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

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Day 29: Dream

I woke up in the middle of the night today and couldn't sleep so I decided to go to the roof and sit in silence for a while.

I will miss this silence. Cairo, like this NYT article says, is a city where you literally can't hear yourself scream. The average noise in Cairo from 7am to 10pm is 85 decibels, a "bit louder than a freight train only 15 feet away." In some ways, it's nice to live in anonymity in a big cosmopolitan city where you can get lost, but at the same time it must be nice to live in a place where you can tell the microbus driver (no cabs here) take me to so and so's house, and he knows automatically where it is. That's how small Tarim is.

Sometimes, you just need silence to think. And what I thought about tonight is what I want to take back with me from Tarim.

My mother had a dream about me and had it interpreted by their neighbor (the elderly habib).

She dreamt I was pregnant. In Arabic, the word pregnant, 'hamel, literally means 'the carrier' i.e. you are carrying a baby. Well, the interpretation she got is that the pregnancy symbolizes the knowledge I have gained from this Dowra—which I will go back 'carrying.'

I'm still kind of sketchy about dreams—any dream you have you could say was a 'vision,' how could you distinguish either or? Plus you can get a dozen different interpretations for the same dream. Either way, it's a beautiful interpretation, and I wish it was true. That I truly come back from this Dowra with knowledge that I carry and then pass on, but I'm not presumptuous or arrogant enough to think that. So for me at least, the dream was just a manifest of my Arab mother's subconscious desire for me to get married and have kids :)

But it definitely is time to start thinking about going 'back;' tomorrow (or today, as it may be) is Day 30, which means three quarters of my time here is up. We leave on Monday morning for Makalla/ Al-Rayaan on a four day trip which I'm really excited about but sad at the same time because it means we'll only have six days left in Tarim when we come back.

I feel like I've taken root here. It's only been a month and yet the day now feels as natural to me as any jam-packed day I had back home. I've realized a lot about myself, good and bad, but I'm still not clear about what exactly my resolutions are for when I go back home, and what, if anything, I'm going to change about my life.
UstadhaMoneeba (our house supervisor) told us once that Tarim is like a well, and so we must take as much water from it as we can. So I'm taking in the water, but I'm not exactly sure if my container is good enough not to let the water drip out or evaporate. And even if it is, what am I going to do with the water?

Friday, 25 July 2008

Day 28: Women Scholars

In the beginning of the Dowra, I remember I said that I was really disappointed we couldn't talk or really 'see' the sheikhs, but today, I've rethought that statement.

After a class with Habib Umar's wife yesterday, something hit me. Throughout the weeks, we have gotten to meet all the hababas (women scholars who are descendents of the Prophet Mohammad), something none of the men will ever get a chance to do.

Even though the men get to meet the sheikhs, realistically how often do they get a chance to sit with them, talk to them, and ask them questions? Probably close to zilch. They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and for Habib Umar, for example, we got to meet that woman (his mother), in addition to his wife, his daughters, and even his grandchildren. What's more, we get to sit with them, talk to them and interact with them—women are generally more accessible and approachable than men, plus the amount of female students is smaller than the number of male students.

Habib Umar's wife—and I'm calling her 'his wife' and not by her name out of respect for the culture here which doesn't think it's proper to call women by their names but as 'the wife/ daughter/ mother of'—is an incredible scholar with a lineage to rival any well-known male scholar.

Her class was one of the most interesting ones I have listened to in this entire Dowra, and only women can take advantage of her knowledge. So we get the best of both worlds—listening to male scholars and listening and interacting with women scholars. Men, on the other hand, will probably only get to listen to male scholars.

And there are women scholars, unlike the misconception that there aren't. And the best translator I've heard so far, out of all the ones we've listened to, was the female translator who translated for the female scholar we met in the very beginning of the Dowra (in the western sisters' welcome) and yesterday for Habib Umar's wife.

As women, we get to meet women walis (patron saints is the closest definition—descendents of the Prophet Mohammad) and have them make duu'a for us. Today we visited two of them in their homes (they're alive), one of them the sister of a great sheikh, Abd-Allah Al-Shattery, who had 13,000 students and never wrote books because he said he was busy preparing 'great men.'

And on that note, I wanted to explain a little bit why we visit these awleya'. The simplest explanation I can give is this: imagine if you were given the opportunity to meet someone who could possibly help you a lot in one aspect of your life like work. Basically—networking and having contacts. Well, awleya' are our networking and contacts, but not for this world.

Prophet Mohammad is said to have said that visiting them, even for the time it takes to cook an egg, is a great deed. So we visit.

Today's Quote: [After the electricity went out in yesterday's class]: "The student who sweats in majles ilm [a study setting] will insh'Allah not sweat on the day of judgment [when some will be swimming in their sweat]. Habib Umar's wife, quoting a scholar.

So I guess my decision to go to the Rawha in Dar al-Zahra rather than sitting comfortably at home was a good one! And on that note, Sh. Abd-Allah Al-Shattery said that a majles ilm was better than: "1,000 visits to sick people and attending 10,000 funeral processions."

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Day 27 (Cont'd): Goats

I saw a herd of goats and sheep cross the street right in front of me today, and I don't think I've ever seen so many of them in my life. Only this time they actually had someone leading them. For real, these goats just cruise and chill around Tarim, and you can just feel them thinking "we own this city!" Luckily, I had my camera on me: (Forgive my inane commentary, I didn't realize the camera would pick up the sound).

Just a note: The video, when taken on its own, makes Yemen seem like such a poor, backward country. And it's true that there are a lot of poor people. But the country in general isn't as bad as it looks, take my word for it. If the majority of houses seem poor and downtrodden, it's because (usually) that's what its owners choose to have them look like.

Day 27: Imam Hadad's Mosque

Today we went to visit the mosque and house of Imam Abd-Allah ibn 'Alawi Al-Hadad.

Just the thought that we were in the house of the Sufi Sage of Arabia, the man who wrote some of my favorite books, was awe-inspiring.

The mosque is pretty. And although it's very modern and recently rebuilt, it's still pretty.

But more interesting was the khalwa (seclusion/ worship area) at the back of the mosque, which is where the Imam used to sit and contemplate. Back there is also his rosary—which has 1,000 huge beads:

But most interesting was his house. Truly, it was humbling to visit. It's tiny, even smaller than Sh. Abu Bakr bin Salem's. It's literally minuscule and claustrophobic—the ceiling is extremely low and I banged my head into it twice going up (and down) the stairs.

On the first floor are two tiny rooms, and I will never forget the size of his bedroom, it was literally the size of a single mattress. Each room is no bigger than 3 steps in any direction. On the second floor was the biggest room, which took up almost the entire floor: his lecture room for his students, which doesn't fit more than 30 people.

For some reason, the second floor also contains a hook hanging from the ceiling, which we were told is where animals were slaughtered and hanged. I find that very disturbing for some reason—slaughtering animals inside a house?

Like I've said more than once, houses in Yemen are very very basic, and that's because they're not supposed to be a 'haven,' they're supposed to make you remember that life is fleeting, they're supposed to support an ascetic lifestyle which means you're not supposed to be very comfortable in them. A far cry from our spacious homes. I have yet to visit a house here that has 'real' furniture in it—at most there is moquette fabric for the floor. If you peel it, you will literally see concrete underneath.

Another reason for the fact that there is no furniture is that everyone sits on the floor. And they sit on the floor because of the hadith that says

"One who humbles himself for the sake of God, God will exalt him [in rank]."
Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) used to sit and eat on the floor. Once, a woman saw him eating on the floor and said, "he is eating as if he were a slave." The prophet responded:

"Could there be a better slave than me? I am a slave of God."
And so, the people of Tarim, even the sheikhs in our classes, sit on the floor.

But I digress. We sat in Imam Hadad's lecture room, and recited his wird and his famous rateb. I learnt what the word wird means today (it's weird that I never thought about that)—it means the well which waters the earth. So the wird waters your heart. And as Sh. Imaad told us in a class, it doesn't happen automatically, you need to do it for a long time before you begin to taste it (zawq).

We then opened one of Imam Hadad's books and read the page it opened on. Subhan Allah it was so appropriate:

"Iman (Faith) is like a tree. Faith is the roots and good character and deeds are the branches. Tribulations are like a flood or wind that hit the tree. If the roots aren't strong enough the tree might be uprooted." Imam Hadad

Then we opened his qaseedas and read the one the book fell open to, which he had written after he came back from Hajj. Doing so is called mashad –it's said that what the book falls open to describes your state.

All in all, our ziyara took two hours. Imagine meeting one of your favorite authors, and imagine being invited to their house. So I'm honored to not only have been in Imam Hadad's house, but also to have visited his mosque and his grave (in Zambal).

Today's Quote: Who doesn't have a wird (litany) is a qird (monkey). Ustadha Moneeba, quoting a scholar.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Day 26 (Cont'd): Library

Today we went to visit the library for western children living in Tarim. Basically, it's just a small room with bookshelves split up into approximately a dozen categories.

It's cute. There's a couple of books by Enid Blyton (and my favorite one of hers—The Faraway Tree), a couple by Roald Dahls, a couple by C.S. Lewis's etc.

Visiting the library and seeing how proud they were of the small collection of books made me realize how lucky I was. My library at home is at least twice the size of theirs, and I always complain about how I have no easy access to English books, since we don't have libraries in Cairo and there were no proper bookstores until a couple of years ago. So I would end up buying all my books from Amazon and elhamdulela I've built up quite a large collection which I never really appreciated until today.

I love books. Always have, always will. I've always thought it was a travesty that so few people really read any more. And I especially believe in the saying: "Ummat iqra' la taqra'" (The Umma (community) of Iqr'aa (recite, the first word revealed in the Qur'an) does not read).

I grew up on a steady diet of Sweet Valley Twins and Goosebumps books, and although now I don't think they're exactly the best things for young kids to read, they turned me into a bookaholic who devoured books and read them from cover to cover. Now, I read at least a couple of books a week, anything I get my hands on—heavy socio-political texts, my little brothers' sci-fi books, newspapers, anything basically.

But since I've been here I haven't really read much. I finished reading all our assigned books the week I got them, and I've been filching books from my housemates but other than that I haven't really read anything.

So when the librarian kindly allowed us to each borrow a book to read, I got really excited. I was really craving a book to read but at the same time I didn't want to waste my time here reading a children's fiction book or wading through a difficult adult biography of Malcom X. In the end I decided on Aesop's fables. I hadn't read them since I was in grade school and not only are they short and easy to read, but they're full of useful morals and lessons. And, as it says in the introduction:
"One might say that the fable created its own philosophy: the character of a being is its fate. [Aesop] realized long before Darwin that man is an animal and that his ideals, motivations, and rationalizations are nothing but a wolfish dialectic."

So in a curious way, it kind of meshes with what we're studying: changing your character and purifying your self.

Today's Quote: People come to Tarim to escape from the pressures of their lives and to live an easier life in terms of spirituality. I don't want this for you. La taqoono farareen, koono qarareen.[Do not be fleers, be those who come to prepare themselves to leave]. Habib Ali.

Another Quote: Most of us busy ourselves with mohasaba (critiquing) of other people who we will not be asked about in this life or the next—celebrities, football players and the like. These people do that and never haseb (critique/ take themselves into account) themselves once. He's the fool. He has files open for people and not one for himself. He should close those files and open one for himself, because if the entire world sins then it's not a problem for you, but one sin that you commit is a problem for you. Habib Umar

Day 26: Time

Photo Credit:

Today is day 26, which means we only have exactly 14 days (i.e. 2 weeks) left before we have to go back to our homes and lives.

Time flies. It really does. To be honest, I wasn't expecting that it would; I thought I was going to find the program really difficult and start counting down the days somewhere in the middle. But elhamdulela, the hardship has definitely not been as hard as I was expecting. Which is a relief in some ways and a disappointment in others.

So since I was talking about a cheery subject yesterday, I may as well continue on with another cheery one: time.

I'm reading a book right now that belongs to our house supervisor titled The Value of Time, by Sh. Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah. It's basically a collection of very short stories (most just a couple of paragraphs long) about scholars of the past and how they valued their time. One, for example, would grind his bread into mush so it would be easier to swallow and he didn't waste time eating; another read continuously while he was walking; while yet another didn't attend the burial of his son so he didn't miss a class.

The book tells you that any time spent not seeking knowledge is wasted time. Not only do we waste time not seeking knowledge, but we waste it in ways that aren't even productive. i.e. you could say I'm working to make a living for my family, and that would be a legitimate excuse for not seeking knowledge. But no, our excuses for not seeking knowledge aren't even justifiable. We sometimes even purposely look for ways to waste it! Ahmed Amin, an Egyptian author, once said:
"Time is life, and killing time is killing life."
How many of us have thought of that while we look for ways to 'kill time?'

This comic from Amr Khaled's website is one of my very favorite ones:

At the end it just says: "And life is lost, my son."

Even if we're not wasting time online, watching movies, listening to music etc, and instead working/ studying etc (i.e. being 'productive'), how much of that effort is going to benefit us solely in this world and how much will also benefit us in the next?:
"If however you have uselessly neglected yourself as the animals do, not knowing what to do each hour, then most of your time will have elapsed fruitlessly and your life will have slipped from you […] do not be like the poor deluded fools who are delighted every day at the increase of their wealth and the decrease of their days. What good is there in increase of wealth while life is decreasing?" Imam Ghazali

A friend of my mothers calls this world mobile haqeer. (A worthless mobile phone). The story behind it that her son once told his father he wanted one of those fake mobile phones. His dad told him that he had a real mobile phone, why did he want a fake one, a mobile haqeer? The boy answered that he knew he had a real phone but that he still wanted that mobile haqeer—worthless in the grand scheme of things.
From then on, we've used mobile haqeer as a catchphrase for this dunya (world)—it's simply a mobile haqeer, and a poor substitute for the hereafter, so why do we care so much about it?
Of course, mobile haqeer is just a synonym for "gnat's wing" which is what the world is to Allah In fact, it's worth less than a gnat's wing, and if it wasn't, as the hadith says, then God wouldn't have allowed the unworthy to even drink a cup of water from it:
"If this world were worth a gnat's wing before Allah, He would not give a disbeliever a drink of water" Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)
Habib Umar illustrated this concept by saying:
"Imagine if you walked around with a fly and showed it to everyone telling them "I own a gnat's wing!" What will they think of you? And the whole world is worth even less than that."
I mentioned yesterday that in The Lives of Man, we are told that if you haven't accomplished anything by the age of 20, you'll never accomplish much. Well, we're also told in the book that by the age of 40, you should seriously start contemplating your death and focusing only on Allah—because the age of 40 is:
"the pivot, the turning point, after which one's life in general works out the consequences of how one's soul was shaped during one's youth."
Oscar Wilde said that "by the age of 40, every man has the face that he deserves." But then when I think of life today—how many 40 year olds have accomplished all that they need to? It seems as though it is taking us longer and longer to 'grow up,' Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) says:
"The child is the master for seven years; and a slave for seven years and a vizier for seven years; so if he grows into a good character within 21 years, well and good; otherwise leave him alone because you have discharged your responsibility before Allah."
It was explained by Imam Ja`far as-Sadiq as:
"Let your child play up to seven years; and keep him with you (for education and training) for another seven years; then if he succeeds (well and good); otherwise, there is no good in him."
One of the meanings I get from the hadith is that at the age of 21 you're supposed to be fully mature and capable of living on your own and starting your own family. But today, we don't graduate from university until our early 20's, many don't think of marriage until their early 30's, and many at 40 are still acting as though they were 20.

Habib Umar, with all his vast knowledge and experience is only 43. Habib Ali is even younger—36. Yet they have accomplished so so much. When I put it in that context, it seems so childish of me when I say "I'm only 21, I'm still young etc" as an excuse because 21 is old enough to have achieved so much more than I already have. It's just that the time we live in that makes us spoiled and keeps us 'kids' for a lot longer than we should.

Ahmed Shawqi, a famous Egyptian poet, once said:
One's heartbeats say to him:
Life is but minutes and seconds.
Hence build for yourself a legacy after its death
For a man's legacy is his life
It's strange that we always think that we have so much time left to grow up, mature, become religious. But our lifespans are tiny, compared to what they used to be. Prophet Nooh—who lived at least 1,000 years and 1,500 years by some accounts—said, when told that there would come a time when people would only live 60 years, that if he was them he would go and sit next to his grave.

And yet we still think that 60 years or so is an incredible amount of time. Even if you don't believe that people used to live for hundreds of years, just compare your lifespan to that of things on this earth—mountains and trees, for example, and you'll realize what a small lifespan it is. But because it's all we know, we think it's a lot. Someone once said that:
"The adhan [call to prayer] is made in the baby's ear at birth, while the prayer is delayed until his death [Note: the funeral prayer has no adhan]. A sign that his life is short, just ike the time between the adhan and the prayer."
There's this one episode of Stargate (yes, stargate, I know) I saw when I was young and I have never forgotten. In it, the heroes visit a planet where someone messed up the inhabitants' genes so that they only lived for 100 days. The heroes, of course, were aghast, indiginant at how this person could have 'cheated' these people of their 'rightful' life spans. In the end, they fix the genes and go back happy.

But the interesting thing I found about the story is that the people on this planet weren't at all sad. They didn't think anything was strange about only living for 100 days; in fact, they kept saying "the creator has blessed us with 100 days, for which we are grateful." To them, it seemed like such a long time, because that's all they knew. Even though to us it seems like such a limited amount of time, which if we knew we only had left we would definitely carpe diem, to them it was normal, and just the way things were.

I wonder how we would live if someone told us we only had 100 days left to live? I'm guessing like Prophet Nooh thought about only living 60 years.

Today's Quote: Whenever you start thinking that you have so much power and influence, think of this: The west, which seems so powerful, is actually in control of only half the land on this earth, which is only one quarter of the entire earth—the rest is water. The earth is the third planet in a solar system, which is 2 million light years away from the nearest galaxy. One light year is 365 days x 24 hours x 60 mins x 60 sec x 300,000 km/s (speed of light). Think of 2 million light years. And then think that all these galaxies are only in the first sky. The seven skies are like a ring in the desert compared to the kursy (chair) of Allah, which, in turn, is like a ring in the desert compared to the 'arsh (throne) of Allah. Sheikh Imaad.

Another Quote: When someone sick comes to you for advice, you don't tell him what medicine to take or perform surgery on him yourself, you give him the name of a good doctor. So why is it when someone comes to you for advice on a religious issue you immediately start giving your 'opinion?' Sheikh Imaad.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Day 25: Death

Today we had an optional class about washing and burying the dead. It was for the Hanafis so I'll wait until they hold one for the Shafiis, but in the meantime I read the short book they were studying: What to do when a Muslim Dies.

Truly, the book, as short as it was, made me think. And particularly goosebump-inspiring for me was this:
"It is also recommended that those who are near the grave put three handfuls of dust on it, saying with the first: 'From it did We create you' with the second: 'To it shall We return you' and with the third: 'And from it shall We bring you forth another time.' [20:55]"
A few posts ago, I remember I talked about how Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) recommended that we mention death at least 20 times a day. In principle, it seems easy, but today when I remembered it just twice it was hard enough. The first time was in our Lives of Man class—today we finished the second stage of human life (this world), which ends with death. The second time was reading the book.

It seems morbid to tell yourself multiple times every day that one day you're going to be under the ground, all alone in the dark and being eaten by maggots, but in reality it's one of the best ways to force yourself into being 'good' and patient and content when you're not really feeling up to it. As Imam Al-Ghazali advises:
"Suppose that death is near and say to yourself: 'I shall endure the hardship today; perhaps I will die tonight,' and 'I shall be patient tonight; perhaps I shall die tomorrow."
Farshi al-turab (dust is my bed) is one of the best nasheeds I have ever listened to, speaking about death. Please watch it, it has English subtitles:

Subhan Allah it really makes me ashamed of myself. If someone tells you that you have 24 hours to live, what would you do in those 24 hours? Chances are, not what you do every day. So technically, that's what you should do every day—live each day as if it was your last. And remember that:
"Wheresoever you may be, death will overtake you even if you are in fortresses built up strong and high" An-Nisa 78.
It's strange, but that verse just reminded me of a story I read when I was a little girl and for some reason I've never forgotten—The Man who wanted to Live Forever. Basically, this is the story:
There was once a man who wanted to live for ever. He asked the oldest man in his city how to do so and was advised to go to the Old Man of the Forest.

So he went to the Old Man of the Forest and asked him how long he would live for. The Old Man of the Forest said "I will live until the last tree in this forest falls down." The man said that wasn't good enough for him so the Old Man of the Forest advised him to go to the Old Man of the Lake.

So the man went to the Old Man of the Lake and asked him how long he would live for. The Old Man of the Lake said "I will live until this entire lake dries up." The man said that wasn't good enough for him so the Old Man of the Lake advised him to go to the Old Man of the Mountain.

So the man went to the Old Man of the Mountain and asked him how long he would live for. The Old Man of the Mountain said "I will live until this mountain falls down." The man said that was good enough for him and decided to live with the Old Man of the Mountain.

Hundreds of years go by, and eventually the man feels nostalgic and wants to visit his home. The Old Man of the Mountain begs him not to go, telling him that everyone he loved had long died. The man insisted so the Old Man of the Mountain told him to go but to never get off his horse.

So the man goes back, finds out that everything has changed and eventually turns back to go home to the mountain.

On his way, he comes across an old man sitting next to an overturned wagon of shoes. He stops to help him and the old man comes closer to him and puts his hand on his arm.

The man feels a shiver go down his spine and looks at the old man. "Who are you?" he asks. The old man replies: "I am death, and these are the shoes I have worn out running after you."
It's strange that I've never forgotten that story. I even remember the last picture frame—the old man was dressed in a brown monk-like robe and his face was hidden like the Scream guy, with long wrinkled fingers.

So, on an even more cheerful note to end on, in Lives of Man, we are constantly reminded of the shortness of our lives, and even told that a poet once said:
"If a youth has nothing to boast of when he reaches twenty years, he'll never have anything to boast of."
Today's Quote: There's no shame in taking from the world, only in making it an obstacle between you and God. Only take from the world what you need but don't love it. Just like you need to go to the bathroom but you don’t love it. Habib Umar

Shoe stand in Dar al-Mustafa

Monday, 21 July 2008

Day 24 (Cont'd): Rawha Question

Today in Fiqh class we finally finished the section pertaining to ablution and purification. Which actually means we're on page 4 of the 33 page book-let. Subhan Allah, who would have thought we could spend so long just talking about ablution? Just goes to show how much we don't know.

Oh, and I also got called on by the translator for answering too many questions! I didn't even realize that I was answering that many. Oops.

Anyway, Shaykh Omar, who's our fiqh teacher, also gives an optional Q & A session once a week. The one question that resonated with everyone today was:

"The rawha with Habib Umar is really deep. But how do we go about implementing his advice without getting overwhelmed by how horrible we are? [i.e. the deficiencies in our character]."

You could just see everyone nodding and smiling. Because it's so true. I literally come out of the rawha feeling like an insect and so despairing of ever fixing the defaults of my character.

On the back cover of the book we are studying in the Rawha are these verses of poetry by Imam Hadad that serve as a tiny fraction of what we try and remember every day—that all our desires and wants are focused on the wrong things. I've tried to translate them as best I can, but of course they sound 100% different in Arabic. Forgive my poor translation skills:

Oh servant of the Body, how you strive to serve it,
Are you asking profit from what you can have only loss?
Advance towards the Self and complete its virtues,
For you are human [because of] the self and not the body.
Let your heart leave the world and its ornaments,
For when you sieve out [all the good in the world] you get only grief, and [when it's at your feet] it still leaves you.
Sh. Omar's advice was:
1) Always renew your intentions.
2) Make sure to act upon the knowledge you receive.
3) Try and be completely content with what Allah has given you.
4) Keep listening to lectures like the rawha when you get back.

On a completely irrelevant note, I just discovered today that the men don't wash up or serve themselves in the male Dowra house. And they have curtains. No comment!

(Not to mention the fact that their house is two minutes away from Dar al-Mustafa while ours is at least a five minute walk from Dar al-Zahra (though to be fair, we do have a microbus most of the time)).

Today's Quote: Just like you die if you stay three days without water, your heart will die if it stays three days without listening to anything that reminds you of Allah, whether it is Qur'an recitations or lectures. So what if you're not only not listening to things that remind you of Allah, but listening to things that make you forget Him? Habib Umar

Another Quote: Every time you sin layers are added to your heart, until eventually your feelings [towards Allah] are blocked. Every time you feed your body what it wants, it just wants more. And when you do that your soul is dying. If it could talk to you it would tell you to feed it; the food of souls is worship. Sheikh Imaad.

Day 24: Random Thoughts

  • Today my roommate Lara and I performed our introductions. Basically, we have something in the house called 'the sisters' corner,' and every day two buddies (we also have a buddy system—really not as corny as it sounds) get up and introduce themselves, what they do back home, why they came to Tarim etc. Only you don't introduce yourself—you introduce your buddy. So far it's been pretty interesting learning more about everyone else, especially since I wasn't in the Dowra house the first couple of days when everyone got to meet each other. Mash'Allah everyone is so accomplished.

  • Yesterday we got a new cook. Turns out he was supposed to be our original one and our food was supposed to be more diverse. So he's been trying to make it up to us with cornflakes, pasta, seasoned rice, and most memorably: beef teriyaki! Very happy with the new menu, but at the same time I'm very glad I had those weeks with more 'bland' food.

  • I also got to see the 'coffee' set yesterday, which looks very much like the tea set except this one had a pottery bowl over a bucket of coal. The coffee beans are first grinded into fine powder and then passed around for everyone to smell and comment on before entering the next step of the process. It took 40 minutes to make. Shame it tastes just like normal coffee.

  • Today we had a group of women come over to the Dowra house to teach us how to play the duff. I bought one though it turns out I have no rhythm whatsoever.

  • The rain a couple of days ago has driven a ton of insects into the house. Today we found a baby scorpion in Choclit's bag. And the wind has blown away our cardboard wall (Explanation: the air conditioner is located where a door used to be; the door was removed and cardboard was put in its place. Still don't really understand why). I sleep directly under the cardboard wall so I'm not exactly very happy :(

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Day 23: Pizza Party

Today was an incredible day. Subhan Allah it wasn't at all planned but it turned out perfectly.

I can't remember if I've ever mentioned this, but there is a group of around 15 women from Belgium, Sweden and Denmark who are also here for the Dowra. They're staying in a separate house so we don't really have a lot of interaction with them, and some of them were only here for 3 weeks i.e. they're leaving tomorrow.

So we decided to hold a pizza party for them and throw together a program. The program was literally decided upon after zuhr, and mash'Allah the two who organized it did it perfectly, and the program ran as smoothly as if we'd been practicing for days. This was the program:

9:30-9:35: Informal Welcome
9:35-9:40: Nasheed: Ta'la albadro 'alayna
9:40-9:45: Recitation of Qur'anic verses and hadith (Arabic and English)
9:45-9:50: Cheerleader welcome!
9:50-9:55: Pep Talk
9:55-10: Muslim woman [spoken word]
10-10:30: Dinner
10:30-10:35: Urdu Nasheed
10:35-10:40: I love my Hijab [spoken word]
10:45-10:50: Nasheed: Ila Rasool Allah
10:50-10:55: Closing speech by Ustadha Moneeba
11-11:15: Speeches by women leaving and Hababas.

It's hard to explain why exactly this night was so special—it was just harmonious. It filled me with a sense of 'right-ness,' like this was how entertainment was supposed to be. We were hospitable and smiling and more than that: genuine. We were genuinely happy to be hosting these women and entertaining them. Plus, it didn't feel like a waste of time—it felt like productive entertainment, if that makes sense.

The duff was beautiful, those who sang the nasheeds were beautiful, and so much effort went into the program. Even the Urdu nasheed was translated into English and first read out to us. We were perfectly on time, which surprised me so much being that I'm used to running on AST (Arab Standard Time).

I still can't believe the cheer welcome, which was perfectly choreographed and just amazing (this is a what?! An 'E'. A what?! An 'E' Oh! a 'E!' etc). I got permission from the girls who performed it to upload it, so here it is. Enjoy! :)

One of my housemates who does counseling then gave us a short 5 minute talk on how Muslims in the 'West' think 'Eastern' Muslims are so backward when it wasn't true. I particularly liked how she said that Bedouins keep their fires lit so strangers know that they can come there to eat, drink and sleep (i.e. hospitality).

I then performed Muslim Woman, which is a piece about a ticked off woman mocking the steryotypes people have about Muslim Women. It was kind of nerve-wracking because it was a piece that was performed by four people so I had to quickly learn the lines of three others which I had only semi-learnt in rehearsals. My roommate Choclit (who is a convert that will soon celebrate her one-year anniversary of being a Muslim, so proud of her mash'Allah she's an inspiration!) then performed this incredible piece she had written titled 'I love my hijab.'

I filmed her performing it again, and I got her permission to upload it. Enjoy!

The daughter of one of the hababas who were invited then sang Ila Rasool Allah (All except the Prophet of Allah) for us in a perfect nightingale voice.

Plus of course—we had pizza! I don't think that needs any elaboration. Suffice to say it was the home cooked kind of pizza I usually don't go near at home but gobbled up immediately over here.

There are just no words to express the night. Truly fantastic. And after our guests went home we brought out the duff and sang the Mohamadeya, one of my favorite nasheeds. For some inexplicable reason, I'm walking on the clouds tonight.

Today's Quote: Saying 'I forgot my intention' is not an excuse four you. In fact, by saying it you're admitting that the world has overtaken you. Habib Umar

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Day 22: My Tongue

I just found out that all I missed yesterday was the burda reading and recitation of the award in Habib Umar's house.

I then realized something about myself.

In the last post, I made it seem as though I didn't mind the fact that I'd missed out on something, and that I was ok with it. But because I thought I'd missed out on a trip to Seiyum—since that's where all the men went yesterday for a mawlid—I was actually cranky and irritated, and took it out of my family, who I was spending the night with. My mood only changed when I realized I didn't miss much.

Part of the trip here is learning to recognize your faults and beginning to change them. Well, today I realized that a big fault of mine is that I take out my frustration on those closest and dearest to me when I'm angry/ sad/ annoyed etc even when it's not their fault. I complain, I frown, I moan, and basically, I am not a happy cookie.

I can have a really acid, acerbic tongue. As a teenager, I used to have a horrible temper; everything would push my buttons and I'd find myself lashing out at everyone, not even able to articulate the reason for my rage. My bad feelings would surge, swirling to the surface and I would find it near impossible to wade through them and pinpoint why exactly I was so mad.

It sounds really really over the top when I read over what I just wrote, but truthfully that's how I was. Elhamdulela I, learned—just like the Beast did—that I 'MUST control my temper.' I mastered that aspect of myself, for the most part.

Now, I'm just sarcastic and mean, and I can say biting hurtful things—even if they're truthful—that I later regret. I become severely critical and judgmental and pass on my observations in a scathing tone, literally flaying whoever happens to be in my path with my tongue.

A lot of my housemates were commenting on how so far, the Dowra seems to be focusing on two topics that come up in every single class in one way or another: intentions and the tongue. And Subhan Allah they are things I struggle very much with. Without correct intentions, your good actions are worthless, and as as Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) says, the tongue is the reason most people won't end up in paradise.

(The full hadith, which ends with "Is there anything which topples people on their faces into the Hell-fire other than the jests of their tongues?" is number 29 in Imam Nawawi's 40 hadith, and can be read here).

So with regards to my tongue, I need to: find an outlet for my frustration; learn how not to take it out on innocent family members; and learn how to have reda (contentment), even if things don't turn out the way I want them to.

Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) said:
"The most complete in faith are those best in character and kindest to their families."
Today's Quote: If you want to know your station with Allah, look at His station with you. Habib Umar

Another Quote: If someone gives you an expensive gift you thank them over and over again, but never thank God who's given you so much. God gives you so many blessings, we should thank Him. But we don't, and yet He gives us more. A mother gives up on her baby in an incubator after a while, God never gives up on us. Habib Umar

Friday, 18 July 2008

Day 21 (Cont'd): Tea ritual

Today my family was invited for lunch at a Yemeni family's house in 'Inat. And not only did I get to enjoy another traditional Yemeni meal and visit Sh. Abu Bakr Salem's grave for a third time (I also met a girl from Dar al-Zahra there, what are the chances?), but I also learnt a few more things about Tarim:

  • I will never get used to going to the bathroom in a hole in the floor, the heat, the niqab, sitting on the floor, or wearing hijab 24/7 like the women do here—even when they're sleeping!

  • Little babies here are made to wear bracelets and anklets to "take away the eye" from them.

  • For the heat, people have a stack of fans in their homes that resemble little straw flags on a stick.
  • Yemeni people sit on the floor in the strangest way--their knees are contorted in a weird looking yoga pose. I guess it comes from sitting on the floor for so long.

  • The electricity is cut off at least once a week here.
  • People don't use soap here, instead they fill a little bowl with detergent and use that instead.
  • Some of the old traditional houses have old doors that are still in use—and their lock and key is one of the strangest I've ever seen.

  • Houses are very very sparse, no matter what social class you come from. Here, houses are not supposed to be hotel-like, they're just places where you eat and sleep.

  • Extended families can all live in one house and it seems pretty normal to them, even the fact that there are a minimum of a dozen kids running around.
  • Kids here play with sawareekh' just like Egypt—mini rockets that are like firecrackers but a bit more dangerous.

But the most interesting thing I got out of today was a lesson in the 'tea ritual' which is complicated enough to rival the Chinese one.

Tea here is not a Lipton tea bag, a spoon of sugar and some hot water that takes two minutes to make like it is back home—it's ceremonial and ritualistic and can take up to an hour to make.

Here's a picture of the tea 'equipment' :

On the far left with the handle is the bucket of coal. Next to it is the water jug. Above it is where you pour any excess water. The bucket in the middle with the kettle on top is full of water and has holes at the top. What happens is that this bucket is plugged in to heat the water so it evaporates and the steam heats the kettle, which is full of tea and a bit of water. It takes approximately 30 minutes and is faster with the electronic 'bucket'—alternatively, you can heat the bucket with coal, which takes longer.

The four jars on the far right are full of three different types of tea—normal red tea, green tea, and a mixture of Nescafe and creamer—and sugar. In the center is a bowl to put in all the little cups of tea and spoons and tiny trays after they are used—they are under the blue towel on the far right. In the center at the front are lots of little jars of sugar to give out when you give out the tea, in case anyone wants more sugar.

So how it works is that the person pours a little of the tea from the kettle and then water into the cup from a tap in the bucket of hot water that's evaporating. She then puts sugar and little spoons on each cup, puts them on a tray, and then someone goes around with the tea cups and puts each one on an individual little tray.

This process is then repeated at least a couple of times, since no one drinks just one cup.

Unfortunately, the downside of my visit today is that I missed the burda recitation in Habib Umar's house, and something else which I still don't know what it was since I haven't gone back to the Dowra house yet. Ma'lesh, I guess it wasn't meant to be.

Today we also got to visit Dar al-Mustafa in the morning during Zuhr time when the men were all out. And apart from being quite a bit bigger than Dar al-Zahra with not-as-good air conditioners (but then again it is twice the size with the same number of ACs), it was pretty much the same. I got to pray in the mihrab (prayer niche in the wall) where Habib Umar prays and gives his lectures.

Today's Quote: People give credit to those who only do what they have to. I've heard people say 'Mash'Allah this woman is so religious, she prays and she wears hijab!' or 'This man is a sheikh; he has a beard and he prays all his prayers in the mosque!' Sheikh Imaad.

Day 21: Lizard Adventure

You'd think mature, grown up, talented and experienced women would be quite capable of dealing with a tiny lizard, but no—our experience with the lizard was harrowing enough to deserve a post all on its own.

So I go up to my room only to find four girls in it armed with brooms and mops eyeballing a tiny lizard perched on the ceiling, and glass all over my suitcase—they broke the fluorescent light fixture trying to guide the lizard to the open windows. Thing is, there are quite a lot of broken windows around the house, so it's not at all strange that something crawled its way in—probably because of the rain.

Eventually, more and more girls come to the room, drawn by the noise, and soon there are 10 of us trying to direct the three that were brave enough to try and capture/ kill the lizard.

The ceilings here are quite high—approximately 4 meters. So the girls ended up having to jump to try and push the lizard off the ceiling. Only it was so fast it kept scampering around the ceiling, which of course resulted in a corresponding scream and shuffle from the girls who then happen to be directly under the lizard.

Eventually, one brave soul managed to pin the lizard in place using the squeejy (bathroom wiper kind of like what we use to clean windows), only she ended up only cutting off its tail (which fell on my suitcase!) and having the lizard twitch manically. That image has been seared in my brain.

So understandably, the lizard gets more agitated and scurries around the room like someone is chasing it (which, of course, someone is). One of my roommates decides that's it—she's moving out of the room and even shifts her mattress and bag out into the corridor.

But elhamdulela, using the coordinated efforts of two girls, who manage to corner the lizard using a broom and a squeejy, the lizard is pushed down to a wall, and then a bucket was quickly put over it to stop it running away.

Then the search began for something to slide between the bucket and the wall so when the bucket was lifted the lizard didn't just jump straight out. My cornflakes box was deemed the most suitable, and in seconds it was torn apart and between the bucket and the wall.

Now we come to the most delicate part of the situation—tossing the lizard out of the window. But it seems the experience was too much for the girls holding the bucket, who instead of just removing the makeshift cornflakes lid, decide to throw the entire bucket out of the window instead.

Mission accomplished. It only took 20 minutes, 4 girls, a can of insect spray, a chopped off tail, a broken light fixture, a torn up cornflakes box and a tossed bucket.

Poor hapless lizard. Half an hour of fighting for its life, and it came out of it with no tail. But at least it lives another day. Just hope the goats don't eat it.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Day 20 (Cont'd): Community Dinner

Today after the mawlid and 'isha prayer, we were invited over to the home of one of the western women who lives here for a community dinner.

Walahy we had so much fun. My expectations were twofold: either no one would dress up or everybody would be incredibly dressed up like we do back home with women-only parties, but thank god it was somewhere in the middle. No one was dressed up, but for once, everyone was wearing colors, which was a wonderful thing to see after the black black black everywhere.

We were sitting on the roof, and the rain early this morning made the air incredibly fresh and fragrant to breathe. The full moon was beautiful. A small group of women had been hired I guess to play the duff (a kind of drum/ tambourine that some say is the only permissible instrument for Muslims to use) and sing nasheeds, and it really set the mood.

It was really inspiring to meet all the western women who are living here. I notice that a lot of them have really young kids—it'll be interesting to see how these first generation Tarimi westerners turn out and what they'll do when they eventually go back to their countries.

So a great night overall—wonderful food, wonderful tea, wonderful hospitality, and a great end to our day off. A little girl gave us lessons in playing the duff; we sang nasheeds together, and we got an informal class in Tarimi dance.

Day 20 (Cont'd): Rain

It rained hardcore today around 'asr time, just after I finished writing the previous entry.

SubhanAllah the weather changed in an instant. I was asleep the first time it rained while I was here, so I didn't know it could be like this. I've seen it rain buckets before in England, but this was a rain that rivaled even that rain, simply because of its rarity. It got gloomy, the temperature dropped, and the sky opened.

I went up to the roof and it was raining so much I could literally wring my abaya from how wet I got. I relished the rain and the big fat cold water droplets—how is it that an hour before it was so hot you could fry an egg on your face and then suddenly get so cold you're chilled? There was no lighting, but thunder rumbled over and over again, and somehow it seems so much more majestic when you're surrounded by mountains on all sides.

People all around us were up on their roofs—some turning their faces upwards towards the rain, others lifting their hands towards the sky and making du'ua and others still being more practical and using the water to clean the roof. We, on the other hand, got a tambourine and starting singing Ta'la al badro 'alayna.

And then 15 minutes later, it stopped as suddenly as it began, a wind began blowing, and the temperature climbed back up. I went outside and it smelled like rain and dust. All the sand had turned to mud, and children had all gathered to play in it. Kids will be kids =)

A thought just occurred to me—it rained today on Day 20, the day we crossed the half-way line. Half my time in this idyllic place is over. The moon today is also a full moon—when we came it was still a crescent, I remember looking at it when I was on Habib Umar's house in the mountains and thinking of how the month was still beginning. Time goes by, unlike what Madonna thinks, so fast.

Day 20: No Boys

It's the weekend again (where does the time go?!) and today we went back to the pool for another chillout session.

This time, the men were also swimming in a pool within hearing distance (we could hear them all whooping and cheering) and I realized that I hadn't talked to a 'boy' in almost three weeks.

It's strange, but I don't really miss them. I mean, it's strange not interacting with men in the same sense that walking in the street and rarely seeing cars is--it's unusual but you get used to it. I thought it would be hard to see, live, and interact only with women, but it turns out I'm more adaptable that I thought.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Day 19: Prophet Hud

Today we went to visit Prophet Hud, whose grave is an approximately 90 minute drive from Tarim.

Before we went, we were told so many stories about him and about how it's a right of passage for young boys to go on a trip there with a male relative when they're six or seven. In Shaa'ban, the month before Ramadan, the entire city of Tarim makes a zeyara (trip) to his grave, and spends up to a week there; the men go one week, the women another. And when the men come back, the women greet them dressed up, with henna on their hands to celebrate their safe arrival. Basically, it's a big ritual to honor the Prophet Hud. It's a trip that one prepares for and is not an easy one to make—there's even an intention specifically written in al-Habib Muhammad (Sa'ad) bin 'Alawi al-'Aidrus's Book of Intentions for those who want to visit the grave.

Prophet Hud's grave is located up a mountain, since that is where he died. It's said that his qawm (people) were chasing him, and the mountain cracked open for him (you can actually see the crack). He entered the mountain and stayed there until he died. This is the view from the top of the mountain:

It is said that Prophet Hud and his people were giants, and from how tall his body is, that definitely seems to be the case. Directly underneath the dome is where his head is located, and his body extends all the way out of the dome. It ends at the white stone:

Subhan Allah.

After we finished our ziyara we walked down the mountain to a shaded alcove and had our breakfast there. The view from there is stunning, and it truly felt like a picnic. Next, we made our way over to the river which runs directly underneath the mountain—one of Prophet Hud's miracles. The area was simply desert land and when his people asked him to give them proof, the desert turned into a river.

We're in summer now though, so the river was dried up for the most part. Unfortunately we were in a hurry so we didn't get to swim in the river as previous Dowra participants have gotten to, but a lot of us dipped their feet in and squished their way back to the bus all muddy.

I'm not feeling very articulate today—I fell down the stairs and I think I got a little too much sun—so forgive me for not being able to accurately portray the experience. Luckily, there is someone much more competent and eloquent than I am who has described the experience in a wonderful way:

On our way back to Tarim we got to see kids swimming in wells, palm trees as far as the eye could see, and camels chilling by the side of the road—one was crossing the road and the bus had to literally stop for him.

We also stopped at the grave of Sheikh Abu Bakr ibn Salem on our way back, who was a great lover of Prophet Hud. He even had a small room built next to the dome where he used to come to contemplate and reflect for up to three months at a time. We didn't get to go to his house though, so I was lucky to not only visit his grave a second time, but also his house.