Days 18 & 19 – The Poets

Today Poets fed me.

 

Dinah kept me company as I waited for the bus. On the way to the bus stop, Dinah remembered that she had made a surplus of lentils. We rushed back to her place and made a plate for me to bring to Iftar.

 

Bahar, a dear VONA friend worked with me later in the afternoon and made a dish for me to bring to Qur’an study – marinating the tomatoes in herbs, oil, and garlic, adding fresh basil to the pasta dish. We didn’t speak about much, but we made time to discuss the sadness of this most recent killing of Palestinians by Israelis. You only have to be human to think this is wrong, Bahar said.

 

I arrived in Manhattan anxious and a bit nervous about my first Qur’an study with relative strangers, laden with food, my mind unable to hold on to either horror or kindness.

 

***

 

The other day as the air cooled in the breeze of Jersey City and opera singers delivered their librettos in the open air market next to Grove Street, I wished that I could capture the anticipation and sheer joy I felt.

 

After having basically messed up Monday with my high school summer students and almost breaking my fast on Wednesday to try considering how best to be present for my students in Newark, I decided to learn from my earlier mistakes and to see what a little faith in Allah could do.

 

Despite the fact that I may have been weaving a little in the classroom, and the students continued to challenge me, I stayed with the fast.

 

It was an inauspicious start. (At one point I said to the students that they may as well use the restroom at the beginning of class rather than in the middle, and half of the class got up and went to the bathroom. I didn’t have the energy to stop them. But, they all returned…eventually.)

 

One student, I’ll just call him Beeswax, has not done any of his readings. I give him catch-up work while I have a discussion with the other students about the readings. Beeswax raises his hand several times in the class to ask interruptive questions about whether he can have a tissue, whether something counts as a paragraph, but I’m determined to teach him too.

 

I’ve been telling Beeswax that he’s smart (which he is), and that I want him to pass. Beeswax reminds me of me – he has a problem with authority. He performs rebellion a lot more noisily than I do or did (no eye rolls from my friends, please.) Unlike me, however, he wasn’t given every educational opportunity in life. He looks dubious when I compliment him, as if I’m lying out of my teeth.

In my classroom, Beeswax finds himself in a corner. He’s on the verge of not passing. I know he wants to pass, so he slogs through and tries to answer the questions. Eventually, Beeswax raises his hand and tells me it’s too much work and that he has another question (which is likely to be about going to the bathroom again). I say to him before he leaves to the bathroom: do the work because everybody else had to do this much work to pass. It’s not fair! He complains.

 

I tell him to do his work and for every assignment he does in class, I will modify his assignment for the weekend. Show me you’re learning, I say.

 

Beeswax comes up to me and gives me his hand at the end of class. Ms. Lin, he says, you are a fair teacher, and you were fair to me, and I’m going to do all the assignments so I can pass the class. I’ve been behaving every class.

 

You weren’t behaving the past classes, I say.

But, I’ve been behaving now, he says.

 

***

 

So there I was on a bench at Grove Street, hungry, listening to the music, happy with my progress in my class, about to have dinner with T, dear friend and mentor.

 

I continue to appreciate how T shows me how to be a better person through her own actions, as well as a better writer. Tonight was no exception.

 

Walking to the restaurant, we ran into her neighbor on the street. The next thing I know, we’re hanging out and having drinks in her apartment. I’m eyeing the clock so I can take a swig of my smoothie.

 

This neighbor has two lovely kids, one of whom stood next to me as T and the neighbor discussed the injustices toward Black boys in the system. How do you feel about this? I ask him. He looks at me seriously and says, I’ve heard this before. I like videogames.

 

He showed me how to get cool new skins on his videogame avatar. Later, T’s neighbor told me she loved my hair because it sticks straight up and that my hair was just freedom. T builds community in her neighborhood, and that is just another one of the qualities I adore about her.

 

Eventually, over dinner, T mentioned to me that I’m not a good judge of character. This remark was addressing the praises I’d sung of a person who, admittedly, is a bit of a self-serving character and not nearly as wonderful as I thought. I won’t use the precise terms, but the gist of T’s remarks was that I give people a pass because I think they’re oppressed, or that they’ve had a shitty deal in life because of systemic injustice. Or, to put it more bluntly, I’m sometimes accepting of poor behavior or even bad characters – I’m taken in.

 

Initially, my argument was that I used to be a Public Defender and successful complex multi-party negotiator, and I (and my colleagues) used to prize my intuition and instinct. I could read people, their sincerity, their intent, and sometimes intuit their thoughts even before they spoke. When did I lose a step?

 

Something’s changed. What was wrong with me now?

 

I saw Dinah the next day, and she pointed out: it’s not that you have poor instincts, it’s that you don’t trust them. Maybe, I wasn’t fighting for power the same way that I used to fight for it. I wasn’t using my instincts for a clear goal. Instead, I was using them for something else, and now I wanted to err on the side of generosity.

 

For an attorney, suspicion and analysis are key spaces. For a healer, it is important to contextualize situation. Art heals us, and in some ways I’m invested now in seeing the layers of pain and hurt that most people carry, because I don’t have a side anymore.

 

I want, more than anything, to be a poet. Someone who can care deeply about the love and hope in everything, and everyone, but I also think the path to becoming a poet is to see the world with honesty.

 

But if I’m avoiding difficult understandings people, which I’ve come to the conclusion I’m doing, then what is it that I’m afraid I’ll find?

 

 

***

 

 

A couple weeks ago, I purchased my first copy of The Holy Qur’an translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. It’s just an English translation without the commentary and sadly, without the Arabic – I’ll get that later. I read through a few passages, but I was quickly overwhelmed.

 

I tried my time-tested technique for getting a sense of anthologies, as it were. And, I flipped blindly through the pages, looking at only the headers, until I could find something that was interesting.

 

This is from the Qur’an:

 


Sūrah 26 Ash-Shu’arā

The Poets

 

Section 11

217 And put thy trust in the Exalted in Might, the Merciful –

218 Who seeth thee standing forth (in prayer),

219 And thy movements among those who prostrate themselves,

220 For it is She who heareth and knoweth all things.

221 Shall I inform you, (O people), on whom it is that the evil ones descend?

222 They descend on every lying, wicked person,

223 (Into whose ears) they pour hearsay vanities, and most of them are liars.

224 And the Poets – it is those straying in Evil who follow them:

 


 

 

I felt like shutting the Book. What does Allah have against poets? I wondered.

 

225 Seest thou not that they wander distracted in every valley?

 

Ok, yeah, so they like to touch all the flowers…

 

226 And that they say what they practise not? –

 

I was clutching at my blankie and huffing right about now.

 

227 Except those who believe, work righteousness, engage much in the remembrance of Allah, and defend themselves only after they are unjustly attacked. And soon will the unjust assailants know what vicissitudes their affairs will take!

 

Okay, I thought, Allah definitely hates the poets. The phrase unjustly attacked rang through my mind. I felt attacked.

 

My instinct was to push away the Book and also to return to this passage. I didn’t know how to reconcile the words and their severity with the way I’d imagined poetics.

 

***

 

After I wrote a blog post on Day 15 “At The Table of Allah” – a dear, generous soul, let’s call him El Capitan, wrote me and said, Hi – I noticed that you were questioning whether to come to Qur’an study. I just want to make sure you know you were welcome. I wrote to El Capitan immediately and thanked him.

 

Note to self, I thought. Make it a point to go to queer Muslim Qur’an study. Stop being a wimp. After all, my biggest fear was that I’m not really a legit Muslim, that I’m not sure I ever want to be a legit Muslim. I didn’t want to appear foolish or stupid (silly, I know) by praying wrong or saying ignorant things that would appear disrespectful. I waited.

 

Tonight, I spent the day with Dinah then Bahar, then went to Qur’an study.

 

There were only a couple people there, Amelie and Rasta. Rasta and I had met before but have not had much by way of conversation. Amelie I was meeting for the first time. Often, there’s more people people. As we opened conversation awkwardly, with Amelie facilitating, we tossed the question around as to whether anyone had a passage.

 

I said no. (In the back of my mind I was thinking there’s that horrible one – of course.)

 

Rasta and Amelie were patient. They encouraged me to pick again. I hemmed and hawed, but somehow, I asked if we could discuss Sūrah 26 Ash-Shu’arā.

 

Just reading it, I got all hot again. What is this? Why are poets bad? They’re not bad! My thoughts ceased as Amelie and Rasta began reciting the Qur’an in Arabic. It felt so right. Their voices were angelic to me. Even if there was a stumble or quaver, it sounded, well, like poetry. Like song.

 

Amelie pursed her lips as we began discussion and looked thoughtful, flipping through the rather lengthy passage again and again. Rasta suggested that we read the footnotes/comments in the Abdullah Yusuf Ali version of the Qur’an.

 


3237. The Poets: to be read along with the exceptions mentioned in verse 227 below. Poetry and other arts are not in themselves evil, but may, on the contrary, be used in the service of religion and righteousness. But there is a danger that they may be prostituted for base purposes. If they are insincere (“they say what they do not”) or are divorced from actual life or its goodness or its serious purpose, they may become instruments of evil or futility. They then wander about without any set purpose, and seek the depths (valleys) of human folly rather than the heights of divine light.


 

As we were discussing my inability to critically examine real people, T gracefully weaved in her critique of a story I’d written.

 

In one of my stories, Lula (wow I almost just gave a fake name to my fictional character), one of the characters, has had a terrible life; she’s truly wounded by the immigration system, as well as being subjected to sexual abuse, and in order to heal herself, she seduces another character.

 

T called me out and said – the problem with your story is that Lula is doing this selfish thing, but the story is so sentimental that nobody, including the main character is being honest, about Lula’s behavior. I mean, if the characters aren’t honest that’s fine, but then the story has to be honest.

 

How would that happen, I asked T, if I’m writing about dishonest characters? Then I confessed – I know somebody who is a lot like Lula, and I love her in real life.

 

T told me: you could have at least one character be somewhat critical, or you could do it through the narrative voice. But, the real problem is that you the writer love these characters so much that you’re not willing to see them for who they really are. It shows in the story.

 

You know how a story gets flat. That’s because the writer isn’t willing to go to the hard emotional confrontation, the acceptance and struggle with what is really happening. Your story is so nostalgic because you are nostalgic.

 

An interpretation of a truth I’d heard from so many writers, including Junot Diaz, replayed itself in my mind. Every fucking flaw you have as a person shows up on the page.

 

I guess it’s true, I said to T.

 

 

***

 

With Amelie and Rasta, I struggled to justify this passage of the Qur’an, still feeling defensive. Amelie continued to read. We were quiet.

 


 

3238. Poetry and the fine arts which are to be commended are those which emanate from minds steeped in the Faith, which try to carry out in life the fine sentiments they express in their artistic work, aim at the glory of Allah rather than at self-glorification or the fulsome praise of women with feet of clay, and not (as in Jihād) attack anything except aggressive evil. In this sense a perfect artist should be a perfect woman. Perfection may not be attainable in this life, but it should be the aim of every woman, and especially of one who wishes to become a supreme artist, not only in technique but in spirit and essentials.


 

 

My mind summoned T. I told them immediately about our conversation the other day, eliding the irrelevant parts about my writing.

 

I know this is going to sound strange, but I was having this conversation the other day with this wonderful writer T. An artist must strive to be a better person. That we can only be as insightful a writer as we are a person. Maybe this is what the Qur’an means? That an artist must not shy away from her weaknesses. Instead, in our real lives we must become the Poets. We cannot write without confronting ourselves.

 

Rasta thanked me for what I’d said. You have such a good friend in T, she said.

 

What do you mean? I asked.

Somebody who will be honest with you and help you — doing this not to hurt you but to help you improve.

 

Amelie had been so considered. I already sensed that, like Rasta, she had deep wells of knowledge.

 

I see the arc now of the passage, she said, her voice emphatic. It begins with the Qur’an asserting itself as a holy text, but it ends with the Poets.

 

217 And put thy trust in the Exalted in Might, the Merciful –

218 Who seeth thee standing forth (in prayer),

219 And thy movements among those who prostate themselves,

220 For it is She who heareth and knoweth all things.

 

In Arabic, Amelie said, the word for heart literally means turning.

I don’t know how to translate this, she said.

But Imam Shafi’i the poet has a saying:

It was not called the heart except that it turns.

 

Amelie tells us that the Arabic word for heart is also the same root word for turn.

 


 

She’s only called woman cause of her forgetfulness,

and it is only called the heart cause it changes so rapidly

– Imam Shafi’i (translator unknown)


 

***

 

T, I confessed with such earnestness that it hurt me, I don’t think I can fix this story. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to be a better person? I’m not able to see and accept all the parts of the people in my life, especially the parts I don’t like. I don’t know if I can go there.

 

Try, she said. Struggle with this. Otherwise, your story will be flat. You can’t only write what appeals to you and not dig deeper.

 

A great writer must be a great person. They must have a personal encounter with what they’re writing.

 

The other night, I didn’t tell T that I was defending myself against my own judgment, against all the times I’ve been a poor judge of character. How I saw the good in other people, especially the people who treated me poorly. How I craved them, because they showed me the part of me I could accept. I tried for so many years to keep people away from the best parts of me. That was the part of me that I knew belonged to somebody else.

 

A true poet reflects their truths and examines their self and others full in the face.

 

At one point, T smiled at me and said, you can either keep doing the same things you’ve always done, T said, if you’re fine with how you are.

 

Or, you can change.

 

 

 

 

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