Blank Canvas

A brother sent me an article in the last few days by a sister about her choice to wear hijab. It was like others I had read before: a defensive response to the perceptions of others. ‘So next time you see me,’ the author concludes, ‘don’t look at me sympathetically. I am not under duress or a male-worshipping female captive from those barbarous Arabic deserts. I’ve been liberated.’

I have often reflected on our response to non-Muslims’ perceptions of us; indeed, on our perception of their perception. I have no doubt that we do often encounter hostility, but I wish to say that we must not let ourselves ‘expect’ it.

I recall the day I became Muslim and the weeks after it. My shahada came after a very personal journey over the preceding years, months and weeks, and yet when I had made the decision to utter those words, I found my whole life thrust into public view for all to scrutinise as they pleased. I had considered it a personal affair, but within only hours the news was in the public domain. I had many friends at the start of that day who, by nightfall, would now refuse to speak to me. At the time we were in the midst of our second year exams and I put their strange behaviour down to exam stress. Only, when the exams came to an end, the same people would still only smile, as if embarrassed, when I said hello, if they didn’t just turn their back on me and walk away.

Relating to other people became very difficult: it was paranoia time. I came to understand the reactions of two unconnected sisters to my behaviour when I was not a Muslim after they had taken to wearing hijab.

When I first went to university, there were really only two things which I ‘knew’ about Islam: Muslims don’t eat pork ‘because pigs eat dirt’ , and Muslims only eat halal food. I didn’t have an opinion of Muslims – I didn’t even think they were all terrorists or that they oppressed women. But one thing I found when I went to university was that there were Muslim women there who wore the head scarf. I cannot tell you why I reacted as I did, because I do not know; I just thought that I should; but whenever I saw such a person, my eyes would hit the floor. I would not look at her face. I think I thought that because she wore the scarf, she wanted privacy and, therefore, I was not allowed to look at her. I remember there was a day when I was sitting with an ‘ordinary’ Muslim girl from my course in the university’s common room, and she pointed to this sister wearing hijab and said, ‘Can you guess where she’s from?’ I thought this was incredibly odd, because I thought I was not meant to look.

I encountered the paranoia tendency twice because of the way I behaved. The first time it was in my first year, the second time in my second year; both times those involved were new to wearing the head scarf. Both times my refusal to even look at the person was taken as meaning that I hated Muslims or that, at least, I had a great problem with them wearing hijab. I really thought neither; I just acted as I thought was expected of me.

Now that I have been there, almost in their shoes, I know just what is like. Visually, little had changed about me, but words were enough: without me even telling anyone, the grapevine revealed that I had become a Muslim. Most of those acquaintances who have never been very close, but you considered them friends, drop you in an instant. They blank you when you say hello or look at them, and you come to know that they hate Muslims or that, at least, they have a problem with something that you believe. Later, other friends, even your closest friends, drift away. They don’t have a problem with you, they say, but then they cut off all our ties. And when you experience this, you start to think that everyone thinks this way.

But they don’t.

I remember finding people on my course when I was in the third year periodically ignoring me. I would think, ‘Oh, well this is because I’m a Muslim.’ But often it wasn’t. People get stressed, consumed in their own worries. Study gets on top of them. Then there are the people who don’t know exactly how to react around you; they just want to show respect. So there was me, once upon a time, feeling that I should show respect, my intentions being misinterpreted, and then me later on doing the misinterpreting when others respond to me in exactly the same way.

In the two and a half years that I have been a Muslim, I have encountered all sorts of different reactions to me and my beliefs. I have encountered fascination as well as disinterest, respect as well as hatred, curiosity as well as being boycotted, sincerity as well as mockery. I have met people who have asked me question after question about Islam, searching on their own for the truth. I have known people who don’t even have an opinion on Islam; who aren’t even confident that they can pronounce the word ‘Muslim.’

So what I’m really trying to say here is, please treat every potential Muslim you meet as a blank canvas. Don’t assume things about that person. It is so hard, I know from experience, to decipher what people are thinking, but we must try our best to be optimistic. Should we start on a negative like, ‘I’m not a terrorist, you know?’ or begin with a positive like, ‘Hello, how are you?’ Islam is a blessing, so don’t forget to share it. We really have been liberated!

T.Bowes 18/02/2001

Seeking asylum from the past

Silence settled; I held hushed fear. Fear of sins returning to haunt. You changed, rearranged, but like heaven and hell, your mark remains in that gruesome book. No forgiveness or recognition, because they never saw your deconstruction and the reconstruction that followed.

I saw the reflection of myself in characters passing by; exploitative, consumptive bodies, self-constructed images dwelling in pools of the commonest stereotypes. Dancing in the sweat of created images, consumed. Gasping for air, I died, drowning in the reality of the foul lies I puddled around me.

My silence and fear. Hidden behind masks, disguised as a character unknown, I grasp at anonymity, watching ­–admiring– guests and relatives new. Fear of those whispers; telegram awaiting; please read out the African tongue. ‘Anyone but me, please.’ I changed, never pleaded forgiveness, though sorry I was, for I turned my back and denied that past. And yet you never understood; my deconstruction and reconstruction. Here you remind me of what I preferred be forgotten, like God on judgement day reminding me of every sin I made, though I regretted it long ago. To you the speech of that African tongue was not a single thing; but to me like awaiting God’s final call. Unrepented sins returning to the mind, your sorrow, your regret, ignored. Just like that, you changed, turned away from your blinded past, but no one can see now. All the same stereotypes; the same offensive view.

A generous brother’s wedding reception, the speeches halfway through. In Afro-Caribbean company, sister-in-law and all, the message from the African state gets pushed across the room. To you, only a happy sign, a message of goodwill, but to me, shaped like a nightmare, ready to curse me for my greed. Read the African tongue; I whisper, ‘What’s the need?’ You hear the message, but I only reflect on the image of my soul. Like softest soul; those stereotypes; purity, goodness, gold. The ist in me, not with hate, but in stereotyping empathy. I wished it lost, and perhaps it is, but in me I felt those who know, see. Old me, same construction, no de or re.

I read the words, pronounced the sounds, but all I held was anger. Memories of other times; sell myself, prove a point, display my selfish greed. Reggae played unnaturally loud in Caribbean company; right on displayed, but actually tastelessly off. Suggesting messages of freedom and equality in ear shot of the passing Nigerian. Telling the South African associate, quite indirectly, that not all your friends are white. ‘Ethnic’ names dropped into conversations, always passively of course. And look around, what do you know? A poster of Martin Luther King stuck upon the wall.

Past times I hoped to bury, immaturity I hoped to burn. Skin used to fight me with words aimed, but I would just deny. ‘That’s not me.’ My fight with Skunk Anansie, but sadly it was me. No guilt of hate, of name calling, or bullying, but guilt of stereotyping empathy. Pages filled with poetry, arguing, justifying; satisfying myself of my very existence; all denial that she had mouthed the truth.

Yet consciousness of colour was not ingrained naturally in me. The saddest irony of all; my ism became from a workshop on the problem of those ists. Through the South African who suggested that white people were generally racist, an innocence of unconsciousness quickly drained away. Now I had something to prove. From an unconscious wanderer, a constructed ist became. But as an ist, I never realised, until I saw the reflection of myself in characters passing by. An exploitative, consumptive body, a self-constructed image dwelling in pools of the commonest stereotypes, I immersed myself to drown. Emerged to be myself, changed and re-invented, but my face was still the same, so you thought I was still the same and, ignorant of my dishonest past, the way it troubled me so, you watched me stand reluctantly and I spoke your words at last.

The Polished Floor

Have you ever read the polished floor?
I read it every day
When I see you.
Is admiration wrong?
Because I admire,
But it is nothing more.
There are words on the polished floor,
Invisible to your eye,
But I read them.
Beyond a hidden world,
There’s something there.
And I wish I could share it,
But the words on the floor say, ‘No.’
I say, ‘It’s not fair.’
The floor says, ‘Life’s not fair.’
I say, ‘Well I don’t care.’
The floor says, ‘You’re reading me,
Of course you care.’
Is the longing for friendship wrong?
Because I long,
Though I know it’s an empty want.
Words on the polished floor:
‘Your isolation is your due,
Beyond this space, less of you,
Care and admire even more,
But the polished floor, never ignore.’

The E-Mail, the phonecall and the hydroelectric dam

When the thunder clattered and the rain lashed the ground, the power went off and SOAS library’s computer network ceased to function. There was no rain in Tanzania, the power went off, but it was more than the computers that suffered.

Michael Franti of Spearhead fame, the hiphopster on a mission of musical literation, would like this one. Africa Online and Food for the Masses. If this makes no sense, then here’s the summary: Franti’s latest album was the Chocolate Supa Highway and he questioned what the leaps of technology meant to the African continent. Was the internet relevant? His scepticism of our hi-tech, material, civilised world. And now the connection: E-Mail messages from Tanzania until they turned the power off in the middle of October.

Kiswahili conversations between a father and his daughter; the father somewhere in England, the daughter in Dodoma, Tanzania’s administrative capital city. On Thursday 9 October, his mailbox revealed that Dodoma was facing the beginning of a famine. The rains had not come and now there was a shortage of water. Food prices were rising and there was little information beyond their region to say that that was happening. At the time, according to the E-Mail, there were only eighteen inches of water in the dam above the turbines. Those were the turbines that were supposed to generate the majority of Tanzania’s electricity. And if there was no rain in November, the E-Mail said, the country would slowly begin to shut down.

By Saturday, the electricity was off. The father received an early morning telephone call from his daughter in Dodoma. Time winding handles, hoping for a connection, Vodaphone may be whispering from Sri Lanka, but not here; the electricity is dead. Saturday 11 October, the electricity had now been turned off because there was not enough water in the hydroelectric dam. The effects would be felt all over the country and in the major towns, including that far coastal city of Dar Es Salaam. Now the fading voice on the telephone said there will be delays in the distribution of food and relief. No electricity, no power to the mills that ground the maize. Tanzania off-line, need food for the masses.