Monday, 30 June 2008

Day 3: The Habayeb

How to describe today? I write for a living, but I'm finding it difficult to find words to describe what today was like for me. Basically, all we did was visit some westerners who live here and the hababat—the female family members of the sheikhs who will insh'Allah be giving the lectures. But in reality, the visits were so much more.

The first thing you realize when you meet the hababas is how much hayaa they have. Hayaa is loosely translated as modesty, but the word doesn't really cover the meaning it has in Arabic. They have hayaa not only in the way they dress, but in the way they talk and interact.

The hababas reminded us of how lucky we were to be chosen to come here, and of the importance of renewing our neya (intention) all the time.

The people here are so sincere. There isn't any of the social games that we play back home, where being friendly and genuine is perceived as a weakness. Everyone is so generous, so hospitable, and so welcoming. The trip is so cheap (only $700) because none of the teachers or members of the Dowra adminstration are getting paid-they are doing this because they genuinely want us to learn and benefit. Here, you know that what you see is what you get; nothing is complicated because there's nothing to gain from being aloof and detached.

The normal way to greet people here is to make a movement to kiss their hands and bring it to your heart or mouth, and really kiss their hand if they are old and/or a scholar. I'm starting to get used to it and I think it's a beautiful sign of respect.

The houses are all as simple as I imagined them to be, even the houses of the habayeb. Sparsely furnished, the houses all have the bare essentials and no more.

Its incredible how spiritual the place is, and how life revolves around the prayers and not vice versa. Too often back home I find myself slotting prayers into time between work tasks, and finishing them hurriedly. Here, prayers are a big chunk of the day, and no one gets up immediately after them—everyone sits to make dhikr (remembrance of Allah) and du'aa (supplication).

It's so so hot here. It's hotter than Cairo by only a few degrees, but somehow it's a different kind of heat, an opressive one. I am dehydrated all the time, and it got me thinking about how we take all the modern appliances of our daily lives for granted. I mean, the air conditioner was only invented recently, before it people lived in this heat normally.

But it's good to endure a little tribulation. Our lives back home are so comfortable that we’ve become complacent, taking all the blessings we have for granted. A little discomfort makes you grateful for what you have, and teaches you patience.

It was wonderful to meet the western sisters who are studying in Tarim. Again, like I said before, it will never cease to amaze me how they can pack up and leave everything they know to come to somewhere that is so different from their home to study Islam. They greeted us singing the song the people in Yathrib sang when the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) arrived there, Tal'aa albadro 'alayna, and it was an honor.

While we were there, we were given us a short dars (lecture) by a female scholar. It's amazing to see and meet real women scholars, and it proves wrong the misconception that says that there aren't any real ones. One of the most profound things she told us was that the people who are close to Allah worry so much about wasting time that they call themselves to account for every breath they spend—how many of us wonder about how we spend our day, let alone each breath?

I went to the Dowra house today, and I met the rest of the Dowra participants. Mash'Allah they come from so many different countries—the UK, the US, Bulgaria, Australia and even Brunei. The feeling of camaraderie in the house is so evident it's almost tangible. When the time comes to eat, everyone eats together from the same plate.

And on that note, the food here tastes so good. Everything—the tea, the cakes, the bread, the tuna, the grilled chicken. Maybe it's partly because everything is fresh and natural here, but I'm sure part of it is due to the baraka (blessings) of Tarim. And for those of you wondering, yes you can buy a lot here—peanut butter, Kellogg's cornflakes, and even skittles.

Today was a wonderful day. I haven't felt so at peace in a long time. And we haven't even started yet.

Tomorrow morning at 3am insh'Allah the Dowra begins.

Tawakalto 'ala Allah.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Day 2 (Cont'd): Dar al-Zahra

I spent the day today finishing an article for work. Not the most productive use of my time here, but at least now I'm done with work.

Around maghrib time, our neighbors came up to greet us, and what do you know? One of them is Egyptian :) She very kindly offered to take us to Dar al-Zahra, which is the female version of Dar al-Mustafa, and I immediately took her up on the offer, since I hadn't yet met anyone.

Dar al-Mustafa is named after the Prophet Mohamad (one of his names is Mustafa, the chosen), and Dar al-Zahra is named after his daughter, Fatima Al-Zahraa.

Dar al-Zahra is beautiful. We're not allowed to take pictures, but basically, imagine a building with a hole right down the middle. The hole is a courtyard, which airs the whole place out, and is a play where some classes are held, so you can see the sky directly. There's another courtyard on the other side, and both remind me of the mosque of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), where the domes slide open to air the mosque.

To the right side of the main courtyard is the mosala (prayer area), and the rest of the building is made up of dorms and classrooms. During prayer time, everyone prays in congregation, and everyone wears a kamees, which is the traditional prayer gown tied behind the head.

I got a small tour of the place, and I met some of the women who were studying there. It will never cease to amaze me when I meet people from literally the other side of the world who give up their lives to come live and study in a place that is so alien to their culture. Unlike what you may think, students aren't just Arabs or Indonesians; I met people from Britain, Kenya, and Singapore.

SubhanAllah there are so so many people studying there. There was a class being held when we came in, and as a rough estimate, there were at least 200 women listening attentively. After the lecture, I finally ran into some of the other Dowra participants, who are staying in a house nearby. Four of them I'd already met before; they were with me in last year's Rihla. It's such a small world and I was so so happy to meet them again.

I'm thinking of moving in with the rest of the Dowra sisters rather than staying with my family. I mean, I see my family every day, but how often am I going to get a chance to experience the okhowa (sisterhood)?

Day 2: Material Life

I just woke up and it's 10:30am. Not very good considering in a couple of nights I will have to be waking up at 3am (insh'Allah).

So for this morning entry, I wanted to reflect a bit on how attached I've become to 'stuff.' There's this song by Zain Bhikha I love titled "Can't take it with you (when you go)" and I've always loved it because it shows how material we've become.

This is the view outside my window:

Houses in Yemen are very very basic, and look unfinished, as if they are half-built. Most are made of mud bricks, which are then painted over (as far as I understand) with something that makes them not melt in the rain. You feel that the houses are not only environmentally friendly, but part of the earth. And because-apart from the main roads-the roads are unpaved, dusty and rocky, you feel like you are in a very un-urban place. Being so close to nature is new to me, and definitely makes you more aware of how small you are in the grand scheme of things.

In Egypt, the only reason anyone would have a house like that is because they are too poor to build a better one. But here, I think another reason is because for many people, houses are just places where they sleep and live, they don't need to be incredible on the inside and outside—the need to show off isn't there. The environment in Tarim also forces many people into an ascetic mode of living.

The flat I'm in right now consists of two bedrooms, two tiny airport size bathrooms, one empty room (which I presume is for entertaining guests) and a kitchen. Each bedroom has two mattresses with a pillow, and only one of the bathrooms has a proper toilet; the other is just a hole in the floor. The kitchen has a refrigerator, cooker (gas though—don't think I've seen one of those in ages) and a semi-automatic washing machine. Because of the heat, there's an airconditioner in the bedrooms (alhamdulela!) but other than that the apartment is bare. No knickknacks, no curtains, no useless things everywhere. And you know what? It's enough.

Sure, I've realized how much I depend on 'stuff,'—("Oh, I need a mirror to tie my hijab. Oh, how can I hang my abayas with no hangers?" etc) but for the most part I relish this experience.

I've only been here a day, but I can already see that life here is so much simpler. The constant roaring in my ears that I always have back home (partially due to traffic—I haven't heard one car here), the constant drive to do this and this and this is simply non-existent. Simply because the place is so simple. I get up, I pray, and I feel like I can take my time. I don't have to hurriedly get dressed, drive to work at a break neck speed, stopping only to pick up a a sandwich, go to work, finish work, and head off to evening classes before trudging back home and doing it all again the next day.

At 10pm here, there's no one in the streets, which makes it easier to wake up for fajr. Internet access is minimal, and even then facebook, my biggest waste of time, is blocked. There's even something to be said for dressing the same (women in black jilbabs and niqabs and men in white jilbabs)—the time wasted matching clothes and getting dressed simply becomes redundant. Of course, this doesn't mean I'm going to want to give up facebook forever or dress the same way forever, but just that I understand the allure.

I've already fallen in love with this place. And with the Al-Rabie milk.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Day 1 (Cont'd): 6 hour Drive

Well, that was definitely an experience. Today may well have been one of the longest days of my life.

We woke up at 6am, as our host told us, and were at the airport at 7am, only to be told that we were too late, and that the flight had been overbooked so they had given away our tickets. Ouch.

Luckily (or so it seemed at the time), we ran into a group of foreigners who definitely looked Dowra-like. We told the organizer we were also headed to Dar-Al Mustafa so he took our tickets and told us he would try and book us on a flight to Al-Rayaan (aka Makalla). From there we could take a car to Tarim, as we would have done once we landed in Seyiuum. Both flights were an hour long and so we (wrongly) assumed that the car ride would be the same, approximately 30 minutes.

Wrong. The car trip from the Al-Rayaan airport to Tarim took us over SIX hours. By the time we got to Tarim it had been almost 24 hours since we'd left our house at Cairo.

So the six hours in the hot car were not exactly fun. But looking on the bright side,

  • Al Rayyan is on the coast, so we got to see the beautiful sea as we landed.
  • I got to see camels grazing in the midst of greenery, and not to the backdrop of a desert.
  • We stopped at a shady looking reststop, and sat in a family room—a small window-less room with a carpet--where we ate a chicken with rice Yemeni style, with our hands.
  • We drove up a huge mountain. An incredible, incredible, scary experience. The road was literally built into the mountain, and we were so high up my ears were popping. And then when we reached the top, we drove all the way to the end of the mountaintop.
  • When we finally drove back down the mountain we came across a valley called Al-'Ain, which is filled with literally thousands of palm trees. A sight I will never forget.
  • I got to see Qat. I wrote a research paper about it in university and couldn't believe that it really was as widespread as I'd read. Our driver stopped on the way to pick up a bag of Qat, and chewed it all the way as leisurely as if he was chewing a stick of gum, and not a drug. You see, according to him, it's a monabeh (makes you alert), not a drug.

And now we are in Tarim, in the valley of Hadramot. The name literally translates into "death has arrived." Someone once told me, hadramot is where people come to die—not physically die but as in erasing everything about them that is tied to this world.

My heart seems lighter as I take in the view and breathe in the air. I can't help feeling that today has made me appreciate being in Tarim even more, and that the hardship endured makes the upcoming experience all the more precious in my eyes.

I've been wanting to come to Tarim since 2006, and even though I was accepted in the '06 Dowra, and the '07 one, circumstances arose and I couldn't attend either one. Subhan Allah I wasn't accepted this year, and only got in when a sister backed out at the last minute.

So all these events combined make me all the more determined to make use of every single minute I have here. Bism Allah.

Day 1: San'aa

I just landed in Yemen, and my first impression is joy at the incredible weather. 20 degrees, it's a welcome break from 35 degree Cairo. But more than that, the air seems incredibly pure and still. I know that doesn't make sense, but that's what it feels like; the atmosphere lacks the vibrancy and fast pace of Cairo.

My flight got in at 2am, and my connecting flight to Seiyum leaves at 8am. A friend of the family kindly invited my family and I to their home, and it turns out Yemeni hospitality eclipses Egyptian hospitality.
(My mother, sister and brother are staying in Tarim too, though they're not part of the Dowra group).

The house smells of bokhoor (incense), and reminds me of Saudi Arabia's Abd El Samad El Qorashi (a famous incense chain). And the dates taste as good as the ones in Mecca too :)

On the way to the house, I realize that everyone is chewing Qat (a marujana like drug which is part of the culture here), and that they're armed. Boys as young as 15 are carrying heavy artillery, and our host shrugs and tells us that that's the norm in Sanaa. Oh, and that daggers do not count as weaponry, since they are simply decoration. Even our host is armed with a silver gun. And wearing a suit jacket over the galabeya seems to be the dress code for men.

Sanaa is so so quiet. Perhaps because it's 3am, but regardless, the lack of people is strange. Houses are all one or two storey buildings, and they're all made of unpainted bricks. Which is why when we came across one of the most beautiful mosques I've seen, President Saleh's mosque, one that cost millions of dollars to build, it seemed all the more beautiful for its uniqueness. I feel like I've stepped back in time. Until I see a billboard advertising Ragheb Alama's new album (a Lebenese singer). Sigh.

And now I hear the first adaan of fajr. And a rooster crowing. Better get a couple of hours of shut eye before I have to get up and continue the last leg of my trip.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Bism Allah

Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahmeen,

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

A new blog for what I hope will be a life-changing experience for me, one I have been looking forward to for three years.

I'm off to Yemen today for the Dowra, a 40 day intensive Islamic 'summer school,' for lack of a better term. Insh'Allah we will be focusing on three aspects: knowledge, spiritual wayfaring, and daa'wa (calling to Islam).

Dar Al-Mustafa, where the classes will be held, is one of the most respected traditional Islamic learning institutions in the world. It is located in Tarim, Hadramoudt, a city that has been likened to Medina during the times of the Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon him), and in fact is known as the Daughter of Medina. A place where time stood still.

About Yemen, Sayyiduna Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said:

“The people of Yemen have come to you. They are tender-hearted and more delicate of soul. The capacity to understand (fiqh) is of the Yemenis and wisdom is that of the Yemenis.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, no: 4129 & Sahih Muslim, no: 84)

And there are many hadith that also talk about Yemen and its blessings.

I'm nervous, apprehensive about being thrown in the deep end of a culture which, although similar to my own, is still strange in many ways. From the niqab (face veil) that has to be worn at all times in a segregated society, to waking up at 3am, it's all going to be a brand new experience.

Why did I decide to go? Because:
"Seeking knowledge is the duty of every Muslim. It will enable you to be your own friend in the desert, your mainstay in solitude. It will be your companion in loneliness, your guide to happiness, your sustainer in misery, your adornment when you are amongst people and your arrow against your enemies. Whoever goes out in search of knowledge is on the path of Allah until returning." Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)

"Whoever decides to relocate solely to study sacred knowledge is forgiven before even setting out." Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)

So my intention for going is:

نويت التعلم والتعليم٬ والتذكروالتذكير٬ والنفع والإنتفاع٬ والإفادة والاستفادة٬
والحث على التمسك بكتاب الله٬ وسنة رسوله٬ والدعاء الى الهدى٬ والدلالة على الخير
ابتغاء وجه الله ومرضاته وقربه وثوابه سبحانه وتعالى

"I intend learning and teaching; reminding myself and reminding others; benefiting myself and benefiting others; encouraging people to hold fast to the Book of Allah and the sunna of the Messenger of Allah (PBUH); calling people to guidance; guiding people to good, and [in doing all this] seeking the countenance, pleasure, nearness and the reward of Allah most High."
Imam 'Abd-Allah ibn 'Alawi al-Haddad.
A student of knowledge needs five things—humility, intention, patience, a craving of knowledge, and estrangement. I'm sure I have three of those things, and here's hoping I can cultivate my humility and patience.

Bism Allah.

(For more about Tarim, see this beautiful short documentary by Sheikh Yahya Rhodus titled City of Light).