Borders, boundaries, blockades

and it’s the way that we will forgive ourselves
and it’s the way that we will for no one else

– Josh Kelly, Amen

I call my friend Z one morning to tell her that I am skipping all my classes and instead studying at the cafe of her favorite Borders bookstore here in the East Bay, and that she is more than welcome to join me any time during the day. She shows up half an hour later with some apples and carrot sticks for us to munch on – I peer ambivalently at her choice of food, having already started on a candy bar – and greetings of, “Heyy, beautiful lady!”

“Okay, stop,” I mutter, and hug her tightly. Z graduated from our university in June, and I’ve barely seen her since. When I last saw her at the end of Ramadan, she urged me to call her up to hang out sometime. “I’m in the Bay all the time now!” she said excitedly. “Alright, will do,” I replied, but, later, thinking about the conversation, I realized, Wait, but I’m never there. Even though I live in the Bay, yes I know. But I’ve known Z since our second year of college, and there are very few people I make an active effort to stay in touch with. Z is one of those rare friends, and I had immediately thought of her when I planned my stakeout at Borders the evening before.

She has her laptop, envelopes and manila folders, and paperwork related to her ongoing graduate school admissions process. I’ve got my pile of books, lecture notes, and the only CD I ever listen to whenever I’m studying, Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, because that’s really the only non-distracting, background-sort-of-music I own.

An hour or so into our study session, as we shift around in our chairs and start becoming distracted by book posters and the cafe menu, Z looks across the table at me and says with practiced casualness, “So Yasmine, I have a question for you. We never have this conversation, you know, so I figured I should ask today.” I squint suspiciously. “What conversation?”

She smiles knowingly, and I suddenly occupy myself with flipping through the pages of my book in exaggerated concentration. “Okay. So I have reading to do. Thomas More and the Utopians and their attitude towards boundless human happiness. And religion. Dude, this book is hella cool. I wonder if More was an undercover Muslim, you think?”

She is undeterred by my attempts at intellectual distraction. “Fine, here, I’ll write it down for you,” she says, smirking while I shake my head and go back to my notes. She hastily scribbles down a few lines and shoves the slip of paper across the table. I glance at it and roll my eyes. “God, why are you so predictable? Why do we need to talk about boys? Do you know how gorgeously simple and drama-free my life is just because I can’t be bothered to have conversations like this?”

“Come on,” she presses. “Let’s talk. Not like any of them are worthy of you anyway, but what are you looking for in a guy?”

“Um,” I say. “The guy version of me?” We both burst out laughing, and I explain, “No, wait, I have to tell you this story—” So I tell her about the morning Somayya and I were driving somewhere, having a conversation slightly similar to this one, and Somayya looked across at me and said, “You know what, Yazzo, I’ve decided what I need is a boy version of you.” “Me, too!” I exclaimed, but she corrected me: “No, what you need is a boy version of me,” whereupon we giggled hysterically the rest of the way to our destination.

Z laughs at our collective epiphany, but I can tell I won’t get away with any more delaying tactics. I sigh. “Okay. Someone who’s Muslim, obviously, because that’s very important to me. And I guess, basically, someone who’s a student of knowledge.” I laugh at the expression on her face, knowing instinctively that she’s thinking of mullahs and madrassahs. “No, nothing hardcore, don’t worry. I mean… Okay, it’s kinda like this: Someone who’s constantly trying to figure out who he is and how to improve himself and what the hell he’s supposed to be doing with his life, and how God fits into all that. That’s all part of the process of seeking knowledge too, right there. Just a certain, active way of looking at the world. Oh, and of course he has to be insanely weird and crackheaded like me, otherwise it’s never gonna work out. Does that all kinda make sense?”

“Of course it does. See, that wasn’t very painful, was it?” She pauses for a moment, ignoring me as I belligerently retort, “Yes, it was!”

“It’s funny,” she says. “You’re looking for someone who very much identifies as Muslim, and I’m looking for someone who’s not practicing at all. Maybe not even Muslim at all.”

“Why’s that?” I ask, somewhat stunned.

We sit there at Borders while she tells me her stories, much of which I knew already, but not the painful depth of it. Her hands are cold, so very cold, so I cover them with my own, and we sit there across from one another with our hands bent together and piled in the middle of the table. Her voice is casual and straightforward – deliberately so, I know – but her eyes are overly bright with pain and unshed tears.

She tells me what it has been like for her, growing up as the only child of a Bengali Christian mother and a Pakistani Muslim father. A mother who swallowed her own pain and taught her daughter the steps of making ablution, explained the intricacies of Muslim prayer, guided her through fasting during Ramadan, and drove her to and from Arabic lessons so Z could read the Quran on her own. And a father who, when Z asked, “Don’t we as Muslims have a responsibility and obligation to learn about other religious traditions so we can better understand and explain our own?” sternly, expressly forbade her to do so, yet neither practiced himself nor made any basic effort to teach her about Islam either.

Knowing that her culture is important to her, I ask whether she feels more of a connection to South Asian Christians rather than to South Asian Muslims. She shrugs slightly. “Maybe a little bit, but it’s always the same thing: the Christians don’t understand the Muslim side of me, and the Muslims don’t understand the Christian influence in my life.”

“Look at it this way,” she says. “Look at yourself, for example. You come across as very confident. You walk into a room knowing exactly who you are. You’re Yasmine, and you’re Muslim and Pakistani and American. I, on the other hand, can’t say any of that so easily. All I know is, I’m Z, and…and that’s all.”

“You know my car, right?” she asks. I nod. “That car used to be my mother’s, and she gave it to me when I started college. She had a bumper sticker on the back that said, in big letters, FEAR GOD, and a short, relevant verse from the Bible underneath. That’s all, nothing more.” She tells me about the time she rounded the corner into a university parking lot one day, only to find a group of Muslim male acquaintances gathered around her car, examining the bumper sticker and asking one another, “Hey, whose car is that?” “Wait, that belongs to Z, right?” “Oh yeah, her mom’s a kaffir, isn’t she?”

I flinch.

Z, to give her inner strength due credit, choked back her hurt, smiled coldly at the students and made the requisite small talk while pretending she hadn’t heard any of the previous comments. “But, Yasmine,” she says now, her hands still cold under mine, “I wanted to fit in so badly that as soon as they turned and left, I ripped off that bumper sticker and I broke my mother’s heart that day.”

There were raised eyebrows and whispers within their Muslim community when Z’s mother recently gathered up her faith and courage and once more began attending church regularly, after so many years of not doing so. At social gatherings, the Muslim women politely ask one another, “Where is Z’s mother?” and the answers will range from “Oh, she had a prior commitment,” to “Oh, she wasn’t feeling very well today,” but what no one will admit is that she was not invited in the first place.

And then, as Z reminds me, there was the Muslim graduation picnic held this past June, co-sponsored by the Muslim Students Association from the university and the Muslim community members within the city itself. It was an event well attended not only by Muslims, but also by many non-Muslim university officials and administrators, community leaders including those involved in city council and interfaith activities, and community members including passersby who randomly decided to stop by on the spur of the moment. I was humbled and honored to see such amazing, supportive presence from the non-Muslim community, especially when several of them stood up to warmly proclaim that they were there to show solidarity with us Muslims.

I thought everything was going well, until a former MSA president reached the part in his speech where he began firmly cautioning the Muslim students present against “emulating the kuffar.”

I learned later that evening that Z left the picnic soon afterward, in tears, hurt beyond words to hear such harsh condemnation of the so-called “kuffar,” a category which obviously includes her own mother, the woman who, while admittedly non-Muslim, had raised Z to be far more aware of Islam and its religious traditions than her Muslim father ever had. Sick and disheartened, Somayya and I repeatedly asked each other, “What the hell was he thinking?” for days afterward as well. It was painful and disappointing to hear such rhetoric from someone I had held in such high esteem as an exemplary brother in Islam, and I lost a massive amount of respect that day for, ironically, someone whose work on interfaith councils I had always very much admired.

“It comes back to the conversation we started with,” Z says. “I refuse to marry anyone who disrespects my mother simply because she’s not Muslim. Who’s to say that non-Muslim men aren’t more tolerant and open-hearted than any of the narrow-minded Muslim men I’ve met so far? Why wouldn’t I want to emulate my mother? How would you feel, Yasmine, if you were married to a non-Muslim man and you had to teach your children about his religion at the expense of your own?”

“I think it would break my heart everyday,” I say in a small voice.

Sitting as we are with our piled hands and miserable faces in the middle of the Borders cafe, we probably incite some curious glances from fellow cafe patrons, but I don’t know, because all I can see is through the tears in my eyes is the sadness on her face. “I can’t even begin to imagine,” I say, “what a huge heart your mother must have.”

And there is more, but I think this is already more than enough. I hesitate to post even this, mainly because Z doesn’t know about my weblog, and her stories are not mine to tell and share. And also because I feel I may just be preaching to the choir, so to speak, because as bloggers most of us are already in the habit of choosing our words carefully, painstakingly.

But I write this because I hate the word “kaffir,” and I hate how it comes so easily to some Muslims even as it makes me flinch, and I hate that we contemptuously turn away the very same people we accuse of not understanding us, without giving them a fair chance to know who we are, without granting them credit for making the beautiful effort of shared human spirit and outreach that we ourselves as Muslims rarely make a point of with other communities. Who the hell are we to be critical then, when we accuse others of stereotyping us and disliking us and being ignorant of who we are, of the vastness of our humanity and traditions, and of what Islam in its pure beauty truly stands for? And I guess what I’m really just trying to figure out is –

When did we ourselves become so damn self-righteous and judgmental?

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