Thursday, March 29, 2007

What's wrong with Americans? Why can't they stay married?

I had all these conversations about marriage and gender roles with my great uncle’s daughters last weekend. They are a few years older than me, married (obviously) and with children. I had the conversation with one actually, her name is Bushra. She is 28, has been married for two years last Sunday and has an adorable 7 month old son named Haroon. Her husband works in Dubai, and she’s waiting on her paperwork to go work as an accountant out there as well. She wanted to know what I wanted to do with my life, what my “career” will be. I told her that I want to be me, teach, write, make films, express, document, be a role model, and push new boundaries of myself.

She then asked me why so few people get married in America. She actually said it something like,
“Women are with so many men in America. They don’t stay with one in marriage, they leave and they go with many, many. Why?”
Aside from the fact that I’m being asked to answer for all of America’s social and cultural realities regarding the contentious and ever changing institution of marriage, I tried to explain, broaden her view and defend America all at once.

This question came after some discussion of Indian vs. American social & filial expectations of women. I was trying to express that India has some good things and America has some good stuff too. When I try to break the perception of America as a (simple, hand-out giving) land of a plenty by breaking down what it takes to make good or even decent money in the States, I often get asked why I don’t just move to India. This time I was able to segue into these differences and why I couldn’t permanently live in India (aside from the unbearable heat). Explaining the difference between expectations of women and family in America and India, I pointed out how my purpose in life is to fulfill my potential. That is my duty, completely separate from what my mother thinks fulfilling my potential looks like, or my father, or what my sister is doing in life or what Ummy Jaan thinks I should be doing. I have more choices than an average Indian girl. As much as I love my mother and value her opinion, I am not bound to follow it. I don’t have to take the extremes of running away to defy her word and being disowned. Once defying has been accomplished, life for a young renegade Indian girl is bleak. She cannot further her education (she needs large school fees for that), she has almost definitely not held a job beore and has no savings of her own. Her life is sure to be one full of abuse and hardship. No one will want to marry her, with no family to pay a dowry or sanction the match, she will be without the only safety net society provides. No wonder most girls go along with what their parents say… anyway.

Bushra pointed out that her parents are much older than her and know what is best when she is young and cannot possibly know. I challenged that, saying that her parents grew up in a completely different era. My parents, immigrants, didn’t grow up in my era and didn’t grow up in America, so who is to say they know what is best for me? Parents are adults who are very human. They do not know everything, and by extension, do not always (or ever) know what is best.

“How does your mom feel about you traveling?” I was asked. “Does she give you permission easily?”
To try and lighten to heavy load of this conversation and not make my mom look bad or me look like a rebel child, I pointed out simply that I am here. I am an adult, I lived on my own, had my own apartment, worked full time- I make my own decisions. Bushra tells me that in India they need parental permission.

“That, my dear, is the biggest difference between India and America,” inferring, of course, that I don’t.
It was an interesting exchange, and one I was glad to be able to have had.

I completely forgot that I started this story to tell you about my defense of American marriage! So I’m trying to explain the nature of American society by explaining the state of marriage today. I’m explaining that in fact, half of American marriages survive, and given the cultures, Indian marriages and families don’t have to contend with nearly the amount of issues that American ones do. Indian ideas of compromise or submission to lifelong marriage are well documented and witnessed so I didn’t need to defend that. I try to explain the fact that so many people have grown up in households with dysfunctional marriages or non existent marriages and that without successful, working examples, how can one make a marriage work?

I explain that the women’s movement has changed women’s status in society completely, and in many ways changed their perceptions and expectations of marriage while not changing male perspectives or expectations of it all that much. Women’s responsibilities have only grown, and life has gotten even more complicated. Men haven’t caught up, socially or emotionally. In most cases, they are not able to match their wives’ socialized emotional intelligence. On top of that, not knowing how to communicate or compromise makes relationships suffer and then fall apart. Her response to this is that people need to compromise, like Indians do. Her husband is loving, understanding and supportive. I congratulate her and remind her that most Indian husbands (possibly husbands everywhere) aren’t. What I fail to fully express is that Americans don’t have a ready system of support for marriage such as the Indian extended family (at least in Muslim circles, Hindu marriage is quite different) and that no one ever teaches or trains us how to make these aspects of life work. All of our siblings, friends and family will not be married, waiting to impart advice at the slightest indication of need. Neither is there a norm for successful, stable marriage in the US, many people find themselves the odd one out in their social circles when tying the knot.

Anyways- just thought I'd share that moment of cultural-translation-thru- conversation I had.
In case anyone has forgotten: I love feedback!!

Monday, March 26, 2007

How NOT to shoot your first short film

I learned many things while going through the process of making my first short film. It was quite a fly by the seat of my pants sort of affair. I had spent weeks trying to come up with concepts, story lines or even themes to film around, but to no avail. All the ideas had were much too big for a 4-5 minute film, which was what I was aiming for. They were good ideas though, and still consumed my time as I wrote and developed them. This did not help my planning process or pre-production phase in the least. I finally settled on the loose theme of why Mumbai is my favorite place in India. This way, I could film my favorite places and some of the countless interesting things that go on in this incredible city and my theme was still broad enough that if hit with sudden inspiration, I could follow it.

I began by making a list of all the locations I would like to shoot across the city. It was quite a long list, and I started mapping how many days I would need to shoot and what parts of the city were close to one another and could be accomplished in one day. I began to strategize about the routes I would take on public transportation to get me there the fastest and to avoid the rush, and crush of commuters. I budgeted out how much this would cost, and given my inability to carry many things due to my neck injury, I had to plan how I would be able to carry my small hand held digi-cam and all my things for the day. I began to long for an assistant to carry my things, watch them as I shoot and take care of all the footwork. It’s also nice to have some input, feedback or a second opinion. I guess part of me developing my skill set as an individual capable of directing is being able to make definitive decisions, completely unaided, about shots, locations and lighting. (Not having an assistant was a “teachable moment” as we say.)

I received the hand held Sony Digital Camcorder that I would be using and set off. My first day of filming was quite interesting. I filmed my at my principal location, which was the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel and walked north towards the Kala Ghoda district, full of museums, wide boulevards and beautiful architecture. I got a call from a friend with a unique opportunity: to attend a press conference on a boat in the Arabian Sea. This is exactly why my theme was loose; to take advantage of serendipity. I literally ran there, enacting a film worthy action sequence on the way, involving jaywalking, cab hopping, running across wide tourist filled plazas, upsetting grazing pigeons, worrying the general public and finally, hopping across two already launched ferries to reach my destination boat. I proceeded to spend the afternoon surrounded by representatives from Mumbai’s biggest media outlets, the only person not there on assignment. I got a lot of footage on the open sea, the coast line, and the shot I thought I wouldn’t be able to get: the Gateway of India, from the water, the way it was meant to be seen. I was thrilled.
Next day of shooting I got my principal market shots in Bandra and due to traffic, was not able to get to Haji Ali’s Masjid before the light changed. I went to Juhu Beach, was accosted by beggars and venders who target tourists. Their insistence that I pay for their services got in the way of me being able to shoot what I wanted, and not having anyone else there to help get rid of them, I left Juhu Beach earlier than intended. I got the shots I wanted on the main Juhu-Link Road and called it a day.

One more day of filming remained. I got the shots of the roadside fish, vegetable and fruit markets and mall exterior and interiors that I wanted. I wrote my historically informed narrative for the voice-over and planned the shots I could conceive as I wrote. I called my contact and told them I was finished filming and needed to be put in touch with an editor to process my footage and to begin assembling my short film. Did I mention that I was on a severe time constraint? I had extended my stay in Mumbai by one week to be able to do this project at all, and by the time I had gotten the camera I was to use, filmed and gotten in touch with the editor, I had exactly 60 hours to complete my project and get onto my plane to leave Mumbai.

I met with my cheerful, America-loving editor and we processed the digital (poor quality) film that I shot on. After all my filming, it turned out that I only had 80 minutes of footage. My editor was quite astounded by this limited amount of footage, and continued to remark on this throughout our joyful time together. The editing process was where I learned the most, and discovered how vast the technical knowledge I lacked really was. My original script for my voiceover ended up clocking in at 11 minutes. It was clear that I did not have enough footage to support this (interesting and informative) narrative. I made the first hard decision to cut the narrative and make it as sparse as possible while retaining my original intention (many other cuts followed).

It became clear to me that I would not be able to finish before my scheduled departure time and I extended my stay one more day. On the night we were scheduled to finish, the proprietor of the charming editing establishment we were working at. Ziptrak, came in at 9 pm telling us to get out. He was closing up early because he didn’t feel he could trust his late night staff to lock up after we were done. This was Monday night, the night before I was to leave according to my newly altered itinerary. I started to flip out as much as is possible in India, where no one seems to give a damn about anything logistics related. No matter.

Exactly what I didn’t want to happen did. I was working in the studio the day of my departure, stressing that the project wouldn’t get completed, just barely completing it. Music was added and that was about all the special treatment the much cut down 5 minute film got. I was getting so frustrated with my editor, and I realized how important that integral relationship is. My editor didn’t like my narrative, he thought it was boring and did not see the point of it. His eye and mine were often quite divergent, and he wanted to place shots that I did not like at all. I was getting frustrated with myself, because I did not have the technical knowledge necessary to ask for the effects I wanted, or even how to articulate what I wanted to happen with the project.

At the end of the day, my project did indeed get finished. I am happy that the experience is over. My original vision for the project was not fulfilled and I will re-cut the film as soon as I am able. I spent 5 weeks in Mumbai, observing Bollywood and experiencing it in many forms. $2,065 later, I have learned quite a bit about the film making process, and more importantly, the realities of a fickle, friendless industry, where loyalty, efficiency, honesty, truth and trust are not valued one bit.

Laundry Day

You know on laundry day, when you have almost no clean clothes left, you just wear whatever is remotely clean? No attention to colors, matching or anything, just need something to cover you while your clothes are washed and dried. Well, yesterday that was me, only I’m in India, and I have to wait for the domestic help to wash the giant pile of clothes and dry them before I have anything clean to wear. I’ve tried to become pre-emptive with my laundry drop offs; a few days before the situation is dire I bring her my clothes. (You ask why I can’t just wash them myself? I have no initiative in this heat, and I have no idea how to wash clothes manually while saving water and not even the slightest clue how to operate their washing machine.)

Being that Hyderabad is moving towards its summer season, the weather has become unbearable for me. I sweat all the time, no matter what. There are no air conditioners here, just hard working ceiling fans that don’t get the job done. The air feels very humid although Hyderabad is found on the Deccan Plateau, a generally dry area, with little rain outside the monsoon season. I suspect my body is still programmed to expect winter temperatures, and these daily tropical blasts of heat are impossible for me to adjust to.

That said, the immense heat means laundry needs to be done more often, and numerous showers (or “baths” as we call them here, since the showers don’t work, and we take them using buckets, not bathtubs) are necessary as well. This becomes a bit of a problem because Hyderabad, along with much of India, faces water shortages. Water use needs to be as economical as possible; once it runs out, it may be a day or two before we can refill our tanks from the main water tanks on the roof of the building.

Onto my particular laundry day. The weather here is way too hot for jeans or western clothes. I really would rather wear a thin sheet and call it a day, but such is not possible in so vibrant and conservative a culture as Hyderabadi India, so a full shilwar khameez suit is required. I pull out the only one I have left at this point; a natural cotton uncolored (light beige, basically) khameez (top) with a pink churidar and matching dupatta. Churidars are a style of pant favored by the Moughals, close fitting from the knee down, specifically tight around the calves and ankles with the fabric gathering in fashionable wrinkles or scrunches. These are a popular style pant with Indian women today, and though a bit like bloomers at the top of the pant, comfortable enough to wear. The natural cloth khameez I purchased as a spare top to wear with skirts and the like. It is a bit tight in the hips and bust; not by Western standards, but obviously so by Indian standards.

To try and remedy/hide this, I drape my dupatta (scarf) all around me, attempting to use the sheer bright pink fabric as a distraction from the plain beige underneath. By Indian standards, I do not look up to snuff. I try and disguise this fact by actually wearing the matching bangles and tops that I have, but to no avail. My pen drive hanging from my neck is also not helping. I ask my great aunt to do a French braid in my hair, but finding it too short; she did two small braids instead. All the shorter pieces of hair that normally frame my face fell forward, giving it a nice dignified look, but as the afternoon progresses, I look more and more disheveled.

After many hours of sweating in the house, around 7pm when it was dark and “cooler,” we left to go run errands. We had to stop by the jeweler to make me pearl earrings. My mom’s first cousin, my aunt Shabu, gave me a large strand of cultured pearls as a gift last time I was in Hyderabad. It was an awkward length, so we had it restrung into a short necklace and a matching bracelet. There were two pearls left over, so we headed back to this same jeweler to turn them into matching single pearl earrings, known as “tops” here. While at the jeweler my aunt decided that she simply must gift me with some gold earrings. She (like most of the women I have encountered in Hyderabad) thinks it is a disgrace that I do not wear any jewelry, especially no gold. She set out once again to remedy this situation. I’m not sure what it is about my unadorned state that makes everyone so uncomfortable, but I suspect it has a bit to do with my standing in the community. I come from a good family of well educated, decently well heeled people and to not wear any jewelry belies this fact. Indian society is so set on appearances, reputation and gossip that one must be up to snuff all the time. That’s the idea anyway.

Back in the jeweler’s, I was alarmed by how showy and expensive most of the gold pieces were. I kept thinking back to a quote I had read recently, referring to India as “the sink of the world’s gold.” Looking around at the displays chock full of gold and the women in full burqua and niquab (the face veil) shopping for the most expensive, glittery pieces they could afford just seemed to illustrate this point. Maybe it’s because I’m from outside of India, but I have never felt the affect of gold’s luster. I don’t pine for it, hope for it, work towards it or even wear it. I prefer the less expensive, but in my eyes, more attractive, silver. (Gasp!! I am definitely not native born Indian stock. Hell, I’m not even Indian!)

My aunt asked the jeweler to show me some tops. He brings out a full velvet tray of gold posted studs out and I follow my aunt’s lead as far as choice goes. I have very specific ideas of what I like, but I’m not purchasing, so I’m not going to go pointing out things willy-nilly in case my aunt feels compelled to buy them or bad because she can’t afford them. We finally settle on a suitable pair, and I stand up and turn around towards the wall length mirror behind us to try the earrings on. I hesitate, wondering how many other women have tried these on and wish I had some hand sanitizer. Indian earrings are very different than non-Indian earrings. Instead of a post t hat you can just push through the pierced hole, you have to unscrew a thin screw from the back of the post. This screw is about the width of an average Western earring post. This small screw fits into a much thicker post that is the actual earring. Screwing the earring in place seems to secure it tightly within the (victim’s) ear. These posts are so thick that they would easily be given a gauge and worn in other piercings in the body.I, and then my aunt, spent a great deal of time trying to shove Indian earring post into my American sized ear piercings. Needless to say, it was a painful process that was not successful.

Next we look at hanging, dangly earrings, but they are all too expensive. We move on to hoops and after much deliberation and a challenge that my second holes are not still open after all these years pick a pair. I try them on, they fit, we weigh them to determine their gold purity and price and then my aunt tells me to wear them out of the store. No problem, I respond, completely expecting this. I confidently re-insert the earring and cant seem to get the hoop to fasten in the back. I try, my aunt tries, and finally the jeweler comes at me with jewelry pliers. I get alarmed. I argue against permanently closing these earrings into my ears, as I don’t carry pliers around with me, and don’t want to have to go to a jeweler’s every time I want to change outfits and accessories. The jeweler relents, and we decide on a ring. This takes the least time of all the consultations as there are only 3 rings that fit my apparently tiny fingers. I pick the best fitting, agree to my aunt’s insistence that I always wear it and think of her (and not walk out of the house without jewelry) and we’re off. This has taken the better part of 2 hours, and I feel strange in my laundry day outfit, wearing gold.

After more errands running, we hop in a rickshaw to go to our local internet café. We have to call America and I need to use the internet. My great aunt, knowing how long my email sessions are, tells me she’ll be up the street at my aunt Shabu’s and to meet here there soon, since it’s late and we haven’t had dinner yet. The internet attendant is very nice, no doubt won over by my large, easy smile and my gora-gora skin. I ask him to borrow a pen and he asks me if my name is Yazi. He gives me a message from my aunt telling me to meet her as soon as I’m done with my work. I rush to finish, wondring how my aunt got the number to the café. As I leave, the nice internet attendant says he’ll have one of the boys walk me to my aunt’s house. Confused, I thank him. We exit the café and my escort gestures to a dark stairwell to the right. More confused than ever, I decline, explaining my aunt lives up the street, not up the stairs.

I walk in the still-not-at-all-cool evening breeze to Shabu Aunty’s and greet her surprised face and empty living room. My great aunt is not there. Damn! More confusion! I remember now my great aunt telling me that my father’s first cousin, Aliah, owns the internet café, and I should inquire after her sometime. I assume that this, combined with the eagerness of the internet employees to help me arrive at Aunty’s, that my great aunt has sought out this other Aunt I’ve never met and is in fact there. I realize that was how the call came, instructing me to return promptly. My younger boy cousins accompany me from Shabu Aunty’s, walking me back to the café. Another gentleman offers to show me the way upstairs and I reluctantly follow him up into the dark. Thankfully my cousins, who have become my makeshift security detail this trip, accompany me all the way upstairs and into my aunt’s large flat.

Thrown off by this unexpected turn of events, I am even more aware of my ratty appearance. This is compounded by my great aunt way of explaining “yesterday she was wearing such nice clothes; I thought to bring her over just to meet you!” The day before I had been wearing a deep purple shilwar skhameez made from a sari with my restrung pearls. I looked quite fancy, like the Indian Bree Van de Camp. I meet my extremely fair-skinned aunt and uncle, trying my hardest to just stuff myself with snacks so that I don’t have to talk and show my discomfort. My aunt remarks how I “look just like my father!”
(This is the first time I’ve heard this in my whole life- everyone I’ve ever met can attest to how I am the spitting image of my mother.)

I stuff more cantaloupe pieces in my mouth to keep from talking. I pay attention to the World Cup Cricket match between India and Sri Lanka to also not talk. This is very simple; my aunt is so used to explaining my life, schedule, eating habits, current education status and projects, family size and geographic loyalties that it is often easier if I say nothing at all. I nearly choke on some watermelon as my great aunt tells me that my Aliah Aunty has a room ready for me at the flat. My great aunt assures her that she cannot bear to let me be away from her, I am her daughter and she worries too much about me, I am her joy in this world. We agree to meet on Monday for lunch and I silently plan to wear my purple shilwar suit and my pearls. As we leave, she tells my great aunt how beautiful I am. I walk faster.

We walk back home, laughing over the misunderstanding and avoiding the stray dogs. We finally get back to the flat and remember that my uncle’s in-laws are visiting! I walk inside, greeting an impeccably dressed Indian wife, with all the required finery, fancy silk sari, plenty of gold jewelry and the most dignified accessory an Indian wife can have; body rolls. Her husband had a bald shiny brown head and an immaculately groomed white beard along with a pressed shirt and pants. A tall young man appeared, decked out in today’s most fashionable jeans and a t-shirt and plenty of jewelry. I go wash up and undo my failed French braids and comb out my hair and curse my clothes. This outfit has been like a magnet for meeting important people.

I sit quietly again, willing these people to leave so my laundry day can end. I mistakenly congratulate the young man, my uncle’s brother in law, on his brother’s engagement. I eat mitahi brought to celebrate this absent newly betrothed young man. I get a short lecture about using the English vs. Arabic words for God and verbally gifted an English translation of the Holy Quran. I say thank you and good bye and sit down to eat dinner at 11 pm. I am exhausted and reflect on the day. I vow to never leave the house on a laundry day again.

Monday, March 12, 2007


I am American. I am Muslim. I am Brown. I am a woman. I am Indian. I am each of these things seperately and all of these things together. I belong to many different cultural groups, and I am not willing to compromise or give up any of them. I love being each of these things, and am proud to be able to move (mostly) seamlessly from one circle to another, and stand in all those circles at once.

People often ask me why I identify so strongly with being a woman of COLOR, as opposed to simply being a woman. How am I a practicing, believing Muslim if I'm a feminist? How am I a proud American if I am an activist? How and why do I identify with communities of color when so many other Indians don't?

It's annoying, and I don't always have the time to break down my whole life for them. Also, I don't have all the scholarly expertise I could that would help me answer the questions in a clear way that makes it easy for people who don't have intersectional (looking at the intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender simultaneously and with equal importance) analysis when looking at the world.

OK. I read a fantastic article today from the NY Times that everyone should read. It's called "Between Black and Immigrant Muslims, an Uneasy Alliance." I'm linking it here, but in 14 days when it isn't free anymore, I'll post the whole thing here on the blog. Here's the link-

Definitely check it out. It brings up some important points about the class, cultural and perspective differences between the two biggest ethnic groups within American Muslims.

(Here's the article, reposted from the New York Times website at the link provided above. I don't own the article and am sharing it for general use.)

March 11, 2007

Between Black and Immigrant Muslims, an Uneasy Alliance

Under the glistening dome of a mosque on Long Island, hundreds of men sat cross-legged on the floor. Many were doctors and engineers born in Pakistan and India. Dressed in khakis, polo shirts and the odd silk tunic, they fidgeted and whispered.
One thing stood between them and dinner: A visitor from Harlem was coming to ask for money.
A towering black man with a gray-flecked beard finally swept into the room, his bodyguard trailing him. Wearing a long, embroidered robe and matching hat, he took the microphone and began talking about a different group of Muslims, the thousands of African-Americans who have found Islam in prison.
“We are all brothers and sisters,” said the visitor, known as Imam Talib.
The men stared. To some of them, it seemed, he was from another planet. As the imam returned their gaze, he had a similar sensation. “They live in another world,” he later said.
Only 28 miles separate Imam Talib’s mosque in Harlem from the Islamic Center of Long Island. The congregations they each serve — African-Americans at the city mosque and immigrants of South Asian and Arab descent in the suburbs — represent the largest Muslim populations in the United States. Yet a vast gulf divides them, one marked by race and class, culture and history.
For many African-American converts, Islam is an experience both spiritual and political, an expression of empowerment in a country they feel is dominated by a white elite. For many immigrant Muslims, Islam is an inherited identity, and America a place of assimilation and prosperity.
For decades, these two Muslim worlds remained largely separate. But last fall, Imam Talib hoped to cross that distance in a venture that has become increasingly common since Sept. 11. Black Muslims have begun advising immigrants on how to mount a civil rights campaign. Foreign-born Muslims are giving African-Americans roles of leadership in some of their largest organizations. The two groups have joined forces politically, forming coalitions and backing the same candidates.
It is a tentative and uneasy union, seen more typically among leaders at the pulpit than along the prayer line. But it is critical, a growing number of Muslims believe, to surviving a hostile new era.
“Muslims will not be successful in America until there is a marriage between the indigenous and immigrant communities,” said Siraj Wahhaj, an African-American imam in New York with a rare national following among immigrant Muslims. “There has to be a marriage.”
The divide between black and immigrant Muslims reflects a unique struggle facing Islam in America. Perhaps nowhere else in the world are Muslims from so many racial, cultural and theological backgrounds trying their hands at coexistence. Only in Mecca, during the obligatory hajj, or pilgrimage, does such diversity in the faith come to life, between black and white, rich and poor, Sunni and Shiite.
“This is a new experiment in the history of Islam,” said Ali S. Asani, a professor of Islamic studies at Harvard University.
That evening in October, Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid drove to Westbury, on Long Island, with a task he would have found unthinkable years ago.
He would ask for donations from the immigrant community he refers to, somewhat bitterly, as the “Muslim elite.”
But he needed funds, and the doors of immigrant mosques seemed to be opening. Imam Talib and other African-American leaders had formed a national “indigenous Muslim” organization, and he knew that during the holy month of Ramadan, the Islamic Center of Long Island could raise thousands of dollars in an evening.
It is a place where BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes fill the parking lot, and Coach purses are perched along prayer lines.
In Harlem, many of Imam Talib’s congregants get to the mosque by bus or subway, and warm themselves with space heaters in a drafty, brick building.
Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Imam Talib had only a distant connection to the Islamic Center of Long Island. In passing, he had met Faroque Khan, an Indian-born doctor who helped found the mosque, but the two had little in common.
Imam Talib, 56, is a thundering prison chaplain whose mosque traces its roots to Malcolm X. He is a first-generation Muslim.
Dr. Khan, 64, is a mild-mannered pulmonologist who collects Chinese antiques and learned to ski on the slopes of Vermont. He is a first-generation American.
But in the turmoil that followed Sept. 11, the imam and the doctor found themselves unexpectedly allied.
“The more separate we stay, the more targeted we become,” Dr. Khan said.
Each man recognizes what the other has to offer. African-Americans possess a cultural and historical fluency that immigrants lack, said Dr. Khan; they hold an unassailable place in America from which to defend their faith.
For Imam Talib, immigrants provide a crucial link to the Muslim world and its tradition of scholarship, as well as the wisdom that comes with an “unshattered Islamic heritage.”
Both groups have their practical virtues, too. African-Americans know better how to mobilize in America, both men say, and immigrants tend to have deeper pockets.
Still, it is one thing to talk about unity, Imam Talib said, and another to give it life. Before his visit to Long Island last fall, he had never asked Dr. Khan and his mosque to match their rhetoric with money.
“You have to have a litmus test,” he said.
One Faith, Many Histories
Imam Talib and Dr. Khan did not warm to each other when they met in May 2000, at a gathering in Chicago of Muslim leaders.
The imam found the silver-haired doctor faintly smug and paternalistic. It was an attitude he had often whiffed from well-to-do immigrant Muslims. Dr. Khan found Imam Talib straightforward to the point of bluntness.
The uneasy introduction was, for both men, emblematic of the strained relationship between their communities.
Imam Talib and other black Muslims trace their American roots to the arrival of Muslims from West Africa as slaves in the South. That historical link gave rise to Islam-inspired movements in the 20th century, the most significant of which was the Nation of Islam.
The man who founded the Nation in 1930, W. D. Fard, spread the message that American blacks belonged to a lost Muslim tribe and were superior to the “white, blue-eyed devils” in their midst. Under Mr. Fard’s successor, Elijah Muhammad, the Nation flourished in the 1960s amid the civil rights struggle and the emergence of a black-separatist movement.
Overseas, Islamic scholars found the group’s teachings on race antithetical to the faith. The schism narrowed after 1975, when Mr. Muhammad’s son Warith Deen Mohammed took over the Nation, bringing it in line with orthodox Sunni Islam. Louis Farrakhan parted ways with Mr. Mohammed — taking the Nation’s name and traditional teachings with him — but the majority of African-American adherents came to embrace the same Sunni practice that dominates the Muslim world.
Still, divisions between African-American and immigrant Muslims remained pronounced long after the first large waves of South Asians and Arabs arrived in the United States in the 1960s.
Today, of the estimated six million Muslims who live in the United States, about 25 percent are African-American, 34 percent are South Asian and 26 percent are Arab, said John Zogby, a pollster who has studied the American Muslim population.
“Given the extreme from which we came, I would say that the immigrant Muslims have been brotherly toward us,” Warith Deen Mohammed, who has the largest following of African-American Muslims, said in an interview. “But I think they’re more skeptical than they admit they are. I think they feel more comfortable with their own than they feel with us.”
For many African-Americans, conversion to Islam has meant parting with mainstream culture, while Muslim immigrants have tended toward assimilation. Black converts often take Arabic names, only to find foreign-born Muslims introducing themselves as “Moe” instead of “Mohammed.”
The tensions are also economic. Like Dr. Khan, many Muslim immigrants came to the United States with advanced degrees and quickly prospered, settling in the suburbs. For decades, African-Americans watched with frustration as immigrants sent donations to causes overseas, largely ignoring the problems of poor Muslims in the United States.
Imam Talib found it impossible to generate interest at immigrant mosques in the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, who was Muslim. “What we’ve found is when domestic issues jump up, like police brutality, all the sudden we’re by ourselves,” he said.
Some foreign-born Muslims say they are put off by the racial politics of many black converts. They struggle to understand why African-American Muslims have been reluctant to meet with law enforcement officials in the wake of Sept. 11. For their part, black Muslim leaders complain that immigrants have failed to learn their history, which includes a pattern of F.B.I. surveillance dating back to the roots of the Nation of Islam.
The ironies are, at times, stinging.
“From the immigrant community, I hear that African-Americans have to learn how to work in the system,” said Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, adding that this was not his personal opinion.
At the heart of the conflict is a question of leadership. Much to the ire of African-Americans, many immigrants see themselves as the rightful leaders of the faith in America by virtue of their Islamic schooling and fluency in Arabic, the original language of the Koran.
“What does knowing Arabic have to do with the quality of your prayer, your fast, your relationship with God?” asked Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “But African-Americans have to ask themselves why have they not learned more in these years.”
Every year in Chicago, the two largest Muslim conventions in the country — one sponsored by an immigrant organization and the other by Mr. Mohammed’s — take place on the same weekend, in separate parts of the city.
The long-simmering tension boiled over into a public rift with the 2000 presidential elections. That year, a powerful coalition of immigrant Muslims endorsed George W. Bush (because of a promise to stop the profiling of Arabs).
The nation’s most prominent African-American Muslims complained that they were never consulted. The following summer, when Imam Talib vented his frustration at a meeting with immigrant leaders in Washington, a South Asian man turned to him, he recalled, and said, “I don’t understand why all of you African-American Muslims are always so angry about everything.”
Imam Talib searched for an answer he thought the man could understand.
“African-Americans are like the Palestinians of this land,” he finally said. “We’re not just some angry black people. We’re legitimately outraged and angry.”
The room fell silent.
Soon after, black leaders announced the creation of the Muslim Alliance in North America, their first national “indigenous” organization.
But the fallout over the elections was soon eclipsed by Sept. 11, when Muslim immigrants found themselves under intense public scrutiny. They began complaining about “profiling” and “flying while brown,” appropriating language that had been largely the domain of African-Americans.
It was around this time that Dr. Khan became, as he put it, enlightened. A few weeks before the terrorist attacks, he read the book “Black Rage,” by William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs. The book, published in 1968, explores the psychological woes of African-Americans, and how the impact of racism is carried through generations.
“It helped me understand that even before you’re born, things that happened a hundred years ago can affect you,” Dr. Khan said. “That was a big change in my thinking.”
He sent an e-mail message to fellow Muslims, including Imam Talib, sharing what he had learned.
The Harlem imam was pleased, if not yet convinced.
“I just encouraged the brother to keep going,” Imam Talib said.
An Oasis in Harlem
One windswept night in Harlem, cars rolled past the corner of West 113th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. A police siren blared as men huddled by a neon-lit Laundromat.
Across the street stood a brown brick building, lifeless from the outside. But upstairs, in a cozy carpeted room, rows of men and women chanted.
“Ya Hakim. Ya Allah.” O wise one. O God.
Imam Talib led the chant, swathed in a black satin robe. It was Ramadan’s holiest evening, the Night of Power. As the voices died down, he spotted his bodyguard swaying.
“Take it easy there, Captain,” Imam Talib said. “As long as you don’t jump and shout it’s all right.”
Laughter trickled through the mosque, where a translucent curtain separated men in skullcaps from women in African-print gowns.
“We’re just trying to be ourselves, you know?” Imam Talib said. “Within the tradition.”
“That’s right,” said one woman.
The imam continued: “And we can’t let other people, from other cultures, come and try to make us clones of them. We came here as Muslims.”
He was feeling drained. He had just returned from the Manhattan Detention Complex, where he works as a chaplain. Some of the mosque’s men were back in jail.
“We need power,” he said quietly. “Without that, we’ll destroy ourselves.”
Since its birth in 1964, the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood has been a fortress of stubborn faith, persevering through the crack wars, welfare, AIDS, gangs, unemployment, diabetes, broken families and gentrification.
The mosque was founded in a Brooklyn apartment by Shaykh-‘Allama Al-Hajj K. Ahmad Tawfiq, a follower of Malcolm X. The Sunni congregation boomed in the 1970s, starting a newspaper and opening a school and a health food store.
With city loans, it bought its current building. Fourteen families moved in, creating a bold Muslim oasis in a landscape of storefront churches and liquor stores. The mosque claimed its corner by drenching the sidewalk in dark green paint, the color associated with Islam.
The paint has since faded. The school is closed. Many of the mosque’s members can no longer afford to live in a neighborhood where brownstones sell for millions of dollars.
But an aura of dignity prevails. The women normally pray one floor below the men, in a scrubbed, tidy room scented with incense. Their bathroom is a shrine of gold curtains and lavender soaps. A basket of nylon roses hides a hole in the wall.
Most of the mosque’s 160 members belong to the working class, and up to a third of the men are former convicts.
Some congregants are entrepreneurs, professors, writers and musicians. Mos Def and Q-Tip have visited with Imam Talib, who carries the nickname “hip-hop imam.”
Mosque celebrations are a blend of Islam and Harlem. In October, at the end of Ramadan, families feasted on curried chicken and collard greens, grilled fish and candied yams.
Just before the afternoon prayer, a lean man in a black turtleneck rose to give the call. He was Yusef Salaam, whose conviction in the Central Park jogger case was later overturned.
Many of the mosque’s members embraced Islam in search of black empowerment, not black separatism. They describe racial equality as a central tenet of their faith. Yet for some, the promise of Islam has been at odds with the reality of Muslims.
One member, Aqilah Mu’Min, lives in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, a heavily Bangladeshi neighborhood. Whenever she passes women in head scarves, she offers the requisite Muslim greeting. Rarely is it returned. “We have a theory that says Islam is perfect, human beings are not,” said Ms. Mu’Min, a city fraud investigator.
It was the simplicity of Islam that drew Imam Talib.
Raised a Christian, he spent the first part of his youth in segregated North Carolina. As a teenager, he read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” twice. He began educating himself about the faith at age 19, when as an aspiring actor he was cast in a play about a man who had left the Nation of Islam.
But his conversion was more spiritual than political, he said.
“I’d like to think that even if I was a white man, I’d still be a Muslim because that’s the orientation of my soul,” the imam said.
He has learned some Arabic, and traveled once to the Middle East, for hajj. Yet he feels more comfortable with the Senegalese and Guinean Muslims who have settled in Harlem than with many Arabs and South Asians.
He is trying to reach out, but is often disappointed.
In November, he accepted a last-minute invitation to meet with hundreds of immigrants at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, an opulent mosque on East 96th Street.
The group, the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, was trying to persuade the city to recognize two Muslim holidays on the school calendar. The effort, Imam Talib learned, had been nearly a year in the making, and no African-American leaders had been consulted.
He was stunned. After all, he had led a similar campaign in the 1980s, resulting in the suspension of alternate-side parking for the same holidays.
“They are unaware of the foundations upon which they are standing,” he said.
Backlash in the Suburbs
Brush Hollow Road winds through a quiet stretch of Long Island, past churches and diners and leafy cul-de-sacs. In this tranquil tableau, the Islamic Center of Long Island announces itself proudly, a Moorish structure of white concrete topped by a graceful dome.
Sleek sedans and S.U.V.’s circle the property as girls with Barbie backpacks hop out and scurry to the Islamic classes they call “Sunday school.”
It is a testament to America’s influence on the mosque that its liveliest time of the week is not Friday, Islam’s holy day, but Sunday.
Boys in hooded sweatshirts smack basketballs along the pavement by a sign that reads “No pray, no play.” Young mothers in Burberry coats exchange kisses and chatter.
For members of the mosque — many of whom work in Manhattan and cannot make the Friday prayer — Sunday is the day to reflect and connect.
The treasurer, Rizwan Qureshi, frantically greeted drivers one Sunday morning with a flier advertising a fund-raiser.
“We’re trying to get Barack Obama,” Mr. Qureshi, a banker born in Karachi, told a woman in a gold-hued BMW.
“We need some real money,” he called out to another driver.
The mosque began with a group of doctors, engineers and other professionals from Pakistan and India who settled in Nassau County in the early 1970s.
“Our kids would come home from school and say, ‘Where is my Christmas tree, my Hanukkah lights?’ ” recalled Dr. Khan, who lives in nearby Jericho. “We didn’t want them to grow up unsure of who they are.”
Since opening in 1993, the mosque has thrived, with assets now valued at more than $3 million. Hundreds of people pray there weekly, and thousands come on Muslim holidays.
The mosque has an unusually modern, democratic air. Men and women worship with no partition between them. A different scholar delivers the Friday sermon every week, in English.
Perhaps most striking, a majority of female worshipers do not cover their heads outside the mosque.
“I think it’s important to find the fine line between the religion and the age in which we live,” said Nasreen Wasti, 43, a contract analyst for Lufthansa. “I’m sure I will have to answer to God for not covering myself. But I’m also satisfied by many of the good deeds I am doing.”
She and other members use words like “progressive” to describe their congregation. But after Sept. 11, a different image took hold.
In October 2001, a Newsday article quoted a member of the mosque as asking “who really benefits from such a horrible tragedy that is blamed on Muslims and Arabs?” A co-president of the mosque was also quoted saying that Israel “would benefit from this tragedy.”
Conspiracy theories about Sept. 11 have long circulated among Muslims, and Dr. Khan had heard discussion among congregants. Such talk, he said, was the product of two forces: a deep mistrust of America’s motives in the Middle East and a refusal, among many Muslims, to engage in self-criticism.
“You blame the other guy for your own shortcomings,” said Dr. Khan.
He visited synagogues and churches after the article ran, reassuring audiences that the comments did not reflect the official position of the mosque, which condemned the attacks.
But to Congressman Peter T. King, whose district is near the mosque, that condemnation fell short. He began publicly criticizing Dr. Khan, asserting that he had failed to fully denounce the statements made by the men.
“He’s definitely a radical,” Mr. King said of Dr. Khan in an interview. “You cannot, in the context of Sept. 11, allow those statements to be made and not be a radical.”
When asked about Mr. King’s comments, Dr. Khan replied proudly, “I thought we had freedom of speech.”
It hardly seems possible that Mr. King and Dr. Khan were once friends.
Mr. King used to dine at Dr. Khan’s home. He attended the wedding of Dr. Khan’s son, Arif, in 1995. At the mosque’s opening, it was Mr. King who cut the ribbon.
After Sept. 11, the mosque experienced the sort of social backlash felt by Muslims around the country. Anonymous callers left threatening messages, and rocks were hurled at children from passing cars.
The attention waned over time. But Mr. King cast a new light on the mosque in 2004 with the release of his novel “Vale of Tears.”
In the novel, terrorists affiliated with a Long Island mosque demolish several buildings, killing hundreds of people. One of the central characters is a Pakistani heart surgeon whose friendship with a congressman has grown tense.
“By inference, it’s me,” Dr. Khan said of the Pakistani character. (Mr. King said it was a “composite character” based on several Muslims he knows.)
For Dr. Khan, his difficulties after Sept. 11 come as proof that Muslims cannot stay fragmented. “It’s a challenge for the whole Muslim community — not just for me,” he said. “United we stand, divided we fall.”
The Litmus Test
Imam Talib and his bodyguard set off to Westbury before dusk on Oct. 14. They passed a fork on the Long Island Expressway, and the imam peered out the window. None of the signs were familiar.
He checked his watch and saw that he was late, adding to his unease. He had visited the mosque a few times before, but never felt entirely at home.
“I’m conscious of being a guest,” he said. “They treat me kindly and nicely. But I know where I am.”
At the Islamic Center of Long Island, Dr. Khan was also getting nervous. Hundreds of congregants had gathered after fasting all day for Ramadan. The scent of curry drifted mercilessly through the mosque.
Dr. Khan sprang to his feet and took the microphone. He improvised.
“All of us need to learn from and understand the contributions of the Muslim indigenous community,” he said. “Starting with Malcolm X.”
It had been six years since Imam Talib and Dr. Khan first encountered each other in Chicago. Back then, Imam Talib rarely visited immigrant mosques, and Dr. Khan had only a peripheral connection to African-American Muslims.
In the 1980s, the doctor had become aware of the high number of Muslim inmates while working as the chief of medicine for a hospital in Nassau County that oversaw health care at the county prison. His mosque began donating prayer rugs, Korans and skullcaps to prisoners around the country. But his interaction with black Muslim leaders was limited until Sept. 11.
After Dr. Khan read the book “Black Rage,” he and Imam Talib began serving together on the board of a new political task force. Finally, in 2005, Dr. Khan invited the imam to his mosque to give the Friday sermon.
That February, Imam Talib rose before the Long Island congregation. Blending verses in the Koran with passages from recent American history, he urged the audience to learn from the civil rights movement.
Dr. Khan listened raptly. Afterward, over sandwiches, he asked Imam Talib for advice. He wanted to thaw the relationship between his mosque and African-American mosques on Long Island. The conversation continued for hours.
“The real searching for an answer, searching for a solution, was coming from Dr. Khan,” said Imam Talib. “I could just feel it.”
Dr. Khan began inviting more African-American leaders to speak at his mosque, and welcomed Imam Talib there last October to give a fund-raising pitch for his organization, the Muslim Alliance in North America. The group had recently announced a “domestic agenda,” with programs to help ex-convicts find housing and jobs and to standardize premarital counseling for Muslims in America.
After the imam arrived that evening and spoke, he sat on the floor next to a blazer-clad Dr. Khan. As they feasted on kebabs, the doctor made a pitch of his own: The teenagers of his mosque could spend a day at Imam Talib’s mosque, as the start of a youth exchange program. The imam nodded slowly.
Minutes later, the mosque’s president, Habeeb Ahmed, hurried over. The congregants had so far pledged $10,000.
“Alhamdulillah,” the imam said. Praise be to God.
It was the most Imam Talib had raised for his group in one evening.
As the dinner drew to a close, the imam looked for his bodyguard. They had a long drive home and he did not want to lose his way again.
Dr. Khan asked Imam Talib how he had gotten lost.
“Inner city versus the suburbs,” the imam replied a bit testily.
Then he smiled.
“The only thing it proves,” he said, “is that I need to come by here more often.”

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Notes on kindred spirits and stolen time

Hey yall~

It's Thursday March 8, 2007 at 7pm. I'm on stolen (expensive!!) time here in Bombay. I should have already been back in Hyderabad with my family. I got an extension to my program, and i've spent the last 2 days with a rinky dink sony digital handicam to shoot some footage across bombay. (i know it's mumbai, but i just like bombay better)

part of my program was to make my own film project, getting to use (what i thought would be) a professional camera, and having access to an editor and an editing studio. There hadn’t been the chance to do this in the four weeks that the program was normally supposed to be, so I stayed longer. i have been trying to write a narrative to follow while filming this whole time i've been here and all the ideas i have are waaay too big for a 4 minute film project. so instead, i started with a theme of why bombay is my favorite place in india. i planned out all the locations and a rudimentary plan of shots i wanted to include in my project. yesterday was my first day filming, and i realized that my eye is much more photographic than cinematic. I gotta work on that.

I headed down to south Bombay, an area called Colaba which is on the water. The beautiful Taj hotel and the Gateway of India is also there, next to walls and stiars along the water that ferries, yachts and small fishing boats launch from. I hung out there for a while filming people, pigeon, boats, families there to sight see, foreigners, and the beautiful gateway of India. I had been standing in direct sun for about an hour when I decided to head towards Kala Ghoda and the other museums downtown. They were a short walk but I was proud of myself for being able to do it completely on my own. I asked for directions in Hindi, barganined for some earrings and a bracelet in the market on the way and had a leisurely walk with myself downtown. I savored the banyan tree lined streets, sharing the wide boulevards with the tourists, lunching office folks and people who seemed to be there for no apparent reason, like me.

i didnt get all the shots i wanted yesterday becuase as only seems possible in this crazy city, my day took a most unusual turn. I had the good fortune to meet a very intersting writer director earlier in the week (whom i intstantly connected with) that I have since spent many hours with discussing film, life and the world. He used to work for, an Indian internet company. He did a commercial for them (an ad film as it is known here) kicking off a major ad campaign for the company. He had mentioned he’d be at a press conference held on a yacht most of the day, putting in the face time for his work and association with his former employer. I had just reached the Jehanigar Art Gallery, where I was going to enjoy some kultjah and have lunch.

Suddenly I get a call from this director friend along with an invitation to attend the press conference. I had just meandered my way away from there, and was at least a 15 minute walk away, but he urged me to hurry and I half-heartedly turned back. I walked for a bit, crossed the street where I could hop in a cab and asked the driver to book it. There was traffic, as usual, so booking it was a lil more like walking on wheels, but he started to pull around, almost drive on the curb, and it was sweet! My phone kept ringing, and my friend was almost frantic. We barely pulled up to the street I needed and I hopped out of the cab, thrusting more cab fare than necessary since I couldn’t wait for change at the driver and started to run, full speed, toward the dock. I clutched my super compact travel bag/purse, darted in between people, saying excuse me, hopping over pigeons that took flight as I disturbed their peaceful feeding and generally worrying all people within sight of me.
Panting and sweating in the fierce midday sun, I reached the stonewall where the boat had been moored to find it sailing away. My friend had a guy waiting there for me that was to arrange a separate boat for me to catch up with the big boat so that I could board once they were out in the Arabian Sea. What ended up happening instead was so thoroughly Indian and hilarious that I just had to laugh and wait it out.

A ferry had left behind the boat and both were already out in the open water, although not too far away. A third boat was waiting to launch, half full of passengers leaving for Elephanta Island. After some enthusiastic gesturing by the boat men waiting for me that I did not quite understand, the second boat began to turn around. By the time I realized what was happening I couldn’t protest. The second ferry full of passengers turned around and haphazardly attached to the docked ferry. As this was being maneuvered, the Rediff boat began to turn back as well. One of the boat men helped me jump from the stone stairs of the dock onto the first ferry, through the passive watching eyes of the waiting ferry passengers and stand on the outside ledge of the second boat waiting for the Rediff boat to get close enough for me to hop on. Mind you, I had no real purpose of being there. I was a invited by a friend, and I was embarrassed by the show of effort that went into getting me onto the boat for a press conference I had nothing to do with. I laughed out loud while waiting for the Rediff boat, but then felt bad that these ferry folks had to wait for me so I tried not to laugh in case they got upset. I finally jumped onto the nice big boat, sun burnt, out of breath, covered in sweat and hungry.

Grinning, I met my friend and was quickly introduced to the three guys who planned and organized the press event. I was the youngest person on the boat, and the only non-journalist, boat, catering or Rediff staff member there. I didn’t look the part either, I was wearing a walk around town in the sun outfit not a media outfit. I had jean capris, a big brown belt, a pink muscle tank and my chacos on. The press conference began almost immediately, and it turned out that the ad campaign was to publicize Rediff offering unlimited storage space and secure email accounts for the lifetime of a user’s acct. We sat in the boiling direct sunlight on the uncovered top of the boat as ons of red Rediff balloons were released into the clear blue sky, the open Arabian Sea around us emphasizing the unlimited nature of the unique services Rediff is offering. Once the balloons were let loose (everyone was very impressed) we headed down into the relief of the sunless cabin. We watched the Rediff ad that my friend made and the CEO of Rediff, Ajit Balakrishnan, began to talk about Rediff’s target audience of mainly young people and how he came up with this idea of providing unlimited storage space. He also guaranteed that the service was completely secure. A lifetime of music and video files will fit in a Rediff email account, and he said that Rediff could be the email provider for dissidents, revolutionaries and the like because each person’s information is encrypted and totally secure. I got to film all this randomness that I happened upon, and after the launch was done, the personal interviews began and I focused on filming the water, the boats and enjoying the subdued sun. I got my shot of the Gateway of India the way it was intended to be seen, approaching (or departing) from the water. It really is a beautiful structure. Situated right next to the Taj, it is a beautiful combination.

To shorten this a bit, the press conference ended and I suddenly found myself face to face with the CEO himself, on my way to tea with him, my director friend and the 3 men who I met earlier who organized the whole shindig. We walked into the Taj hotel, and walked up to the Sea Lounge. I felt incredibly underdressed in my casual tourist outfit but stood up straight and walked like I normally do, shoulders back, head up and totally deserving to be wherever I am. IT worked quite well. I freshened up (brushed my hair, washed my face, put on some MAC lipglass and the earrings I just bought) and one my walk back to the lounge hardly noticed my underdressed outfit. (That was a huge accomplishment for me, as one of my biggest pet peeves/fears is not being dressed appropriately for any situation/event.) I sat quietly, straight backed, taking in every word said, every attention to detail and service during the tea. It might have appeared I was bored, but I don’t ever want to come across as just throwing myself into someone’s conversation/movie set/business discussion, especially since I predominantly find myself in all male situations and settings.

How crazy this city is! When I left my house in the morning, I had no idea my day would be like this. Nuts. I was also offered a spot on a direction team for a film this summer that my director friend is making. Interesting and certainly intriguing opportunity, I’m just trying to be open to whatever life offers me. We’ll see what happens…….