All posts by Yasmine

Kindness erases a city of strangers

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In Chicago: What separates us?, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

This is a story about the afternoon I went to Target. And no, it is not about how I walked in to return a few items and buy some placemats and a pack of nails to hammer into the walls for my latest creative project, and somehow, inexplicably, walked out with $130 worth of purchases. Instead, it is a story about what I was wearing.

It was a rainy afternoon, so this is what I was wearing: a dress, a coat, pants rolled above my ankles (I am short, most of my pants are too-long, and I am constantly, accidentally walking into puddles), and — instead of my usual headwrap — a beanie smushed over my hair, with my bangs brushed to the side. Inside Target, as I picked up the items on my mental shopping-list, got sidetracked by yet more items, and zig-zagged my way across the store, I ran into half-a-dozen different Muslim women wearing headscarves. “Wow, there are a lot of hijabis in this city!” I exclaimed inwardly in surprise. Outwardly, I smiled brightly and exclaimed, “Assalamu alaikum [Peace be upon you]!”

And every single woman, without fail, replied very quietly and with a guarded expression, “Wa alaikum assalam [And upon you be peace].”

What surprised me was not the fact that the women didn’t guess on their own that I am Muslim. That’s understandable, given that we often use visual aids as a way of categorizing people, and so a woman like me, who was not wearing an obvious form of hijab, would not have automatically been recognized as Muslim. Rather, what surprised me was: 1. The confusion on each and every single woman’s face when I said, “Assalamu alaikum” (Why? Do they think only hijabis are “Muslim enough” to say salaam?), and 2. The lack of smiles in response to mine (Am I scary? Do they consider it a personal affront that I wasn’t wearing “proper” hijab that day yet deigned to say salaam? Are people in my city simply unhappy people who hate smiling?).

I gave the first few women the benefit of the doubt: Maybe they were disgruntled about the cold and rainy weather, perhaps they were sick, maybe they were preoccupied with their children, perhaps they’d had a terrible day. Maybe no one wants to see a happy, smiling girl on a crappy day when you want to stab everyone; it just makes you crankier. I tried not to overthink the whole thing too much — I didn’t want to feel defensive, blow things out of proportion, or over-analyze something that was possibly just a trivial, mundane interaction. But by the end of my Target shopping experience, when I’d run into no less than seven different hijab-wearing Muslimahs in various parts of the store, ranging from the makeup aisle to the office supplies to the home decor to the checkout line, I found myself rattled by the lack of smiles in response to my cheery, “Assalamu alaikum!”

Months ago, a Muslim woman I know posted the following facebook status, a beautiful little story that I’ve remembered all this time:

“An elderly lady kept smiling at me at Trader Joe’s. Every time we made eye contact, she grinned from ear to ear. Now I understand why the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] said, ‘Even a smile is charity.’ I feel like someone just gave me a million bucks for free.”

Smiles are a classy and dignified form of acknowledgment. There is a simple power inherent in them. A smile doesn’t have to mean, “I recognize that we are the same.” It could simply mean, “I acknowledge that we share this world, and I notice that we have crossed paths today for this millisecond, even thought we don’t know each other and may never see each other again.”

Each time I briefly interacted with yet another headscarf-wearing Muslimah who didn’t smile back at me, I walked away extra-conscious of my pants rolled above my ankles, my bangs brushing out from under my hat. They should see me on other days, when I wear sweaters with elbow-length sleeves or roll up my pants to my knees at the beach. Sometimes, when taking the garbage out to the chute at the end of the hallway of my apartment building, I even walk down the hall with my hair completely uncovered. The Target interactions made me feel defensive, even when there was no need to feel so.

In a sociopolitical climate in which many Muslims are wary of possible stereotyping and ignorance and hate from those who are Not Like Us, I have surprisingly found that the least understanding actually comes from my own family and other Muslims: “Why do you wear your scarf that way?” pointedly and repeatedly ask my aunts, and my cousins’ wives, and now even my tiny nieces & nephews. “Why is your neck showing!?” ask others.

“To annoy you,” I’ve come to retort. (It sounds even ruder in Hindko, which affords me brief moments of spiteful satisfaction.)

I tried to pep-talk myself out of hurt and exasperation. Perhaps all the unhappy Muslimahs in my city had chosen to visit Target that day; there must be other, nicer ones around somewhere. Or maybe I was just taking all this too personally, anyway. The lack of smiles didn’t equate to judgment; it just mean they were confused about how to categorize me. We’re human, we categorize people; it’s what we do.

On my way out of Target, I stopped briefly at the indoor coffeeshop to order a hot chocolate. Standing in line in front of me were two children, a boy and girl aged 5-7, along with their father. The little boy wore a bright-blue hearing aid in each ear. I surreptitiously glanced at him a few times as the line moved progressively forward; finally, as the little boy turned towards me, I smiled at him and said, “I like your hearing aids!”

“Thank you,” he mumbled shyly.

“Mine are red!” I said, and lifted my beanie above one of my ears. He smiled a tiny smile and nodded, his sister glanced at me curiously, and the father, in the midst of ordering their drinks, turned and smiled widely at me. That gesture of sharing my own hearing aids would have been nearly impossible on any other day, with my tightly-pinned headwrap usually covering my ears.

And so, on an evening in which the lack of smiles from my fellow Muslimahs felt like a stinging rebuke, I found that my spontaneous act of sharing something I rarely discuss in public, the acknowledgment of that personal condition and experience, and the family’s smile in return acted as a balm, soothing the bruise of non-acknowledgment from those whom I’d expected to feel most relatable to.

Who cares about headscarves and cranky Muslims? If I can get a smile out of a little boy over the fact that our collective ears all run on Duracell batteries, that’s good enough for me.

Once home, mulling all this over in my head, I realized this was not a story about what I was wearing (then again, perhaps it was, but I choose not to classify it as such). Rather, this was a story about open-heartedness. I remembered something I always try to live by: Other people have a choice in what they wear at home and when they go out into the world — their solemnity, their joy, their judgment, their truth, their sneers, their laughter, their lack of smiles. I can’t force people to smile, if they don’t at all feel inclined to do so (and, let’s face it, I have little patience for coaxing them).

But I, too, have a choice — to bring my heart in full force, wherever I may go.

Even if it’s just to Target, for a pack of nails.

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In Chicago: What connects us?, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

We are crooked souls trying to stay up straight

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Outside the post office, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

The man sitting at the table next to mine in the coffeeshop this morning left his fancy-looking sunglasses on the table as he was leaving. I glanced over and noticed them just as the shop door was closing behind his retreating figure—and just as casually glanced away, making no move to scoop them up and run after him with an “Excuse me! You forgot these!”

Luckily, he re-entered the coffeeshop just two seconds later, his glance falling unerringly on the table at which he’d been sitting. “Oh, you left your sunglasses!” I said, feigning surprise, and he smiled back at me sheepishly. But when he left again, my polite smile transitioned into the frown my father hates so much because it creates deep grooves between my eyebrows. “Your face is going to get stuck that way,” he always warns me.

These days, I fear what I’m really going to get stuck in is the emotional rut of stress and anxiety that’s plagued me for the past few weeks. My sleep is short and continuously interrupted, and I have cultivated a newfound reliance on the hated coffee to get me through the days, the caffeine making me feel only more anxious and jittery. My to-do list keeps lengthening, with no end in sight; for every item I manage to cross off, I seem to add five more. But what worries me most is mornings like these, when rather than rushing to help a stranger in something so simple, something that would require little effort on my part, I instead selfishly look away.

This is not who I am, nor whom I wish to become.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth enters our hearts

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Re-upholstered dining chairs at the PirateHouse, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
- from “Prayer,” by Carol Ann Duffy

In mid-July, home for the weekend at my parents’, I spent an entire Sunday helping my mother re-upholster our dining chairs. She regaled me with stories as we worked together, but her efforts at entertainment still didn’t make it the smoothest or lightest of projects. There were moments during the re-upholstering when I grew impatient at her stubbornness to fix things that couldn’t be fixed; moments when I was annoyed at the time-consuming task of ensuring the corners of each piece of fabric were perfectly folded without creases; moments I snapped at my mother and then was upset with myself.

By the end of the day, my hand was so sore from wielding the staple gun that I could barely fold my fingers into a fist. “Show me your hand,” said my mother, reaching out with hers. She took my hand into hers, pressed it lightly, and — since she’s been suffering from some minor health problems lately — I thought she was about to make me note yet again how hot or dry or arthritic her hands were in comparison to mine. Instead, she unexpected brought my hand closer and pressed a kiss into the center of my palm. “Make sure you rub lotion on it tonight,” she said, “and take some Tylenol.”

In the weeks that followed, long after the soreness had faded, my fingertips remained chapped and peeling. My nails were chipped, and my skin was rough to the touch. My ummy’s simple, tender gesture made me think more deeply of hands, and how easily I take them for granted. Just as for many other families, hands are the touchstone of my family’s heritage, used for the holy triumvirate of food, work, and prayer. I am most reminded of this during Ramadan.

Munching on deliciously cold cubes and slices of fresh fruit during our pre-dawn suhoor meal the other morning, my father told the story of how, as a child, he was accustomed to eating roti, Pakistani flatbread, wrapped around pieces of cantaloupe and melon. And some days, the bread served as wrapper for slices of raw onions instead. For those who were poor, onions were an inexpensive substitute for a full-fledged meal. His mother used to say, “Pyaaz ey tha niyaaz ey” — onions are an offering from God, a blessing, and worthy of gratitude. With her hands, she prepared special meals for my father, her only child — makkai ni roti thay saron na saag (cornbread with mustard greens), parathhay dripping with oil instead of butter, because they couldn’t afford real butter (ironic, because they owned cows and sold milk and butter, but needed the money too much to keep any of the dairy products for themselves). I think of my patient, self-sacrificing grandfather, whose work-hardened hands toiled in the family fields every day, working alone because my grandmother insisted that their son, my father, attend school and become educated rather than being relegated to a lifetime of harsh physical labor.

My mother’s stories, too, are about hands: her mother, a seamstress for the entire neighborhood; her brother, who hauled rocks in a tile factory until his hands were raw and bloody; her father, who drove horse-carts and then, blind in his old age, must have had to acclimate himself to knowing things by touch rather than sight in his last years.

The morning of my father’s onion stories, I stood with both my parents for the post-suhoor prayer of intention for the coming day’s fast. We huddled together, hands cupped closely so that each touched the other’s hands, loudly reciting the du’a: “Wa bisawmi ghadinn nawaiytu min shahri Ramadan: I intend to keep the fast today in the month of Ramadan.” I was reminded of my childhood, when my siblings and I would join our hands together and then pile our hands over our dad’s, much like those Russian dolls, one stacked inside the other, big to small, culminating in the tiniest one inside. A pile of hands, joined in du’a.

One of my earliest memories is of the 3 of us reciting du’a with our father; I remember looking down at our hands and marveling how like a bowl each pair of hands seemed. Then I looked up and asked, “Daddy, why do we make our hands like bowls when we do du’a?” He opened his mouth to reply but, before he could speak, I answered my own question with childish eagerness, “Oh! I know! It’s so when Allah sends us blessings, they fly right down into the bowl so we can catch them easily and not lose them!” I don’t remember my father’s reply — he probably laughed and agreed with my explanation. But even now, every time I join my hands together in supplication, I still recall the excitement with which I processed that childhood epiphany: hands as bowls, fashioned to receive blessings from God.

One of my favorite lines of writing about hands and prayers comes from G. Willow Wilson’s essay for the New York Times, “Engagement in Cairo”:

“It’s a strange feeling, praying into your hands, filling the air between them with words. We think of divinity as something infinitely big, but it is also infinitely small — the condensation of your breath on your palms, the ridges in your fingertips, the warm space between your shoulder and the shoulder next to you.”

I think of all the hands I know: My father, who cradles geraniums and endlessly waters his vegetable garden, and asks for my help in creating constellations of criss-crossing strings to support the bougainvillea vines outside our front door. My sister, who uses paint to create masterpieces that spill warmth and vibrance into every home. My brother, who gestures widely and theatrically, whether on the stage or at the dinner table. My brother-in-law and my mother, who chop ingredients and mix spices and remove lids from pots to smell the fragrance of home-cooked food that fills our hearts as well as our stomachs. My friends, who hold and nurture babies, perform research experiments, highfive me, diagnose and soothe patients, hold me close on the rare occasions I cry.

And my hands? I’m not quite sure yet what they do. They write a lot (although not as often as they should) in precise, swooping (sometime angular and stabby) lines. They have taken photographs that I frame and proudly display on my walls. They type fast, and insist on correcting spelling mistakes that others would gloss over. They carry the to-do lists I scribble on my skin with permanent markers, and just recently made strawberry shortcake from scratch for the very first time. They know how to wield a staple gun, and caulk cracks in the walls, and hang paintings with the symmetrical, measurements-obsessed accuracy I inherited from my father. On the eve of my sister’s wedding, nearly two years ago, my hands helped hers in hemming silky Pakistani outfits by hand, when the sewing machine stopped working. I knew even then that that would be the sort of moment I would remember forever, once the hustle and bustle of wedding ceremonies and receptions had died down: our eyes tired, our hearts a little aggravated at this inconvenience, but our hands focused on carefully stitching wedding outfits in the middle of the night.

Y laughed at me last summer, “I’ve never seen a human being so intrigued by their own knuckles!” (This may or may not have been after I threatened to stab him with my sharp knuckles.) Actually, I’m most intrigued by my hands as a whole. They are, after all, the same hands that rested on my knees during prayers when I lived in Pakistan. So many things have changed about me in the seventeen years since, but my hands have remained the same: brown skin; raised, blue veins; short nails; light scars; and well, yes, sharp, bony knuckles. Every single time I look upon my hands in prayer, my mind rushes back to those prayers during hot summer afternoons and lantern-lit nights in the village. It comforts me to know they are still the same hands — if I could pray that way then, I still have it within me to pray like that now.

More than anything else, I associate my hands with prayer — which makes it all the more frustrating when I fall short in reaching out to and communicating with God. My prayers are both inward meditations and verbal invocations, often brief and spontaneous. But while I’ve been good about praying for others, I generally shy away from praying for myself. My hands, like the rest of me, are proud and strong and independent. I hate asking for assistance, whether carrying boxes up multiple flights of stairs or lugging groceries in from the car or asking God for favors.

So, while I try to keep God at the center of most of my actions and decisions, and while I like to think I am good at prayers thanking Him for all the blessings I have, I find myself lacking in other types of prayers, namely, those asking for help. Perhaps I over-think it (am I too arrogant, in believing it’s not necessary to ask because God will grant me what I wish for, anyway? Or am I too humble, in feeling I’m not worthy of making requests?). Perhaps I forget that God loves being asked for help, and that I should be humble enough to ask more often. I read somewhere once that Mahatma Gandhi had said prayer is a longing of the soul, a daily admission of one’s weakness. This is something I need to remember.

In these few remaining and most blessed days of Ramadan, I intend to use my hands for asking more for myself.

When He gives, He shows you His kindness; when He deprives, He shows you His power. And in all that, He is making Himself known to you and coming to you with His gentleness. [...] When he loosens your tongue with a request, then know that He wants to give you something.
- from “The Hikam” by Ibn Ata’illah

An Open Love Letter to My Parents, on the Occasion of My 30th Birthday

Table for two at the teahouse in Cordoba
Table for two at the teahouse in Cordoba, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz

Today is my 30th birthday. On this wonderfully sunny day that I’m enveloped in gratitude for the life I live, I’m most grateful for those who most helped shape me into the woman I am today — my parents. As I celebrate my birth and my blessings, I remind myself to celebrate my parents first and foremost, for starting it all. Below is something I wrote for their 35th wedding anniversary last year, and never posted.

An Open Love Letter to My Parents, on My 30th Birthday
(Originally written for their 35th wedding anniversary on 10 June 2010)

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3 Beautiful Things, the “We’re in Your Corner” Edition

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Sit together in yellow silence; Berkeley, CA, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

[Cross-posted at HijabMan.com.]

3beautifulthings:

1. SORRY. Recently, I learned a humbling — and very important — lesson from a friend: to apologize for things said or acts committed in anger, even if the anger was justified. There is not much to add to this, but I will say that I — who thought I’d come such a long way since my inability to apologize years ago — still have much to learn. If I have learned in the last several years to listen more to my conscience and refine my sense of compassion and appeasement, I have also learned just how trigger-quickly I can lapse into cold, cutting commentary without regard for how words burn at the other end. I am remembering now other conversations of this past year, and how the outcomes may have been different if I’d been gentler — not only with the person(s) at the other end, but also with myself. In an effort to prove my own strength and independence, my own will and rightness, I do myself a disservice in times like these. There is beauty in humility, and it takes strength to acknowledge (and embrace or amend) one’s weaknesses and shortcomings, and pride is not pretty. (Note to self: Don’t be this guy.)

2. LAUGHTER. No matter the level of stress at work, there is always at least one moment of levity during each day. Sometimes, I find myself twirling ’round and around on the twirly-chair at my desk, lobbing sarcastic and hilarious jabs at my coworkers before throwing my head back in laughter so loud it can be heard all the way down the hall. At such moments, I think to myself, “I would miss this.” Particularly now that we have disbanded a bit. Our organization recently relocated, and my “department” has been displaced from the spacious office we all shared to a building where we each now have our own, separate cubicles. There is more privacy — but also less, at the same time.

AH paused sadly by my desk the other morning and asked with his best hang-dog expression, “Can you move into my cubicle? I miss you.” I laughed at him, of course, but then I realized it’d been far too many days since we exchanged our ubiquitous highfives, and I was tempted to pick up my laptop and go back to a shared workspace. That was, of course, before I remembered how AH borrows my favorite pens to jot down notes whenever he’s on the phone, and then promptly loses them; throws whiteboard markers at me whenever I tease him too much; swipes my food when I’m not looking; makes me re-send him emails he never bothered to open the first time around; and asks rhetorical questions like, “You know what we should do, Yasmine?” and then ignores my cranky, “No, I don’t, tell me,” and launches into grand plans and ambitious projects that we will have time for only in 57 years — and I decided my own quiet little cubicle was probably good enough. I might even be able to finally nap under my desk without anyone noticing.

3. HELLO, I SEE YOU. (i) I stepped out for lunch at one of the local cafes recently, and found that I recognized no one there. This was problematic only because Julie’s used to be such a vibrant source of community for me, not only when my sister was an undergrad at Berkeley and I visited her on campus all the time, but also during all those post-Friday prayer lunches with friends, and during the iftar dinners that Julie’s hosted for Cal students during the month of Ramadan. But the students who frequent the place have changed, and so has the management of the cafe, not to mention part of the menu.

I consoled myself by ordereing my usual chicken-with-basil stirfry (that hasn’t changed), and found a small table in a corner of the courtyard, where I sat quietly, scrolled through my phone, gave every indication of not caring that I knew no one, and wished the afternoon were longer so I wouldn’t have to go back to work so soon. But within just a few minutes, there was F at my side, with a wave and a highfive and a “How are you?” — and even as my eyes lit up in surprise and I smiled back widely, so happy to see him, and even before I could open my mouth to reply with my automatic, “I’m doing lovely! How are you?” — he added after eyeing me during just a minuscule pause, “A little bit stressed?”

“I didn’t realize it was so obvious,” I said, chagrined, and made a mental note to work on my poker face. F pulled up a chair, asked incisive questions, listened patiently as I talked around mouthfuls of food — and offered options that I found myself scribbling down on the closest sheet of paper. I left Julie’s smiling, realizing anew (because I have to be reminded of this over and over) that it’s okay to be vulnerable sometimes, to give voice to one’s anxieties, and to discuss strategies with others.

(ii) After missing two separate classes of grad school in two weeks, I dragged myself to campus, sitting silently through most of the discussions (guess who was behind on the readings?) yet inwardly excited to be back in the midst of such thought-provoking conversations. Most of us are working professionals, balancing a full-time graduate program with full-time jobs. We are usually on campus only for classes, and even a month-and-a-half into fall semester, I know that I, at least, have not spent any length of time building meaningful relationships with my classmates outside our weekly gatherings. So, it was all the more touching when, at 930pm as we rose from our chairs and began slinging our bags over our shoulders in preparation for sliding exhaustedly out the door, A turned to me and said simply, “I’m so happy that you’re here. I missed you!” It’s no wonder I texted a friend a month ago with, “Status: I just got out of class. I LOVE school. And I mean that as non-sarcastically as possible.”