A Piece From My Travels

So I’ve been working on writing my experiences from a year-long backpacking trip I took in 2008/9.  Well sort of working on…kind of like this blog.  But I decided I would like to share an excerpt from what I hope becomes a book someday.  I wrote it in third person just because I felt it easier to write about myself that way.  I’ve only proofread it once and it really takes place in the middle of my journey when I was in Tunisia.  I can write more about the trip later but I feel if I don’t post this now I probably won’t.  So keep these things in mind as you read and I’d like you to ask yourself at the end “Would I like to read more?”  Either what happened previously or later on.  Thanks for reading.

Ride to Matlana

Southern Tunisia had lived up to its desert description.  His last night in Douz had been spent watching the sunset from the top of a large sand dune with the cousins of some friends he had met in Tunis.  The greenness of the palm trees in the oasis turned shades of purple and red as the vast sea of sand continued its swell beyond their date bearing branches.  In fact it was date season and the workers in the mazes of palms could only be heard as they chattered about, packing up their tools and bags of freshly picked deglet noor dates- some of the best in the world.  Their voices became fainter and fainter as the most brilliant light show came to an end and soon after he and his friends descended the dune.  He bid his farewells to the cousins after they prayed the evening prayer together and had drank some delicious tea which had been infused in a traditional Tunisian way with pine nuts.  Contentness was abound.

Hungry from a long day of walking through the date fields. he passed by the souq of the old city, down one of the main streets and into one of the restaurants of the small town.  He sat down and ordered in Arabic which impressed the waiter.  A 6’5’’ blonde guy finding his way into any of these small towns always drew attention, which he was used to at this point.  He noticed the very laid back owner who was continually looking up from his coffee with a extremely curios gaze which he didn’t know how to interpret.  It was half piercing and half welcoming.  When the food was ready and after the stares diminished a bit, the owner himself delivered it to his table and after hearing the proper formalities given back in Arabic, he sat down and started to ask some basic questions.  His Americanness wanted to eat alone and then leave, but it was his nature to endure the interesting tourist role for sometime out of niceness until a good conversation started up or until things just got weird.  He was aware of both of these scenarios.

Actually the thickly mustached restaurant owner became quite a good conversationalist after the sideways looks were determined to be just a part of his desert machismo.  But under all of the chest hair was a good heart and they talked for some time about the marvels of traveling to places and the potentials of unexplored territories (at least for them.)  The owner finally had to attend to some paper work and so he ordered some coffee as a night cap before heading off to the hotel.

Then suddenly, as if a line had formed to speak to him, an east African man with the beginning of some dreadlocks sat down and introduced himself in very clear and eloquent Arabic.  “My name is Abdu Rahman, and your honored name?”  (It sounds funny in English but quite beautiful in Arabic.)  He asked this with a brilliant smile that led him to realize that smiles were becoming the indicator as well as the theme for the amazing  parts of his journey so he readily welcomed the second conversation even though yawns were beginning to attack him involuntarily.   The coffee still had to be drunk and savored anyway.  It always tastes better with sugar and words he thought.

Abdu Rahman also worked at the hotel/restaurant.  A maintenance man he gathered, as he was given free rent for his work.  Abdu Rahman was also very impressed at a 6’5’’ foreign Muslim speaking Arabic at a decent clip.  They talked about Abdu Rahman’s family and his journeys, as well as his own family how he became Muslim despite September 11 and the feelings that followed.  Abdu Rahman also mentioned that he wanted to visit the US one day but visa issues wouldn’t permit him.  This was a sad song sung by so many of the young men he met along the way.  Some probably having intention to marry and get a green card and some honestly wanting to see the place.  The US is still very popular despite the perceived hostilities.

He mentioned to Abdu Rahman that he was headed to the town of Matlana the next day.  He didn’t mention how much of a Star-Wars geek he was and that this town was a must see for fans of the cult classic if they ever find themselves at the Sahara’s gates.  In fact Spielberg took many ideas from southern Tunisia, such as clothing, building design, names of planets, and he even filmed many of the scenes from the original in 1977 there.  Despite this inner excitement to share all of the Star Wars trivia he knew with Abdu Rahman, he toned it down and told him he wanted to see the underground dwellings of the town left over from indigenous people in the area.

Abdu Rahman told him that if he took the shared taxis the optimal form of distance travel in Tunisia, (however not always the most comfortable) that it would take him all day because there was no direct route for the taxis, however there was a direct road.  Instead he suggested that he ride with one of his friends that was going there anyway.  He was surprised by the offer and told Abdu Rahman  that would be okay as long as his friend didn’t mind.  They exchanged numbers and he headed to his hotel to get some rest.

After waking and having some breakfast he checked out of the hotel and wandered around the town waiting for Abdu Rahman to call.  He started to get a bit nervous about the time and as time was the main fuel of his anxieties he went to the shared taxi station to see how long it would take to get on the road.  After waiting for some time there was only one more seat to fill for the shared taxi to hit the road.  Then his phone rang.  He wondered whether to answer at all; why bother someone if he was already to take the taxi.  But after feeling very silly for letting the phone ring for some time he answered it and sure enough it was Abdu Rahman saying that his friend was getting ready to leave and that he could meet up with him now.  He agreed and started heading back into town thinking about what this ride would be like.

He arrived at the restaurant expecting to see a full size car but what was in front of him instead was a very small version of a pickup truck.  It was as if the truck had been hit by a shrink ray of sort and where the bed would have been the was a flat board attached to the metal of the truck…somehow, and thin horizontally placed boards attached in the fashion of a rickety fence which in total made the make shift bed of the truck all ready half loaded with feed of some sorts and some tools.  Tunisian cowboys, is what he immediately thought of when he looked at the men he would be driving with.  After growing up in the south of Arizona, he was quite accustomed to seeing desert farmers and ranchers, and now he was getting to meet Tunisia’s version.  They looked at him in a blank stare of disbelief and then in a shaky voice the driver said “let’s go” in Arabic.  So into the truck they went, albeit a bit slow trying to cram three grown men into a space for maybe two.  With his knees to his nose and the window roller shoved conveniently in his side, he asked in Arabic how long it would take.  He was sure that he sounded like children when they spout off at the mouth two minutes into the ride, “Are we there yet?!”

But as the ride progressed and after paying for some of the gas the ice began to break, or more like melt.  They were interesting men who worked hard in life and toiled every day.  He had always appreciated such people because he was never one of them.  He worked hard at his barbershop in Seattle but physical labor and he didn’t really get along although he could fake it for a while.  The small truck tumbled down the highway getting passed by many others but as he took in the southern Tunisian country side with these farmers he knew that he couldn’t trade this experience for any other.  In fact at one point the large shadow of a tour bus pulled up next to them and he craned his neck down and around to look up at the passengers.  Sure enough there were some looking back down at him with lost faces.  He couldn’t tell if they wanted to be there or not.  They were in transit.  From one site to the next; one hotel to the next and one gaudy shop to another.  He quickly realized that even in his discomfort, even jammed in this hot sweaty “cab” of the “truck” he was loving every minute.  He pitied the air-conditioned, cushioned passengers of the cruise-liner for the fact that they wouldn’t  get to have such a real Tunisian experience such as this; a chance to build with real locals and talk about their problems.  But then again maybe they didn’t want that in the first place and that was why they were sitting in the cruise-liner and him in the farmers ride.


A Second Break in the Action…A Second Poem

Wrote this the other day after “feeling” the first line after looking at my arm and just noticing how frail we are despite our obvious strengths.  It stemmed from an argument where I forced my self to feel as uncomfortable as possible by telling myself that I just might be wrong…super hard to do.  The “self” doesn’t like that very much.  Enjoy and feel free to comment and or share.

Today I saw my fragility
thin bones buried in the past
and too weak for the future. 
Huddled and curled beneath the blankets of insecurity.
Exposed and undressed 
it shouted and screamed to be held.
Awkward and crooked 
it fought to be left alone.
There it laid worried and anxious
bound by its inability to be anything 
else other than what it was made to be.
Battered, bruised and loving every minute
it screamed to be held..
held on to.
Never to be exposed again.
I turned and saw my strength
seemingly beyond my grasp.
But there it laid
Sure and confident
Thick bones rooted in the only thing that
is relevant.
Disgusted with the past and
Annoyed by the future
It didn’t scream at all.
Strong and bright
Hopeful and Imaginative
It laid next to me in peace.

A Break in the Action…A Poem

This just popped into my head the other day.  I figured it would be a nice break from heavy conversion stuff.  It was inspired by Swedish author Johannes Anyuru and my own parents.  Enjoy inshAllah.

If I deserve your prayers 
then let me hear them before you pass…
for what you leave me is not important.
If you pray for me from your heart 
for our well being…
then let your will be fulfilled.
I have not seen pastures as green and as beautiful
as your pure wants for me.
No mountain top could explain 
the views I hope for you to see…
For what you have given me is enough, 
in and of itself.
I have eaten, I have drank
and have breathed a breath of ease,
all from your dedication and work.
I pray for your prayers for your desires of my success.
Let it not be in wealth, place or esteem,
for in the hearts of men 
will always be regrets 
in loving the true ones who raised them.
Regrets of doing more, healing the sores
and just knowing that you are there.
I have taken, I have given
but I ask for one thing more
Upon your sweet lips 
let the words drip as honey
and fall to the ground
to leave me a trail to lead me in hopes
to the place where I can kiss your faces once again.
Pray for our peace, our belief and ability to see
For although a child may not deserve your precious supplications
You must know it is all that we want.

How/Why I Became Muslim part. 2- Why and the emotions involved

So there I was…a Muslim.  I was excited to say so, yet also a bit afraid of the repercussions of what that truly meant.  I knew that what I was getting into was something good but to be perfectly honest I was a bit blind to what it was I was actually becoming a part of.  I think that is the case with most people who join something new at whatever stage in their lives they are in.  You won’t know where you fit in or if you do at all until some time passes and you’ve done some learning, experiencing and feeling about that which you’ve just chosen to be a part of.  All Muslims believe that God calls who He wills to Islam yet it is up to the individual to accept the invitation.  I say that because I don’t want to skirt away from the fact that I believe my becoming a Muslim was a choice.  It was indeed.  Of course I believe in divine will and decree, this is one of the creedal aspects of Islam, but one can’t deny the reality of choice in this world.  My mother and I used to go back and forth in full argumentative form when I was in High School about pre-destination vs will.  I used to take the argument that everything in this world has already been planned and “written” so we just have to let things happen.  My mother being the beautifully wise, aware and spiritual person that she was and is, knew that this is a very dangerous path for a young man to travel down without a lot of knowledge.  Her argument (which is now mine ;)) is that we are fools if we do not recognize the fact that our own choices don’t have consequences   She did an outstanding job of teaching me this throughout my youth despite my trial and error approach to life.  “Think about the consequences Tom,” she would say in that piercing, one eyebrow up sort of way parents speak to their kids when they are about to do something wrong.  But she would also make me think about the consequences when I was about to do something she knew was right.  I used to hate it but it was a beautiful way to teach a child the power of choice.  Eventually I saw that these choices didn’t necessarily interfere with there being divine decree yet the two co-exist in a beautifully complex and frankly incomprehensible way.  I’m fine with that now, but being fine with that forced me to look at why I chose Islam and nothing else.

REASON 1:  The Hard Truth (The surface reason)

I needed to belong.  Most people, if not everyone has a need to belong on some level but some more than others in order to help them be comfortable with their identities…or have one at all.  I suppose I’m one of those people.  In fact, many years ago in Seattle-but after I had became Muslim-I had a bit of an identity crises and  forced my self to sit down and write all of the “identities” I had attached myself to and the tools of their attachments (ie. Hip Hopper; baggy camouflage clothing, and rap music) in a list so that I could actually see what I thought I was.

It was an amazing exercise   I was or had been a business owner, Muslim, Hip Hopper, barber, boyfriend, good son gone bad (well not really…but that’s how I saw it) and the list went on.  For the first time in my life I saw my self outside of my own box so-to-speak.  It feels funny to do this but I highly recommend it if you are at all like I am.  The need to analyze myself in this way stemmed from my a fore mentioned Chinese/Italian brother calling me out in many deep conversations when I would clearly be focusing all of my attention and energy on the things I was attached to rather than on  the development of myself.  I had a hard time seeing myself as something separate from the things I was doing or people I was involved with.  He would tell me in words that I still re-visit today for support, “Never forget there is a Thomas with out a ________.”  You can insert the attachment of choice; girlfriend, barbershop, Hip Hop, etc.  The first time he said that was the first time I had saw myself as something precious on its own.

So yes, Islam fulfilled that need to a very large extent.  It gave me something to identify with, something to hang on to.  It gave me the chance to say “I am a _________” once again.  It gave me more people to hug, be friends with, identify with on a deeper level.  These were all things that I suppose I felt I didn’t have anymore or were slipping away for various reasons.  I am a person who commits fully to an identity as well (while remaining a chameleon in various social circles) so I became a Muslim in my hat, my words, my prayers, my social activities  my reading choices, etc.  However when I would come around my family I would hang up the identity coat a bit out of fear of losing them.  When I would be around certain intellectuals in the barber shop I would let it be known I was Muslim but was very quick to say that I am more attached to the spiritual side of the religion and not the dogma.  But in another conversation with an imam for example the kufi would go back on and I would agree with everything he said (even if I didn’t-hence the chameleon description.)

So how Muslim was I, I would ask myself.  Was my identity issues the real reason I had became Muslim?  Was being Muslim just another mask of sorts to add to my list?  I liked being a part of a bigger world family and looking the part and this led me to think that clearly it hadn’t settled in my heart yet. On the other hand I officially said the creedal statement making me a Muslim shortly after 9/11.  Who in there right mind would want to try on the Muslim identity during that time?  The rap Muslims were getting (and get) was quite atrocious at times and believe you me that it made the loved ones around me  bit nervous.  And me as well to be honest. My feeling about the aftermath of 9/11 would probably be of dissertation proportions so I’ll  leave it to this.  With the world’s eyes specifically on the Muslim identity as opposed to life altering lessons it can provide, I knew this had to be a matter of the heart.  Being identifiable as a Muslim was a very real aspect of my conversion, however true belief in one’s heart is usually a different animal altogether than that of the identity.

REASON 2:  Oneness (The deeper & real reason)

That animal was starting to growl louder and become unavoidable.  The verb “to growl” is mixed with connotations of anger or violence in animals, but it can also signify urgency and great need.  I believe that Truth lives in all of us.  We can sit and argue all day what Truth is for each and every one of us and with this in mind, I also believe that Truth presents itself to us in the way that we will best be able to understand it in our present lives and in our present conditions.  There is no one in this world who can or should judge another based on their current understanding of the world and life itself.  Trust me, and I hope you already know this, we are ALL still trying to figure it out.

But for me Truth was bubbling up inside me and forming my mish-mash system of “pick-and-choose” from every walk of life  into one consolidated concept.  (There is deep wisdom in seeing benefit in everything in the world…but one should be careful.)  “Concept” is an extremely weak way of trying to explain more a feeling of Oneness.  This is what I began to feel.  With all my hooks sinking into all the lakes and ponds of knowledge (albeit the shallowest parts of them) I began to see that the water was just water and the fish were just fish.  In my love for metaphors and analogies I’m trying to say that I began to see and believe that all of this knowledge and wisdom, all of the rightly guided actions I was reading about, and indeed all of creation in general were not necessarily one in and of themselves but more importantly all from one source-an inexplicable,  unpredictable (most of the time), ultimately unquestionable, and most dramatically undeniable source of creation. I could have stopped there.  And actually I did stop there.  I lived in the state of belief in “oneness from an undefinable source” for some time and this is what actually led me to see the beauty in Islam.

Being 100 percent upfront and truthful, had I not been in this primed state of seeing everything coming from one source, I perhaps would have brushed Islam off completely due to the dogma issues I was having with religion in general and the scary depictions of hell and who goes in it.  I would have closed the book, said something like, “Hmmmm that was interesting,” taken a few quotes here and there and been off to the next book while chewing on my licorice root and smelling of “Egyptian Musk.” (One of my favorite oils from Abdul Latif’s little shop…consequently no one in Egypt knows this scent…only Hip Hoppers from the 90’s and African-American Muslims in America…go figure.)  And although I did stop my initial plan of reading every major religious text,  I didn’t stop on my quest to understand this Oneness that was so beautiful and increasingly undeniable to me.

Just before I actually “became” a Muslim and also shortly after, I started seeing things in Islam that started to amaze me despite my view of religion as “limiting life box”.  There was a particular African-American Muslim originally from the East Coast of the U.S. whom I had also been talking to about Islam before and after my conversion at the same time I was talking to Abdul Latif.  We’ll call him Omar for identity privacy (I haven’t had the chance to ask if I can write about him…forgive me bro.)  While Abdul Latif was showing me straight forward information about Islam, I started to connect with the words Omar was telling me more and more so.  He had a shiekh (spiritual teacher), a madhhab (a school of jurisprudence-there are 4 major ones in Sunni Islam), and an outlook on the world that seemed to include the diversity of the world and its teachings…IF they weren’t in contradiction to the laws of Islam.  He had a respect for the name Allah that was strict yet extremely beautiful.  He used to pick up fallen coins off the ground because they have the word God on them.  He wouldn’t put them in his pocket but rather put them up in a higher place so that the owner or someone who needed it more could retrieve it.  In addition to a wonderful portrayal of the lessons of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) the East Coast of his personality (extremely upfront and bound and determined) was what I liked about Abdul Latif as well.  Although the things I just mentioned about Omar were standing out to me in a big way.  These men were sure about what they believed and that confidence gave me confidence in what I was feeling.

Through Abdul Latif I learned that all of the prophets of the Bible were in the Quran and in fact some of their stories (such as Joesph) were added upon and in greater detail.  This made me feel secure that I was involving myself in something that I was aware of, and liked and appreciated before.  In addition to that he taught me that Jesus, although was not divine, was extremely loved and revered in Islam along with the virgin Mary.  This also made my heart settle.  I had developed a relationship with Jesus that felt so warm and compassionate and even though I was not so clear on the divinity issue myself anymore, it was breaking my heart to think I would have to leave this relationship if I ever did choose another religion.  One of the major reasons I chose to become Muslim was because I didn’t have to stop loving Jesus.

And although I used to argue tooth and nail with Omar in the barbershop about cosmological issues (I should have been a lawyer…although I wouldn’t have been a good one) slowly the things that he was was saying became lessons for me as well (when I let my ego down.)  For example he taught me that Islam is a “mouth to ear religion.”  Meaning that one can and should read books but the knowledge found in those books needs to come from sitting with and listening to a qualified teacher.  This appealed to my Luke Skywalker, Yoda fantasies.  I saw wisdom in this.  He said the teacher must be firm in his beliefs and have a chain of reliable and trust worthy teachers which can be recited and linked all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad.  This made way more sense than what others were saying.  “Read Quran and Sunnah,” they would say…but the academic in me was completely afraid of misinterpreting things myself.  And then it hit me.  What Omar was saying was that my previous methodology of understanding life through religion by interpreting everything myself was problematic.  And this is probably why I argued with him in the beginning so much.  My ego didn’t like anything that contradicted the ability to understand everything on my own…with no authority to tell me how to live.  But the Truth in me was forcing me to NEED some concreteness,  some stability in understanding.  And so what Omar taught me both directly and indirectly is that if I did believe in the Oneness of God and that Muhammad was a messenger of God, then it is OK to submit the ego to learning through a teacher and in fact we need a map in the vastness of understanding God and Sacred Law because it is clear and evident what misunderstandings of these have done in our world.

To be frank the discipline was very attractive and was needed by me at that time.  And perhaps this sums up the main reason I became Muslim.  I needed direction and discipline  in learning about this new found “Oneness” which so beautifully orchestrated all of the wonderful concepts of truth I had found from Buddha to Lao Tzu, Adam to Jesus, Krishna Murdi to Malcolm X in to one package which honestly just felt… right.  And “life cannot be defined by a box” became “all the wonderful variances of life can fit into one box.”  For me this became a wonderful aspect of God’s mercy; a word that used to scare me severely but now has become one of the most soothing reasons why I believe in God in the first place let alone Islam.


For the sake of eye strain I’m going to talk about the emotions of my conversion in a separate post.  i perhaps it is not everyone’s business as an old friend of mine told me but I think it is a crucial aspect of a conversion story and quite honestly it’s a good chance for me to vent…if you’ll listen.  More to come inshAllah and thanks for reading.

Why/How I Became and Stayed Muslim Pt.1 The Simple Part

Well, it has been quite a while since I posted on my blog which is holding true to Thomas fashion and what better way to stick to my guns than to come back on blazing dramatic terms.  For a very long time I’ve contemplated sharing publicly my conversion story and for one reason or another I’ve opted out except in more intimate conversational settings.  I’ve had the opportunity to publish it on websites and such but really never felt comfortable with doing that.  For me it is just something that happened…another one of life’s interesting occurrences which my personal life happens to be full of, give thanks.  But alas the tides have turned and now I believe that there is some benefit in me trying my best to explain my story a bit.  My family and friends have never pushed me on the issue and seemingly if not genuinely (but at least seemingly) have been satisfied and patient with my vague and sometimes esoteric answers as to why I chose this path in life.  So I hope to fill in some details for those who are interested in this several part series which will look at my conversion to Islam in a few different angles, because I think a conversion story deserves just that; a chance to describe the phenomenon in a way that does all of the emotions, angst, happiness, contentment, and peace felt from such a dramatic event, justice.  Thank you for reading…Let’s hope the Thomas’ “don’t finish what you start” fashion can be put on hold for a bit.

Part 1: The Simple Part…The Conversion Itself

To be perfectly honest I think that one reason that I have never gone into details about me converting to Islam is 1) because of the true simplicity of the event itself and 2) because of my complicated emotions which have shifted and changed naturally over the course of 10 or so years now about that event.  Speaking about point 1 before I get started, many converts to Islam have amazing conversion stories.  There are many examples of Westerners converting to Islam, dedicating their lives to gaining and spreading sacred knowledge, and then word leaks out about how they came to Islam and we hear some really amazing things which took place.  Near death experiences, out of the ordinary events taking place leading some one to the study of Islam, and other somewhat supernatural occurrences have lead many people to fully dedicate their lives to this particular belief in God.  I mean there are some stories out there which bring tears to the eyes of those who listened and warmness to the hearts of those who truly value how God leads people to this religion.  People who have been Muslim all of their lives (meaning they were born into Muslim families)  and especially those living in ‘Muslim countries” LOVE to hear stories how some one found, or better yet, was shown Islam.  I never felt that I had one of these stories and worse than that I suppose that I’ve always felt that one needed a “miraculous” story to be taken seriously as a convert.  This is absolutely not true.  Each story is special and personally I believe that in the subtleties of life’s simplistic events lie deep reservoirs of meaning and guidance.  For many years I abated the telling of my story with a passive-aggressive response to tell it with a “It was just meant to be” or ” The beauty is in why I stayed Muslim and not how I became one.”  Or better yet, ” We were all born Muslim anyway and have just found our way back!”  The reason why I use the word aggressive is because after a while I felt that people were prodding with this question and therefor deserved a smart response which was merely my own insecurities finding their way to the surface.  These are all suitable answers to the question ” how did you become Muslim” if one doesn’t want to get into it for the moment.  However my problem was that I wasn’t “getting into it” myself and passively felt that people wouldn’t truly understand me honestly because I didn’t understand the depth and preciousness of my own story.  I no longer feel that a spectacular event is necessary to validate one’s Islam, and although they are fun to listen to and extremely valuable in their own right, a subtle story is also special.  Quite frankly I’m a person who always down plays things in my life out of what I wish was humility but more often is insecurity.  I still to this day put more emphasis on the “why I stayed Muslim” part of the story (to be told God willing) but I know now that the conversion itself was a very important and special time in my life worth sharing.

The story itself:


I had actually been interested, at least some what, in Islam from quite a young age.  I can’t remember exactly what age it was but it must have been some time close to my late jr. high/early high-school years when I learned about the Black Panthers and Malcolm X through some report I did for a class.  These references became much stronger in my mid to late high-school years when I became immersed in the world of Hip-Hop music and culture.  I wanted to live it and breathe it and I think in some degrees that part of that process is trying your best to understand and relate to where the culture started and who was producing it first.  I have to admit I really wanted to be able to identify with African-American culture in general and therefore plunged my identity into Hip-Hop as the means to do so along with a genuine passion to express myself through such a free and empowering art form.  Listening to Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, KRS One among a slew of others showed me that even though I wasn’t going through their struggles as young black people in America, striving to be a conscious person and to consequently look cool doing it was where I wanted my life to move towards.

Anyone who has ever listened to late 80’s/early 90’s Hip-Hop knows that it is inundated with references of Islam (albeit usually the Nation of Islam…another discussion completely.)  It was clear that these men and women were being influenced, in my eyes, by something so wonderfully powerful that I wanted to know more…AND I wanted to look cool shaking hands with accompanying hugs along with the words “As Salaam Alaikum!”  I didn’t know exactly what they meant but didn’t care either.  It was truly engaging to me. However we all know that Hip-Hop is full of all kinds of other things that are extremely appealing to youth and I was no exception in being drawn in by their lure.  So the interest of Malcolm X and his conversion to Sunni Islam became a small thread in the fabric of my identity as a “conscious Hip-Hopper” and the interest in Islam became somewhat dormant under worldly delights and mixed philosophies of life.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties when that small thread of Islam would stand out among the mix and match world views which constituted my identity and personal view of life. At that time in my life I was really and truly what I would call a “seeker of Truth.”  I had been raised as a Catholic Christian and although I was allowed a break from going to church because I wasn’t all that interested whilst growing up, I found myself  back into the faith late in high school. Later on I stopped going to church again in my late teens and early twenties but despite this I still felt that my relationship with Jesus (peace be upon him) remained at the foundation of my belief system.  It was just that my belief system was expanding at a tremendous rate as an exploring, hungry 20-something mind might do.  I enjoyed the expansion and that period of my life still brings a smile to my face.

I was immersing myself in the philosophies of Kung-fu, Tai-chi, Taoism, Indian philosophers such as Krisna Murti,  Ghandi, and others such as Malcolm X, Henery David Therou, Orthodox monks ,movies such as Baraka, spoken word poetry and conscious Hip-hop, just to name a few influences.  It was a time of healthy eating (for the most part) deep conversations and fun.  Some where in this mix of tofu and incense I had decided to read/study every major book of every major religion with a person of each  said religion.  A daunting task, but I was thirsty and deeply felt that Truth lied in everything and in every religion.  This was a turning moment in my life.  Even just a decision itself without the follow through can shape a person’s life incredibly.  Because I honestly didn’t know much about it other than wise quotes from incense packages, I started with the Quran.

I had very quickly developed a deep relationship with a friend of mine who was a bit younger than I was during this “enlightenment” periodl, and he and I had traveled down this questing path together for the most part.  So much so that we felt that we were more than friends and actually more like brothers.  His parents treated me as their “white son” as they were Chinese by way of Italy.  My love for them was and still is one of the deepest running rivers I have discovered to date.  He is very important to this story because I had no idea where to begin reading the Quran and with who.  It just so happened that the Universe had placed him contact with a Muslim man who owned an oils and incense/bookshop in the Central District of Seattle.  I trusted my brother so much that I knew who ever he lead me to it was what was meant to be.  He had been to this shop many times and had many conversations with this man and was quite impressed by his character and the way he did business not to mention the way he smelled when he left the shop.

The man’s name was Abdul Latif.  He was a tall African-American man, sure in stature, soft in voice and had an uncanny resemblance to Osma Bin Laden of all people.  He wore traditional clothing such as a thobe and a turban and often the Saudi red and white checkered kufiya or shawl around his shoulders.  I respected him very much so from the first time I met him.  In fact when I asked him if he would help me read the Quran he said that he would but he must first let me know that he is what some people call a “hardliner.”  To this day I respect those words so much.  Much later I would find out that he held what is now referred to as a Salafi/Wahabi perspective of the religion which is very different from how I perceive things.  I disagree with him on many issues however he treated me with so much kindness that I will always respect him and what he taught me.

We read the entire Quran in the translation of its meaning along with commentary over the course of about a year or so.  I would read a translation at home and then come to him once a week with questions.  I remember some very distinct emotions and thoughts about reading this vast and deep book for the first time.  One of them was that it didn’t seem so vast and deep.  It seemed incredibly upfront and to the point especially about what to believe and heaven and hell.  In fact it was the fire and brimstone of the Bible that turned me off from it in the first place but I muscled through the harsh reminders each day to find some really remarkable ties to and examples of nature.  I also was quite blown away by the tales of the Prophets who most of them I had been taught about in Christianity and its biblical links to Judaism.  In fact I didn’t know that Moses, Abraham, Noah or even Adam were at the foundations of Islam and I began to view Islam as a “part three” in worlds most important trilogy.  As I read I couldn’t really find much that I disagreed with but yet living out of fear from hell was not how I wanted to live.  Yet I kept going back and I even found myself asking Abdul Latif how to pray as a Muslim prays.  I would take my grandmother’s old afghan and lay it on the floor of the town house I was renting and basically go through the motions not knowing really what to say.  However something about the discipline of it felt uncomfortably good.  I’ll explain this more later, God willing.

After finishing reading the Quran in its entirety, which took about a year and half to complete, I didn’t know what to do exactly.  I was under the impression that I was going to move on to the next book but instead I kept finding myself walking the 8 blocks or so once a week to Abdul Latif’s shop and just sitting and talking with him.  Sometimes I would silently disagree while other times I was fascinated by what he had to say about the meanings of things within the religion.  It was so new to me yet oddly familiar.  It was then I decided to start learning some Arabic with him because I knew that a translation would not do any religious text justice.  But doing this felt like some weird limbo and I wasn’t sure what to make of these feelings.

One day during Ramadaan Abdul Latif and I walked down to the mosque on the corner of MLK and Jackson which was run by East Africans from the Oromo tribe.  He prayed with the congregation the mid afternoon prayer while I sat in the back and waited for him.  I watched the men as they stood and then prostrated thinking about how they were all fasting for the entire day.  The idea of stopping five times a day and contemplating God, although I still didn’t know the specific words of a Muslim’s prayer, was very appealing to me.  And so I sat in the back of the room and closed my eyes and prayed along with the men even though I wasn’t standing next to them.  In fact I did this every time Abdul Latif stopped to pray in his shop.  I liked the fact that people just stopped and prayed from what ever they were previously doing.

After the prayer was finished, one of the younger men came back and sat down with me.  Actually I was sitting on a metal, foldable chair and he asked me to sit on the floor.  “It’s more comfortable,” he said.  This struck me.  In Western cultures we don’t really sit on the ground too much, at least not for ordinary conversations, but he was right it was comfy.  As the other men finished they also came back and sat down with us in a loose form of a circle.  The Imam of the mosque (which was an old garage turned into a prayer space) didn’t speak English so the young man translated for him.  He asked me some questions about why I was interested in reading the Qur’an and such and then gave a bit of a talk about Islam in general but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t already learned from Abdul Latif.  Recognizing this, he simply asked me via the translator “So do you believe that Allah is One, with out partners?”  I said “Yes…that is easy enough.”  I had been contemplating the oneness of all things and really thought that reading about this in the Quran was the first time I heard my own thoughts being expressed in a religion.  I also was no longer hanging on to the belief that Jesus was divine or that anything else was in creation was for that matter.  “Do you believe that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was Allah’s messenger and Prophet,” asked the Imam.  “This is also not so hard to believe,” I replied.  I thought Muhammad  was a fascinating man and although I didn’t know too much about him at the time, I hadn’t learned anything that would tell me that he wasn’t a Prophet.  (Of course I believed in prophethood to begin with)  Then the imam said in words that will forever get me to stop in my tracks, “What are you waiting for then?”  The men smiled and even I chuckled at the simplicity of his question however my slight laughter appeared out of insecurity.  I didn’t know why I was waiting to become Muslim (meaning saying the words that “officially” make one bound to Islam.)  I had lots of reasons before that moment but when he broke everything down to those two simple concepts, I didn’t know.  It was a bit unnerving to be honest.  And so I answered as a deer caught in headlights might, “I don’t know.”

“Repeat after me,” the translation came.  “Ashadu an la ilha ila Allah wa ashadu an Muhammadan Rasul Allah.”  I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.  And that was it.  I was Muslim.  The men in the circle were weeping at that point, and every one passionately gave me a hug.  I was fine, meaning more in shock, until I left the mosque a while later and everything hit me like a hurricane.  What exactly does “bieng Muslim” mean I thought and how will my life change!?  There was no actual hurricane that made me take this belief in God.  There was no horrible car accident or near death experience, thank God.  It was a simple question that felt as if this man had reached into my soul and clutched on to something that I knew was there but had no idea of what it was.

This is the “how” of the story.  Simple and sweet. I will share the “why” and the feelings that came along with this in the next part inshAllah along with what I feel is the most important part of a convert”s story, why I stayed a Muslim perhaps in a third part.  But I leave you with this.  For years this remained one of the most simplified events in my live.  ” What are you waiting for?”  “I don’t know.”  But it has since become the foundation for one of the most powerful decisions I have ever made filled with every emotion one can think of and to  all extremes of them.

For now, ma’salaama (with peace)

Early Thoughts About Fatherhood

So…tea’s just gonna have to wait.

Since the title of this page is “my mind and what’s on it” I’m going to stay true to that idea and tell you what’s on my mind these days: Fatherhood.

Me holding Maryam Noor


As a matter of fact I had quite an experience only some hours after Maryam was born.  As I mentioned in the previous post when she came into this world, and at the exact moment she took her first breath, I lost it emotionally.  It was a nice kind of lost, a relieving lost.  After Shaista had gone through the post birth process (which was also very tough), her mom and sister visited in the delivery room.  I was exhausted at that point and was ready to fall on to the softest and closest thing around for at least a few hours.  We did get to rest a bit before moving to the post-birth ward where they keep you for a few days (at least…we stayed 6) in order to make sure the baby is doing all right in its first days in the world.  At last we were able to close our eyes along with the baby and sleep glorious sleep.

We slept for about 2 hours then about 3 midwives came into the room somewhat abruptly yet politely in order to talk to Shaista and check on the baby.  As I woke, I stayed in that half awake mode associated with a lack of sleep and then being woke up too early.  I couldn’t really grasp what was going on entirely because I was still trying to hang on to the dream world where all this massive change hadn’t taken place.  And that is exactly what came crashing in on me in that small hospital room at 8:00 in the morning: Reality.  I was a father!  No more unscheduled time to my self! No more uninterrupted sleep for months to come!  Maryam’s teenage years came slamming into me along with this sudden realization.  So did unwanted trips to the doctor (God protect her) along with teaching about the birds and the bees and how evil boys are!  I could hear lots of little girls chattering at slumber parties and endless visions of the color pink!

But the huge rush of reality wasn’t all bad.  I started thinking of first laughs, crawls, and walks.  Warm hugs and reassuring her after hard days.  Trips to the ice cream shop and having her run up to me after school is out.   Coming to visit her class as “show and tell.” (I’m going to be the coolest dad for sure)  Teaching her the few things I know and learning from her the many things I don’t know.  Watching her and her mom and aunt shop for clothes while I twiddle my thumbs outside the store (boring yes, but good memory? yes) I saw her as an intelligent young, independent woman who values tradition.  I saw her traveling all over the world visiting her vast, diverse family.  I saw the smiles on both sets of grandparents’ faces.

It was in that moment that I knew that my life had changed forever and definitely for the best.  Not long after that the midwife showed me something that I had long wanted to avoid…how to change a diaper.  But I took it in stride realizing that I had to do it from there on out and…it wasn’t that bad.  But I’m writing this statement only three weeks to four weeks into her life mashAllah.  We’ll see how I feel after the first year.  But diaper changing brought something along with it as well.  Something special, something beautiful.  (Only I would associate beauty with a dirtied diaper.)  It gifted me with the sense of responsibilty…the good and welcome kind.  It was a sense of being a protective figure in young Maryam’s life.  I had felt this on very small scales before and I had even felt it for the barbershop I used to own (which was as much work as a baby) but this was obviously different.  I looked into her tiny face and saw helplessness.  If we leave these little creatures on their own, they won’t make it.  They are not set up to.  We as parents and big brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, friends and loved ones are the ones who help them to grow up.  Maryam couldn’t clean her own self and in that need I knew my position and how grand it was.

I started to notice how simple babies are.  They are completely at the mercy of what their bodies and environments tell them to do.  The body needs nutrition…time to cry.  Gas bubble passing through…you get the picture.  I was amazed by this and started to notice in myself and in others around me that we’re not that different.  We’ve just gained control over our muscles and can deal with pain differently but at the root of it, we to as adults have to stretch when our muscles tell us to and I’m sure we all make faces during bathroom time.  All this made me feel part of something.  Something extraordinary and huge…acutually infinite.

All that from a diaper change huh?  You should hear my theory about cheese sandwiches.

Maryam has given me something to look forward to.  Her coming has made me appreciate her mom and even myself more than I already did before.  When I look at that little face I just want to make sure everything will be alright for her.  A friend of mine in Seattle gave me some very sage advice about children.  He said to always remember that God is control and while we do what we can to help in the situation, the situation was put there for a reason beyond us.  And that if we try to control our babies’ lives we will be infinitely stressed.  That is an incredibly hard lesson to apply yet oh so effective.  I pray that I’ll always be able to be that grateful.  I know that I’m over the moon about the little girl.

Until next time.

We Interrupt This Blog With Some Breaking News….

So unfortunately I’m going have to get back to giving you my thoughts about tea.  Something else came up which also happens to be my excuse for not writing for the past few weeks.  That reason is this:

Maryam Noor-The Light of my Life

 On Friday the 27th of January (3rd of Rabi Al-Awal in the Hijiri calendar) at 00:28 in the morning little Maryam Noor entered our lives in dramatic fashion (as every baby does.)  I’ll spare the details of the delivery room, but let me just say that this was one of the most life changing events I’ve ever been through.  From the first contraction to the actual delivery it was about 43 hours.  On the television or in the movies, they always fail to express how long and drawn out the process really is, as well as how draining it is .  They always yell “My water broke!” and then off to the hospital and boom there’s a baby.  Even I was already exhausted after the first 32 hours of 10 min apart contractions let a lone my wife who never really slept at all because of it.  And then the real fun began…for about 10 hours!  I’d like to see hollywood make a production out of that.  And if they did, reproduction levels would decrease rapidly.

I can’t really even begin to describe my feelings through the birthing process.  I don’t really think anyone else can either and that is why I think this event has such an impact  in our lives .  I have never felt such ranges of joy and distress at such close intervals.  Watching Shaista go through so much pain was almost unbearable even though I knew I had to be strong for both of us.  The baby was coming three weeks early so I didn’t feel mentally prepared.  However anyone one who has ever has children will tell you that you can never be prepared enough.  And that’s true. 

With that said, I did have a classic “father” moment in the delivery room.  I started to feel faint at some point.  After not sleeping and eating enough it is bound to happen when compounded with such high levels of stress.  But my moment of weakness didn’t come at the actual birth, no.  It came approximately in the middle of the process when Shaista was having a hard time dealing with the pain and we decided that the gas was not enough in helping her get through.  So we decide to get an epidural.  If you don’t know what this is, it is an injection directly into the spine that basically numbs the pain from there down.  I saw the anesthesiologist getting ready with the needles and warning her in Swedish not to move as she approached her back and told myself and the midwife to hold her.  I saw my wife getting more and more worried as each contraction came.  It all got a little much for me.  I realized that I didn’t know much about the shot at all and became quite nervous that I might have signed off on the wrong action while my wife was all drugged up on laughing gas.  I had to sit down at that point.  I didn’t lose it all together thank God.  I didn’t want to be known as one of “those” dads.  Not to say there is anything wrong with anyone who passes out in such an instance, but thankfully I got it together just in time to watch Shaista’s face relax into a world of vegetable and exhaustion.  I was worried that the veggie state would last quite a long time too but not long after, she was up and talking normally with 3/4’s of the pain the contractions were previously packing.  I was happy we went with that decision and encourage you all not to wait so long to do it either.  Well, make sure you are having a baby first.

After the thoughts of worry passed on as Shaista came to a bit, I started feeling better myself.  We even were making great conversation with the midwife as the time drew nearer.  When the time came for the actual delivery the whole experience was mounting up in my head.  Shaista was beyond exhausted and I was whacked myself.  But what was on the other side of those extremely painful and forever seeming moments was beyond my comprehension.  When the baby finally came and I noticed it blue and grey as all babies are when they enter the world.  It almost seemed lifeless even though it had been kicking around and growing for the last 8 months.  I was stunned and didn’t really know where to look, but then little Maryam took her first breath and behind it came a small cry and lots of movement of the arms and legs which broke me down to tears.  I lost it.  More than my wife I think.  They say that life flashes before your eyes just before death (which by the way has only been said by people who are still alive, obviously) but it also happens at a moment of life.  I couldn’t comprehend how big that moment was and that is why I couldn’t hold the emotions any longer.  There was so much pain and hardship involved with the birth that when it is over the marvel of a living being now existing on the outside of the womb was immense.  It moved me beyond comparison and I am so happy because of it.

Stay tuned for more tales of Maryam and… oh yeah… tea.

Coffee or Tea? Part 1

Just before I started writing this I was sipping on homemade Turkish Coffee (and yes the “C” is capitalized on purpose…because it deserves it) listening to this:

Coffee has a special place in my life.  A warm comforting place that is connected to so many wonderful memories.  Most of them in Seattle in the famous “intellectual” coffeehouses therein. (Yes I called them coffee houses caus they are more than a shop…pretentious?  I think not tea drinker.)   I think most people just connect to the Internet there and look “intellectual” but that is beside the point.  (Because I’ve done that as well)  However, coffee in my psyche does represent a form of intellectual stimulation and deep talks.  Yes that might be due to the very nature of the beast…the buzz that comes with it.  In Seattle, as most of you might know, it rains a lot…I mean A LOT.  Not in torrential downpours like other parts of the country, but more in what we Seatllites deem as a “nauseating drizzle.”  This is the very cause, ladies and gentelmen, for S.A.D. -Seasonal Affective Disorder.  And also the very reason for L.S.- Liquid Sunshine aka coffee in any of its delicious and invigorating forms.  It will pull the limpest and weakest of flowers through to the spring.

In case anyone asked, I believe that Seattle is birthplace of the modern cafe.  There are some euro influences granted but an American coffee house and specifically a Seattle coffee house is very unique in design and feel.  I used to love to frequent the shops around University of Washington with my laptop in hand and try (keyword try) to write a paper there.  I was always distracted by people watching or conversations with friends or a game of backgammon or chess.  There is just something socially healthy about the atmosphere as opposed to, in my own opinion of course, say a bar.  Both forms of liquids have a strange and magnetic pull on the human being for very different reasons obviously.  But I have yet to see two hipsters beating each others heads in with coffee presses and chess pieces…yet.  And I think this has something intrinsically to do with the nature of coffee itself.  Sure you can drink too much.  Sure you can become dependent and suffer mentally and physically.  Once again obviously no where near the effects of abuse of alcohol and the drama it causes in our lives.  Coffee urges us to sit down and think about things.  It pairs well with contemplation and conversation or just sitting and savoring life (and the coffee of course). If it’s all about the caffeine sir or ma’am, then it’s time to slow down…literally.

Seattle Coffee

Of course the coffee shops of the US offer us 57 different drinks with long presumptuous sounding titles like “double half-caf skinny Carmel macciatto extra hot no foam.”  And by no means am I hating on this.  I have indeed ordered my share of crazy sound coffee drinks and loved every sip.  But here in Turkey there is really only one coffee.  I’m not talking about the fraudulent but will do-in-a-pinch Nescafe.  I’m talking about Turkish coffee.  A small cup of (if made right) slowly brewed fine ground coffee with the grains still in the cup after simmering for a decent amount of time over preferably warm coals or a very slow burner.  It takes time and patience to make.  And the time spent with people when drinking it is just as special as the process of making it.  It is not the staple drink of Turkey (to be discussed later)  but on the other hand, it is something special for guests and holidays or even the end of the day with your family.  Despite the amount of caffeine it injects in your body it’s a very relaxing experience that once again leads to wonderful contemplation (or blog writing) or great conversation.  It’s taste is strong and unique and usually toothachingly sweet.  It leaves an impression on you every time you drink it. (Along with an aftertaste…which isn’t always unpleasant)  I have very special memories of traveling from house to house here in Turkey during the Islamic holidays and talking with friends about anything and everything that seems important in the world.  And then not being able to sleep for two nights.

Turkish Coffee

But alas my favorite historical significance and reason for drinking coffee comes from the Sufis of Yemen – the second residence of coffee after it’s home in Ethiopia.  Sufis are merely Muslims who put a large amount of effort into dealing with the vices of the self and paying close attention to the way things are and how they should be followed.  They devote their lives to learning about Allah and His Messengers and  focusing their love towards God.  They stay up late in the night as was the way of the Prophet Muhammed (peace and blessing be upon him,) in prayer, they remember God much in their words and actions (also in the way of Muhammad pbuh) and dedicate their lives to showing people Islam through action and word.  The Sufis of southern Yemen found out that coffee can be a healthy stimulant in keeping them energetic in their practices.

I had the pleasure of learning for a brief time from some of the most dynamic and beautiful Muslims I have ever met in Tarim, Yemen which is nestled in the Hadramaut Valley and is generally free from the political and religious strife of the rest of the country. There is a particular weekly event there on every Thursday night after sundown in which the people fill the prayer hall and sing beautiful and timeless poems about the Prophet (pbuh) and Allah.  During these events you will find coffee served to everyone; thousands of people at times.  A very special and unique coffee which I had never tasted up until then (and I called my self a connoisseur…HA!)  It is coffee mixed with ginger and slow roasted from the husks of the beans and served in small cups with lots of sugar.  There is no such of a thing as a vente in these places and for good reason.  Your head would explode.  But it is so delicious and delicate at the same time.  More than the coffee itself, as mentioned above, is the setting, the atmosphere, and the company.  It only adds to a spiritual experience.  It doesn’t take you out of your body and allow you to travel through time and space.  It doesn’t make you speak in tongues.  However what It does do is allow you to feel very human, with needs and desires and tastes.  It allows you to enjoy them and appreciate them. It heightens the awareness to a sustainable level without the mind losing grips on reality.

Yemeni Coffee

So as I drank my Turkish coffee and listened to the beautiful nasheed (spiritual hymn) above, I was taken to a place where I remembered the sights and smells of Seattle and all of my friends there, I savored the beauty of the Turkish styling of the drink and was reminded of the beauty of creation through the singing which reminded me of ginger coffee in the desert of Yemen.  I don’t know many drinks that can do that for me.

This is my argument for coffee.

Tea be continued (ha ha get it!!??  waa waa)