you? he asks.
Here! I’m here! I say.
Thank you to every single person who spent time with me during Ramadan and who took the time to read this Ramadan journal.
Eid Mubarak, My Loves!