Sunday, January 25, 2009

Coming home: A mirage in the snow

In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Kind,
* * *

My hands clutch a frozen steering wheel. The windows are frosted, the kids bundled into car seats that were not legally necessary for us just a week ago.

People on the streets are also covered up - out of necessity, though. Wrapped up in jumbo jackets, scarves, tuques, super gloves. No flowing black robes, no crisp white cloth, crowned with red and white.

In Heathrow, the winter's air snapped at us from beyond the connecting tunnel between the airplane and the arrivals building. I had promised to deliver a friend's salam to the dreary city where halal shops beckon a knowing, growing minority.

The anonymity covered the lower half of my face, which only a few months ago, had furrowed and creased with distaste at the mere thought of donning the black uniform required in the Kingdom - now worn with pride at its simplicity, its non-brand, its anti-fashion status. Sure, I gazed with interest at the fashionistas from all parts of the globe that trotted by with their colourful jackets, tight jeans and oversized bags, but I didn't long to be among them - fully swathed in a world that is passing. I liked having the extra time to plan for the season's good deeds - which I'm certain will one day be the most sought after accessories. Even my face was safe from the gaze - the judgement, the intrusion.

Now, in the car, traveling to see my patient, waiting mother - my face is visible in the rearview mirror. The sun is a mere decoration piece, the car heater barely making its presence known; like me. Because this is where I have to be.

My mother's voice was barely audible, the words it carried, indistinguishable - except when she asked me if we were going for Hajj, as I talked optimistically of seeing her soon. "Yes, we'll be going this year," I had told her, imagining her in her wheelchair, so far, far away, in a room which has become her whole world. Her happiness radiated with news of our imminent pilgrimage, though a question hovered - "When are you coming home?"

Soon after we returned from the spiritual journey, the question floated out of her heart, beyond her weakened vocal chords and to my straining ears. I was finally able to say what she longed to hear: "Yes, we're coming home, mom. We're coming home."

And so, like a mirage, the images of a Muslim country which had both comforted and irritated my eyes - in its glory, and with its faults - faded away; the shimmering water circling a lone House for its life-giving nourishment. A green dome symbolizing all that once was, and may yet be again.

The world discovered behind the veil was shifting away from my experience; a school full of happy, fulfilled women; children learning the "language of dunya", a world where English now rules where it used to be others like Greek, Latin and Arabic, that commanded attention. And yet, with or without concerted effort, these children were constantly reminded of their faith despite its waning influence on even their own schoolbooks - bought and purchased from the United States. They had simulated Hajj tours, contests about Prophetic history, even a willingness to try out nursery songs that had been modified to reflect an identity rooted in Islam.

My defiant jaunts around the neighbourhood - an attempt at staying physically fit in a land where only men walk anywhere - melted into searing hot pavements that had cooled in the winter months. At one point, mistaken for being one of the African women who push rickety strollers around, piled high with cardboard and knick knacks, I was offered some food. So much for women's liberation in a land where women are actually pretty spoiled - with maids, drivers, and a culture that coddles them so much that at one point, doing the groceries was considered a no-no. Like driving. Like walking. Like a lot of things.

And yet, my eyes were opened to the reality of a situation that looks very different from that appearing through an opinionated Western lens. The oppression of women was not the issue at all. Sure, some more freedom would be great - ridiculous that a female obstetrician has to hop into a car with her driver at 2:30 a.m. to go to a delivery instead of driving herself, thank you very much. But the lack of freedom actually preserved a male- female dynamic that I don't necessarily long for, but that can actually be good for marriages and societies where women are overly independent and men get short shrift. After all, men are used to taking care of people - their kids, their wives, their communities. Take away their raison d'etre and I think you understand why divorce is so high in the Western world (and increasing in the copycat Muslim lands). Though rich Saudi women can also be very, very independent, too - with drivers at their beck and call so that they never have to ask hubby for anything.

And at any one of the countless malls, adapting to a rhythm beating around the five daily prayers came easily; especially as a witness to the blessings of the place, surely related. Where else do you see security guards pulling closed the doors of a mega-store, with people still inside, because the call to prayer is about to sound? The ones who are vigilant, make their escape to the spacious prayer sections settled between glitzy women's shops featuring glittering gowns worn at the single gender parties which seems like another crazy contradiction. After all, modesty and humility are characteristics to strive for. . .

As we drove over Jeddah's smoothe roads for what I will always hope was not the last time, I thought of all the people I had met - who had proven me wrong, and who had also proven me right when it came to my initial thoughts of the place.

The negative was easy to spot - and there is enough of it to stir feelings of desperation in the hearts. Enough people long to escape to the West where fairness and justice can usually be counted on. And how can we blame them? Being turned away from a Saudi hospital because you are not Saudi is probably not a very nice experience, especially if you already have to scrounge up a huge amount of money for treatment. And being offered half the going rate for your work because you don't hold a Western passport is insulting, at best, maddening when it comes from people who should certainly know better.

And yet, I'm still hoping. Hoping for an ummah, a community, that is stirring. Stirring to action, to indignation, to awareness. Stirring to a life that is more than about paying for school, or weddings, or whatever. Stirring to a life where we may need to picket the Starbucks and Marks & Spencer's that sneak into Muslim lands. Stirring, and accepting, a life without Coca-Cola. A life that is more significant than finding fulfillment in temporal desire; a life where each action is measured against its impact on the world. The outpouring for Gaza shows that people know that they have to act. They just don't know how.

This is hopeful because it means we are realizing that faith is not only about those five daily prayers, those huge prayer rooms, the all-encompassing black robe (though those are important). It is not about the women who scolded me for letting my daughters thumb through copies of the Quran, just meters away from the Kaaba, because they might rip out a page (very, very unlikely, I should add). Faith is not being told that the stuffed animal your daughter is holding is haram because it sort of looks like a dog, and we're in a mesjid. Faith is not tossing the garbage out your window, and then peppering your conversation with remembrance of God.

Faith is about making the world a kinder, gentler place. A place where honest dealings supersede private gains. A place where no one would lose their homes because they can't pay their interest payments. Faith is about creating societies where the rich and poor have the same rights and privileges, and where the rich are just as concerned about their worker's well-being as that of their own children.

What is missing in the West is a connection between the individual and the Creator which manifests itself in the day-to-day. And what is missing in the Muslim world is a connection between the spiritual individual and his or her society which transforms the community into a dynamic whole, inclusive and responsive to the needs of all its members.

What is missing in all these places is true Islam. I just hope it's not missing in me.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Gaza is not far from here

In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Kind

* * *

This seaport's
are heavy,

The sun is not
speaking to
Her rays kept to herself
shielded behind
Where tears are full.

Gaza is not far from here
Beyond the mist.

I am glad
at the discomfort
left by a missing sun.

Life is not normal
the cars shine with polish
as they did yesterday
and will tomorrow

Though the cabs fill and empty
with men,
heading to this mall or that
to purchase the latest
or style.

Life is not normal
and the sun knows it,
the creatures know it,
our hearts know it.

The skies are heavy,

Tears threaten to spill
Creating a haze over the blood.
And the jet fighters
for awhile

Gaza is not far from here
Beyond the mist.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Journey of hearts leads to a journey for the words to describe it; leads to the Qur'an

In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Kind,

* * *
Writing about the Hajj has been weighing heavily upon my heart and mind.
There is so much to say, and yet, trying to capture the feelings and images associated with the convergence of what seemed like all of humanity upon a few sacred kilometers is just too much for this writer. I would likely do injustice at grasping, let alone expressing, the inner dimensions of this spiritual and very-physical journey.

Nevertheless, I shall try.

To start: Every able-bodied Muslim, who can afford to, is called upon to head to Mecca - and locations in the vicinity - at least once in his or her lifetime during a particular time of the year, in order to fulfill the fifth pillar of the faith.

God Says to Prophet Abraham, known as Ibrahim to Arabic speakers:

"And proclaim the Pilgrimage among humanity: they will come to thee on foot and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways . .. ." (Qur'an, Hajj, verse 27)

Around three million men, women, and children, from parts known and unknown, answered the call this year. My husband and I were grateful to be among them.

We joined the slow, especially patient, white and black checker-clad masses, moving from one location to another to places like Mina - a huge tent city of white-capped mini glaciers - Arafah, an area of encampments where pilgrims make what they hope are the most sincere supplications of their lives - Muzdalifah, a simple stretch of land where the millions lay down to sleep on hard rocks, or, specially-provided sleeping bags, under the stars, just as the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, did before heading back to Mina and then Mecca for the first day of Eid - and the climax of the pilgrimage.


All of this to be followed by three days of remembering and glorifying God, and commemorating Prophet Ibrahim's readiness to sacrifice his son, for the sake of His Lord - the ultimate in devotion and servitude. Stoning symbolic structures representing the Evil Whisperer who tried to convince him, his wife, and son, Ismael, not to go ahead with the plan. And of course, the ritual slaughter of sheep, cows, etc., to remember how God replaced the human sacrifice with that of an animal, and commanded Muslims to share its meat with family, friends and the needy, in a rite that would go on and on. . . . . .

Throughout the six days of walking, circling, riding in air conditioned buses (while far too many poorer pilgrims sweltered in rickety trucks and convertible school buses - roofs blasted off, perhaps - or squeezed into mini-buses from Russia, full of luggage and food), I kept returning to the images described in the chapter titled "the Hajj" or "Pilgrimage" in the Quran. This chapter holds the secrets of Hajj, the essence of this journey, encapsulating the images and their deeper meanings.

It starts with this:

"O mankind! fear your Lord! for the convulsion of the Hour (of Judgment) will be a thing terrible!

The Day ye shall see it, every mother giving suck shall forget her suckling- babe, and every pregnant female shall drop her load (unformed): thou shalt see mankind as in a drunken riot, yet not drunk: but dreadful will be the Wrath of God." (Qur'an, Chapter 22, verses 1 & 2)

The crowds would assemble after the afternoon prayer to move, inch by tiny inch, along a long paved road filled to the brim with pilgrims holding each other, lovingly or out of desperation, or in formation, focused on getting to where we would throw the pebbles we had collected earlier. As we shuffled along beneath the beating rays of the sun, the endless stretch of humanity, with its roaring din, its confusion, its excitement, its resigned determination could only make one think of the Day of Judgment, and oh what a long day it will be.

But another reflection, was how much this tired, raggedy mass resembled the images of refugees that sometimes stop us and make us wonder at the sheer cruelty of those who would force people to flee their homes, their meager belongings strapped to their backs as they clutch those they love in a procession of devastation, towards uncertainty. But this is part of God's Plan. . .:

"(They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right,- (for no cause) except that they say, "our Lord is God. . ."(Qur'an, Chapter 22, verse 40)

* * *

I awoke to the whispers of a few sisters huddled near my sleeping bag, their husbands a few sleeping bodies away here in Muzdalifah, tired from the long bus rides from Arafah where we had all spent the day in quiet prayer. (A ride that would normally take 10 minutes, took six hours on cramped buses, minds and bodies aching from hours of concentration - a workout of the heart.)

The sisters were talking quietly, of Palestine, of occupation. "They were allowed out just two days before Hajj," said one sister, her white skin glimmering in the moonlight, her black scarf melding with the sky as she thought of the Palestinian pilgrims whose hearts likely ached to be here, too. Her friend nodded, her voice soothing, her face bright, too. "Yes, maybe they are somewhere close. . . " I tried to smooth down my wrinkled and dusty abaya. I pulled at my scarf - was it still there? Around our little island of sleeping bags, men from India, Pakistan, Saudi, Indonesia, and many more places were stretched out in various states of sleep. The walls of segregation had crumbled - gender, class, culture; we were all brothers and sisters.

"Are you from Palestine?" I managed to ask, my voice still heavy with sleep. The early dawn was beginning to breathe its cold air upon the sleeping masses, and the line-ups at the public washrooms were slowly growing. Soon, the ghost-like bodies, the males still dressed in the simple white cloth they are required to wear for Hajj, were all up, rising slowly as calls to prayer soothed the awakening.

Muzdalifah. Pilgrims sleep on the hard, rocky ground after a long day of supplication. The sight of thousands of people waking up from having been lying down on the flat plain, reminds many of the scene expected to play out on the Day of Resurrection, when all of humanity will come to life, to face the Accounting; answering for their wrongs, rewarded for their good.
Both women nodded that they were originally from Palestine, but they had been exiled long ago. We couldn't help but stare in quiet admiration at the one sister whose family was still there - still defending the land, just by being alive. But I didn't see the Palestinian flags anywhere in Mina, the tent city divided up by geographic locations so that pilgrims from the various regions of the world were grouped close together. We passed by the Egyptian tents, the Indian tents, the Pakistani tents - made a quick visit to the Canadian tent, offering a salaam to a dear Ottawa sister who had come with her father - but Palestine could not be found.

"They probably didn't make it," said my husband. A news story said they got their visas late. I hope they made it. It would have been a getaway from the daily struggles that their lives have become - and, somehow, unbelievably, it could still get worse with Israel hinting at an invasion of Gaza.

Whenever pilgrims were making supplication, you knew they were begging God for Help in the occupied territories - and for everyone who is oppressed and suffering. But, somehow, all of our efforts, seemed fruitless. Like when I passed out a couple of apples to an African family, camped out in front of our luxury encampment. They had the sidewalk. Yes, they were grateful for this gesture of fraternity, but would I have invited them inside? Would anyone have let me bring them in to where showers were available, clean bathrooms with no line-ups, comfy mini-mattresses to lay our tired bodies upon, and - the ultimate in luxury Hajj-ing, in my opinion -the 24 hour coffee / cappuccino / hot chocolate, etc.etc.etc (!!) machine at our beck and call.

Mina's sidewalks were teeming with families camped out uncomfortably in tents and makeshift living quarters. Those who could afford to, stayed in luxurious tents; those who couldn't suffered a great deal to perform the Hajj.
The stark reality of the have and have-nots, of the gated communities described by various economists and social commentators that mark a world where some have much, and many more have none was on full display. Outside our comfortable tent in Mina, thousands upon thousands of people - families - were camped out on filthy sidewalks, littered with garbage and which were slowly beginning to reek of human realities (these places had glimmered with cleanliness just a few days before the crowds arrived).

To travel around the tent city, resonating with the sounds of people and sirens, one would pass by those who had traveled from far off lands, with little money and lots of optimism that somehow it wouldn't be that bad. But of course, their reward for suffering so, compared to our kushy living, would be far greater. After all, God is Just.

What is it like to be an African woman, baby tied around your back, coke bottle balanced on your head, as you march with your wildly exotic prints through crowds of richer women with mobile phones and designer sunglasses? Or a man from Dagestan, whose mother, sisters, cousins and wife stand waiting to be told what to do, eyes wide with wonder at the complexity of life - their basic, hand-made and unfashionable dresses and scarves speaking of the utter simplicity of their day-to-day far away back home? What do you say to them about the luxury shops that line the King's shopping mall right across from the Haram-e-Sharif (where the Kaaba or the Symbolic House of God is circled day and night)?

And then, as you are absorbing the push and pull of people from here, there and everywhere, moving this way and that, yearning to be close to the House of God in our final rite, it all comes to a sudden and jolting

- Stop.

Life in all its energy;
the shortage of oxygen and the abundance of carbon dioxide;
and the headiness of worship, all come together and

- Shatter.

As thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, move towards the Kaaba to say goodbye and end their Hajj, the soul of a child is silently lifted from its tiny body. Cradled in his father's arms, his head resting on his shoulder, only a few have noticed the water dribbling out of the mouth in an ominous trickle. In slow motion, we point to the little boy, of one or two, his eyes are fixed in a haunting stare and the father is trying to revive him with a gentle shake. Two women behind him, the mother and someone else, are crying, their tears falling on their faces in quiet distress. Not a sound comes out.

"He is dead," I tell my husband, unable to fathom what I am witnessing, now. "He isn't," my husband insists, as there isn't time to stop in this crowd that surges forward, fixated on the House. I crane to see the family, disappearing into the grief of realizing their baby had suffocated and was now gone.

The sobs came up from my chest in bursts; no one noticed. Life had just disappeared before my eyes and yet life continued in a harried, hurried, frenzied pace all around me as we ducked out of the pressing crowds, seeking refuge on the uppermost floor to circle the Kaaba from afar.

"O mankind! if ye have a doubt about the Resurrection, (consider) that We created you out of dust, then out of sperm, then out of a leech-like clot, then out of a morsel of flesh, partly formed and partly unformed, in order that We may manifest (our power) to you; and We cause whom We will to rest in the wombs for an appointed term, then do We bring you out as babes, then (foster you) that ye may reach your age of full strength; and some of you are called to die . . ." (Qur'an, Chapter 22, verse 5)

On the top floor, the sky was our canopy and I was grateful for the fresh air. I tried not to think about the little boy, but when I saw a mother whose baby's face was nestled in her headscarf, I had to motion to her to make sure her baby was breathing. My husband tapped a grandfather on the shoulder, and asked him to remove the tiny face mask on the overdressed baby crying in his arms.

Dear God.

It took close to two hours to round the widest parameters of the area overseeing the Kaaba seven times, especially as pilgrims, glad to be done with this final rite, had sat down smack at the centre of where the rest of us had to move. My husband wasn't impressed but I couldn't muster up the same indignation. Somehow, the anger that seethes inside whenever I see a sliver of injustice had completely emptied of my heart and I had no more energy to feel anything.

And then, just as the sun was setting on this fourth and final day of Eid, the call to prayer ricoched off the stunning domes that also take up too much room on the roof, and we hurried for a spot anywhere to eventually rest our heads in prostration. As we stood listening to the imam recite from the Qur'an, it was as though my heart joined with the sister next to me, and the man behind me, and the entire congregation that stood - attentive, unaware of anything else in the world but that moment in prayer - listening to these words:

"The Believers are but a single Brotherhood: So make peace and reconciliation between your two (contending) brothers; and fear Allah, that ye may receive Mercy. . .

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)". (Qur'an, Chapter 49, verse 10 & 13)

To all my brothers and sisters who were there - Hajj Mabrour - may God Accept your pilgrimage. To the dear sisters who became like true sisters to me - all because we shared a few moments of reverence for the One Who Created us - may we meet again, here & in the Hereafter. To every grieving heart - may you find repose in the knowledge that, ". . .to God we belong, and to Him is our return." (Qur' an, Chapter 2, verse 156)

And so much more. . .

(photos from BBC, Moin (Picasa), sacred destinations, princeton,

Friday, December 5, 2008

To the centre of the world, and my heart

In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Kind,
* * *

Bags packed,
One for below my arm as I prepare for this journey,
Journeying to places of utmost significance,
for me, billions,
Symbols of Piety, Faith.
Inward journey,
Not sure what I'll find --
But it must and should be sabr --
Looking at your heart,
the mirror is one's actions
in the crowds,
sweaty, agitated, rushed & euphoric
Desperate, grateful, hopeful
I am but a tiny speck and yet my faults loom large
as I prepare to journey
to the centre of the world
to face my heart
and make it shine.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Who's oppressed? That guy, that guy, maybe her and definitely him.

In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Kind,

* * *

So, in typical angry-Western-woman fashion, I was ready to rail against the bus driver, his superiors, the passport office employees and anyone who would listen for keeping two busloads of women idling in a parking lot for over two hours on a hot day.

But, I didn't. Instead, I found it in me to calmly creep up to the front of the bus, past my ubiquitous black-clad sisters - in various states of outward modesty, depending on culture and conviction - and meekly ask the Asian-looking-Arabic-speaking driver, slumped over to the side of his seat:

"Um, what are we waiting for?"

Of course, up until then, my vista consisted of row upon row of fidgety women, some unfortunate enough to have brought along small children, for a trip to the mobile passport office that was roaming the coast for anyone who had yet to offer up their fingerprints for preservation. Oh, yeah, you couldn't leave the country or come back if you didn't.

So the wives and daughters of quasi-diplomats and other (self)-important people belonging to the organization my husband works for, were wondering just when we'd be escorted into the other side of the gender divide to complete what should have been a quick, routine job.

But that wasn't the whole picture.

"The women are going in ten at a time," replied the driver, irritated at my presence and referring to the steady trickle of ladies disembarking from the bus beside us. I barely heard him, fixated on another sight that none of us had noticed right across the sandy lot in front of us -- dozens of South-East Asian men lined up on the opposite side of the mobile trailer, waiting for their turn, just like us, but in the hot, desert sun.

A turn that would never come.

You see, no one had bothered to let these young, old and very old day labourers, drivers, security guards, what have you, know that some "VIP" women were going to be taking up an entire morning's worth of fingerprinting procedure. So they just stood and stood, watching black shadow after black shadow float up the steps into the air-conditioned sanctuary and back again, to the bus, another air-conditioned sanctuary I had mistaken for a discomfort. But by then I had realized what discomfort actually looked like.

Sweaty men, late for work, likely losing a day's pay or a few meals for themselves and their families back home in India, Bangledesh, Pakistan, etc., pressed up uncomfortably against each other, as the line seemed to crash against itself when the odd argument broke out. And there we were, cool, sort of calm-looking ladies going up and down the stairs, the only annoyance at that point being the patronizing tone of Saudi officers calling us 'mother' and 'Hajjah', and barking occasionally at a 'ya mama' moving too slowly.

"How many more women are left," asked one unusually gentle giant placidly, turning to his colleague who was identically dressed in a mild green uniform. "Fifteen," was the reply, greeted by a skeptical smile. "That's what you said at eleven." It was an hour later.

So even the guys inside didn't know that we'd take all morning, and nobody had bothered to tell the guys outside that they might not get in today, or why two busloads of women, and a bunch of other diplomat cars were sending up 'special' people ahead.

And so the obvious question is -- what does this little scene illustrate exactly -- ? The lack of respect this culture has for people who are other than Saudi/ Western / or so-called VIP? An inability to plan ahead / let others know what's going on?

What it certainly is, is another piece of evidence that it isn't every woman we need to worry about in a place like KSA - but the countless poor - women AND men - who have to rely on the mercy (or lack thereof) of those who bring them here to do work no one else is willing to do, or trained to do.

That anyone is treating them unfairly reflects poorly on a faith that promised to uphold concepts of equality, mercy, kindness and justice among all humankind. Here is a quote from Prophet Muhammad's last sermon, made during his final pilgrimage:

". . .All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. "

If only this could be imprinted on every checkered head-dress sold in the Kingdom, worn only by honest-to-goodness Saudi men, or else.*

May God Help us, and Accept the pilgrimage of the millions of people heading here for Hajj in the coming weeks, no matter the colour of their skin, or the nationality listed in their passport.

*(Of course, I ask forgiveness for sweeping generalizations. There are many, many good, fair people here. But you can't help but notice the unfortunate trends.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Badr : preserved for those who can find it

In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Kind,

* * *

The small, palm tree oasis of Badr appears like a mirage amid the piles of dusty mountains framing a highway that twists as if to nowhere.

My husband triumphantly drives on.

"It's here," he says, a smile playing on his lips and I can almost feel him imagining the battle that took place over one thousand years ago between Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, and his companions, against the people who had driven them out of Mecca for believing in one God.

We stop to ask directions to the sacred ground that holds the bodies of the martyrs who died in that first battle of Islam, fought in the second year after the Muslim migration to Medina. The deserted restaurant and playground speak of a time when tourists perhaps visited here, but now the history of the place has been all but snuffed out, and the few visitors who venture here have no idea where to go.

"Why aren't there anymore signs," I wonder aloud, as my girls jump up on down on the car seats, peering out the window. "Where are we going, mama?" asks the eldest, a bit drained after a day sightseeing at a port city nearby. She didn't understand why we had detoured away from the way home.

How to explain that we were going to where the Prophet, may peace be upon him, had famously challenged one of the most superior tribes of Arabia as a then insignificant but irritable thorn in their side -- and won? (Muslims, 313, & poorly equipped, against a rich army of about 1000).

I offer some simple explanation as we drive through the town of practical cement buildings, wide leafy roundabouts, and austere mosques, all complimented by a fading orange sun.

And finally, we think we've found what we are looking for. A white sign juts out of a tiny hill, circled by cars full of explorers like us who peer at the list of names of the companions who died trying to defend Islam that auspicious day in Ramadan, 2 AH --17 March, 624 AD.

But where was the battle fought?

"I'm going to ask that officer," my husband says, he stops the car on a ridge, overlooking sunken land, full of tired looking palm trees, straw and a makeshift water pump. I watch the man heave himself up from his chair, seated with a few others as if for a simple afternoon chat, and wave away my husband. He does the same to countless others who seem to be asking the same question. It's his job. My husband returns, scowling.

"I can't believe it," he says, starting the ignition as the girls hop around in the back. "What happened," they ask, as if caught up in the drama of it all. I, on the other hand, can already guess.

"He won't tell you - they don't want people to know where it is," I say, trying to fight the feelings of anger and disappointment that had threatened to shatter the peacefulness of Medina a few months earlier when we first discovered these concerted efforts to cover up information about cherished Islamic sites because of a fear that these historic places would be turned into shrines, a no-no in Islam, true, but unjustifiable when it leads to this.

Grabbing his phone, my husband starts dialing frantically. "He won't stop me," he says, his forehead creasing. We pass a map of the area, painted on a wall, and I'm reminded of the contradictory nature of the powers that be.

They'll paint me a picture to tell me that I'm near the site of an incredibly important historic site, and yet, they won't tell me where it is. Just like in Medina where garbage has buried the site of a companion's well, and they've put up a sign to tell me that the area within the fence is important historically - but not for what reason.

Then, like now, my partner-in-historic-reclamation, calls upon scholars to figure out the mysteries that should be public knowledge.

"We're here," he says into the phone, as we drive, retracing the grooves in the road as the shadows grow a bit shorter and the day starts to fall. "There is a large mosque, look behind it, near...." he takes directions and I wonder what we'll see, anyway. I imagine a stark desert scene, the same scene I often associate with anything to do with Prophetic history. How wrong I am.

Instead, I catch my breath when we finally creep onto the site where we believe the battle actually took place. Even if no one had told me that this was where it happened, I would have instantly known that it was. The palm trees gave away the secret. They were the only palm trees who appeared absolutely dead, wilted,
wilted completely and so utterly compared to any other tree in the vicinity - any other tree, anywhere. They had been humbled.

As we move closer, around the pristine mosque which shielded a well perhaps the one mentioned in the story about the encampment, we came across what surely was a scene untouched.

One could almost feel the presence of the Muslims that day, waiting for the Quraish tribesmen to appear over the hill ahead, who were no doubt expecting a quick win against a poorly equipped band of renegades. But that ragtag army, according to the Quran, was supported by God, and His Angels that day, because it consisted of sincere believers in a monotheistic faith which confirmed prophets of yesteryear; among whom were Moses, Jesus and Abraham, may peace be upon them all.

Why couldn't there be a sign to tell us of the importance of this sight? Why was it only known to a few fortunate souls? The man who had told my husband where to look, his teacher, his
shaykh, tried to phone up some locals to meet us and provide a guided tour that very few would ever take. He phoned us back to tell us that the authorities had turned up the heat on anyone who offered such services to us misguided folk. Indeed, a truckload of angry looking men drove by and stared at us, but thankfully drove off without incident. Nevertheless, their reach meant we wouldn't be able to get to where the martyrs were buried. So the secrets would remain secrets, to be preserved by God Alone.

"God gave you the victory at Badr , when ye were a weak force. So observe your duty to God in order that you may be thankful." [Qur'an, Chapter 3, Al-Imran, verse 123]

"O ye who believe! When you meet an army , hold firm and think of God much , that you may be successful . And obey God and His messenger , and dispute not one with another lest you falter and your strength depart from you ; but be steadfast! Lo! God is with the steadfast. [Quran, Chapter 8, the Spoils of War, verses 45-46]

For the benefit of the doubt:

Perhaps if these places did become touristic sites, their integrity would be harmed. However, it seems strange that the authorities would allow pilgrims to visit Uhud in Medina - so well-known that it is perhaps impossible to keep secret - considering the Muslims suffered a terrible defeat there. They lost that battle because some of the archers that day forgot the Prophet's instructions not to leave their positions. They couldn't resist going after the booty when the enemies initially turned back. So off they went after the spoils of war, before the battle was won, and the enemies returned and beat back the Muslims.

Or, is it more than a coincidence that we can visit Uhud and not Badr at a time when many Muslims think more of the luxuries of this world, than those promised to the God-fearing in the next life?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Goodbye Ramadan

Eid Mubarek! BBC confirms the end of Ramadan in the Kingdom, and for much of the Muslim world.

May God Accept our fasts, our prayers, and keep us on the Straight Path.

Um Fatima

p.s. Check out my other blog if you haven't seen it's all about motherhood.