Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Shadia: No pajamas on this red carpet

I regard Oscar Sunday with the same importance as a national or even a religious holiday (sue me).

Instead of a get-together over a good meal with family and friends, a visit to the mosque to pray and offer thanks to God, my routine is much simpler: I talk to no one.

I forget about all the troubles in the world. I try to squeeze in my daily prayer during the commercial breaks. I start gluing myself to the television at about noon or before, and I stay in my pajamas.

For me, Oscar Sunday is not about the awards, it's about the fashion, the glamour and the beauty.

So it's natural for me to gravitate toward the glamour, the beauty and the lavishness on the red carpet.

I've been this way since I was a little girl, and sometimes fought my mom when she refused to buy me high heels (what's wrong with a 10-year-old wearing heels?).

So when Mariam Khosravani, founder of the Iranian American Women Foundation in Orange County, invited me to attend a red-carpet-like Oscar-viewing party that was held to support the movie "A Separation" at a restaurant in Irvine, and in hopes of it getting the award, I right away told her thanks, but no thanks (I said it in nicer words).

There's no way I could attend, I thought. That would break my ritual of talking to no one, gluing myself to the television and staying in my pajamas.

But then, as Oscar Sunday got closer and after writing a story about the event, I decided, why not?

It would be good to watch it with a group of beautiful Middle Eastern women, and I would get to do one of my favorite things: dress up. I hesitantly told Mariam over the phone that I would attend. She was very happy to hear that I changed my mind.

I sat in my pajamas in front of the TV until I could no longer and had to get ready. Hoping not to miss any of the big arrivals, I made a few runs to the television as I got ready.

I went with my mom, and when we got there, there was a red carpet, a small one, and photographers (paparazzi) taking pictures outside of the restaurant.

I posed for a picture with my mom and, after saying hello to Mariam and a few other women, I put my glasses on and stood in front of a TV at the restaurant, trying to listen and watch.

The presentation for the foreign language film category was early on in the show. When "A Separation" got the Oscar, jubilation took over the entire restaurant. People were proud. I was proud.

This was a big moment for the Middle East.

Mariam took my hand and ran across the room with me. We watched together as the writer and producer of the film, Asghar Farhadi, accepted the Oscar for his country for the first time in history.

His speech was emotional and underscored the struggle his people have been facing for many years.

"At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy," he said during the acceptance speech. "They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.

"I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."

It was a proud and historic moment, one that proved that the art of storytelling and the emotions and struggles all human beings experience are ever more powerful than politics.

I'm glad I witnessed this moment with a group of Iranian women. I'm glad I celebrated with them.

But I did record the red carpet coverage and the show (thank God for DVR), and I'll be gluing myself to the TV, sitting in my pajamas, talking to no one this weekend as I watch.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Shadia: How it's done at a Jewish-Persian wedding

I crashed a Jewish wedding.

OK, I was invited.

But as a visitor from another religion, I had the same giddy sense of discovery that I might have had if I'd slipped in undetected.

The experience was new for me on two levels. I had neither been to a Jewish or Persian ceremony — two things I've always wanted to experience.

Culturally, Persian and Egyptian weddings are not too different, but I've always wanted to go to one. Islam doesn't dictate how a wedding is celebrated, so it usually depends on the culture and the family. Middle Eastern weddings are celebratory, warm and go on for hours, sometimes days.

So when my friend Meesh invited me to go with her to a Jewish-Persian wedding, I said: "OMG! Yes, of course! I've been waiting for this."

True to our Middle Eastern nature, we got all decked out. We stayed at the hotel where the wedding was held in Pasadena, and by 7 p.m. (yes, that's about when our kind of weddings start), we were ready to have fun, meet new people, dance and people-watch.

On our way down, Meesh said there's a formula to Persian weddings. I looked at her a bit perplexed.

There's always sushi at the cocktail hour, she said.

Unlike in American weddings, the cocktail hour began before the ceremony and also went on briefly before the reception.

There were many well-dressed people (it's a Middle Eastern thing). Then Meesh pointed to a woman whom she suspected was an Orthodox Jew. Meesh told me that she thought she was wearing a wig to cover her hair instead of a scarf.

I set out to investigate (I was discreet), and yes, it was a wig. A nice wig.

What's interesting about that is so many people think Muslim women are the only ones who cover their hair. But that's not the case. Some Christian and Jewish women do as well, even if you don't know it.

Back to the wedding.

Instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen walking down the aisle before the bride, there was an all-white runway where the closest family members of the bride and groom walked down one by one, dancing to upbeat and happy Persian music to an audience who cheered and clapped for them.

I want a runway at my wedding when I get married, for sure.

The parents of the groom walked down, followed by the groom, who seemed happy to be getting married (shocking).

Then came the moment that brought tears to my eyes: The bride walked down on her own to meet her parents at the end of the runway. She embraced her mother, then her father. Her husband-to-be then took a few steps to meet her and kissed her hand.

The ceremony was Jewish-Persian-style and the rabbi, who officiated with the help of his son, switched from Farsi to Hebrew to English with ease.

The bride's and groom's parents and closest family members stood under and near the Chuppah — the canopy under which the bride and groom stand — with them as the rabbi officiated the wedding.

The reception didn't start until about 10 p.m., and for the first half, the music mix was Western and Persian.

While on a dance break, some guy from our table started making conversation. He took Meesh's left hand, looked at the lines on her palm and told her she's going to get married and have three kids.

He then took my hand, told me some stuff, then said I'll have two kids. How random. I want five.

I asked him what the lines in his hands say. He said that he's going to meet his girl at this wedding.

Smooth, I said, with a loud laugh.

Instead of rice, we threw flower petals on the bride and groom to the Persian song that said "Gol Beriz rooh aroosoh damad," which means "throw flowers on the bride and groom." That was my favorite part of the entire wedding. I want that at my wedding, too.

And that's how the Middle Easterners do it, people.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Shadia: A mainstream look at the Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam teaches a different kind of Islam from the one I know.

So I wanted to take part of Black History Month to explore the organization, which is closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement but never far from controversy.

Though I do not agree with some of the nation's interpretations of our shared faith, nor some of its leaders' past rhetoric in relation to other races and faiths, I discovered some fascinating details about the organization through candid interviews with a current leader and a past member who later converted to mainstream Islam.

I interviewed Minister Ishmael Muhammad, a son of the late Elijah Muhammad, a Nation founder who taught Malcolm X.

Ishmael Muhammad is now assistant minister to the Nation's leader, Louis Farrakhan. Ishmael Muhammad is considered by observers to become a likely successor.

I also interviewed Abul Kareem Hasan, a former Nation member, who is now a mainstream imam in Los Angeles.

When I first came to America at age 15 and learned of the organization, I felt offended by stories about members who called for self-segregation and suggested black superiority — an understandable reaction to centuries of mistreatment by white Americans, but a far cry from the faith I knew that urges followers to transcend race.

There were also well-publicized tensions between Jews and the Nation of Islam, which some have accused of anti-Semitism. It's a point that the Nation's leaders deny, but many Jews cannot forgive.

Another point of contention: Nation Muslims view Elijah Muhammad as a messenger of God, when Muslims believe that all prophecy ended with the Prophet Muhammad.

Islam doesn't place one race over the other. One's superiority for God is only measured by his or her actions and piety. We believe that we all come from Adam, who was made from clay, so the idea of Muslims who view themselves as different was a concept I had trouble wrapping my head around.

But I went into this week's interviews with an open mind.

In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, I learned that the Nation of Islam sought to free African Americans from true inequality and that improving their collective, battered self-esteem and breaking free of white oppression was part of that healing process.

"The Nation of Islam aims to elevate black people in America by raising their level of consciousness and giving them a knowledge of self, and it is that essential knowledge of self that black people, after 400 years of suffering in this nation being enslaved and mistreated, that we're able to be restored," said Ishmael Muhammad by phone from Chicago.

And considering the conditions of African Americans at the time this movement began more than 80 years ago, it's easy to understand why the Nation was attractive to so many of its followers, said Hasan, who once taught that black people were superior to whites.

Modern-day Nation of Islam members say the organization does not teach black superiority. The Nation is also something of a gateway to mainstream Islam.

Many of today's mainstream African-American Muslims were once members of the Nation but later chose to leave and become part of mainstream Islam, Hasan said.

In the middle of the last century, particularly before the Civil Rights Act, the Nation, using some of Islam's concepts, promised a new beginning, a way to change the existing conditions, a way to love oneself. It offered a path to independence.

"We were enslaved by Christians and brutalized under that slavery by Christians that left us feeling less than human beings," Hasan said. "When we began to hear a message that Islam was a religion, and it would free us from those shackles that white men placed on us, we accepted that right away, and we accepted all the do's and don'ts of all that."

Hasan said the idea of black superiority didn't come from Islam, but was a strategy used by Nation leaders to strengthen the black man, who was brutalized and taught by society to believe that the white man was above him.

"Those are things that were taught to offset some of the inferiority complex, and it worked," Hasan said.

But then Hasan read the Koran with an open heart. He realized that he had the notions of race and the concept of God, as taught by the Nation, all wrong.

There were many who made the same transition as Hasan, including Malcolm X and Ishmael Muhammad's brother, Warith Deen Muhammad, who took over the Nation of Islam after his father's death and began preaching the mainstream principles of Islam.

The organization regrouped with some of its old beliefs again in the 1980s with Farrakhan, who became a lightning rod for critics.

But the organization no longer teaches black superiority, Ishmael Muhammad said.

Ishmael Muhammad said Islam teaches that superiority in God's eyes is only measured by one's piety, not by his race or color.

He said his father didn't preach superiority either, but that some interpreted his teachings that way.

"We acted immaturely with that knowledge, and it made us feel better than others, better than the white man, better than the Asian ... but that was not designed for us to see ourselves as better, but designed to restore ourselves and see the immeasurable qualities that God has put in black people in relationship to other people," Ishmael Muhammad said.

He said his father didn't allow any other races to join the Nation because black people needed to work on themselves, learn about themselves and learn to love themselves first.

Today, all races are welcome in the Nation, he said.

I asked whether the Nation of Islam has fulfilled its purpose and whether it's time for it to move toward mainstream Islam, which also offers a chance at an independent and a free life.

Ishmael Muhammad doesn't see a difference between members of his organization and the rest of the Muslims out there.

I still do.

Maybe I don't have the right to say this, but as someone who feels protective of my religion, I think that if Islam was used by the Nation, even in the wrong way, to help a people — a people who were humiliated, brutalized, enslaved and lynched for so many years — free themselves, then it certainly cannot be all bad. But it's still not the Islam I know.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Shadia: Islam's melting down of prejudices

When you move from one country to another, culture shock is inevitable, especially when you go from one different system and culture to another.

But there were only two things about America's culture that shocked me.

I had been in high school for just a few days when, on my way to a classroom, I spotted a girl making out with a boy.

She could not have been much older than me, 15 at the time.

I found myself embarrassed for them and immediately looked away.

How could she do that at such a young age? And isn't she embarrassed for doing that in front of everyone? Was anyone seeing what I'm seeing?

I looked around. No one seemed to care.

I got over the horror I felt shortly thereafter seeing a few more.

I encountered culture shock a second time in high school when I realized Americans use race and color to describe each other.

The black guy. The white guy. The Mexican. The Asian. And, of course, the A-rab (me).

The skinny girl. The big girl (me again).

In high school other kids didn't say much about who a person was beyond these surface characteristics.

I especially didn't like it when someone told me I wasn't white.

What do you mean? I am white. My skin is white.

But then I understood what white meant. (Arabs come in all colors, but are not considered Caucasian, though they were at one time).

I too am guilty of sometimes referring to people by their race. But I feel awkward about it.

It's not that it is said in a demeaning way or that America's multiculturalism isn't great. But it gives me the feeling that people's race, religion or whatever it is that makes them different is how some define them — at least at first.

And then again, I don't know how people feel when they're referred to by their race or color in casual, but not pejorative, statements.

Growing up, I don't remember anyone describing people by their color or race. In the Middle East, people are usually referred to by their family's name or their profession, or even by how they lead their lives, their actions and deeds.

I think it has a lot to do with how Islam deals with race.

The prophet Muhammad arrived in one of the most tribal societies that ever existed and transformed it in many ways, including melting down prejudices.

I was reminded of the ways the prophet went about eliminating the issue of race when I attended a khutbah (sermon) a couple of months ago. It focused on issues of prejudice and how sometimes people put others down because they're skinny, overweight, black, white, Muslim, Christian, Jewish or their differences in any way, shape or form.

When Bilal ibn Rabah, a black man who was once a slave, was chosen by the prophet as the first "Muezzin" — a person who calls people to prayer — some said they were glad their parents didn't live to see the day when a black man ascended upon the Kaaba.

But Bilal's color was not an issue for the prophet. He was chosen because his voice was the most beautiful when he called the prayer. Bilal was also chosen to teach Arabs, who were very tribal, something about humanity by giving him, a man with a humble background, the honor to stand on one of the most sacred, historic places for Arabs.

Bilal was also one of the most important companions for the prophet.

The prophet would not allow anyone to be belittled in his presence, and he would take the person's insecurity and turn it into a point of pride, the imam said at the khutbah.

The prophet's Jewish wife, Saffiya (Sofia), once told him that some in his household used to refer to her by her race. She was a minority among them, and though she was in fact a Jewish woman, she didn't like how her race was used as a way to distinguish between them and her.

The prophet told her, if they ever repeat it, tell them "my father is Aaron, my uncle is Moses and my husband is Muhammad."

No one aside from her could ever claim such a status, the imam said at the khutbah.

There were many more examples. One about a man who was made fun of because of how skinny his legs were. The prophet told him his legs will weigh more than a mountain on the day of judgment.

Another felt he was worthy of nothing because he was black and illiterate. The prophet told him he was not worthless in the eyes of God.

The point is, it's easy to throw jabs at one another because of our differences, whether they are race, color, gender, religion or disabilities.

But when you look beyond the surface and consider the facts, you're likely to find something extraordinary.

Like Bilal's voice.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Shadia: Dating while Muslim is complicated

I was never the girl who fantasized about Prince Charming charging in on his camel and sweeping me off my feet.

When I was growing up in Egypt, education was emphasized above all else. My mom, Shadia, who never graduated from high school, always read the newspaper. She sent me and my sister, Marwa, to school the first chance she could and made sure I learned to read and spell at a young age.

But the idea of marriage was never absent.

Middle Easterners love weddings, which can last for days and involve entire neighborhoods.

There is an expectation to get married early. If you hit your mid- or late-20s and you're not married yet, something is wrong. And the more kids the merrier.

When I was little, I thought I'd get married when I turned 20, the age I would have graduated from college had I stayed in their school system.

I'm 28 now, which makes me about 50 in Arab years.

That fantasy about Prince Charming did eventually take over in my early 20s, but it was refined to be more mature and realistic.

Not only do I know exactly what kind of a guy I want, I also know how my wedding dress, veil and engagement ring should look, and even who should officiate. I mean, who cares what the guy thinks, right?

Maybe, if he wanted a say, he would be here already.

"Dating," or the process in which you get to the point of marriage, is kind of taboo in my culture. The word boyfriend or girlfriend can cause a Middle Eastern parent to have a heart attack.

Western-style dating is frowned upon in Islam, and that's because men shouldn't be allowed to go from one girl to the next without making a commitment. They should "get to know the girl" only if they intend on marrying her, and that period of "getting to know each other" is usually monitored and limited in time, especially in conservative families.

On-and-off dating, especially when there's no commitment or good intentions, devalues women and the sanctity of marriage. This is a point on which I agree with the conventions of my culture and religion.

Though I consider myself pretty Americanized and must have gone on a gazillion dates in the last five years, if I don't see potential in the first few hours of knowing and meeting a guy, I end it. I don't have time to waste (not when you're 50 in Arab years).

Of course, like everyone who's trying to find their soul mate, I have encountered disappointments. The last time that happened, I began to wonder whether I'm meant to be with someone at all.

I know. It's a bit dramatic. But I went completely off the radar. It's been about eight months now, and I don't think I'm ready to go through the exhaustive process or on one more date at this point.

But for the sake of objectivity, I tried something new on Sunday.

Mohammed Ibn Faqih, the imam and religious director of my mosque, the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim, is passionate about helping young Muslim men and women find their significant other. The mosque organizes "networking" dinners from time to time.

It's pretty much like speed dating.

Attendees are usually within the same age range and professional status. At first, I didn't want to attend. But the journalist in me again was taken over by innate curiosity.

I'm not a shy person, but it took me awhile to feel comfortable and be myself.

I chatted with a few guys. Didn't see potential with any.

But I appreciated the efforts of my mosque.

My Jewish friend Meesh and I are in the same boat. We're both connected spiritually to our faiths, but we're also independent-minded and we don't always fit in the frame.

To the liberal followers of our religions, Meesh and I are considered conservative, and to the conservatives, we're viewed as liberal. We need to find partners in that perfect middle — men who value and understand our faiths and their teachings, but don't go overboard.

And it's not just about finding someone who is connected to Islam or Judaism, but someone whose views on most aspects of life, and our religion, align with ours. Isn't that what everyone wants?

Until then, I don't see camels on the horizon.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter: @MonaShadia.