Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Shadia: There will be 'Love, Inshallah'

For Middle Easterners, reputation is everything.

And while I embrace a lot of my culture's characteristics, this is one of those things I don't care for as much.

For me, reputation is important, but being real about what you feel, think or experience is more important than what someone might think of you for it.

But for my mom, grandma, aunt and uncles — and pretty much most of the Middle Easterners who come before me and my generation — it's about what others think of you.

My mom, Shadia, and I have this conversation a lot.

It usually goes like this: "Who cares what people think?!"

"I don't care what people think; you just have to consider the consequences," my mom usually responds.

"Really? Hmm."

Though modesty is one of the characteristics of a good Muslim, I think modesty and the need to reserve one's reputation are often confused. And this obsession over reputation and the refusal to speak up publicly about valid issues never provides a forum for finding solutions.

I've noticed that the more sheltered or rural the society tends to be, the more its members care about their reputation. I think it's because sometimes they believe it's all they have. And a lot of times, that's actually the case.

Enter the young-and-upcoming, educated Middle Eastern generation, especially the one growing up in America and Westernized nations, and clashes between the young and old are inevitable.

I say this because there are times when certain issues like dating, romance, love and all sort of things that come with it, are often considered taboo. Talking about them is almost nonexistent in our community, and not talking about them leaves a huge void and many unsolved problems.

A few weeks ago, my friends Michelle Samani (Meesh), Jasmine Duel (Jazy) and I decided to visit a place our mothers — I know mine for sure — wouldn't approve of: A bookstore on Sunset Boulevard.

No, silly. The issue isn't that we were at a bookstore. It's what was going on there: a book reading of "Love, Inshallah." Inshallah means "God willing," and it's something Muslims say a lot because everything happens by the will of God.

The book is an anthology of 25 stories by Muslim women who shatter the glass ceiling of stereotypes with their experiences. It's a collection of the "secret love lives of American Muslim women."

Some of the writers were there reading parts of their stories. The place was packed with people, and I have to be honest when I say that, as some of the racier parts were being read, I felt a bit self-conscious of my surroundings.

I bought the book. Don't tell my mother.

Those secrets include a lesbian who was married to a man and struggling to fit in her community (she ended up asking for a divorce), co-wives (the thought makes me cringe), converts to Islam, finding a husband, being Shia or Sunni, and not conforming to the Islamic ideals when it comes to dating.

The thing is, those issues have to be addressed at some point, and because our elders and community leaders aren't doing much about it, you're going to have books like "Love, Inshallah." (At least one story was a bit too explicit, though, and I don't know if that was really needed.)

Jazy, who is Jewish-Persian, Meesh and I have had many talks about what it's like to be Middle Eastern when it comes to dating. When I once said that I feel my pool is too small because I'm Muslim in America, Jazy — who, like Meesh, is a lawyer — put me in my place.

"Excuse me! Your pool has 1.5 billion people in it," she said. "My pool has, like, 12 million. I have a little Jacuzzi; you have a whole ocean."

Point taken, Jazy.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. 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.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Shadia: Celebrating Persian new year in CdM

'Twas the night before the last Wednesday of the year — pretty much Tuesday, bear with me.

It was a night when families and friends gather 'round the fire, sharing food, drinks and desserts, welcoming in the new year with open arms, happy thoughts and warm wishes.

They sing and dance. And they jump over the fire, which is believed to inhale away the yellow color of illness and sadness and replace it with the red color of flames, which symbolizes health and wellness in all aspects.

Sounds ancient and non-Western, doesn't it?

It is.

And it all went down Tuesday night at Corona del Mar State Beach, and I was in the middle of it. And judging from the City Council's Tuesday decision to remove the storied fire rings, it could be the last celebration I attend in CdM.

Chaharshanbeh Soori, or the Festival of Fire, is an ancient Persian tradition that dates to the Zoroastrian era. The festival takes place the night (Tuesday) before the last Wednesday of the year — that's how they say it — leading to Norooz, which is the beginning of the Persian spring new year. Yes, it's a bit complicated, as Middle Easterners can be (ahem).

This year, Norooz begins around 10 p.m. Monday.

Tuesday is the first day of the spring new year, and the celebration goes on for 13 days. Chaharshanbeh Soori, as it was explained to me by friends, allows Persians the chance to prepare for the new year, letting go of all the bad and welcoming the good. It's a cultural holiday, and all Persians celebrate it, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Persian families roll out what's called Sofreh Haft Seen, a dining room table full of seven items that start with the letter 'C' in Farsi. Some of those items are Persian rice and whitefish, coins, garlic and sprouts.

Although I've been to Norooz picnics and celebrations in the past, this was my first Chaharshanbeh Soori.

The council's decision marked the end of the Mashadi family and friends' 22-year-long tradition of celebrating Chaharshanbeh Soori at Corona del Mar State Beach.

I parked next to Morteza Mashadi and his brother, Majid, their respective wives and children. I watched as they greeted friends and pulled wood and pots of food out of their car. I decided, "They seem nice. I'll talk to them."

I know Farsi, so I greeted them that way. "Saalom (Hi)," I said. "Cheetori? (How are you?)" — and that's all I needed to start the conversation.

I introduced myself and told them it was my first Chaharshanbeh Soori, and as we walked together closer to the beach, there were other family members and friends doing the same thing: starting fires, sitting around it and greeting each other.

I talked to the wives of the brothers, Samira and Katauon. The latter asked me if I was married or if I have a Persian boyfriend because of the necklace I wore (I don't), and they told me more about their tradition. None of that was surprising. I'm Egyptian, and I understand our kind of women.

I originally planned on walking around and talking to more people, but the Mashadi family made me feel at home.

"Sit, Mona, sit," Morteza said.

I "Taarof'ed" a little. "No, thank you. I'm OK standing," I replied.

"Come on, sit," Majid said. I Taarof'ed some more.

"I'm really OK. I sat all day today at the office."

"Sit, Mona," Morteza said again.

I sat.

What is "Taarof," you ask? I'll tell you.

Taarof is a Middle Eastern tradition that is difficult for Westerners to understand. It also exists in Egyptian and all Arab cultures. I asked my mom what you call it in Arabic, and the closest thing we could come up with is "Ozoom." Growing up, you watch your mothers and fathers, uncles, aunts and friends do it. And you just do it, too.

Basically, say you're at a restaurant and you're getting ready to pay for your meal, and the owner says, "Don't worry about it. This is your restaurant." If you didn't know better, you'd say, "Oh, OK. thank you." Then you walk away.

Word to the wise: Don't walk away. Because in reality, the owner isn't serious about you walking away without paying. It's the nice thing to do, aka Taarof/Ozoom.

I wasn't serious about not sitting down, but I was Taarofing. And because I'm Americanized, and I don't have the patience to go back and forth, I sat after the third request.

Taarof/Ozoom can take a while.

You should see my mom and aunt Taaroofing/Ozooming each other at a restaurant when it's time to pay the bill. This doesn't always mean that the person Taarofing you isn't serious about it. It's just a thing we do.

OK, back to Chaharshanbeh Soori. There were foods like soup, tea and nuts, and also music, dancing, and crossing and jumping over the fire. I did it too.

But the family had to turn off the music at the request of Newport Beach police officers, who said no one is allowed to play music. The officers were nice, though, and they even spoke in Farsi.

But before the music was turned off, Morteza said, "Show us your skills, Mona!" I Taarof'ed, of course. What did you expect?

Then I shimmied my shoulders with the other women to the music.

A friend of the family said, "Are you sure you're not Persian? There's some Persian there."

In fact, I'm Persian. An honorary Persian.

Muslims don't believe in past lives, but I kind of do a little (shhhh!). I was Shahrazad in my past life. I still tell stories in this life.

Norooz Mubarak. Or, to translate, have a blessed Norooz.

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, March 14, 2012

Shadia: Extremists don't speak for everyone

A variety of things enrage me about some so-called Muslims.

Sometimes those things are so atrocious that I can't fathom how these people (or governments) count themselves as Muslim.

You might know what I'm talking about.

It's the violent protests over the Koran burnings.

It's the burning of churches and death threats over newspaper caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

It's the laughable lawsuits like the one filed against an Egyptian businessman for posting a picture on Twitter of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse with a beard and a head cover.

It's a popular Egyptian actor getting jailed for defaming Islam.

It's so-called "honor killings."

And most loathsome of all: deforming and burning women's faces with acid.

If I were to reach out to the people who commit such acts, I would say: Go find another copy of the Koran. Open it up. Read what it says.

And then I would ask, Why don't you follow what it says? For once.

I would then tell them that killing innocents is impermissible in Islam, despite what some of these "Muslims" claim.

These acts are detested in God's eyes, not encouraged by him or the Koran.

Keep reading, I would say.

The Koran will tell you that God's punishment for unjust and criminal activities is so grave, escaping them is impossible.

But to the non-Muslims, I would say something else:

First of all, some of those who act this way can't even read. It's sad. But it's the reality.

I can see why each of these incidents come off like more of the same from these "crazy 'mooslems' out there."

I can see why it gives the impression that all Muslims subscribe to this behavior.

But they are not all the same, and, most important, these are the behaviors of a minority, an uneducated, knee-deep-in-their-ignorance kind of minority.
And I'm here to tell you they do not represent my religion.

Not all of the 1.6 billion-and-counting Muslims behaved the same way when burned copies of the Koran turned up at an American military base.

The protests were not really about the burning of the Koran, many Afghanis have said in interviews.

Maruf Hotak, a 60-year-old Afghan who joined the protests in Kabul, was quoted in the New York Times saying, "This is not just about dishonoring the Koran; it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children."

By "disrespecting our dead," Hotak was talking about the pictures of American soldiers urinating on dead bodies.

"They always admit their mistakes," he told the New York Times. "They burn our Koran and then they apologize. You can't just disrespect our holy book and kill our innocent children and make a small apology."

What about the other incidents, you ask? The ones that admittedly embarrass me, the kind of attacks on women that fill my eyes with tears and leave me feeling helpless?

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of theCouncil on American-Islamic Relations, said you can divide these incidents into three categories.

First are the ones with political, rather than religious, undertones, such as the reaction to the recent Koran burning. Ayloush said going after the people in Afghanistan who are upset about the Koran burning is like beating up the victim twice.

"I agree the response to such incidents should be nonviolent, civilized and Islamic," he said. "But it's morally difficult for me to repeatedly tell the victim 'stop being angry' when we are not even considering the injustice done to them and their country as a result of our occupation and military actions there."

The second involves incidents that are culturally or personally driven. The horrific acts of "honor" killing and acid attacks on women have nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with an attempt by the perpetrators to protect the "honor" of these individuals' tribes and families.

Growing up in Cairo, I heard stories and even saw old movies depicting how some families, Muslim and Christian alike, practiced honor killing in some rural areas of Egypt. The stories to me were foreign and unreal, like something right out of Shahrazad's tales. But horrific.

The third is crazies who turn a joke or an unintended offense into a death threat or a court case.

While all look to be like the same, painting them with the same broad brush and blaming Islam is unfair.

At the end of the day, it comes down to the level of education. The reason I and most Muslims would never react the same way to Koran burning, caricatures of the prophet in newspapers or Twitter pictures of Muslim Disney characters is because we're educated.

But we are fortunate here. When a people's access to information is confined, when their communication skills are restricted to shouting and screaming, what they do will always be limited.

But what they do, whether the result of ignorance or pure craziness, has nothing to do with Islam. They do not speak or act on behalf of my Prophet or my God.

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.