Monday, September 6, 2010

Police at Iftar and Cultureless Muslimah

As salaam alaikum,

Well, HLM (Harvard Longwood Muslims) had their last iftar Friday night. This was the first year that I wasn't able to make each because I wasn't in Boston, and the other because I was with my parents. I mean, I would have taken my parents (free food), but I think that would have been an overwhelming and not enjoyable experience for my father, haha...and probably not for me, either. And stressful for my mother, because she hasn't belonged to a Muslim community since the days of the NOI (1970s). Yeah.

As we were praying, there were a couple of little kids running through the isles that I was trying to ignore/not collide with, and I had a feeling that it'd be like this if I ever made it to ISBCC for Jummah (I may start going to HLM Jummahs, since I'm back at Longwood and have that break before my Gender and Health class...). Anyway, poor kid was terrified and start tapping his mother (who was next to me), saying, "Mom, mom, there's a scary police man here! He's watching, he's going to get us!"

I didn't pay too much attention because...well, I was trying not to, anyway, but sure enough, after Maghrib I got up, my scarf around my shoulders to see an officer of sorts...I didn't stare at him to see if he was security or police, but he was there, arms crossed, watching as we prayed.

And you know, I could henceforth erupt into a rant, waxing philosophically, reflect on how outlandish parties were held by my medical school classmates, kegs were smuggled in, and the only time the police came was when some jilted student who had to be in the hospital early the next day got angry and passive aggressively called on them...but we know how it goes, yeah? I'm actually surprised that hasn't happened before.

After all, my extended (very extended) family at one of the reunions that I could make, was gassed by the police during their Sunday dinner after church because they were called on a noise violation or something at the hall they'd rented. Granted, this was the South, but though I was upset I wasn't surprised. Same thing...I'm not surprised about this, and I don't think most people even noticed, but it was unnecessary.

But then again, when you have Americans thinking that no gathering of Muslims is free of violence (as I heard of one assembly in, they must live in a terrified world), I expect nothing less.

To shift gears dramatically, also during the iftar, I had a couple of really interesting interactions that I think will be summarized by paraphrasing a conversation that was had between two of the sisters at my table. I met this sis, Maliha, Friday who is in my concentration. Another sister at the table who was a dentist (forgetting her name right now...) started this line of conversation with Maliha that went something like this:

"So Maliha, where are you from?" "Oh, I'm from India, actually..." "With a name like Maliha, I would have expected you to be Arab!" "[Maliha gives an explanation of her father's choice for her name.]" "And where were you before now?" "[Maliha tells where she's lived]" "You know, looking at you, I wouldn't think you were Indian." "Oh, I get that all the time!" "Yeah, I'd say you were maybe...Persian, maybe even Turkish." Another sister, Safia, gets into the conversation, "Maybe it's the way that she ties her scarf, too." "Yes, I think that's it."

This conversation is not an isolated incident. During the last couple of iftars, the group I usually hung out with has been busy doing rotations and have not been able to attend. As a result, I sat at a different table each time and met new people. I realized this was a rich experience and while I'm sorry I didn't do it earlier, I have an entire additional year to do it, since I've decided to prolong my education with this public health degree, so I'm not too sorry.

But anyway, maybe this conversation would seem normal for Muslims who actually have a culture, but for this cultureless Muslimah, it was quite an overwhelming and seemingly tedious conversation!

I'm not calling myself crude and therefore uncultured...I'm saying, I don't have a culture. I've been reminded of this several ways. For one, all of the very Nigerian students in my public health school class have forced me to recognize how American I am, from claiming that I mispronounced my own name (I took that as a major affront!) to reflecting on my American accent. Then, I'm a third generation American Muslim. Before that, we were Southern Baptists...before that, we were a conglomeration of African religions as slaves. On my father's side, he was Faith Tabernacle, a denomination of Christianity that I know for stressing faith ("We live by faith, not by sight," and "Faith without works is dead" type of thing)...before that, the only story I hear is of in 1900, my grandfather was in the arms of my great-grandmother as she ran from the white men (the British). So who knows what religion they were. My grandfather was a Faith Tabernacle pastor...his is an interesting story that I would be digressing too much to tell.

Anyway, all of that to Muslim "lineage" doesn't run deep, certainly not as deep as those of most Muslims who attend the iftars.

So I get a very similar ethnicity probe when I come to iftars. "What is your name?" "Chinyere." "[pause] Wait, say that again?" "Chinyere." "ChEEN-yeh-ray?" "Yes, awesome. What's your name?" "[they say their name]." "Nice to meet you!" "Likewise. [pause] Such a(n) [adjective] name. What ethnicity is it/where is it from? What does it mean?"

And I end up having to tell an abbreviated version of my life's story because my name isn't a Muslim name. Which is fine...I like talking about myself (should be rather obvious by now), but man, how fascinated by (if not fixated on) ethnicity and culture are we!

I am cultureless. Yes, I am American, I was born in the US, but seriously? So many of our customs are borrowed from other people's cultures, anyway...what we have that is unique is an artifact of industrialization and the bastardization of cultural practices from every immigrants home country, and bam, made in the USA. But my Islam is cultureless. On Eid (and at my first nikah/Jewish wedding), I don't wear "my country's" Muslim woman attire...I end up inventing an outfit of my own, usually made up of a dress and pants. If I were ever to host an iftar, I'd end up making my own bastardized versions of Dominican and Nigerian food...with maybe pasta and fried rice thrown in, which in themselves are cultural knock-offs.

The thing is...I guess I could adopt someone else's culture, but I don't want to. After all of this time of stressing about whether or not I have a culture, I really don't care as much anymore, but I kind of like the American mut feel to my existence. I think it's beautiful, actually, a gift from Allah (swt), much as I am (as that's what my name means in Igbo, God's gift).

I'm teasing, but the fact remains...that is my name.

Anyway, I do actually enjoy making up my own outfits, cooking other people's cultural food, cooking "soul food" and experimenting with Nigerian food. I like speaking two languages of people I am not at all related to. I like dreaming up my own customs and gatherings, making them real once I have a family of my own.

I like the idea of incorporating American and Nigerian culture into my eventual wedding ceremony with whoever I end up marrying...we'll have to substitute palm wine for like, white grape juice or something, and then, we'll like, jump a broom after the nikah...something like that.

I always say if life throws you crap, make lemonade, but the fact of the matter is, life isn't throwing crap. Facing every adversity--or in my case, idiosyncrasy--and reacting accordingly is in fact a blessing that is purposeful and meant to make us stronger people...and sometimes to make life more colorful. I'm not worried at other people turning up their nose at my bastardness. Let them turn their noses up even higher, so that I may know who they are and avoid them.

Somewhere out there there's someone who will appreciate my culturelessness...that's all I'm waiting for, though not with bated breath.

...and my misuse of this word has just ascended to dangerous heights. I'd better get to sleep while I'm a little head...

A little...


  1. please for the love of God, do not adopt anyone else's culture! you have your own culture, seriously yours may be a mix of so many different cultures, you've got your Nigerian roots and you've got your American roots, you create yours but that counts for something. whether it is bastardised or not it is still yours.

    i say this because i've had horror stories trying to find my culture and identity. i never fit in with the Nigerian crowd even though most of my life was spent there. in secondary school a few people thought i was born and raised in either the US or England because of how 'weird' i was. i spent a lot of time trying to find out where i fit in and what not. so while i can cook Nigerian dishes, i wear Nigerian clothes for Eid and i do have a Nigerian name (sort of it turns out my first name is just 'weird'; not entirely Arabic, not entirely Nigerian), i still face problems fitting into the wider Nigerian society. so yeah while i don't consider culture as important as my own identity which is just a mix and match of random ideas. but my culture is part of my identity but not such a large part.

  2. Salaam, sis!

    Yeah, there is no way I'm adopting anyone else's culture! I totally agree with you! I used to stress about it, but it seems like 25 has brought with it resolution, clarity...

    I feel you on not quite fitting in during was similar for me and my black identity early on. Then when I was secure with that, I was faced with Muslims, and that was a different challenge.

    My conclusion...people are full of crap, always trying people to fit into boxes because their too lazy to expand their personal schemas!

  3. wasalam! it seems everyone has to go through that awkward stage and wondering where in life they fit but i agree with your conclusion, people are full of crap. the truth is that not everyone can be packaged neatly into boxes and that's just life.

  4. What is "Muslim" culture? You are!...

    corny I know, but seriously, don't let homogeneity get you to start thinking that you don't fit the mold.. who made the mold?

    I can't claim to understand exactly what you're going through, but it was not easy being THE black woman at these affairs. You don't not have a culture, yours is just outside that of the vast majority of South Asians and Arabs there.

    I think you have a wonderfully unique story that is just as valid and interesting as being able to tell someone's cultural background from the way they wear their hijab.

    yeah, I wish I had had you to sit next to back when I was in Beantown.

    Anyways... Eid Mubarak!

  5. Eid Mubarak! :)

    I'm finding that, at this age, I am so much more secure in my identity than I was even a couple of years's awesome.