“Umar & the Bully”

In 1996, when I was working three part-time jobs in London, I wrote a children’s story for the Islamic Foundation (UK)’s first national children’s story writing competition. At the time, I lived in Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens’ rooming house on Walm Lane, not far from Islamia Public School, sharing the house with two Bosnian refugee women, one Lebanese teacher of Arabic, and, for a short while, a pregnant teenaged Muslim convert.
Perpetually short of cash, when I heard about the story writing competition and the £500 award, I set to work writing a story. I really needed that cash. But how to type it up? One of my employers, for whom I edited and translated documents, smirked and said, “Only a fool would buy a typewriter in this day and age.” But I didn’t own a computer (this was 1996, remember), and I was making so little money that the government helped me pay my rent. So, like a fool, I went to Staples at Brent Cross, and bought a Brother electronic typewriter. I’d grown up using an old Remington typewriter purchased in the early 1970s, and I hadn’t had access to email until 1994, so I didn’t weep for a computer. I was grateful.
In my little room with its twin bed and the radiators that froze at night, I typed up that story, and then I sent it off to the Islamic Foundation in Leicester.
The first time I wrote stories was at the age of six. My mother liked my story, and encouraged me to send it to The Pakistan Times “Children’s Page.” They published it. I wrote more stories. My friends at school read my stories and liked them. Then I wrote poems – the kind with rhyming couplets. Then, for a time, I wrote preachy letters of protest that were published in the Letters to the Editor. I typed them all up on that old Remington typewriter that my parents brought with them from Britain, when my father did his Ph.D. at Chelsea College of Science and Technology. I used that typewriter from 1974 to the late 1980s. I have a big zippered binder full of clippings of stories, poems, and angry letters that were published in The Pakistan Times. Naturally, hey are embarrassing for me now.
It was Dr. Farhat Hashmi (then Director of the Women’s Section at the International Islamic University), who first introduced me to her personal laptop. As lecturer of English at the IIU, I typed up official letters for her on that laptop. But no email. We didn’t have email back then. I first met email in 1994 when I went to Cambridge.
Back to the story I typed up and sent for the competition. In August of 1996, I suddenly got notification that Indiana University had some financial support for me to pursue my Ph.D. there. They’d offered me admission in 1995, but I deferred admission since I had no money.
Soon after I arrived in Bloomington, I heard from the Islamic Foundation: my story, Umar and the Bully, had won first prize and £500. It was to be published.
UntitledThe hero of Umar and the Bully, Umar is named after my nephew. Umar is developmentally challenged, a lovable huge heart of a boy – well, he’s a young man now – who was the first baby in my family. Umar’s struggles to love and be loved have always broken my heart, as has his treatment at the hands of so many people. Umar has always fought bullies with love. Umar in my story – a young boy in elementary school – stands up to bullies to protect a little boy, Asad (my younger nephew Asad was small in stature, sensitive, and brilliant).
Years later, I assumed the book was no longer relevant.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered, a few weeks ago, that Umar and the Bully is still being used and recommended for anti-bullying work in schools.
In the book Bullying Prevention & Intervention: realistic strategies for schools the authors discuss a 2006 study that
asked 3rd grade students and teachers to rate children’s books about bullying. From 24 children’s books on the subject, the children listed their top five most-liked books in terms of teaching about bullies.
Wow. Umar and the Bully was their third favorite.
This is especially surprising to me since my story is explicitly grounded in the Muslim spiritual resources that the protagonist Umar brings to his experience of bullying. And the study was conducted in Nebraska, with children ages 8-9, 87% of whom were European-American. 17757314_1281538045226543_6489230648953932633_n
Intrigued, I searched again (because what is nicer than googling your own work?) I found a 2016 blog post by a school librarian, who spoke in glowing terms of Umar and the Bully, correctly stating that the book had been on her shelves for a “long, long time.”
It’s been around for 20 years, to be exact. I always thought of writing as a form of ongoing charity, or sadaqa jariya. You never knew what good it could do, long after the writer was dead (or long after the writer quit writing fiction). It’s nice to know that this little book I wrote in a state of poverty, wondering if I would ever have a real job, is still possibly doing some good in the world.

Speaking at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago

The altar, with the statue of Amida Buddha and incense holders

This past Sunday, I visited the Buddhist Temple of Chicago as their guest speaker on Islam at their annual Interfaith Sunday event. Rev. Patti Nakai, as she introduced me to her congregants, shared a bit of fascinating Chicago history with us:

hymnalPrior to the 1940s, the Buddhist presence in Chicago was not significant. In the 1940s,  thousands of former concentration camp internees from California relocated to Chicago (possibly seeking to flee the bad memories, as one of the Temple representatives said). When the Buddhist Temple of Chicago was opened, it was met with suspicion. Buddhists (mostly Japanese) were met with suspicion and alarm.

In this climate of war, hate, amd fear, Reverend Preston Bradley (founder of the Peoples Church in the Uptown neighborhood) spoke out boldly and forcefully on his popular radio show to welcome the new Chicago neighbors.

As she introduced me, Rev. Patti reminisced about those times of hymnal1.jpgfear and conflict, and reminded her congregants to welcome and be kind to all. Today, she welcomed me, a Muslim, to her community. In this climate of Islamophobia, her words rang out clear as a bell. She did not hammer the message hard, but allowed it to flutter in the air as listeners found a home for it in their hearts.

This is a temple that is surrounded by soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The community makes a point of welcoming their neighbors and being supportive. The full kitchen is being used by volunteers to feed the hungry in the area. This is a multiracial, multicultural congregation, including White, Black, Japanese, South Asian, European, and mixed-race members. I had lively conversations after the service with them, and would love toshrine.jpgcontinue those conversations again. We discussed the difficulties of changing ways of doing things in congregations, as well as learning to welcome all attendees, especially Black members. Svend and I both just loved Rev. Patti Nakai, a Japanese-American woman who firmly, lovingly, and fearlessly leads her congregation.

Before my short lecture, Rev. Patti and
Candy gave us a tour of the temple, showing us an altar that was painstakingly
constructed, bit by bit, by concentration camp internees in the Heart Mountain, Wyo., Japanese internment camp
, using bits of woodashes.jpg that internees found here and there, and put together.

In the same room, filled with memories, vessels lined the shelves, containing the ashes of former internees and other temple family members.

Afterward, chatting with an elderly, cheerful and irrepressible Japanese-American congregant, I heard of how she had been in a concentration camp, and how her mother died while in that camp. At that time, this woman was 9 years old.

As I spoke to this audience, I felt like the hearts around me were open and present, and ready to connect. It was a powerful and precious experience.

speaking to audience.jpg

The night before this visit I sat, wondering what to say. It had been a busy few weeks, and I hadn’t had the time and energy to prepare as I should have. I sat discontentedly throwingRev Patti and me copy.jpg together Five-Pillars and Islam-Wikipedia factoids. I gave Svend the laptop to look over my talk. He read. He looked up. He stared at me, half-kindly and half-puzzled, as if to say,
“I feel bad for you, because this is trash.”

“Can you make it more personal?”he said gently. “It could get a little boring.”

Tired (it was 10:30pm on Saturday night), I sniffed and said, fine, I’ll see what I can do, thinking to myself, Why don’t you write it for me?

The next morning, just half an hour before heading out, I opened the laptop, stared at the document, thought, this is not speaking my heart at all. I tossed the print-out of the previous version. I inserted some stories, and said, Well, here goes nothing. 

I was anxious that I was far too tired to wing it in any way, but the energy in the temple community was the wind under my wings, and we all flew together.

Svend sat and watched, smiled, moved to the front row, and said afterwards: It was fantastic.

I said, no. I was ready to bomb it. Allah did it for me. Also, thank you, Svend. For telling me that the first version sucked. Sometimes, you’ve got to have someone you trust enough to tell you that you suck, and you need to do something different. Maybe you need to stop trying so hard, and just connect your heart with the hearts around you. Trust the hearts. They do the job.

Is management of the Trump-crisis for everyone?

19112592_401.jpgRecently, I’ve been inspired by the number of people who have decided to stand up against the Trump brand of bigotry, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, and anti-intellectualism.

But I’ve also been troubled.

When I see people who have strong, long-standing scholarly agendas, and they say that they must set aside their work to deal with the crisis that besets our nation, I am beginning to be troubled.

I feel rather strongly that not all of us should jump into the fray. Not all  of us should be speaking to lay audiences and offering Islam 101 lectures, or Tolerance and Equality spiels to high school students. Some of us should focus on their long-term work, whether it’s daily service to their constituents or their work on specific knowledge projects. Important work should not be dropped by the wayside to deal with the unending crisis of the Trump presidency. Some of us are better qualified to do the Islam 101. Others are much more valuable pursuing historical research on classical Islamic jurisprudence. Each person needs to appraise her individual expertise and to use her time and effort wisely.

We can’t fail our ongoing work. A parallel for me is the ongoing scholarly work of the Muslim gender scholar. Her work is often hijacked by the urgency of defensive, more basic gender activism of No, dear White liberal /Islamophobe, we are not oppressed Muslim women, so stop tarring Islam with the brush of misogyny. Not to be elitist, but at some point, you have to leave the perennial lay message to the junior troops, and move on to research classical treatises on gender and jurisprudence so you may contribute to the critical scholarly framework. At some point, you may even be a little out of touch with the day-to-day activist agenda, so it is better for you to leave it to the on-the-ground activists.

The anti-fact, anti-intellectualist program of the Trump presidency pushes us into short-term triage. Triage or crisis-activism is often shallow. We must not allow the Trump presidency to hijack our other agendas – scholarship, research, progressive coalition-building, scientific work, etc.

Now, the understandable difficulty of that situation is that many our agendas seem to be 16806987_597851727077798_7004544249497734638_n.jpgendangered due to funding issues and new policies like the Travel Ban. In those cases, it is understandable to focus one’s attention on short-term activism. But if you’re good at it, please don’t quit that knowledge-building, that service, that parenting, – all that work that is not crisis-management. If you’re devoting yourself to excellent teaching and not to tweeting about the Muslim Ban regularly, you are doing your job.No one else will do your job. Keep doing it. Thank you. If you can inform yourself and others about the crisis of the nation without sacrificing your work and well-being, please do so. But don’t feel guilty if you’re not responding to every single Issue every day.

Guest speaker on Sufism: Prof. Marcia Hermansen

16711623_1237874572926224_4309838275333574660_nThis semester, I’m teaching a class on Islam in America. As an academic with a PhD in Education Policy Studies, I had some trepidation about this class an my expertise. I specialize in Islam in America, but not in terms of Islamic Studies or theology. Therefore I decided at the outset to rely heavily on specialists in various fields that had what I lacked. Guest

We were honored in our Islam in America class to have Prof. Marcia Hermansen, Professor and Director of Islamic World Studies visit us from the Theology Department at  Loyola16729147_1237874576259557_1946183402999001319_n University today to answer student questions and discuss the diverse world of American Sufis. I feel immeasurably blessed and enlightened. (I served as whiteboard-writer, so blame me for the handwriting in the photograph). She offered an amazing analysis and fantastic grasp of both classical Islam and contemporary cultural manifestations, of diverse Sufi orders and their contemporary shaping as well as their classical and scriptural sources.

I was gratified to hear Dr. Hermansen say how enjoyable it was to speak on this subject to our students at American Islamic College. Since they identify as Muslim and are engaged16730432_1237874559592892_4254589778394188156_nat an above-average level with Islamic discourses, scholarly Islamic Studies speakers can go much further with our students than with a ‘mainstream’ undergraduate group.

Come speak at AIC and watch your student listeners’ eyes light up!

Real professors

Photo on 11-16-13 at 5.36 PMMy daughter has been lurking at my blog. Though she shows every sign of being unimpressed with my work, apparently she follows me online whenever she can, and has listed me as a “famous author” in a school assignment. I suspect the latter is primarily because she doesn’t have to do additional research on some other author.

Anyway, the other day, she asked me if I was an “Assistant Professor.” Oh boy, I sighed to myself: I know what’s coming, and the hackles of my professional defensiveness rose. This has happened before, when a babysitter described an employer (a well-regarded scholar of ancient history) as “not a real professor, just an assistant,” and – much as it hurt – I then had to explain that I, too, was “not a real professor, just an assistant.”

I explained to my daughter that an Assistant Professor was just the first rung on the ladder of professional promotions, and that the next one was an Associate Professor (which, really, also sounds like “not a real professor.”) The next one is a Full Professor, which really just sounds extra-defensive. Like, I’m a full person, not a pretend one. Maybe an Assistant Professor is akin to a green card of citizenship, but in my daughter’s world that just means I get kicked to Customs and Border Protection and out of academe.

What I didn’t explain to my daughter was that I should by now be an Associate Professor or even a Full Professor, had I not been hit by a bad market, fiscally non-viable employer institutions, and (let’s say it) the trifecta of racism-Islamophobia-sexism, with a dash of let’s-attack-the-prey-weakened-by-breast-cancer. It sounds awfully whiny to say that, but it is the truth. I started a tenure track job in 2008, and after breast cancer and its aftermath brought out the true colors of my employer, I hopped over to another institution. There – a truly White faculty, where I was one of a few faces of color – just before tenure, the budget crisis hit, and a new job-slasher-president cut my position. According to my Department Head, the Dean knew well that my position would be cut months in advance, but did not bother to inform me, holding his cards close to his chest as he told me how well I was doing and how I could spend more time being visible on campus, in addition to my service and administrative work. When my nationally award-winning book came out, I was already scrambling to find another position, and spent a year in limbo. I was then hired at an institution where I was a valued member, but where tenure wasn’t in place yet.

That longish narrative hangs together well, but it is still a long explanation. I’m well aware that letting my pain and vulnerability hang out there puts me at further risk of being shunned, but let’s not fool ourselves: I’m already marked. After I explained the academic hierarchy and the designations, my daughter smirked at my defensiveness, and said, “I’m so disappointed.” She added, chuckling, “I had such high hopes for you.”

You and me, baby girl. You and me. 

Crumbs off the table

On the inauguration stage, the clergy on the stage included a Catholic, a Jew, and four evangelicals (a female evangelical, a Hispanic evangelical, a black evangelical, and a white evangelical). Unsurprisingly, Muslims were excluded from the inauguration stage. But crumbs were thrown: an imam was invited to the National Day of Prayer on Saturday. He accepted.
Despite the exclusion of Muslims, and despite the fact that venomous hatred of Muslims has been a central issue in Trump’s campaign, some people believe that, when invited to the table (or to the crumbs under the table), they should accept. I for one am deeply embarrassed by such acceptance, which follows total and humiliating rejection from Trump & his followers.
I want to forcefully say that this acceptance does NOT represent me, and I am not alone in this. I stand with the vulnerable communities and populations that Donald J. Trump has vilified, ridiculed, and targeted. No crumbs thrown to individuals or groups can mean that we abandon our work of social justice. How can I take a seat at the table where women, blacks, the undocumented, refugees, immigrants, Muslims,people with disabilities, and LGBTQ communities are hated and/or targeted? What do I expect to happen at such a table?
This act of complicity on the part of an imam – a well-known imam – is especially shameful when progressives and civil rights activists nationwide have been standing up beside Muslims publicly, strong in resistance. — And then a well-known imam goes and says, yessir, I’ll be there, thank you!
When you normalize authoritarianism & xenophobia, you’re reduced to working within the box that haters have created. You cannot serve or benefit your communities from the reductive spaces of hate provided by authoritarian, xenophobic forces.
As Henry Giroux says: “We live at a time in which totalitarian forms are with us again. American society is no longer at the tipping point of authoritarianism; we are in the midst of what Hannah Arendt called “dark times” and individual and collective resistance is the only hope we have to move beyond this ominous moment in our history.”

Post-visit Pakistan trivia

  • In Pakistan, the hipster beard was so in. I still can’t get over that. The sunnah beard on the one hand, and the hipster beard on the other. It would seem confusing, but it’s really not.
  • Now that I’ve returned to the US, my hair has returned to its usual size, and I no longer look like a thatched cottage. Is it the humidity? Because Lahore is pretty dry right now.
  • petfoodI felt most surreal when walking down the long and varied foreign petfood aisle in the Dubai-like new Al-Fatah Store, and seeing an apparently middle class woman pick out tins of Fancy Feast. Am I wrong, or would picking out some botis from her handi be cheaper and better for kitty? IDK.
  • This isn’t something to brag about, but listen: you can have a fun life there. You can consume anything you want in Pakistan. It’s mostly available. The food is fantastic. The clothes are fabulous. The social lives are active. The work lives (for the upper-middle classes) allow for leisure and family. There is inequality but it matches inequality worldwide.
  • art1.jpgI like the new street art. It’s sort of kitschy and self-conscious.


The motifs in Pakistani women’s fashion are astoundingly varied, and quite frequently avant-garde. I had to hunt, often, for a traditional floral pattern, amidst large numbers of bird- and birdcage-centric embroidery. Birds I get, but birdcages? Also honeybees – large ones. And people. That women’s kameez in a clothing store (above) really made my day. Those are military helicopters, with soldiers climbing out of them, with the Pakistani flag waving overhead. And yes, when I walked away, I saw someone examine it, pick it out, and take it to the fitting room. Wish I had the spare cash to pick up a kameez for anthropological purposes alone. 🙂 It was hard work, though, finding a kameez that fit my size. Apparently the available sizes in ready-to-wear clothing are the smaller ones, and larger (like US size 14 and above) women tend to get their clothes tailored.

On the Knight Bus in Lahore

Every time I get on the road in Lahore, I feel like I’m on the Knight Bus. And so is everyone else.

My nephew (my driver) is cool as a cucumber while cars hurtle around like (it seems to me)giphy.gifbumper cars (just almost but never quite there). We found ourselves in a snarl of cars going in every direction in a tight space yesterday and I thought, wow, I would absolutely lose it if I was driving, GET OUT OF MY WAY YOU STUPID DRIVER, but it took just a couple of minutes to get out of the seemingly hopeless configuration. People seem to communicate like with their minds (“I’m just going weave my way into this non-
existent lane between two busy lanes” “Sure, yar, go for it, but I’m gonna go a nanosecond ahead of you” “Hello small children I’m going to blow past you, don’t diverge from your path even a millimeter” “Lalalala yeah sure, whatever”). The degree of skill and awareness it takes to do this, day in and day out, in extremely busy traffic, blows my mind.

The Muslim character in Department Q novels/films

a-conspiracy-of-faith-poster.jpgI’ve been watching the Scandi noir shows based on Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q novels (on Netflix). I read the novels a few years ago, but have just discovered the shows.

The grizzled, damaged Detective Inspector Carl Morck is shunted off to a new cold-case department, called Dept Q. He is also handed an assistant called Assad, an Arab immigrant, who initially gets on his nerves, but adds depth, drama, and humor to the drama.

[Spoiler alert]: I can’t get over how nice it is to see a positive depiction of a Muslim in mystery/thriller – or well, anything.

Assad is a faithful and practicing Muslim. He isn’t emptied of religious content for him to be humanized. Assad prays toward Mecca in the basement (it doesn’t matter if it’s not the exact direction, he says, as “Allah has such wide shoulders.”) But Muslim is not all he is. He has a mysterious past (no more spoilers, ok). The book and show poke fun at his idiosyncrasies as well as his cultural habits (such as his strong coffee). But they also take the time to consider the tensions between majority Danes such as Morck and Muslims like Assad. Morck is contemptuous of faith, and Assad demands that Morck take his faith (and that of others, including Christians, seriously). Assad encounters racism and Islamophobia, of course.  Morck learns to re-examine his own attitudes toward faith via Assad.

There is a touching moment in the movie A Conspiracy of Faith, when Elias, the anti-Muslim member of the “Lord’s Disciples”, whose children have been kidnapped, is struggling for his life, and Assad alone is there to hold his hand. Assad fears that Elias is dying, so he calls for a priest for him. There is no priest at that moment. There is just the pain and terror of the moment, as Elias and Assad’s eyes meet and they are brought together in empathy, faith, and pain.

Having seen endless Western shows and movies and read numerous American police procedurals with one-dimensional Muslim characters characterized primarily by their foreignness, their sexism, and the mad dangers of their faith, I take heart in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novels, and am happy to see them on the screen.