Monday, 1 September 2008


Al Salam 'Alaykum wa rahmatu Allahu wa barakatu.

May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon you.

Welcome to my blog.

This blog is about my trip to Tarim, a small town in Yemen. As is mentioned here:

Tarim is a historic town situated in the Hadhramaut Valley of eastern Yemen. Tarim is widely acknowledged as the theological, juridical, and academic center of the Hadhramaut Valley. An important locus of Islamic learning, it is estimated to contain the highest concentration of descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (sayyids) anywhere in the world. The city is distinguished for producing numerous Islamic scholars, including Imam al-Haddad.

I traveled to attend the summer Dowra, an intensive 40 day course in traditional Islamic sciences. Like one of my teachers said, we got the opportunity to study blessed topics in a blessed city.

I've tried my best to recount the experience as it was, though of course my account by no means does it justice. The experience needed someone who could wax poetically over it, and unfortunately I was not up to the task. Because of time constraints and our intensive schedule, I haven't been as articulate and thorough as I could have been, so forgive me if some entries seem choppy.

Any mistakes are completely my own, and if you were with me on this Dowra, please do let me know if I've misquoted someone, gotten something incorrect, or mentioned you and you'd like the mention removed. It was an honor to meet you all, and please forgive me if I somehow offended you or caused you any kind of distress.

This blog took up a lot more time than I thought it would when I began, so I hope it is beneficial to those of you who were with me, those of you who are thinking of traveling to Tarim, and those of you who want to know what life is like in a place where Islam is truly a way of life.

I've tried to split up my posts according to the topics I address in them in order to make the blog easier to browse through, since I've written quite a lot. But to get the real 'feel' of the experience, I'd advise you to bookmark the blog and read it from beginning to end.

I've also tried to include as many photos as I can to convey what I can't in words. If you use any of them, please do credit me as the photographer.

One last note: this blog is in no way affiliated with Dar al-Mustafa, Dar al-Zahra, or anyone of the Dowra administration. It is simply an account of my journey and my reflections.

I'll end this blog in the way the Dowra administration has been answering my emails to them for the past three years:

Please overlook my shortcomings, and keep me in your du'uas.


Elhamdulela I have finally managed to upload the Awrad, which follow Khulasah al-Madad al-Nabawi (The Essence of the Prophetic Support), a book of duas, dhikrs, awrad, and spiritual odes (qasa'id) which we used in Tarim and is compiled by Sayyidi al-Habib Umar b. Muhammad b. Hafiz (may Allah help us to benefit from him!). You can download it here.

In some instances, I have broken down the awrad into parts to make them easier to follow, and provided you with the full version if you want it complete. Most of the files are .mp3, some are .wav

I hope they are beneficial to you all, and please remember me in your du'uas.

Subhanoka eny kont men al-dhalemeen x 100
Asmaa' Allahu alhosna (Names of Allah) du'ua
Tahajud Qaseedas

FULL tahajud (59 mins)

After praying sunna (Version 1)
After praying sunna (Version 2)
From Dar al-Mustafa right after prayer
Saqqaf and Nawawi wird

Extra du'ua for Fajr and Asr

FULL after fajr prayer (38 mins)


After Dhur prayer

Aby Hassan Al-Shazely
Surat al-waq'ea
Extra du'ua for Fajr and Asr

FULL version of after Asr prayer (13 mins)


Before Maghrib with adhan (call to prayer)
Before Maghrib (Version 1)
Before Maghrib (Version 2)
After Maghrib (Version 1)
After Maghrib (Version 2, Longer)


After 'Isha Prayer


On Friday Night


After any prayer (bad quality, sorry)
Sh. Abu Bakr Bin Salem Wird
Salat ala al-naby
Surat al-Kahf
Surat Yaseen
Wird al-Latif


Adhan (Version 1)
Adhan (Version 2)
Adhhan uwais al-qarni

Aqeeda (Creed of) Imam Hadad
Clip of Imam Hadad's Qaseeda
Du'ua after listening to a dars (lecture)
Maqam in mawlid
Prophet Hud Salams
Rateb Imam Hadad (Version 1)
Rateb Imam Hadad (Version 2)
Rawha Qaseeda 1
Rawha Qaseeda 2
Qad esta'antoka raby (Qaseeda)

Saturday, 16 August 2008


This is what I'm looking at right now:

It's gorgeously idyllic. I’ve just spent a weekend doing absolutely nothing. A day swimming in the pool, and a day swimming in the sea. A night sleeping till noon and a night lying on a hammock trying to make out the summer triangle constellation.

I know that I deserve a weekend off before I go back to work tomorrow, and that this weekend is basically my holiday, but I can’t get over the fact that Tarim seems so so far at this moment. Looking at the palm trees in the garden is like pressing on a bruise near my heart.

Summer in Egypt is the time of bumming around and literally doing absolutely nothing other than having fun. People wake up at noon, spend all day at the beach, and then all night chilling, not going to bed before dawn.

Being on the north coast in the summer, seeing everyone dressed so revealingly was honestly a kind of shock. After living with people with so much modesty it just seems so crude to be walking around half naked. So much flaunting of the flesh, and honestly it makes me despair about how low we've sunk and how far we have to go if we want to get ourselves out of this pit we've dug ourselves into.

On the (all female) beach, I had fun. But once I found myself singing along about them apple bottom jeans and beautiful liars along with the DJ, I had to take a step back.

It’s so easy to get sucked back into everything you say you want to stay away from. But this is the period where I have to be strongest, where I have to formulate the habits I want to keep. I don't want to slip back into my normal life; I don't want to have the incredible experience of Tarim register as no more than a blip on the radar of my life.

The lives of (most) people in the social circles I'm part of are fake and hollow. Oh yes, they're definitely glittering and extravagant, but they're empty.

We were invited yesterday to one of the ‘social gatherings’ my family frequents, and it got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. The gossiping, the aimless conversation that was absolutely devoid of purpose, the fake laughter and the vapidity of it all got to me.

So I took off to sit outside and look at the water, only to hear pounding stereo music in the distance. Like I said I would, I miss the silence of Tarim.

Eventually we left at 2:30 in the morning only to get stuck for an hour in traffic on the way back (and this is a highway) because of a concert Egypt's most famous singer (Amr Diab) was giving.
And this was the night of the 15th of Sh'aaban.

I’m laughing on the outside, having fun with my family and friends, but on the inside I feel off-kilter. Tarim seems like it was a million miles away, and I miss almost everything about it. I want to hold on it to it but with every passing day it gets further away. It's like holding on to a dream when you wake up, or like Bastian in the Never ending story trying to hold on to his memories. If Tarim was a well I took water from, then it's like trying to hold on to that water which I’ve simply cupped in my hand. My Yemeni housedress has become my security blanket, but I can't hold on to it forever.

I find myself thinking to myself: did it really happen? Did I just spend 40 days of my life in one of the purest places I will ever visit? A place where you feel the entire universe conspires to help you be the best you could possibly be?

I just had a big Egyptian breakfast with my family and then the indulgence of eating grapes while sitting on a bar stool in the pool. I can hear the waves crashing on the beach and I have the sun on my face and a breeze on my back. Insh'Allah I'm going to go have a seafood dinner while watching the beautiful sunset on a shore in Alexandria. I’m happy.

But would you believe I was happier trudging to Dar al-Zahra in the blazing heat dressed in black from head to toe and getting by on three hours of sleep? Perhaps it was a different kind of happiness, but it was definitely a more ‘full-bodied’ happiness, a richer kind.

Tomorrow I go back to work, and the real real world.

This will be my last entry. I think I’ve fulfilled the request that I write some of my reflections after my return, and any more will just be dragging out the inevitable: that things have to come to an end sooner or later.

Today there's going to be a lunar eclipse. They say du'aa is accepted then. So my du'a today, as it was on the last day of the Dowra when it rained, is to go back to Tarim one day. I said once that I wanted Tarim to come back with me. Today I'll add on to that: I hope that Tarim came back with me and that it will stay with me.
Ya rab.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008


I'm back in Cairo.

It feels so good to be home. To breathe in the polluted air, to be out in the gridlocked streets, and to become one of the 80 million that inhabit this country.

It's so good to see the rest of my family, and more importantly, sleep in my bed :)

Getting back to 'normal' life feels strange, almost as if my life had been on hold for six years rather than six weeks. It feels strange to wear a different pair of shoes, considering the fact that I've been wearing the same pair for six weeks. It's strange to drive my car, to go off and run errands that are so not constructive—I mean, I know they're necessary, but they don't seem vital.

It's the middle of August which means this is the hottest it's going to get, and yet I feel like I'm in Spring. After Tarim, I don't think I'm ever going to think Egypt is hot again.
I'm off to the beach.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008


It’s back to the dunya, and nowhere epitomizes the dunya more than Dubai, where I’ve just spent the last couple of days.

Tarim and Dubai aren’t just on opposite sides of the spectrum, they’re on completely different planets. And to go from one extreme to the other has been more difficult than I could’ve imagined, being thrust into everything we’ve been so far away from for weeks and weeks. Even the view around me is aesthetically distressing—imagine going from seeing mud houses to seeing Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world.

Other than the moon, absolutely nothing is the same.
I have Tarim withdrawal symptoms.

I can’t get over how much stuff is around us. I’ve gotten so used to subsisting on so very little—and I proved to myself that it’s possible to do so—so everything just seems like such an extravagance, and all the stuff that seems so necessary just seems superfluous. There are four mirrors in my hotel room, and I find myself just looking around at them, bewildered at their uselessness. Why do I need four mirrors?

I spent my first day in Dubai with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Not butterflies, but more like a rock. I spent half the day sleeping and woke up feeling uncomfortable, like there was something important I had to do that I had forgotten, or like I had lost something. It seems strange to be doing nothing.

Physically, I couldn't be better. The first thing I did when I got to the hotel was order room service, and man did I enjoy my steak with french fries. And dessert. Then I slept on the poofy pillows in the divinely comfortable hotel bed. Waking up when my body wanted to wake up was pure bliss.

But emotionally, I feel torn. I can't bring myself to shop, and when I did eventually drag myself to a mall, I couldn't help myself from just watching people around me. I felt that I was looking at them from far away, and that everyone scurrying around was failing miserably at seeing the bigger picture, like ants who cannot comprehend the universe around them.

Dubai is a life of heedlessness. The word soul sucking is perfect for it. The people here have every material thing they could possibly dream of—I even saw an advert for a 24 carat gold facial!—and yet they're still not happy. They're still unfulfilled and striving to fill a gaping hole in their souls which many cannot comprehend. Contrast that with the people of Tarim, whose faces are aglow with spiritual contentment and I just feel all the more depressed.

Oh sure, I had fun with my Dowra sisters who were also here in Dubai for a few days. We went to the movies, stayed up all night talking and enjoyed our caramel popcorn, krispy kreme doughnuts and room service. So I'm happy in a sense, but being plunged into an ocean of materialism with no buffer leaves me adrift in confusion.

Because of the way I was living, it seems like I have crystal clear vision. I can laugh now at the branded sunglasses and bags, looking straight through them as the pathetic displays of ostentation they are. I passed through Harvey Nicholas and I was tempted by nothing. I can see the materialism driven world we live in for the sham it is. But will my eyesight be so clear in a year? In a month even? How quickly will I slip back into my normal life and into my 'normal' way of thinking?

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Day 40 (Cont'd): Leaving Tarim

A valley right outside Tarim after yesterday's rain.
I know that technically this is day 41, but since I didn't sleep last night I'm just going to continue with Day 40 so I can stick to the blog title of 40 days.

So we go up on the roof at 2:30 am and it begins to rain slightly. It was beautiful to walk to Dar al-Zahra in the cool weather and feel the rain drops on my face (took off the niqab—no one is in the streets at that time). Only it turns out the electricity was out and it was pitch black in Dar al-Zahra and stifling with no AC. My small portable radio came to the rescue and we could listen to the awrad. It was a surreal experience to be in the dark reciting the awrad. Though at the same time without the distraction of the lights, the sound of the AC, and people around you, it kind of boiled the experience down to the bare bones of what it's supposed to be: just you trying to connect with Allah.

After fajr was a mawlid, a series of small lectures and qaseeda recitations.

We then had our final mosafaha, only this time it was mosafahat al-wada' (farewell), where you literally hugged every single Dar al-Zahra student, kissed their hand, and asked for their forgiveness and du'ua. I'm not a huggy person and I dithered for ages before finally joining the line as the last person since I knew it would take so long, but Subhan Allah it was a beautiful experience. Girls I only knew by 'face' cried as they hugged me, and I truly felt like I'd miss them. And other than the fact that my back and knees hurt from bending down to hug them (it seems every single Dar al-Zahra girl is short compared to me) I am so glad I went.

I then made my way back to the Dowra house, and after it a whirlwind of packing, we sat down for our last 'meeting' in our communal room. Some hababas were there, as well as women from the Dowra administration who had helped organize our incredible stay here.

We were each given small gifts (mine was a pretty incense kit) and a copy of all the Dowra lectures in English for free, which is truly the best gift of all. We were also given certificates of participation in the Dowra, and it was the first time certificates have even been given for the English Dowra participants. The certificates said:

The administration of Dar al-Mustafa for Islamic studies recognizes the participation of x from x who attended the summer intensive that was held from 1/7/2008 until 6/8/2008 of the Gregorian calendar, which coincided with the 27th of Jamad al-Akbar until the 5th of Sha'ban 1429 Hijri during which they received lessons in various Islamic sciences including jurisprudence, theology, Hadith methodology and transmission, as well as Qur'anic science. This certification should also serve to remind said student to remain God conscious and to work towards the embodiment of the characteristics and mannerisms of the Prophet Mohammad may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him. We also advise that they continue studying these sciences as well as teaching others and implementing that which they were taught. Habib Umar.
We then had a little program to thank our supervisors, and above all, our wonderful wonder Ustadah Moneeba. I have learned so much from her and I am going to miss her so much. We sang her a song to the tune of Zain Bhika's I think my mum is amazing that one of us rewrote the lyrics to, so it read "I think my mushrifa is amazing." Seriously, I don't think there was a dry eye in the house.

And so after a lot of hugging and furiously writing notes in each other's notebooks we made our way over to the Seyium airport, which is literally the size of a large room.
There was a European woman there dressed in a miniskirt and tank top, and it was very disconcerting to see—almost like culture shock.

An hour later we were in San'aa, and the luxury of a hotel room (a real real hotel) seems so so so decadent. I know that in a couple of days I'll automatically adjust again, and won't even think of it, but now the luxury of a fully equipped bathroom with marble floors and chocolates on my pillow just felt strange. On the plus side, the beautiful weather in San'aa feels like a gift—for me the weather is like Egyptian winter.

After 'isha, we then had an amazing opportunity: to sit with Habib Ali (who had just landed in San'aa) for a two hour Q & A session. Now that's a fitting ending to the Dowra.

And that's it.

Day 40: Our last day

It feels weird to write about today just like it's any other day. It still hasn't sunk in that today is really our last day. And I don't want to think about it so I'll just talk about today like it was any other day.

Today I went through another lesson in patience: I got stuck outside Dar al-Zahra from 3:20 until 4am, which meant I basically missed tahajud (though I turned on my radio and did my awrad outside). We were stuck outside because apparently they couldn't find the woman who has the key. (They lock the doors at night and I'm assuming the key changes rooms/ women who keep it every night). Patience is definitely something I have to work on.

Anyway, after dawn lots of men from Dar al-Mustafa spoke about the end of the Dowra and what it means to them for about an hour.

The Jewish convert spoke again, and this time about da'wah [calling people to Islam/ properly transmitting Islam's message]. And Subhan Allah he was incredible; he says he was so joyful with Islam that he literally took a road trip from New York to California to talk to people on his way about Islam. He went right up to a man at a gas station and asked him if he knew about the Day of Judgment. He went up to a man in a doctor's office. Both of them took shahada at his hands, and converted to Islam.

I can't understand the bravery of going up to people and initiating a discussion about Islam, especially when they didn't ask, or worse, if you don't know them. The Jewish convert says he gives da'wah to everyone, even a police officer who once pulled him over for speeding.
He reminded me of Fadel Soliman, the president of Bridges Foundation. When I was doing the first stage of Dr. Soliman's Public Presenters for Peace (PPP) program, which is how to present Islam to non-Muslims, he told us a story to illustrate how important it is to give da'wah to everyone:

I was on a plane in the US and it was a four hour flight. I asked the woman sitting next to me if she wanted to listen to a presentation about Islam. She said no. I told her, how about you listen to it and I give you $100 if you don't learn anything? She said ok. So I gave her the presentation. I asked her if she wanted the money, and she said no.

For me, speaking to non-practicing Muslims about Islam is hard, let alone to non Muslims. Religion is just such a sensitive topic and it's just so awkward.

Anyway, half an hour after the awrad finished we got on a bus to visit the mosques in Tarim. I was thinking of not going since I'd only had two hours of sleep, but I am so glad I went.

The bus dropped us off in the Ba 'Alawi square, known as the heart of Tarim. Our first stop was the Ba 'Alawi mosque, built by Faqih al-Moqaddam's grandson. I prayed in the area he used to pray in.

Then we went to the mosque of Abu Qader al-Saqqaf, who wanted to marry al-Sheikha Sultana.

Then we went to the mosque of Muhammad (Sa'ad) bin 'Alawi al-'Aidrus, and I prayed in his khalwa (seclusion/ worship) area. It was seriously creepy—the room (if you can call it that) is basically a hole in the ground, and when I put my elbows out I touch the sides. The ceiling is 10 cm above my head, and you can't lie down in it. I was there for 10 minutes and felt claustophobric, how could he stand to be there for so long? It's definitely coffin like and I'm guessing reminded him of being in the grave one day.

Our last stop in the morning was the mosque of Omar al-Saqqaf, the son of Abu Qader al-Saqqaf. He's known as Omar el-Mihdar (the present) though, because of his 'presence,' and his daughter 'Aisha is buried there. The mosque is huge, and has the tallest mud minaret in the world.

The wudu' (ablution) areas in the mosque are split up into tiny rooms, and each one has a steep well full of water for ghusl (kind of like the ones in the Afghani Osama movie. Osma was the name of the girl hero, not that Osama). I had a quick dip and it was surprisingly cool and refreshing.

After 'asr was the khatm [closing] for women in Habib Umar's courtyard, and it was so so packed. It was similar to Dar al-Mustafa's, minus the speeches. Habib Ali's daughter (she's 9) gave a little lecture and mash'Allah her mannerisms are exactly like her dad's, a scholar in the making.

After 'isha we visited zambal again, which was a great opportunity since last time we didn't really get a chance to properly visit since it had been so late.

We're all just chilling now in a room, eating all the leftover cookies and crackers I bought when I went to the supermarket with my brother a while back. We asked a henna woman to come over, and I just had henna done. It took almost two hours to do the front and back of my hands and arms up to my elbows, but it's so beautiful—a fitting way to celebrate my time in Tarim.

Tahajud is in 40 minutes, so we're going to spend the time until then up on the roof, one last time.

I can't believe I'm leaving in 12 hours. It seems so surreal and it hasn't really hit me that I have to get up and pack now, that this is my last night on this mattress, in this house, up on that roof staring at those mountains.

It rained buckets today—it's only rained that way once since I've been here, at the 20 day mark. It's wonderful to walk in the rain and breeze.

They say du'ua is accepted when it rains, that the doors of the sky are opened. So my du'ua is: To come back to Tarim one day, insh'Allah.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Day 39 (Cont'd): Wrapping Up

There's only one more day to go. It's time to write down my resolutions before I go back and get sucked back into the 'real' world.

Being here in Tarim, I've given up a lot of stuff cold turkey—beds, fast food, facebook, driving, pleasure reading, TV, music, clothes, mirrors etc. And there's a whole lot of other stuff which I've almost given up cold turkey like soft drinks, chocolate and the internet.

It's weird in a good way to not have all that stuff, but it's been a lot easier than I thought to not have it. Don't get me wrong, the second I'm on the plane I'm taking off my niqab, having a fast food feast and spending a day on facebook and another day sleeping, but I know that in a day or two I'll have satiated the desire for all the things I'm looking forward to, and that after a couple of days they're not going to be all that. So even though I'm looking forward to going back I'm not desperately looking forward to it.

(Note: I have the utmost respect for niqabis, but niqab just isn't for me. But this experience has made me respect niqabis a lot more than I used to, and has given me a more open mind about what it entails to wear it. I don't dislike it as much as I used to).

I know myself, and I know that if I don't make some concrete resolutions to stick up on my wall, I might forget all my good intentions. Character wise, there's a whole list of things I'm hoping to implement, but basically it boils down to me needing to think more before I speak, and to treat my family the way I do friends.

As for the 'outward' acts:
  • Never miss fajr prayer. Get up for tahajud at least during the weekend. It's sunna and as Sheikh Imad says,

    "Sunna [supplementary] acts protects the fard [obligatory]."

    i.e. if you do sunna, then when you get lazy you'll just skip it. But if you don't do it then when you get lazy you'll skip the fard.
  • Keep up with my awrad—the bare minimum is the wird al-Latif, which insh'Allah I will learn by heart. Keep the kholasa with me everywhere I go.
  • Use the sewak as often as I can.
  • Say "Salam Alaykum wbt" when I answer the phone.
  • Stop to listen to the adhan. I live in the city of 1,000 minarets, I have no excuse not to.
  • Finish reading Imam al-Ghazali's Ihya' [Revival of the Religious Sciences].
  • Create a whole load of anasheed playlists. My room supervisor so very kindly allowed me to copy 12 GB worth of anasheed and lectures from her computer, so again, I have no excuse.
  • Go back and review/ re-memorize all the Qur'an juz's (chapters) I memorized as a child. Read at least a hezb (2.5 pages) of Qur'an a day.
  • Read at least one Arabic book a fortnight.
They may not seem like 'big' changes, but as Imam al-Halabi said:

To do a thing today, and the same tomorrow
Gathering is the essence of knowledge.
This one may achieve wisdom,
For a stream is but the gathering of drops.

In the end, I want to leave, not from Tarim, but with Tarim.

Day 39: One day left

There was bay'aa with Habib Umar today—those of us who did it got to hold on to his shawl (which apparently smelt beautiful).

There are no more classes scheduled, so from sunrise to 'asr we did nothing because the electricity was out and none of us could summon the energy to do anything. The electricity has been crazy all week, and we've been stuck without AC for a couple of hours at least twice this week—thank God for the mulan-style fans, I think they're the best thing we bought :)

Today we also attended a hadra [gathering] after 'asr, where we basically recite a number of qaseedas. Habib Umar's wife then gave a small lecture about the benefits of dhikr and doing salawat on Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

There were women selling stuff there so I ended up buying one of the Tarimi straw baskets they put heef in—In Egypt we eat baladi bread which is also big and round so it's perfect. I also bought some Tarimi straw handheld brooms—as a souvenir, of course :) And of course some of the great Tarimi cupcakes (they put heel (cardamonn) in them which gives them a really great taste) and Tarimi mint.

Today the ring I had ordered also arrived, it's a really pretty one with Prophet Mohammad's seal imprinted in it.

After Maghrib was the Dowra's closing ceremony in Dar al-Mustafa, and it was packed. We could see (on TV of course) men sitting in the doorway and beyond.

It was a really beautiful two hour program. Qasidas were recited, including Imam Hadad's that we studied in the rawha, and then some men got up to recite things they had memorized from their shar'ia books. Young boys recited some hadiths, and others the du'ua you make when you leave the house. Other men got up and said the most important thing they learned from the Dowra. So basically, snippets of what they'd learned.

Then two men from the English Dowra spoke, and one of them said he couldn't understand his wife's longing to come here, and only understood it when he came. That's so true—unless you come here, you won't know what you've been missing. Like he said, Tarim represents everything Islam stands for, and here you feel that every single person is better than you. If you find yourself weakening and getting engrossed in the dunya when you get back, he advised, all you have to do is close your eyes and remember everyone you've met here.

Another British guy then spoke (a lot of Brits come here by the way because the habayeb visit England a lot more often than they do the States) and said how incredible it was to sit with people who have seen faces who have seen faces who have seen faces who have seen the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

Then a lot of different men spoke—one recited some slightly peculiar poetry, one Egyptian (go Egypt!) gave advice, one was Tanzanian etc. One scholar (I think his name was al-Shattery) said that if we leave here having memorized Imam Hadad's qaseeda and implement it in our lives, then that would be more than enough.

Finally, the night ended with Habib Ali and Habib Umar speaking.

Today's Quote: People are sick of kalam [talk] and they won't listen to it anymore. We don't need people who talk anymore, we need people who act, and who do da'wah through their character and behavior, not their speech. Habib Ali

Monday, 4 August 2008

Day 38: Muslim while flying

We found a huge scorpion-looking bug in our room today, with two strange suction looking things at its head. I will definitely not miss the bugs here, especially the fat looking ants.

Today was technically the last day of classes, and it felt very strange to know that, especially since we are in no way close to finishing the assigned texts in most of the classes.

In Fiqh class today one of the brothers brought up a very interesting topic: 'Muslim while flying.' I loved Baba Ali's video about what you should and shouldn’t do when traveling, but somehow I never realized how hard it must be to be constantly looked at with a suspicious eye simply because you're a Muslim. The brother who spoke talked about how the flight attendent wouldn't even look at him when he wanted 7Up, and how frightened she was when he tried to go to the bathroom during turbulence. It's sad how the media has managed to paint Muslims as the enemy. I wish I could somehow hold Tarim up and say "this is what Islam is, this is what its followers should be doing. What you see is not Islam."

We then had an optional Q & A session with our fiqh teacher, and he asked us all to think hard about what we will take back with us from Tarim. Insh'Allah I'll talk about that in a separate post.

After 'asr we finished adab al-nofoos, the book we are studying in the rawha, and Habib Umar gave us all ijaza in teaching it. Elhamdulela I managed to buy the CDs of the entire rawha so I can re-listen to them back home. I feel bad for the westerners since they were only available in Arabic.

After maghrib we had a surprise—Habib Ali was back. He left a week ago to go to Yale University in America for the first follow up conference of A Common Word, and we had been told he most probably wouldn't be back for the end of the Dowra. So it was a welcome surprise when he saw him. The session was a Q & A session, and it had one added benefit—the women had a microphone and were allowed to ask their questions (gasp) out LOUD. Kudos to Habib Ali.

He told us a story in answer to a question, and it was about Habib Umar and his ethar:
Some Indonesian students came to study in Tarim in a winter back when the facilities weren't as complete, and they complained to Habib Umar that they didn't have blankets. So Habib Umar went inside his house and came back with blankets. They said they weren't enough so he went back and brought more. They told him there was one more student without a blanket so he went back, stayed a very very long time and eventually came back with a blanket that didn't smell very nice.

The next day, the Indonesian students were told by someone who worked in Habib Umar's house: "Do you know what happened in Habib Umar's house yesterday? You wanted blankets so he gave you his and his wife's blanket. You wanted more, he gave you his daughters' blankets. You wanted one more, and he could only find the blanket of his baby son, which is why it didn't smell very nice.
This was at a time when Habib Umar didn't have enough money to create duplicate copies of his tapes, let alone buy new blankets.

Habib Ali then ended the story by telling us that he wasn't telling us a story of scholars gone by, but of someone in our lifetimes.

al-Ethar is a beautiful thing.

Today's Quote: Falsehoods spread with money and wealth, truth with sacrifice. Da'wa isn't a bed of roses, you should expect it to be hard. Habib Ali

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Day 37: Final Reflections on Classes

Old Qur'ans at Sheikha Sultana's mausoleum in Tarim
Tahajud: This isn't really a class, but part of the Dowra experience that I really enjoyed and wish I'd taken better advantage of. But because we pray tahajud in the Dowra house, I only actually attended tahajud in Dar al-Zahra my first and last week. And that's embarrassing to admit because there are some of us who attend as often as they can to listen to the award, and—this is the embarrassing bit—they don't even speak Arabic! If I didn't speak or understand Arabic I'd probably just fall asleep or not bother to get up in the first place except to pray.

But tahajud in Dar al-Zahra is such a communal, sharing experience that time flies by. It is so so hard back home to wake up for 10 minutes to pray fajr, and I can press the snooze button on my alarm every five minutes for a whole hour because I'm too tired to get up. But it's so much easier here.

Part of it is because they read the awrad together (I think the Kholasa (the awrad book) is my best friend now) and so you feel like you're doing something constructive with the time, and not just sitting there aimlessly for half an hour thinking 'ok, I prayed my tahajud, what du'ua should I make now?' And because you're doing it together there's much less chance of you stopping halfway through or daydreaming or losing concentration. It gives you added incentive to do the awrad, especially since they’re on the radio—you can just turn it on after every prayer and recite them. Plus they do it in a sing song voice so it's not just monotonously reading from. I am going to miss that voice a lot, I know I will.

Even walking to and from Dar al-Zahra for tahajud is a good experience—you get to reflect in the silent darkness on the way there, and enjoy the sunrise, good weather, and rooster crowing on your way back. Plus of course you get ajr for every step you take.

I think I've spent more time in the mosala (prayer area) in Dar al-Zahra praying, doing awrad, memorizing Qur'an etc, than I have in any time I've been to the haram in Mecca, Subhan Allah.
I will really miss it here. Most of all, I will miss the mosafaha, the Dar al-Zahra girls, and the comforting, Indonesian, (slightly nasal sounding) "astaghfero Allahhhhhh, astaghfero Allahhhhhh, astaghfero Allahhhhhhh."

Tajweed/ Qur'an memorization: Our teacher was really really good mash'Allah, and even though I've been reciting and memorizing Qur'an for years she caught me on a number of things I do wrong when I recite, which insh'Allah I'm going to word hard to correct. Basically we went over tajweed rules, and recited to her once a week.
Again, this class makes me thank Allah so much for the blessing of Arabic. So much of the tajweed rules I knew instinctively because I speak Arabic, while I could see others who didn't know struggling with the pronunciation. Elhamdulela.

Elhamdulela I managed to memorize surat yaseen and a quarter of surat al-kahf, which I'm planning to finish insh'Allah when I get back. I think this class is particularly good for westerners who might not have as easy access to good Qur'an teachers in the west. But since elhamdulela I do, I kind of wish we didn't have this class three times a week and instead took another class that we can't study as easily in our countries with teachers who are as qualified.

Fiqh: I love our teacher, mash'Allah he's funny, interactive, and most of all—acknowledges the fact that there are women there too! But unfortunately, we've only covered purification and a little bit of prayer. It's good because you realize how vast knowledge is, how little you know and how much you have to learn, but bad because we haven't covered as much.

It's weird to realize that almost all of our class textbooks are just small booklets. The fiqh class book is an A5 sized 33 page booklet, Lives of Man is only 70 something pages, and the Divine Unity book is the tiniest of all—in Arabic it's literally a pocket sized (or actually more like the size of half your palm) 12 page booklet.

al-Rawha: What can I say about the Rawha? Just that it's truly a class that makes you feel like the most worthless person in the word. This class makes me feel 10 times worse than I did when I read Sh Hamza's Purification of the Heart, or studied a similar class with him during the Rihla.

The only drawback about this class is that it's too spiritually high (for me). I feel like I have a long way to go before I can even attempt to address the issues Habib Umar is speaking about. Like, for example, he was saying today: If you were offered the chance to be the king of the entire world from the beginning to the end of the time and your heart is moved at all by that, then your heart isn't pure enough. As if. Here's me still struggling with not gossiping and you're talking about the purest purest heart. As my housemate Masooma says: We still need to be potty trained.

But one thing that struck me particularly in the rawha is how much the book we're studying mentions 'al-Ethar.' I asked those who listened to the translation how it was translated and they said as 'preference,' but of course that doesn't convey the entire meaning. So yeah, it struck me because of course that's my name, and it made me realize what an important thing it is to have. So I'm working on that.

Beginning of Guidance: This is my favorite class. I realized a couple of weeks ago that I've actually had this book for years when I saw an identical copy to mine in Dar al-Zahra (in Arabic). The Arabic version is pocket book sized, and it's one of those books I picked up somewhere that's sitting on a shelf which I'm going to read 'one day.'
So Subhan Allah, like one of my housemates believes, "if you're meant to get knowledge, you'll get it when its time." So maybe I wouldn't have identified as much with the book as I have now in this stage of my life. I loved this class because I feel, unlike the rawha, that some of the things we're studying are actually within my reach—like trying to not lie, backbite etc.

Da'wah in the West: Habib Ali is incredible mash'Allah. You would never think that someone as 'traditional' as he was could have so much insight and understanding towards the issues Muslims in the West face. And even though Habib Ali was only here for about two weeks worth of classes, we still learned a lot.

Da'wah: I really loved this class. Habib Ali really hit the nail on the head—the three main issues you need to address before you do da'wah. I think I'm going to try and translate the main points in these lectures and post them.

Hadith: I loved this class. It's the only one where we've almost covered all the material (probably because it was the only one in English so we didn't lose half the time in translation), and I've learned so much from it.

Lives of Man: I love all of Imam Hadad's books (and I really recommend everyone read them, most have been translated), and studying this book with Habib Umar has been great—I've read it twice before and yet I've learned things in our class that I never even thought of. I wish we could have covered all five stages though (we only managed to cover the first two).

Divine Unity: A vital course everyone needs to study.

Seerah: Listening to seerah will always be beautiful, no matter how many times I listen to it.

I've learned so much on this Dowra. But again, I've learned so much more out of class than in it, more from the people and the place than from the books.

Today I went to the bookstore and the supermarket with my brother. And this is going to sound really sad, but I had a lot of fun. I guess deprivation makes the most mundane things fun. Apparently, the Yemeni alternative to Red Bull is 'Sharks.'

Today we were also invited for dinner in someone's mansion, complete with swimming pool and pool tables.
Today's Quote: Staying away from the dunya [world] doesn't mean secluding yourself. It means, like a scholar once said, "have the dunya in your hand, and not your heart. The new dhikr of our time is monitoring stocks 24 hours [a day]. Do business, be a millionaire, but don't have the dunya in your heart. Don't let money control you—you must control it. Sheikh Imad

Day 36 (Cont'd): Party

Well, I really don't know what to say. Other than the Danish/ Swedish/ Belgium group just swept and wiped the floor with us.

It's so hard to think of a way to convey the experience. If I write it like it was: "we sang nasheeds and ate," it sounds so mundane and the kind of thing that'll make people say: "ohhhhhh, okayyyyy then, rock on," before looking away and rolling their eyes at how boring that sounds.

But it was so so much fun. I know it seems silly to say it was a 'fulfilling' night, but that's what it was.

So we go to the Danish/Swedish/Belgium house, expecting that nothing they could do could top our night and the program that we had prepared for them when they came to our house. But their hospitality put ours to shame.

So we sit and in front of every group is a plate of fruit, a plate of chips, and a plate of cookies. Honestly, I thought that was the dinner, especially since one of them had told my roommate that they just had "snacks and tea."

And then the nasheed band walks in. Yes, they hired the Tarimi nasheed band to entertain us. I don't know how it happened, but somehow almost everyone got up to dance, and it was one of the strangest things ever. You had some dancing Tarimi style (kind of resembles the two step), some African style, some Kuwaiti style, and (most memorably) Eva's traditional Bulgarian dance.
As for food, what can I say? It's enough that they somehow managed to get us burgers and chips in Tarim. Yes, I know we got them pizza, but somehow burgers and chips in Tarim seems decadent. And that's not all—they went around with cookies, cakes, Twix cake (!), and actual chocolate bars. Not to mention constantly coming around with cold water and soft drinks. And tea in small Tarimi cups (where did they get them from?!) And in normal cups. And they had incense Tarimi style.

Truly, they were incredible hosts, miles better than us. And they were only about half a dozen people, while we were almost two dozen. They never sat down, and kept coming around with new treats. I honestly felt like I was at a wedding, and that of people I knew and loved.

Nasheeds are just as powerful as music, and even more so because of the passion of the singers, which just emanates from their voices. It spurs you on, makes you clap harder and join in. Nasheeds give the gathering a sense of harmony and purpose—we're having fun and yet don't feel like we're wasting time. I know I'm not explaining it properly, but I guess you had to be there.

So we walked home at around midnight trying to console ourselves by saying that we only had five hours to prepare for their party while they had days to prepare for theirs, and that they were all 'Arabs' so had the hospitality gene in them. Never mind that most of them were born in their respective countries even if their parents were originally Arab. (And that excuse doesn't work with me because I am 'Arab' (actually African, but whatever)).

Its 2:50 am now, and there's tahajjud in 10 mins. I was thinking of skipping it then remembered what I heard this week: The true student of knowledge is as prepared on the last day of classes as he was on the first. Guess I'm pulling an all-nighter.

Today's Quote: No one comes to ma'edat al-rahman [charity tables that are set out in Ramdan at iftar time for anyone to come eat] because they want to—they come because Allah wants them to come. Likewise, we have been gathered here in Tarim together because Allah wants us to come. Um Suffian, the Danish/ Swedish/ Belgium group leader

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Day 36: Habib Kathim

Today Habib Kathim came over to the Dowra house for a two hour Q & A session. It was so good to finally 'see' him. It was even good to see the translator—we've been seeing them on TV for so long this kind of makes them 'real' people.

So it was only a Q & A session, but it felt like an intense Rawha session simply because our teacher was sitting right in front of us: we concentrated more, we sat up, we focused on everything he was saying. Habib Kathim's mere presence affects our receptiveness to learn, if that makes sense. The men are so lucky.
But we are still so lucky to have gotten the chance to learn from these amazing scholars. And they deserve all our respect. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) said:

"Honor scholars, as they are the inheritors of the prophets. Anyone who honors them has honored God and His Messenger."

Habib Kathim kept looking around at us, and it felt like he was looking directly at each one of us (we were all wearing niqab out of respect). He also kept smiling these little smiles. I wonder what he was thinking? We gave him our sebah (rosaries) to do tasbeeh with and give them back to us, and we got to pray 'asr behind him. We also took pictures of him, which felt so rude and stupid to do (even though we can see flashing cameras through the curtains in class which means the men also take pictures).

So, the gist of Habib Kathim's advice/answers to our questions:

  • You can increase your iman by increasing your acts of worship gradually, so you can sustain them. Do salawat on the Prophet. Read Qur'an. Read books about and by good people. They are small things but their effect is greater than you know.
  • You do istigh'farr not just to erase your sins but to increase your rank with Allah.
  • Good character is the best da'wa. It will be a magnet to other people.
  • Just doing good deeds if front of those who don't is da'wa.
  • The key to having presence (hodoor) in prayer is wudu' (ablution). When Imam al-Shafi'i died Sayeda Nafeesa (the granddaughter of al-Hussein, the prophet's grandson) said: "May Allah have mercy on him, he perfected his wudu'." She said that and not "he was a great scholar," because if you perfect your wudu' it will lead to perfection in prayer and so on. Have presence and awareness in wudu'u because it is the key to everything else.
And what made everyone smile:
  • To get married say Prophet Musa's du'aa (which is part of verse 24 in surat al-Qasas) "raby eny lema anzalta ilaya men khayren faqeer"

    "So he watered (their flock) for them. Then he turned aside into the shade, and said: My Lord! I am needy of whatever good Thou sendest down for me" (Pickthal translation, 28:24)

Habib Kathim also gave bay'aa to about half a dozen of us who wanted to. He asked for those of us who didn't want to give it to get up and exit the room. It felt extremely extremely rude to do that, kind of like saying "I don't want to take bay'aa with you," but I got up, and elhamdulela I wasn't the only one.

After Maghrib we had our class with him, and he gave us ijaza (permission (to transmit what has been taught)) as he ended. When he said it, I was doing wud'uu in Habib Umar's house (which, by the way, was unlocked. Imagine leaving your door unlocked?) since we were going to pray 'isha behind him. So now I have the memory of saying "qabelt al-ijaza" (I accept the ijaza) while doing wudu' :)

Today was our last class with Habib Kathim, and his last words to us were to make du'ua when we saw the crescent, since tonight was the first night of Sha'aban, the month before Ramadan. Subhan Allah we had just left Habib Umar's house and looked up at the cresecent, and we felt a few drops of rain. Just small drops, almost insignificant, but rain. And then we saw the procession of men walking in the street going "Hud, Hud, Hud," which they will do for the next seven nights until they leave for their visit to Prophet Hud.

Today's Quote: To attain the secret of knowledge, act upon it. To attain the secret of dhikr, do copious amounts of it. To attain the secret of prayer, have presence in it. Habib Kathim

Friday, 1 August 2008

Day 35: Back in Tarim

July is over, which means we have less than a week left before we have to go home. Our calendar is finally full:

It's very very sad.

Being back in Tarim really feels like being back home—it felt so good to get back to our normal routine today.

Being back also brought back home the fact that your environment influences you more than you might realize. Makkala was our little test, taking us out of the spiritual bubble we were living in, and I'm not too sure we all successfully passed.

Personally, I feel I didn't—I didn't pray fajr two of the three mornings, even though I've only missed it three times this entire month (partial excuse was that we were all so exhausted, but that's not really an excuse); I gorged myself on mangoes and Pizza; I didn't keep up with my awrad, and I finally caved and listened to music on my iPhone, which I hadn't done in the entire month I've been here.

Tarim feels like a different world, it makes you want to be a better person. You're better not because you feel everyone is better so you imitate them blindly, but because Tarim somehow inexplicably gives you an extra drive—almost as if the very air is embodied with little spiritual 'infusions.' It sounds silly when I read it, and I know I'm being repetitive, but it's true.

Here, I can get up at 3am, walk to Dar al-Zahra, sit for two hours for tahajjud, fajr, and awrad until sunrise, which I couldn't even do in Mecca and definitely never even attempted back home. Back home, I'm lucky if I get up for fajr, pray the sunna, and quickly do the normal dhikr we do after any prayer.

A big part of it is the fact that there's simply so little opportunity to be 'bad,' in the sense that you're so isolated. If you're on a diet, it'll be easier if you're on a desert island (though it did nothing for Hurley on Lost lol) than if you're living next to a KFC.

Which brings me to the thought: is seclusion really the better solution? There's no doubt that it's easier than being out in world, and you will become a better person—whether you like it or not.

But at the same time, I truly believe that seclusion only benefits you and no one else. If we're out in the world, it's true we'll have a harder time being 'good,' but then we must get more ajr for staying away from temptations. Plus, we'll then be able to contribute to society, do da'wah, and help others. To take what we've learnt and implement it in harder spiritual--if not physical--surroundings is better, especially since physical hardship is easier to deal with than spiritual hardship.

Today I got to try another delicious Yemeni salad— boiled potato cubes and tomato slices in a sauce made of water, sugar and a touch of beesbas.

Today we also got to pray behind Habib Kathim—he decided to keep going on after 'isha so we could finish the section.

Today's Quote: Don't sin and say: 'God will forgive me, He is Merciful and Forgiving.' Yes, He is, but don't be like the fisherman who sits on the shore and waits for a jewel to land in his lap. Yes, the sea is full of jewels but you have to go seek them. So if you sin you need to seek forgiveness for your actions. You need to shamar [roll up your sleeves] and be diligent. Habib Kathim


"[Don't be] the man who wants to be learned in the sciences of religion but spends his time in idelness and says, 'God is generous and merciful, able to fill my heart with that knowledge with which He filled the hearts of His prophets and saints, without any effort on my part, any repetition, any learning from a teacher. Again, you resemble the man who wants wealth, yet does not engage in farming or commerce or any gainful occupation." Imam al-Ghazali

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Day 34: Converts

Today was a relaxing day. We drove back to Tarim (stopping to buy coconuts on the way), slept until 'asr, and then attended the rawha and the mawlid—it was especially bittersweet today because this is the last mawlid we will be attending.

It's wonderful to be back in Tarim, almost like going back home. It was especially nice going back to Dar al-Zahra and seeing all the Dar al-Zahra girls again. And it's such a small world—I ran into a girl there I had met two years ago in the Litaarafuu conference, who was in Tarim for a wedding.

On Thursdays after the mawlid Habib Umar gives a small lecture, but there are also a number of guys who get up and give short five-minute lectures. Today, an American convert got up and gave a small lecture. Apparently he spoke before, but this is the first time I've heard him.

He talked about how he invited a US marine over to his home, who told him that killing people was a bigger rush than the heroin addiction he had as a child, which was so severe he tried to chew his way out of a wall when his parents locked him in a basement for six months to cure him.

The convert then explained how Islam gives him that rush, and how much he loves saying la illaha ila Allah (there is no God but God).

Then he pushed his sleeves up and showed us his tattoos, which were basically Hebrew letters, and told us that he used to be Jewish.

I love converts. I think that's been pretty clear when I've spoken about the three I've met here in this Dowra—Lara, Eva and Choclit. I love them even though so many of them are so zealous in the beginning (at least the ones I've met). I wish I was a convert. Not in the sense that I don't understand or appreciate the huge blessing I've been given to be born as a Muslim, but in the sense that converts appreciate the religion so much more. When you have a blessing for so long, you take it for granted--olf el ne'ma.

It kind of reminds me of this woman I met in Mecca, who told me how lucky I was to not live there. "We see how much you appreciate the blessing of coming here," she told me, "while we rarely come simply because we live here and know that the ka'aba is always here."

Today's Quote: If you ask a pen why it writes why it writes, it'll tell you it's not in control, the fingers are. The fingers will tell you the hand is the one in control. The hand will tell you the arm is in control. The arm will tell you the body is in control. The body will tell you it’s the heart that's in control, and the heart will tell you it isn't in control of the whims that take possession of it. The majority of people see the pen scratching on the surface of the planet and stop at that. Those with a little more knowledge may see the fingers. Habib Umar

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Day 33: Hamya

Sing to the tune of This is the song that doesn't end:

This is the blog that never ends
And it goes on and on my friends
Some people started reading it, not knowing what it was
And they'll continue reading it forever just because

Well, not really, but sometimes it feels that way :)

So today was another exhausting day in another city, and here I was thinking we'd have so much free time I would be able to catch up on my memorization of surat yaseen. But now I can barely keep my eyes open.

I did end up going to the beach this morning, only it turned out to be the exact same beach we went to a couple of days ago. It was a lot more crowded than it was at night, and windy, but on the plus side we could actually see the beach. And another good thing is that once the men realized that there was a big group of women approaching, they kept their distance, and didn't automatically gravitate towards the women.

We built a Tarimi mud house on the beach (pretty easy—just a big lump of sand) and a lot of us decided to actually swim which meant the bus driver wasn't really happy with us. We were supposed to have breakfast on the beach, which I was really looking forward to, but we couldn't because, and I quote: "there are too many men on the beach and it would be awkward for you to eat [with niqab]." I'm guessing he didn't realize everyone took their niqab off the second we got off the bus. Oops.

So we got back around 9am and were told to only have a quick shower because the bus was leaving at 10am. But of course we were running on AST (Arab Standard Time) and for some reason the men didn't show up before noon. And I'm the kind of person who can never sleep in public/ on a bus/ if it's noisy/ and (until I got here) if it's light so I was really exhausted.

We got to 'Hamya an hour and a half later, which is another city also by the coast. Its name is derived from the hot springs that fill the city.

Our first stop was at another school, named Batool (the one who worships a lot) after the Prophet's daughter Fatma al-Zahraa, who was also known as al-batool. We were all exhausted so we all kind of lay down for an hour or so, before lunching on (as is the norm) chicken and rice. But at least this chicken was more Moroccan-y, with spices. The best thing though was that dessert (which is usually bananas). The desser was…drum roll please…icecream!

We then made our way to the hot springs, which the Yemenis believe has shifa' (healing) properties—it's always hot and never dries up. The springs are located in one of the palm tree-filled valleys, so we finally got to visit one of them. And this one was especially unique because it was located directly on the beach; I felt like I was in a scene from Lost. The water was boiling hot (it literally scalded my hands) and smelled kind of eggy.

After that we went to a ribat (combination library and mosque) to attend a lecture by Habib Umar. Unfortunately we were all so tired that at least half of us fell asleep. which I guess was ok since there was no translation which almost everyone needed.

After the lecture was over (just before maghrib) we got on the bus to make our way over to the mawlid that was being held back in Makkala, but the majority of us were so tired the bus just took us back to our hotel.

Everyone was so tired and exhausted, but I'm guessing after relaxing in the air conditioned rooms and lying on the beds for a bit we felt better, because suddenly (and I can't believe this) everyone started prank calling each other.

Then we started getting hungry and ordered room service: spaghetti and chicken escalope and humus and tabbouleh and burgers and fries :) Because even though our usual breakfast/ sometimes dinner menu (rooti (artsian) bread, chocolate spread, white cheese, jam) is good, it does get very repetitive, especially if you have it twice a day). And somehow, without planning it, we ended up having a mini party in our room.

And just as we were about to split up into our respective rooms, we got news that we would have a trip to a Yemeni souk (market) at around 10pm, after the brothers got home from a walima (feast) at a wedding (yeah, they got invited and we didn't. Figures).

So we wait around for a couple of hours, and then we were told that unfortunately the trip was cancelled because the men were late back.

So I'm ending today's post by moaning about how much better the men have it. They got to chill in the pool this morning playing waterpolo while we had to swim in abayas and hijab on the beach; they have a sheikh with them so they can utilize their free time listening to lectures while we're stuck in a school doing nothing for a couple of hours; we get home and wait for a couple of hours for them to come back from a wedding feast; and our outing to the souk gets cancelled because of them. Elhamdulela.

Today's Quote: "God gives the dunya (world) to who He loves and doesn't love, but only gives the deen (religion) to those He loves" Habib Umar

Day 32 (Cont'd): Shihr

Bism Allah.

We set off for Shihr around noon, and I decided to go with my family in their car so we could stop on the way and visit some more walis—'ibn Ismail and Ahmed ibn Mohammad Al-Haddar. (The driver also had one of those weird fur things on his chair just like the one driver who drove us to Tarim so I realized it must be a cultural thing). We drove through the souq (market) of Makkala, and it looked like a wannabe Khan El Khalili/ Souq el-Gomaa (the Egyptian equivalent of Portobello market), albeit with men playing cards rather than smoking shishas and playing backgammon.

The further away we got from Makkala, the more I realized how cosmopolitan it was (by Yemeni standards)—no mud houses in Makkala, and the niqab rule isn't as rigid (we rebelled a little bit yesterday and opened the door to the room service guy without it). After passing by a group of scary looking headless palm trees, and a lot more beach-looking sand we made it into Shihr.

Shihr is a lot like Tarim, and in fact they call it the sister of Tarim (which is called the daughter of Medina), as well as the city of so'd (happiness). Same mud houses and same stark environment, but minus the blistering heat and plus cute looking flowery curtains that look strangely out of place on the windows. It was actually unexpectedly windy there, and nice cool wind, not the hairdryer type wind we get in Tarim.

Our first stop of the day was at the school of Khadija al-Kobra, named after Prophet Mohammad's first wife. A teacher introduced the school to us: it's 8 years old, and the 200 students are taught in six subjects. In those eight years, 50 students have learnt the entire Qur'an by heart mash'Allah. The school was built to "revive hearts with the light of Islam," since after the British were expelled the country was under communist rule for a quarter of a century, which led to deterioration in the understanding of Islam.

The teacher who explained this to us had beautiful Arabic skills. I know that's not linguistically correct to say, but it’s the word that fits. Truly, Arabic is a beautiful, eloquent, expressive language. Compared to it English is so restrictive and crude.

We were late so all the students had gone home, but we were greeted so so enthusiastically by the teachers, who sang us up the stairs. I don't know if it's in the air or maybe because they've had so much practice, but almost all the women here have beautiful voices.

Subhan Allah they had prepared a whole program for us, and gave us the VIP treatment. They welcomed us and performed a short piece for us in English (which I'm sure took them ages to prepare), sang us nasheeds, gave us dates that melted in our mouths and Tang-tasting juice, and fed us a feast of chicken and rice.

They also gave each of us a green silk sash they had personally made, embroidered with yellow and with the shahada written in calligraphy on it. And on each one they had pinned a little piece of paper they'd laminated with ribbons hanging off of it. The piece of paper said that this was a present from the school.

Again, as I've said so many times, I can't get over the kindness of people here; you will never feel like a stranger in this country, where people greet you like long-lost relatives.

We then made our way back to the bus, and passed by a stage being set up for a wedding. This big group of women passed by us, and although they were all wearing niqab, you could see their made up eyes with blue eyeshadow, and dresses peeking out from under their abayas :)

We then made our way to a huge courtyard, where Habib Umar was supposed to give us a lecture. We entered and (as bad as this sounds), my heart jumped—the sight of hundreds of women dressed from head to toe in black (with niqab) turning to see us enter was just scary. At the same time, it looked almost like something you'd see in a National Geographic picture.

As to why at least half the women were wearing niqab in a women only setting—turns out in Shihr unmarried women don't show their faces to married women. And for some reason most of the women with uncovered faces had bright lipstick on.

But if everyone starting at us wasn't uncomfortable enough, Habib Umar's lecture was cancelled, and the woman decided that some of us telling our 'stories' would be a good way to pass the time. Eva (the Bulgarian convert), bless her, was brave enough to get up, only she was too overcome to talk much. And mash'Allah some of the women started crying because she was crying, without even knowing her story or what she's gone through, calling her a meskeena (pour soul).

It's scary how hard and dead our hearts have become. It takes a lot to make me cry, and even then I wouldn't cry in public. I can't imagine my heart being so sympathetic and so unselfish that the pain of someone else could be reflected in me like a mirror.

After Eva finished Ustadha Moneeba motioned to Choclit to come up, only she was too shy to go. So she motioned to me, and Choclit and I kind of encouraged each other to get up. Choclit told her story, and I translated. And truly, speaking to those women was scarier than giving the graduation speech in my commencement ceremony to a couple of thousand people. Scarier than speaking in front of Habib Ali and Dr. Ramadan al-Bouti in the Litaarafuu conference in Abu Dhabi following the Danish cartoon crisis. It was scarier because it was a huge responsibility to try and faithfully convey to those women Choclit's story and her bravery in a way that would reach their hearts.

After that, we made our way over to the central mosque, where the mawlid was going to be held after maghrib. I needed to renew my wudu'u (ablution) and there was nowhere for women to do so in the mosque so one of the women took me to the nearest house and we knocked on their door. I'm trying to imagine someone knocking on my door and telling me they need the bathroom, and what my reaction would be. Somehow, I don't think it would be "come right on in."

The mawlid began with a number of men giving short five minute lectures about the isra' and mi'rag. I was feeling kind of tired and was thinking of dozing for a bit when two of my housemates came to me and asked me if I would mind translating for them. I said ok, and I am so glad I did, because (and I say this because I know myself), if I'd let myself doze I probably would have missed half the lectures.

But because I was translating, I had to concentrate 150%. One, because the Arabic they were speaking was classical Arabic, and two, because the Yemeni accent is hard to understand. But even though it turns out there was a real translator who would have explained things to them so much better than I did, elhamdulela I think I did ok, and now I realize how difficult simultaneous translation is.

And who would have thought that I could possibly translate one of Habib Umar's lectures (which was incredible by the way), which I could barely understand a month ago?

Unfortunately we had to miss out on the actual nasheeds, since they aren't going to start until after fajr. We prayed 'isha behind Habib Umar for the first time, and the girls then made their way back to Khadija al-Kobra (the school) to have a light supper, while I made my way back with my family so we could stop and get pizzas for everyone from Pizza Hut, the one and only fast food restaurant in the city! On our way back we passed over the bridge that overlooks the canal filled with sea water, and there was a concert with hundreds of men gathered—I'm guessing it was a nasheed concert to celebrate the isra' and mi'rag. I also saw a Hummer, which looked really out of place.

But more importantly, pizza was gooooooooooooooooooood. And garlic bread was fantaaaaaaaastic.

I also stopped at the lobby and the souvenir shop was open. I ended up buying an English magazine titled Yemen Today, which was surprisingly very good. Not a patch on Egypt Today(where I work :)) but good.

It's 1:30am now, and we have an optional visit to a secluded beach right after fajr. But—as the Brits here say—I'm 'knackered,' so I'm not sure I'm going to be able to wake up after just two hours of sleep, but I will definitely try.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Day 32: Mango

I woke up today at 9am feeling like the laziest, most indulgent person in the world. Waking up when my body wanted to wake up is a luxury I haven't had for a while, since because of tahajuud and the 5am class we don't have more than three uninterrupted hours of sleep at a time. But more than that, no one woke me up to tell me breakfast was ready, or the bus was waiting, or that I'd be late for class etc. And I didn't feel like the biggest sloth for sleeping as I usually do when someone passes by our room and looks in at us sleeping while they're up and about.

And now I just had a mango—"a real, live mango!"—eaten 'messy' style i.e. peeling the skin with your teeth in thin strips, and only taking a humongous bite once you've peeled it completely.

I am so happy right now, hippy hoppy happy =. And now it's time to get dressed and go to Shihr, where we're spending the day today and attending the big mawlid there for the isra' and mi'rag, since today is the night of it (the ascension of Prophet Mohammad PBUH to the heavens).

Monday, 28 July 2008

Day 31 (Cont'd): Burger

I just had a burger. With ketchup. And Mayonnaise. And lettuce. And tomatoes. And French fries. And Seven Up. And it got delivered like normal room service.

A real, live burger.

Day 31 (Cont'd): Beach

We just came back from the beach.

I want to pause a bit and just look at that sentence. It sends a thrill of happiness throughout my body every time I read it.

Ok, so we didn't swim.
Ok, we went at night.
Ok, there wasn't any beach 'experience' (i.e. umbrellas, cocktail fruity drinks, music playing etc)

But I had so so so much fun.

We weren't even told where we were going, just that we were going for a jawla (stroll). We thought that meant just driving around the city in a bus, and enjoyed it thoroughly for the first 10 minutes, taking picture of the huge crowds of guys just chilling in the streets (truly, I don't think I've ever seen such a huge number of people with such a miniscule number of women). We also saw the river-looking-like sea. Basically they've somehow forced the sea into a channel so it look like the Nile, kind of, but is really the sea. There was a silly moment when we thought we were going to this big market/ tiny amusement park, but the real surprise was so much better.

The bus parked on the road, which had dozens and dozens of groups of men/ families sitting outside their parked cars chilling in the breeze, eating/ chewing Qat/ listening to music. I even saw one guy sitting in front of a bonfire.

We then made our way to the beach, and waded out into the sea. The feeling of the cool, squishy sand (a lot firmer than the beaches back home though) was heaven, as were the waves crashing into us—the waves here aren't like the ones back home, which come one at a time, they actually crash four or five at a time. I'm glad we went at night—in the morning we probably wouldn't have been as free to go in as deep (knee height at least) and the sun would have been really intense.

We ran on the beach (the guys played football), wrote on the sand, and took lots of pictures. But perhaps best of all, we saved a life.

So it was the life of a fish that lies on the bottom of the sea and that kept blinking at us, but still. It had been pushed to the shore by the waves and drying out. So like the Chinese fable of the whale, we began pouring water over it to keep it from drying out. It took the combined efforts of 8 girls, the front and back covers of my notebook to slide under it to carry it (somehow, it's always my stuff that needs to be sacrificed), two electric shocks, and flipping the fish on its back a couple of times, but eventually we returned it to the sea to the sound of cheers and whoops from all of us. Mission accomplished.

On our way back, we stopped at a supermarket. And although it took us an hour because only two of us were allowed in (so those two had to make a huge list with what all 25 of us wanted, take our money, go buy the stuff and separate each person's list and money) it was worth it. I am now the proud owner of a Cadbury chocolate bar which I have been craving more than Charlie wanted that Willy Wonka bar, and half a dozen mangoes which I will savor.

Our room is all sandy now and I don't care. And even if I did, housekeeping will take care of it. :) And now to my fluffy, real live bed!

Day 31: Hotel

We're in a hotel. The Hadhramaut Hotel. I feel as excited as a little kid on Christmas day.

The day started out with us leaving Tarim an hour later than planned, squished together like sardines in a crowded bus. As usual, we failed the test in patience, complaining about how the men's bus was so much emptier, and about how women always got the short end of the stick. So after a bit more moaning about the heat, the drive, the crowded bus, the niqab etc, we settled in for a couple of hours of sleep.

The further away we got from Tarim, the stranger the landscape became. I'd gotten so used to seeing humongous mountains and palm tree-covered valleys that the bare, flat, rocky landscape was somewhat strange and felt too exposed.

We made a pit stop to have breakfast (eggs that were somewhere between scrambled and omelet-y and tea with milk) and use the bathroom (I have literally been scarred with my experience with the hole in the floor, I think I'm going to have nightmares about it from now on, no joke).

We then continued on our journey, passing time (not killing it!) by playing 20Q and this strange game called Picnic. We then went back up the two lane road built into the humongous mountain I talked about in the very beginning of this blog. Only this time I was fully awake and in more awe of creation than ever before.

Right before I came on the Dowra I had just come back from a conference in Norway, where every single mountain and fjord was literally covered with trees, to an inch. So to see that and then these majestic rocky mountains just fills you with wonder.

At the bottom of the mountain is a small valley filled with houses. It must be incredible to wake up every day and see mountains in every direction you look and palm-tree-filled valleys on either side—definitely a big difference from waking up and seeing high rise buildings and paved streets, as far away from nature as we could possibly be.

Eventually, after a seven hour trip on the bus with airplane economy size seats (and I thought six in a car was hard), we reached Makalla/ Al-Rayyan. The sight of the coast on the horizon rejuvenated us all (and let me tell you, wild goats cruising on the beach look so out of place!), as did the beautiful weather, which was enough to revive anyone's spirits.

An hour later, we checked in.

Subhan Allah the (mostly) ascetic lifestyle we've been living in for the past month made us appreciate all the little things we take for granted and that I know we'll go back to taking for granted once we go back home (I know I've said that more than once, but it's true).

I've stayed at Burj al-Arab in Dubai, and yet I think I was happier entering this hotel room than I was entering that seven-star hotel. And you know why?
  • It has real, live beds! (said to the tone of "a real, live boy!" Pinocchio-style) With bouncy mattresses and not the hard-as-a-rock ones we've been sleeping on. With comforters!

  • It has a real, live air conditioner! I don't think I've mentioned this before, but the air conditioners in Tarim are 'desert' ones that work with water and need a window or door open. Don't really understand the mechanics but they're really loud and although the air that's emitted is cool, it's just not the same as a 'real' AC. (Kind of like the difference between a bottle of water from a cool room versus a bottle of water from the fridge).

  • We have a shower! Where we can control the temperature and don't need to hold up the shower head because there's a place to hang it on!
  • No hole in the wall! i.e. No insects!

And so on and so forth. All the things you expect to find in a hotel room: soap, shampoo, a private fridge, a mirror hanging in the bathroom and a full length one in the bedroom, a wardrobe, chairs, curtains, little lava-lamp-looking lamps and a TV all filled us with glee because apart from the soap and shampoo, we'd been living without them for a month. And because it was so unexpected (last year all the Dowra sisters slept in one big room in a house so I was honestly picturing us in shacks on the beach), it makes it all the better. I feel like I'm on holiday!

And because we're coming here from a much less comfortable life, to us this is heaven. I was just thinking that if I'd come here straight from the airport, I wouldn't have thought that this two star hotel (ok, three star at best) was anything special, and in fact I would have probably only noticed the things it lacked.

But now, you can tell that the hotel made us all as happy as little kids. Still can't believe my roomate S. (and only because I'm nice I'm not publishing your name!) prank called me.

What makes me happiest is that the hotel is literally 'on' the seafront. And although the sea smells a bit like the kitchen of a seafood restaurant, the view outside the window is of the sea, and you can hear the waves crashing outside, which more than makes up for the smell.

Ever since I was a kid the summer holidays for me = beach. As soon as school was out, my entire family piled into a car and headed out for the North Coast for at least a month, waking up just before 'asr and going to sleep after fajr, eating mangoes and spending all day in the sea.

But last year was my first year working, and I spent my entire vacation time in the Rihla. This year, I took a leave of absence to attend the Dowra, and I have to go right back to work the second I land back in Egypt. Which means I haven't sayeft (literally 'summered') in two years. So the sound of the waves crashing onto the big black rocks soothes me a whole lot.

But I do envy the men, because of course as women we can't go swimming in the pool, scuba diving or swimming in the sea. A lot of the men (from the Dowra) just jumped straight into the pool when they arrived—one of them was even wearing his trunks under his galabeya!

But whatever, right now I am more than content to sit and watch the waves crashing on the shore and the sporadic lightning strikes.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Day 30 (Cont'd): Bay'aa

Something else happened today which I've been debating writing about because of the controversy surrounding it. But it's part of my experience here, and an important one, so I've decided to share it.

So I come back from tahajud and fajr prayer at Dar al-Zahra only to be told that Habib Omar is going to give bay'a [covenant] to those of us who want to in half an hour.

It threw me for a loop, it really did. In its simplest terms, bay'a means you have chosen a sheikh and have "handed him your reins" to guide you on the spiritual path. You then become a murid [one who desires] who trusts his sheikh completely, follows his commands, recites the award [litanies] you are given and from then on are 'connected' to this sheikh and his chain of teachers spiritually.

The concept is firmly rooted in Sufism. Personally, I love Sufis and I think they embody so many aspects of our religion that we can't even identity, let alone experience or understand. But like I said in a recent post, I still don't know exactly where I stand on visions/ dreams, which are supposedly a big part of how you connect with your sheikh.

Plus, choosing your sheikh is a big decision, and even though Habib Umar is an incredible sheikh, and I would be honored to have him be my sheikh, am I sure that I'm even ready for one? And it's not like I can change my mind about it. A lot of people tell you that if you're not exactly clear about what a bay'a is or what it entails, you should choose the sheikh you feel the most connection too. And honestly, I have felt more connection with other sheikhs.

So as bad as this sounds, I was kind of glad when the bay'a was postponed. Now I have time to do istikhara and think.

Day 30: Choclit

I want to dedicate today's post to my roommate, Choclit Angel, who's a 23 year old African American who lives in Seattle and is studying journalism at the University of Washington (and yes, that is her real name).

Today, Choclit is celebrating her first anniversary of the day she took her shahada and became a Muslim. We're telling her happy birthday because it's almost as if she was reborn on this day. Just like we did with the Swedish sisters, we had a little pizza party for her, complete with the cheer welcome, just because mash'Allah this woman is incredible. We (actually it was just Sarah) also put together a slideshow of pictures of her and videos of all of us saying congratulations/ mabrouk etc.

Choclit's awe-inspiring story, when she told it to me, just blew me away. It left me gob smacked, impressed, and more than a little ashamed of myself.

Choclit was the most popular girl in school, with the weave and the makeup and the big earrings etc. She was a cheerleader, a model, an actress, a pageant girl, a bellydancer, and a Hooters girl, among other things (including being a Bible Studies leader). When you hear about how she literally gave up her life to become Muslim, it brings into sharp relief all the things we find so difficult to do and yet aren't a 10th as hard for us as they are for her.

A lot of what she told me I'm sure she doesn't want made public knowledge, but suffice to say she wasn't raised in the most fortunate of circumstances. When she became a Muslim, her parents and siblings didn't take her conversion to heart, and made life as miserable as they could for her.

She's only been Muslim for a year but Subhan Allah she has been gifted with two incredible gifts—knowledge and incredible humility. She learnt more about Islam in a year than many of us learn in a lifetime. From knowing that the person who doesn't wake up for fajr has the noor (light) removed from their faces, to the fact that a shooting star means a shaytan has just died, she knows a lot mash'Allah.

She wore hijab the weekend she took her shahada when a week earlier she was on stage dancing in a skimpy outfit. She's repeating some of her prayers because she says she was mixing up between madhabs [schools of thought]; something that definitely doesn't require you to repeat your prayers. She became the Public Relations Officer for MSA (Muslim Student Association) and wants to move to Berkley to study in the Zaytuna Institute.

She's a spoken word artist, and managed to turn that around into a way to defend Islam. She performed this incredible piece in last week's pizza party titled 'I love my hijab,' which she wrote herself. It's heart-warming, inspiring, and makes you feel like a piece of poo—if she, a 'brand-new' Muslim, can be brave enough to defend Islam in an audience which isn't exactly forthcoming, what's our excuse?

I filmed her performing it later, and I got her permission to upload it. Here it is again in case you didn't watch it in the pizza party post:

And mash' Allah she doesn't think that any of this is amazing. When you ask her to share her story she just shrugs and says "I was lost, and then I was found." She's incredibly brave and especially eloquent, and puts to words what so many of us may be too afraid to voice out. I quoted her earlier on in the blog as saying:
"The experience here makes me feel like the seven dwarves rolled into one. The heat makes me like grumpy and sleepy especially. I feel that you got stuck with me here, and that you're all so much better than I am. I'm scared to go back home and not have this aura of spirituality that everyone who comes here has when they go back to their homes, and to have people ask 'wait, wasn't she in Tarim?'"
You know what Lucas in One tree Hill (yes, I know) said about Peyton in his book? It went something like this: "Peyton has the potential for greatness, and she doesn't even know it."

Substitute Choclit for Peyton, and there you have it. I truly believe this woman is going to do great things, even if she herself doesn't believe that yet.

And although she can be grumpy and sleepy sometimes, as well as a scary antisocial 5'9 giantess (lol) I love her for the sake of Allah. And though I may never see her again in this life, I hope to meet her under the shade of Allah on the Day of Judgment as two sisters who "loved each other for [Allah's] sake."

Happy Birthday Choclit, may it be the first of many.

Today's Quote: If you have zuhd [renunciation of the world] you won't care about what people have, and will be able to look at what you have that others don't have, rather than look at what you don't have and someone else has. Sheikh Imaad