Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Ready for the Sacrifice - Readiness: A Ramadan Mini Series


There is no easy way to write this last piece for a number of different reasons. No one I know ever wants to say goodbye to Ramadan. It feels like just yesterday we were preparing dinner for the first blessed fast breaking. Like yesterday I was splitting a date with my dad by the couch to the sound of Quran and clanking pots. Yesterday, we were breaking fast around a hexagon table in Damascus, listening to my grandfather make his prayer before we eat.

I struggle though, to write about nostalgia and hope when the world continues to hurt. Watching Ramadan come to a close with the stories of Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, India—it’s almost unbearable to process. The past six days I’ve spent crying, debating whether or not to even write a final installment or just take a step back and grieve, but considering the relevance of this piece’s message—sacrifice—it’s worth sharing.

A part of this article started many Ramadans ago and I knew one day it’d become archived somewhere in the realms of my writing. As was usual, mama had Quran playing in the background as we all took in the blessing of fullness following a fast breaking dinner. I was washing the dishes, feeling the hot water spill over their royal blue hand-painted designs. I grew up knowing these dishes but only recently learned they were wedding gifts my grandparents gave mama about 30ish years ago.

It’s quite customary for most Muslims to increase readings of the Quran during Ramadan, but sometimes (as is expected with distracted minds) we end up losing focus and not paying attention to all the words our eyes are scanning. So for years and years, I’ve read over the coming verse, but that night, I really saw it for what it was saying, for the first time, because it was being read aloud behind me while I washed priceless dishes.

أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَن يُتْرَكُوا أَن يَقُولُوا آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُونَ

“Do people think that they will be left to say, “We believe,” without being tested?”
(Chapter 29, Verse 2)
Maybe some are reading this thinking, “Yeah, and?” but that’s the beauty of scripture. It strikes each of us differently at various times and in our lives, and probably when we need the reminder the most. I remember almost breaking the dish because I was so overwhelmed with the powerful verse in its sheer simplicity. In its question that also provides so many answers. During one of my most difficult years, this verse found its way to me and reminding me that faith is far beyond just an utterance of words. God will ask us to prove it.

For anyone who thinks Ramadan is simply a 30 day experience, brace yourself, I’m about to blow your mind: It’s not! Ramadan is only the beginning. It’s the physical, mental, and spiritual preparation for the year ahead. Personally, I never understand people who spent the month complaining about it (the hunger, thirst, exhaustion, etc.) but never seemed to mind when their gyms hosted nutrition and fitness competitions or signed up for high intensity trainings for tours and marathons. Are we incapable of sacrificing one month out of the year to go the little extra mile for a bit of blessings and rejuvenation from Allah? A push to revolutionize our internal environments in preparation for the external?

Every Ramadan is a time to spend reflecting on the past year and finalizing the blueprints for the coming year. Like I said in the first article, so many people struggle with its arrival because we fear facing ourselves. What were our strengths? What are our many improvement areas? Where can we grow? Who do we have to make amends with? How do we forgive ourselves? And how do we ask the Lord to forgive us too?

We watch our world crumbling but people still refuse to address their inner ethics—and I’m not entirely referencing religiosity here, but rather akhlaq, the morality and decency, of a person. The whole world and their mothers quote the following two verses often, but it always seems like lip service. Twice Allah (swt) reminds us in the Quran that He will not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves first—Chapter 8, Verse 53 and Chapter 13, Verse 11, so how do we induce this change and what is it exactly?

It’s the readiness to make the necessary but difficult sacrifices in our lives. The same readiness we center ourselves on when starting any other 30 day challenge or two week cleanse or whatever the newest hype is, except for the sake of Allah. It’s establishing a readiness to receive what our mission as caliphs are on this earth is and how well to execute it. Knowing that the journey isn’t easy and that some days we are going to be tested so hard, but just like the final home stretch of any workout, we need to hold on just a little bit longer when we feel like we want to give up.

A long time ago I saw a friend of mine sobbing heavily on Eid morning while saying her Takbeerat so I asked her why. Wiping tears she said, “Allah gave us the privilege of living to experience another Ramadan, be forgiven, and now we’re here, unwrapping the gift of another year to continue being better.” Her words are forever etched in my mind and I think about them every Ramadan, especially on the last day. This year, I spent every Ramadan afternoon taking about a two hour walk (part of my resolutions for the month this year) and it yielded such an indescribable catharsis. While listening to Quran and podcasts, I soaked in a sun I neglected under pandemic, inhaled real air my lungs had been so thirsty for, and processed my present and future.

I cannot and will not prescribe methods for sacrificial efforts because they’re genuinely personal initiatives, but in too many recent encounters with peers, friends, family, and the media, I constantly come across the very enabling culture. The bare minimum is absolutely acceptable to the point where it’s become some relatable meme. As Muslims, we can’t just throw a hashtag beneath a solid colored post with a few dollars and call it a day. True, Allah (swt) requires financial jihad, but jihad of the soul always comes first in the Quran because that one is the greater effort with the greater reward. And the two aforementioned verses are stern but gentle reminders that there is a fine line between resting and enabling, and the truth is, we actually do know deep down when we’re blurring the two. If we want to change what is happening in/to our worlds, we need to change what’s happening within us and this takes that inconveniencing and hard work I described week one.

That’s why Allah grants us Ramadan, the preliminary phase to build better habits. The four weeks where we cannot necessarily escape from many of the things we often turn to like food, sleep, people/parties/entertainment, all the things that enable our avoidance of dealing with our truths—the good, that bad, and the ugly. So I’ll wrap up this final piece with a pray, asking Allah that may this year’s Ramadan be the one that finally readied our ummah for the necessary sacrifices.

May it have healed all those who were hurting. May it have strengthened all those who struggled with issues known or unknown, seen or unseen. May it have humbled us too caught up in egos and selves. May it have planted within our hearts a deeper love and commitment to our faith, our Lord, and our worship of Him. And may we please Him for the next 11 lunar months, and may He grant us the next Ramadan to grow again. Our ummah needs us.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Ready to Trust Yourself - Readiness: A Ramadan Mini Series

“I used to be so fluent in God. / Now, / I don’t even understand the language.”

To my knowledge, mama and I have not shared the following story with anyone outside of our family, quite possibly because anyone who didn’t experience it firsthand might not understand the gravity of the meanings behind it. But she and I speak the same language. We always knew that when our intuition said something, it was a tiny elbow nudge from God—a yes or a no. Sometimes though, it’s a foreshadowing and with time we begin to strengthen our skills in the language of God. Here’s where this story begins. Cue Sophia Petrillo from The Golden Girls.

Picture it: Summer 2013. I woke up one morning to the sound of my mother shrieking, “Shu sar?!?!” Quickly, I rushed downstairs to check on her and found one of the most unforgettable sights of our lives. The large, almost floor to ceiling sliding glass door that leads to our backyard had completely shattered but in place. So it looked like a glass mosaic from top to bottom, holding on for dear life within its frame, too afraid to surrender to gravity. We looked at each other, confused, shocked, and somehow severely mesmerized by its poetic disaster. It felt like the spindle from Sleeping Beauty—you know you shouldn’t touch it but you just want to.

We didn’t. Well technically, mama did, but not like that. She decided the safest thing we could do until we found a repairperson was to cover the entire door with sticky laminate. Remember the old school clear sticky book covers we used to be forced to cover our textbooks with in grade school? Mama was OBSESSED with them and she apparently still had a stash in her magic closet of Islamic Narnia. She retrieved them and began softly taping the glass in place from floor to ceiling. In the process, she cut herself, at least that’s what we thought. Life would later prove a very strange turn of events as her finger continued to hurt her for years. Once she was done, the repairperson arrived, called her a genius, and replaced the door. Basic story, right?

The issue was something about the shattered glass felt like a sign, a warning of coming danger that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. However, I wondered if it had anything to do with the man I just started dating literally the day before. That man was none other than the notorious ex husband. Dun dun duuun!

It took me about four years to really heal from the experience and I look back at that door story and wonder if God was teaching me His advanced language earlier than I anticipated and so I didn’t receive it as easily? I don’t know. I think God takes us on various journeys that break and remake us and this was one. I remember going through the worst of the healing journey and not realizing it, thinking the worst was already over. I wrote a lot during that period—including the epigraph poem at the top of this article. My faith was really shaken; not that I left religion, but my relationship with God was a little damaged. Being in that space was hard because not only was I disconnected from God, but that in turn meant a disconnection from myself, and maybe I needed it. I needed a little bit of that reflective dip in the darkness to remember how strong my language with God used to be. How much wisdom He gave me to trust in myself. How to shift gears and come back to Him as a better me. Come back to me as a better me. Believe it or not, when that divine merger happened, mama’s finger—the one we thought she only cut on the glass but continued to hurt far after—revealed a piece of the glass that had been wedged in there despite being probed and tweezed by three different doctors. Some things even modern science and medicine can’t really explain. God is above all.

In a recent encounter with a therapist I dumped quicker than a guy on a dating app, she asked “Do you trust yourself?” condescendingly. Without hesitation I said, “Yes, I do. I always follow my gut because I trust it to steer me in the right direction.” She frowned. “Hmm, really, how can that be? Didn’t you end up in an abusive relationship?” You don’t have to be a therapist to recognize the toxicity of this question, but somehow she didn’t. Or maybe she operates on this new trend of therapy I’ve begun noticing where therapists gaslight clients overtime to develop a sense of codependency from their clients. Secures them quite the income at $320 per session.

Obviously I felt attacked and very much blamed for something that wasn’t my fault, which she did often, and so there I was required to explain (to a god damn therapist) what an abusive relationship is. “Well, I was experiencing something called gaslighting, severe emotional and psychological manipulation, verbal assault, and daily threats from my ex husband that led to prolonged isolation from myself and family. I don’t know how else to explain it to you."

I wish I could say that was the only time I was victim blamed or shamed, and if you haven’t experienced it, it feels awful. Suddenly you feel so small, worthless, and like an idiot. In 2017, I hosted two release parties in SoCal for my poetry book Oceans & Flames, a collection focused on the experience and survival of domestic violence. Believe it or not, at each of these events, I had someone ask me the same exact question during the Q&A session. “What advice can you give girls and women to avoid making the same mistakes you did so they don’t end up in an abusive relationship while searching for a life partner?”

As if it wasn’t already difficult to survive the relationship. As if it wasn’t already a challenge to write about it. As if it wasn’t utmost courage to publish it into a book as a means of raising awareness. I had to face this from “my” people? No one tells you that surviving domestic violence is only the first hurdle. Surviving your society’s abuse is the next. Neither one of those people had the wisdom to shift blame to the abuser. Neither one acknowledged community responsibility at mitigating domestic violence but instead made it entirely the victim’s responsibility. And neither recognized that abusers possess power dynamics that make it almost impossible to catch their red flags, unless you’ve been a victim yourself. I can educate, raise awareness, and share my story, but I will not be blamed for the actions of another nor will I be required to take on their responsibilities, all while silently coerced into a corner of eternal self doubt.

If you’re an avid reader of Lady Narrator, you remember my online dating debacle of 2020, and how the story ended with the return of my precious poetry book, Contortionist Tongue, slashed and scribbled with ridiculous notes in English, Arabic, and Chinese, from a man I rejected after feeling very unsafe with on our second date. As if that wasn’t traumatic enough, he attached a three page “love” letter confessing his intense feelings for me after only two dates and four days of knowing each other. But here’s where this comes full circle. He ended his letter with the following:

“The most important lesson I learned, in both my science & liberal arts classes: you cannot trust intuition, because once you get past elementary basics, intuition is always wrong. Never right.”

Intuition should know no gender, but I have to say from life observations, I hear it discredited the most from men. Maybe it’s the privilege speaking, specifically that of white/white passing men? Being able to cruise through life and not have to rely on internal cues? I don’t know, but I have seen it doubted even more so from men who’ve been rejected by women who follow their intuition, like the aforementioned bro.

What’s really frustrating about this reoccurring devaluing of intuition is that it is yet another example of how society entirely discredits people as being experts on themselves, specifically women. This is especially more exhausting for survivors of domestic violence and/or related trauma because we already had to jump through hoops to get you to believe our experiences in the first place. Now we’re being expected to surrender to a label of weakness, like we don’t know how to trust ourselves or our choices? As if becoming a victim was our fault?

I’ve said this before but it will always be worth repeating. As survivors of domestic violence (and other similar traumas) our instincts and trust in self become very fine tuned. Whatever internal alarm bells we marginalized before become our northern lights moving forward in life. So really, it’s no longer just #BelieveSurivovors for our stories, but also believe us when we express our needs, thoughts, and feelings. No one is a greater expert on themselves than a survivor, and I say this knowing that even my family, my incredible support system, doesn’t know me the same way that I know myself anymore, and that’s okay. Trauma changes us and as long as we learn to evolve with the revolution and find ways to love the newness of ourselves, it gets better. The key to this transition though is the reliance we establish on our intuition, on trusting ourselves, something humanity has severely disconnected from.

A few years ago, my friend recommended documentary called InnSaei. Honestly, I highly recommend it too, especially in Ramadan when our souls are thirsty for an awakening. The film is about the power of intuition but explores how humanity’s over reliance on technology has a caused a disruption in this connection. One of the things I loved about this film (and similar research) is it looks at village elders and wise folk, who the therapists and counselors were/are in older societies. It’s always the group of people most in tune with themselves and life experience. However, as we become so addicted to our devices, we’ve hindered our ability to really listen and trust ourselves, resulting in a loss of internal guidance and heavier dependence on external reassurances and validation.

Social media hasn’t helped with this at all. To say it bluntly, social media (especially Instagram & TikTok) have become the new WebMD of mental health, and I mean that in the worst possible way. You cannot unlock your phone and not be immediately bombarded with some psychological post (or a dancing doctor) profiling your personality, emotionality, and mentality. It gets abhorrently annoying and exhausting, especially when it comes from non-clinical folks, includes frequent and consistent typographical errors, or sounds like cheesy fortunes straight out of a cookie. And that’s the trick, using generic click-bait language the masses simply like, follow, and believe. The relationship ones are especially worse. You can’t even escape them! Lord knows how many blocks and deletes I’ve clicked and they still pop up. While I understand how helpful it can be to have tangible tidbits of relevancy and validation when going through something, this extreme overexposure—especially on a platform built for mindless consumption—perpetuates a dangerous and toxic over reliance on looking outward for self confirmation vs. looking in.

Recently I was listening to a Clubhouse talk on Relationship OCD (ROCD). As informative as it was, I felt compelled to speak up and share a caveat to the concept of ROCD because at one point it almost began to resemble victim blaming. ROCD “is a subset of OCD in which sufferers are consumed with doubts about their relationship. They question their love for their partner, their attraction to their partner, their compatibility with their partner, and their partner’s love for them.”

Maybe the talk had no room for disclaimers, but I had to step in, especially as someone clinically diagnosed with OCD as a child and experiencing it used as a weapon against me anytime I followed my intuition. I emphasized that doubts, or “sticky thoughts” as they called them, in a relationship cannot always be disregarded as ROCD. Sometimes it’s a toxic relationship, sometimes it’s an abusive one, and sometimes it’s just not the right one. (Can you tell this last point is a big point here? We aren't everyone's someone!) We can’t constantly create space for people to so deeply doubt their doubts. This further silences one’s ability to self reflect healthily.

I thought about my ex husband as I spoke. About how often he would call me mentally crazy, citing my diagnosis every time I’d cry following one of his abusive episodes. He’d frequently claim it was the devil whispering in my ears and that I wasn’t being strong enough to overpower satan’s attempts at breaking us apart. Then I thought about a recent relationship I ended just before Ramadan. While it was not abusive, it began developing very unhealthy elements that my intuition was picking up on. Once again I was left feeling guilty and insufficient for not reciprocating the same way that was expected of me. I was often questioned about my mental health practices and whether or not I’m just struggling with residual trauma from the domestic violence. I found myself gaslit and exhausted, all because something within me was saying, “This is not the right relationship for me.” I know myself better than any man does, and having OCD and being a survivor of trauma do not negate the significance of my intuition or how well I’ve healed.

 A big part of the healing journey includes seeking spaces and periods of solitude to detox, rejuvenate, and repair our sense of self trust. For survivors of domestic violence, it begins to yield a recognition of how many other toxic and/or abusive people and things are normalized around us, so we redevelop boundaries. We amplify the volume of our intuition and stride differently through life. It doesn’t help when those around us try to dismantle this growth by reigniting the victim blaming or the past shaming or whatever other excuses people use towards others to negate one’s own strength and intuition value.

That’s what makes Ramadan so significant. Last year, so many people complained about Ramadan under pandemic and how isolating it was going to be. But maybe that was God’s way of reminding us all that we deserve some alone time to practice His language and practice reconnecting to our spiritual core. Maybe that door was a sign for 23 year old Dania, maybe it wasn’t, but it serves as a reminder that even in the most finite cracks, God’s language is available to us, we just have to trust ourselves, and sometimes that takes a bit of solitude.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Ready for Death - Readiness: A Ramadan Mini Series

All Photo Credit: Ehab Tamimi

It’s a bit of a grim title, I know, but there really has never been a way of sugarcoating the truth. It took me five rounds of editing to put this article together because it’s one of the most important I feel I have to share.

In less than two years, I lost my dad, my grandma, and my grandfather, each about six months apart. For some reason though, death tends to make me think of life more vividly. Mama always taught us that a cemetery exists more so for the living than for the dead. It’s a place for those left behind to visit and reflect on, not just memories, but purpose. While so many of our loved ones are no longer here, we still are, so how do we live?

For as long as I can remember, I never feared death. Maybe I feared dying—how it will happen, if it will hurt—but not death. If you haven’t already guessed, I grew up in quite the nontraditional household. While upholding our religion and culture remain a priority, we never fell victim to the rigid (and often misconstrued) traditions. Whether it was openly talking about sex and sexuality in Islam while preparing lunch together on a Sunday afternoon or discussing how to acknowledge and dismantle toxic masculinity in our families and communities, we talked/talk about it. Death was just another dish on the table; its normalization, its inevitability; its purpose, and that only made my relationship with life all the more sacred.

I was 24 when I got engaged to my now ex-husband. Obviously, it was not a happily ever after, domestic violence can’t be, but the thing is abuse is often times too insidious to be seen early on. Red flags are not visible and the emotional manipulation is so subliminal, a victim becomes overwhelmed with confusion and self doubt. Truly, I could write essays on every single angle of domestic violence to educate, and over the years I’ve been doing so bit by bit, but that’s not the focal point here. The point is that it was during this relationship, for the first and only time in my life, I feared death unequivocally. However, because of the severe abuse and gaslighting, I couldn’t reconcile why. I found absolutely no stability to think clearly or take any inventory of my heart and mind. Something I advise ALL couples in every phase of their relationship is to take some solitary time to gauge and assess on your own. Being constantly in each other’s space (especially if it starts to mirror elements of abuse or toxicity) makes it absolutely impossible to make good judgment calls or understand what you’re experiencing.

It’s an incredibly scary feeling to fear death and I heavily empathize with those who experience this fear chronically. Living becomes an exhausting minefield. Anxiety, depression, and paranoia intensify, and after a certain point it feels impossible to deescalate. I began contemplating suicide, also for the first time in life, and it only added to the pressure because it clashed so painfully with the incrementally growing fear of death. There’s a night I remember so vividly, on the Huntington Beach Pier. We were sitting on a cement bench smack dab in the middle of the pier, right above the blackest ocean I’d ever seen. He was yelling, cursing, gesturing so wildly I wondered when I’d become the bullseye of his hands. I envied the loud waves for being able to drown out his voice when I couldn’t. I looked down at the water, couldn’t see a thing, and considered what leaping would feel like. How long it would take to drown? Would I suffer? Would he hurt me if I dared survive the jump?

There are small cracks of awareness that come and go when you’re under abuse and you see a bit of the light. Once enough light makes its way through, clarity starts becoming tangible. Realizing I had developed such an immense fear of death was the first of many cracks. It bothered me so much that I was no longer ready for death because that meant I was no longer living the right way. The contentment, fulfillment, and happiness I held for my life was stolen, making death a frightening loss I was not yet ready to face.

Allah (swt) tells us in Chapter 2, Verse 30:

“And your Lord said to the Angels, “I will create, upon the earth, a caliph.” They (the angels) said, “Will you create upon it one who will cause corruption within it and bloodshed and we declare your praise and sanctify you? He (Allah) said, “I know that which you do not know.’”

I think of this verse very often, even more so over the last ten years as I’ve watched the corruption and bloodshed all the way from the white supremacy on this American soil to the ongoing turmoil of Syria. Allah obviously has a reason for our existence. After all, He created us with the intent to be caliphs. Yes, caliphs! I know the term was, dare I say, coopted to refer to only a certain group, but when the Quran itself tells me that Allah declared this title for His creations—humans—I take the dare.

The test of life is legitimately to see which of us caliphs takes our mission lightly and which of us manifests the great potential we hold. Bottom line, each of us is on this earth for a reason and a purpose. We all have something significant to offer even if we don’t necessarily see the fruits of our labor. We still plants the seeds. Some we get to see bloom in our lifetimes, others we don’t, but that shouldn’t negate our efforts. That shouldn’t discourage us from putting our best out there and succumbing to the corruption. But when we don’t pursue that purpose, we are no longer going to be ready for death.

Take a look at history or even media and pay attention to who holds on to the fantasy of immortality the most. Dictators, villains, the insecure, the angry, the entitled, the ones who weren’t living the truest mission of life. They were living for ego, desire, money, fame, power, and all the things that don’t serve the greater good. There is also a second group that fears death and it’s those who don’t stand up for themselves, who don’t acknowledge what they want out of life, and who are not living their passions.

Remembering this verse and its interpretation was when it clicked for me. Death and my readiness for it are my moral compass (of sorts). They are what tell me whether or not I am living the right way, the best way. I remember the instant I left my ex’s house and arrived to my family’s home safe and sound, I felt a liberation no amount of poetry has been able to fully express. It wasn’t passive suicidal ideation, but I suddenly no longer felt afraid to die because finally, I was back to being the leader of my own life again, and it was exhilarating. It was like a realignment with my destiny and faith again and I felt whole. No more severe disorientation or chronic disassociation. No more anxiety induced wake up calls. No more loss of self and purpose. It was kind of like the moment I took the bandages off my eyes after laser eye surgery, miraculously seeing things so clearly without needing any lenses. My intuition was breathing a sigh of relief.

So many people don’t recognize whether or not they’re fulfilled and content with themselves and their lives and it yields a fear of death. Why wouldn’t it? Someone who’s confidently lived their life to the best of their ability really has nothing to fear about closing this chapter of their soul. But if they haven’t, it makes absolute sense they fear death. And for those who abide by certain faiths, the readiness for death is a whole other level. It’s the next route for reunification with our Lord, something we are to be striving for as caliphs on the journey of spirituality and human service.

There are too many people out there living for other things or even for other people, which makes for a terribly heavy life. Many—not all—of the mental health struggles develop from this kind of lifestyle, which begins at an early age. Whether it’s child abuse, even the most vague of kinds, or the unrealistic expectations placed on children’s futures, it dislodges one’s connection with their true selves and calling. Therefore, feeling genuinely content about how we live is closely tied with our fear (or lack thereof) of death.

I have held on to these truths close to my heart since my divorce and I remind myself to check in with my intuition often and gauge how I’m feeling to ensure that I haven’t lost my sense of self and purpose. Anytime something begins to threaten my internal security, shaking my readiness for death, as in living how I am destined to, I acknowledge it and take action. None of us deserve to be unprepared for death with an unhappy and unfulfilled life. Take time with yourself, my friends, and listen to your intuition and what it’s calling you to do. Trust me when I say, it’s always speaking to you and always steering you in the best direction. Just listen.

The good news from all this is that as long we are still here, we have the capacity to reconnect with our true selves, and Ramadan is the perfect time to begin. It’s never too late to get ready for death by ensuring that you are living your best, living your truth, and living for Allah. After all, He reminds us, “And I did not create the jinn and humankind except to worship Me” (Chapter 51, Verse 56).