Monday, March 18, 2013

Catching Sunlight

At the bottom of the pool,
A sliver of light shimmers.

I try to stand on it, to be in it, to feel its warmth. In front of it
there is regular blue,
behind it and sideways there
is regular blue.

How can I be in it? The change
in temperature is so slight,
but I feel it and I crave it
and I stare at it, it looks
so bright. Should I fix myself on it and
embrace its fleeting presence?
or, enter into the expanse and forget about its shine, and how it brightens
a moment?

That shifting light reminds me of something distant, though still familiar
and thinking about it offers
that slight change in temperature, warmth,
though the memory is fleeting;
from day to day I enter the regular blue
where my existence is typical, comfortable.

I stretch out, dive below,
feel the cool water pass.

Monday, December 5, 2011


i go to sleep in my street
i dream about work
and mean-spirited
i shout when it comes to
and run
into the thick of the

these days are all
the same
the push and pull seems
not to tame
but exacerbate
the pain
i long to stay

and then a moment
by chance
away from the
the endless needs
the constant stance

in the water
i float
i sink
around my knees a
far away hangs the coat


the bubbles fade
the water falls

my mind is clear
my moment so long
it's as if you are here
listenin' to a
rare song

though it ain't coming back
that love
that i lack
that i hold on to
in the deepest  black
and the shouting comes back

and it's back to what i
need to do
turn off the tap

Sunday, November 27, 2011

i can imagine

i can imagine
that you are here

and that i'm sharing
the things that float
here and there

coming up in quiet conversation
what was that thought?
did you read that
i read it

what did you think
hmmm, me too.
it was in English
wasn't it

but that's okay
there's a saying
about this

there's a peace one must
with our choices

and i've made peace;
good night
we won't talk 'till morning

right now
there's another conversation
going on

Saturday, November 26, 2011


you were counting the years
but I had forgotten

life went on
and you went on
and here we are

significant accomplishments like babies
now children
to show for it all

sort of
despite unions
that weren't as planned,
that veered off course

growing up
while moms sighed
sometimes fretting
finding comfort with others left behind
all watching from afar

our lives shifted with days and nights that brought
change as constant
as the leaves that swirl outside these windows

standing with space and time behind us
content in this current moment, despite the grey;
fleetingly wondering what might have been

kaleidoscope away

you were counting the years
and you reminded me

you'll go
counting again
and I'll head home

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In search of Muslims to tell their stories

Aminata Diallo, the fictional protagonist in Lawrence Hill's bestselling novel The Book of Negroes, realizes early on that she had better cling to the details of her bondage so that she can later recount what she endures. “See, and remember,” she tells herself as her painful journey into slavery begins.

Years later, she fulfills her vision, becoming a djeji, or storyteller, sharing details of her life with people of myriad backgrounds and persuasions. Her story humanizes her to those who would otherwise view her as either a threat or a victim.

Though fictional, the book is one more testament to the critical importance storytelling plays in bridging psychological distances. This is how outsiders become insiders: by retelling their history, reminding other citizens of their shared experiences and offering their own perspectives.

It's something Canadian Muslims need to do more of.

We can produce press releases and absorb widely reported religious rulings, but what about poetry, song, art or literature?

As Black History Month activities cluster in cities across the continent, one realizes that a rich tradition of art and storytelling has helped the wider society understand the black community's struggles.

Muslims have yet to explore, share or appreciate their own experiences on the same level. We can produce press releases and absorb widely reported religious rulings, but what about poetry, song, art or literature? There are lots of books on Islam, but not many books written about everyday life, fictional or otherwise, that are based on Muslim themes or perspectives.

The problem is that far too few Muslims themselves pay attention to storytelling. For example, The Book of Negroes is relevant to the Muslim experience in Canada – the main character was born into Islam – but where are the book clubs to acknowledge it?

In fact, there is not a single, well-known national Muslim community newspaper, magazine or website in Canada. There are a few local ones, mainly run by volunteers, in a handful of cities. In Ottawa, one of only two weekly radio programs was cancelled a few years ago.

And unless Muslim writers are commenting on the overemphasized angles of the community's experiences (security, terrorism, women's rights and/or foreign politics) or railing against the faith, few of them will ever be widely read.

Besides, there are not that many trained writers to begin with. A journalism bursary for Muslim students at Carleton University sits unclaimed. Where are those who will tell our stories?

Yet there are hopeful threads in this narrative.

For the past two years, an eclectic group of Muslim women – retired teachers, engineers, PhD holders, artists, singers and scientists – have been gathering in Ottawa for a night of poetry, music, theatre and art. This year, Monia Mazigh, the wife of Maher Arar, launched the evening by reading an excerpt from her powerful memoir, Hope and Despair.

Rukhsana Khan, an award-winning children's author, continues to bridge cultural and religious divides with a growing collection of books that speak to and validate the multiple identities and experiences of Muslims.

Her stories and novels are in demand in schools and libraries across North America and as far away as New Zealand. Ironically, she is probably better appreciated among non-Muslims than within the Muslim community itself, which is slow to recognize achievements that are beyond the purview of engineering or science.

Thankfully, the fixation on career success that permeates the community has not prevented young Muslims from exploring their artistic sides.

In Mississauga, spoken-word artists, writers, singers and musicians converge annually for MuslimFest. It is a rare display of the community's under-promoted talent and attracts thousands of people to the Living Arts Centre, generating both buzz and revenue.

“Muslim youth are increasingly realizing their creative potential,” says Taha Ghayyur, a festival board member.

Some people conclude that it is, indeed, the second and later generations of Muslims who are finding their voice. The excuse is that their parents and grandparents were just too busy setting up house in a new country to tell any story at all. The reality is, though, that many Muslim immigrants come from places where fiction writing is not even taught or from places where the arts are undervalued or ignored.

When Hawa Kaba, a grandmother and celebrated artist living in Ottawa, held a special event for local Muslim women to share their stories against the backdrop of her African and Arabic-inspired collage, not one showed up.

“Art is not a luxury,” Ms. Kaba explains patiently to me a few months later. “And we do have a space that we need to fill.”

It's a space that requires far more than press releases, fatwas or forceful commentaries to convince others that we truly belong. Only our stories can testify to that.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Seeing Islam in Avatar

I must admit to having abandoned Hollywood blockbusters long ago, preferring a book, lecture or documentary to fill rare moments of leisure.

So I was rather skeptical when my husband coaxed me out of my Saturday routine to go see the much ballyhooed Avatar in 3-D at the IMAX theatre. It’s a short ride down the salt-chipped highway of my cold Canadian hometown.

Surrounded by pop, popcorn and poutine, I silently predicted I'd be bored out of my skull from a sci-fi movie that would doubtlessly become a marketing juggernaut, created to lull the masses into purchasing something or other, and providing yet one more opportunity for blokes to shell out money for fleeting entertainment instead of sending that cash to the suffering peoples of the world. Yeah, I can be a downer.

To my surprise, though, I experienced something akin to revelation. Truths revealed in multiple layers, symbolizing all that I hold dear in this world - the uniting power of organized religion, the value of ancestry, the sacredness of the earth and the bonds of humanity.

In essence, I saw Islam.

It is an Islam that is little known, and perhaps even Director James Cameron didn't realize how close he has come to representing the values of my faith in a movie that has already broken box-office records with its huge draws.

It isn't the plot that leads me to this claim, though it valiantly speaks to the oppression of peoples around the world and the nobleness of struggling against injustice. (Quick breakdown of the plot: A corporation, backed by a government's military, is after the wealth of a planet called Pandora. They are trying out "soft" diplomacy to trick the locals – the Na’vi - to move off the area beneath which valuable resources are buried. The locals reject the schools and “blue jeans” offered by “the Sky People”- after all, what use do they have for knowledge that has little resonance to their own ways? Certainly, they don't need to be rescued from their own way of life. The army moves in to take what they want by force, destroying the planet’s breathtaking environment, and attempting to sever families and shared histories. Sound familiar?).

Beyond the political overtones that could easily point to recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and in fact to most of the past colonial conquests that have decimated local cultures since time immemorial, religion is an important backdrop. It serves as the source of strength and guidance for a local community that is about to be wiped out by the marching orders of a secular, soul-less civilization. Echoes of pantheism reverberate here, but the Na’vi’s connectedness with all life forms, from animals, to plants to each other, represent the essence of a faith that recognizes the interconnectedness of all of creation – that we are indeed products of a one, unifying Creator who Has Decreed that we should be stewards of the earth.

“They didn’t need to die,” says a female Na’vi, Neytiri, after killing a creature that was about to claw apart Jack Sully, an ex-marine and avatar driver whose soul occupies a body that was artificially created through a combination of human and alien DNA. On his first visit to the planet, tasked with ingratiating himself with the local population to report back to the army, he is almost killed by wild beasts. When Neytiri sends arrows into the flesh of the creatures to stop their attack, she quickly uses a blade to slit their throats, as though she was in a halal slaughterhouse, murmuring a prayer and apology as the life rushes out of their bodies.

The Na'vi worship a spiritual force, the Eywa, which brings together the souls of their beings after death to the Tree of Souls. And while some of the spiritual practices are far removed from Islam, there are some remarkable similarities. The Na’vi face a central area of sacredness, to which they turn towards during prayer, and which unites them together in a brother and sisterhood just like the real-life House of God, the cube-shaped structure in Mecca, built by the Prophet Abraham and which Muslims face in prayer five times a day; And when the Na’vi pray, their worship is synchronized, in the same powerful way Muslims move in unison when the call to prayer has reverberated in city streets and over country sides around the world (and ringing out from cell phones and computers where minarets are hard to come by).

The aliens also revere their ancestors and value their elderly. This constant awareness and maintenance of familial ties could have been taken right out of the Muslim texts where the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, constantly implored believers to maintain ties of kinship at all cost. A society without a history is cut off from its values and its sense of self.

Even when the two leading characters come together to “mate”, it is only after the young male alien has proven his adulthood, and earned the right to care for a family. Religion in the film, as most religions in real life, regards marriage as holy. We all know how far removed this concept is from many of today’s cultural messages about this sacred connection, where condoms are instead handed out willy-nilly in high schools, and girls are encouraged to define their worth through their sexual prowess.

When the characters do eventually come together, their union is made known to the community, as though they had married, and the event signifies a final decision, not some adventure that starts one night and eventually ends.

By the end of the movie, one of the scientists who had been studying the Na’vi and who deeply respects their spiritual beliefs, admits to feeling the presence of something greater. Even science must concede to the Supernatural.

How many people could relate all of these messages to faith? How many more would know that Islam offers all of this and more? Very few, I’d wager if my faith permitted gambling.

Even as the Na’vi valiantly decide to fight against the Sky People on “martyrdom” missions, one wonders whether it is ironic that we are cheering on the aliens, who are, in essence, fighting back just as the Iraqis, Palestinians and Afghanis, etc., etc., consider themselves to be doing. Why does the world currently brand anyone who resists occupation as terrorists, while the aliens who are doing the exact same thing by defending their lands, their resources, their way of life, are quite obviously freedom fighters? This is not to defend the killing of innocent lives. In fact, when the Sky People bring down Hometree in which the aliens live, one need only remember the Prophet’s beautiful advice to anyone in armed conflict to know that Islam holds life sacred, and war must remain as humane as possible: Do not kill an elderly person, nor a child, nor a woman, and do not exceed the bounds,” and “. . . Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful.” Terrorists are those who break the rules of engagement, no matter which side they are on.

Perhaps it is the final juxtaposition of the female alien cradling her struggling human husband, released from his avatar, which sums up the key message of the movie. “I see you,” she says, a statement that carries much weight in a society where individuals actually see all living creatures as valuable and honour them with gentleness and respect, even if they look nothing like them. How different from a place where the spirit is neglected and every group eyes the other suspiciously. It isn’t much surprise when the main character decides to convert to this “real world”, leaving the world of heartless machinery and self-centered acquisition. This is where life represents peaceful co-existence with all that has been created, in reverence to the Force that created it. That is Islam, though too few people will ever truly see it.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Home away from home

In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Kind,
* * *

There was a time when home was more like a hotel. I'd drop in for some food, sleep, and to change outfits. On the rare weekends I would resign myself to self-imposed exile, it was to synthesize an essay or two from stacks of books.

I was typical of most young students who had yet to move out of the cocoon - for economic, social, or cultural reasons. And that was fine. I had my freedom. Sort of.

"You need to learn to stay at home," my father would mutter, yell or growl, depending on the time of day the comment had risen up. I'd shake a well-coiffed head and head out the door, with a "what for?" trailing behind me.

Ironic twist of fate that a budding career would be voluntarily cut short by marriage and babies. Voluntarily because I wanted to emulate a mother who was always home, always there. After all, it meant that someone valued me and my brothers enough to have a warm plate of food waiting for us when we came home; and valued us enough to be sure that it was a mother's smile that would pick us up after a long day at school.

I taught myself to stay home for several years and it wasn't easy (the Internet kept me busy enough, with work on the side to keep things interesting). And though I'm once again working, my mother's smile must remain on my face when work is done, supper is required, and homework beckons. It's my turn to be the responsible one, the calm one, the one that can do it all.

So it isn't surprising that the home I used to get away from eagerly, is now the one I return to with as much enthusiasm. It is in my childhood home where I truly find solace. While I didn't appreciate it so much back when I was young and free and careless, I am blessed to still have a place where I am coddled and cared for, and can explore being me. Even now, at 31, my dad does all he can to make sure I'm happy - and my whole li'l family, too (thank Goodness I have cute children, albeit messy and noisy ones!)

Anyway, I have to say that you were right, Dad. Staying home isn't so bad. Especially when you are there.