Sunday, January 13, 2008

the world has oppressed us

basim karbalai and translation

Friday, February 2, 2007

A short poem for Ashura

Just copying-and-pasting a beautiful note a friend of mine posted on Facebook... -ms

Dear Brothers and Sister,
Asalamu a'lacheim wa ramatula wa bharakatu. I hope this letter finds you well, although today is indeed a somber affair. Today many years ago a prince of Islam was slain on the battlefield of Karbala by jealous, envious, men of darkness (may they never rise from Gehenom). Whether you are Sunni, Shi’a, or Sufi we all agree that the battle of Karbala did occur and that the blessed Prophets family was all but exterminated. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to remember this day and to take particular care of people around the globe who are suffering in similar ways as our blessed Prophets grandson Imam Husayn. I was just thinking that next year we should encourage all Muslims to take off of work and school to 1) remember Husayn’s sacrifice, and 2) to spend that day doing something that will contribute to Social Justice, and human fairness.

I am new to Islam, so I don’t know all the nuances of the Shi’a /Sunni debate, but I do love the prophet and I do love Imam Husayn for his sacrifice for justice and Islam. I have written a poem that I hope contributes in some small way to remembering this great man.
Thank You

Song for Husayn

Bismillah ir Rachman irrachim

In the Name of Allah the Most Merciful the Most beneficent
In the name of the One who created man, created man from a clot.
Oh did you weep my Lord when they shot him down,
Oh did you weep my Savior when they slew your beautiful son.
Those dark swords of shaitain resembled firon’s,
They were the handy work of Abu Lahab.
Oh did you weep Angels of light when they rent his garments,
Oh did you weep Gibreal when they cut down his strong nephew.
The one’s who killed the blessed Prophet’s family will burn forever,
Woe to his unfortunate progeny.
Oh Muhommed how did your heart sink when those evil doers plotted,
Oh how did your heart sink when they shed your blood?
Though your son did fight beautifully and courageously
Their evil might was too much.

This is a song for the one who gave his life for the Ummah,
This is a song for the one who gave his life for Islam.
Verily the handsome hand of God did stand for Justice,
Verily the handsome hand slew the losers with Truth.
In his life Allah was with him,
And on that faithful field he returned to Allah.
As it is written: Our Lord forgive our sins, To You alone is the eventual return.
So his name, that beautiful man, will be named chief among martyrs;
His name leads the youth in heaven,
His name will always be remembered in this life and in the next.

Allah please shower blessings upon Imam Husayn and the fallen martyrs of Karbala
Allah please bless Imam Husayn’s awesome and terrible sacrifice,
Allah please bless the light of the world Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) and his cherished family for now and forevermore. Amin

Saturday, January 27, 2007

the heavens rain blood

Insisting on accuracy, the engineer takes apart the whole
now only parts remain

the doctor figures all this is mere superstition:
water and clay cannot heal

Karbala a mere historical incident – the modernist critic

A mere cultural event: a topic for a Phd thesis

A subject for a novel examining the “ritual”
for the mass market: Karbala objectified.

Re-member Karbala

Qur’an and hadith:

To Hu belong the Most Beautiful Names. Everything in the heavens and earth glorifies Him. He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.

And the sky cried for forty days

And the humans, the jinn, the birds and the wild beasts mourned and wept

and unbearable and great is your tragedy in the heavens and for all of the dwellers of the heavens


The lie of objectivity


The secularist separation of body and spirit
The separation of human from sky and earth

Sayida Zainab: Are you then surprised if the heavens rain blood?

Everything in the heavens and earth glorifies Him. He is the Almighty, the All-Wise

Are you then surprised if the heavens rain blood?

What you have committed is foolishness and degradation
enough to fill the heavens and the earth!

Are you then surprised if the heavens rain blood?

martydom and memory

kya raha khaymo me sheh ke
ek udaasi reh gayi

this is a response
in defense

for history,
is the process of forgetting
what happened / when writers were not looking
who disappeared into the margins
where we came from / this herstory of borders and Orders
and here,
a time when our mere existence, on settler soil
was political

and yet each year
we beat we beat we beat we beat
yeh gham-e-hussain hai

and why (not)?
this martyrdom is lived through remembrance
brown skin, glisten
repeat, repeat, the rhythm
if sanitized is our matam
desensitized is our pain

aur, khaymo me
ek udaasi reh gayi

when skies wept blood
and heavens mourned
and surely, a time to come, when the earth
will reject nourishment
to those who plant and plunder in but a single stroke
yet do we know our role
and what has happened to this gham?

why we remember
is no longer why we fight

kya raha khaymo me sheh ke?

i grew up in a castle
that bore black cloth for 2 months a year
of humble origins, though not always minds
a castle made of cement walls
and veiled barriers
but one wherein, this ashra, sands would sweep through
stained red, these sands
the dust still fresh / the slicing air the stifled heat
all, lie within arms reach
vivid recollections
(and the glorification of war emblazoned upon young vulnerable minds)


within the interstices of this retelling
of battle and foe; of arrow and pierce; of beheading and chains
i seek / another repetition
not the clicking of keys
or the familiar ringing of a forgotten cell phone in the mosque /
on and off and on
a repetition of remembrance
a repetition that disrupts
these narratives of hegemony that delineate us into neatly carved boxes, silent from within so there remains no need to shut the lid
a repetition that induces rage

and we will neither shut up nor sit down, for now we’ll be ready
because we’ve got this rage,
this heart and
this faith

ay musalmano tumhari
ghairato kya ho gayi?

yeh matam mazloom ka matam
aur, khaymo me / ek udaasi reh gayi

it is a matter
of reworking the script

post-script: still not really happy with this. reworking it. but felt it worth posting, none the less.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. Graceful young shapes huddle under draped black georgette. Middle aged women are comfortable in black cotton. Grandmothers sit on chairs at the back, fanning themselves, their lined faces soft and crepy. It is mid-August. My friend holds open her neckline for me to peer in--she is exultant to inform me she has followed the example of another friend and shown up at the overcrowded, swelteringly hot mosque wearing only a bra and panties under her jilbab.

Women screech shanti! from the kitchen near the back to achieve some measure of quiet in the basement full of women and children.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. Someone grabs hold of my chader as I walk past, shy and important, sent by someone's mother to get cups. "Do you know why I stopped you?" she asks me. "No," I say. "Because you have a pretty face, and I have a son," she says. I stare at her, goggle-eyed. I go get the cups.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. I volunteer in the youth committee's baby-sitting room at the top of the mosque. I slap a kid. I am afraid and sorry, but still angry. His mother gives me a look when she picks him up. I can't tell what is bitten off in recrimination and what is accent.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. I sit restless in the youth tent. The intense young Black speaker is from a hausa in New York City. He privately encourages me to come study there: "We need sisters," he says. I like him; if he thinks I can study, then obviously I can talk to him about my frustration at not being able to do the youth lectures along with the young men in the tent. Quickly, gentle, serious, heartbreakingly admirable, he sets me straight on the role of women--how they cannot take intellectual lead, even at the housa. Tears and snot start flowing uncontrollably out of my face, and he is startled, but continues to speak to me, even more gently, the way I want to be spoken to, except with words that do not disallow my thought. He bends towards my face which I cover with my hijaab, listening. Later he writes me a long letter from New York, and, crushed-out but speechlessly ambivalent, I infinitely delay writing back.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers. Near the end of the ten days I make myself sit down with them, make myself listen to the Imam who lectures the adults--the Imam who describes the massacre, the Imam who tells us what it means. We sit; there are slow infinitesimal settlings in. Bodies slouch. Positions shift as gradually as continental drift. You don't notice you till are sitting alone, furthest out. My movements are too obviously tied to intent.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers.

The women sat in black in their tents. The ran out screaming when the army set fire to them, after the men died, one by one, in battle. The Imam's voice is cracked and atonal with grief. All around me the women shudder, moan and wail. I alternately weep and check around me to see if there's an actual fire in the mosque.

The daughters all cry in black around their mothers. We are rapt, convinced, as the Imam, almost incomprehensible, runs rampant with detail, winds through stories like a hairdresser twisting curls and pinning them into your skull with bobby pins, describing the nobility of Imam Hussein and the base cowardice of Yezid's army. Where we are unconvinced is our own fault. Puzzled, I try to meet the red, wet eyes of others, eyes that flicker away.

The daughters all sit in black around their mothers, listening to the words. The words have been deep-fried in significance. They spatter hot oil. We flinch. They are for us to eat, to become a part of us. These are the words we will use, later. The mother weeps; she is revving and fine-tuning her grief-machine for the future. These are the tears she will weep later. You are killing your father, she will say. Only symbolically, we will tell ourselves, because otherwise it's him or us.

We will feel sorry for ourselves, thinking these dramas have arisen because we are migrants to western cities. But then how is it that the lines handed to us are so old?

The daughters all sat in black around their mothers while the tents burned down around us. Where would I have been in the battle at Karbala? A little rat watching from a hole in the corner? Watching the noble men die, noble because they fought? Where would I have been in the battle at Karbala?

Running the babysitting corner? Arguing with the young men in the youth tent?

One of the daughters, wandering outside, occasionally trying to make herself sit with the other daughters, around the mothers, all in black?

Where were the daughters in the battle at Karbala? One of them, Bibi Zainab, bolted out her tent towards the men murdering her brother, left the seclusion of purdah, and spoke the truth of what happened to anyone who would listen, after. But what happened isn't all there is to truth, anymore.

Some daughters were partly present, at Karbala, as a few grains of sand. The grains of sand fly into eyes heroically squinting at their fate. Tiny, chaotic, troublesome and seeking, small gusts unexpectedly stir them into movement. At Karbala, some daughters have not fully come into being yet. When they do, they will walk as though underfoot, fly into stinging furies, and bear sand's disbelief it can hold together in the wind. They will also observe, fly into eyes and make them blink. Their strength and presence will make themselves felt in signs that once marked not belonging. They will learn to choose some of these strengths, outgrow others, come into the present, and develop new ones. The daughters will play their role in the battle, unaware of daughters still to come.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Why do they cry?"

Note: The following piece was originally written on February 18, 2005, the 9th night of Muharram, 1426 AH.

"What are you listening to?" the young Iranian boy asked me as the room was blasting with the sound of nauha (Urdu elegy) and people doing maatam. "Are you listening to songs?"

"No," I replied as I pushed the headphone speaker off my left ear. "I'm listening to the lecture that was just given." "Why?" he asked. "To put it on the website," I said. "Oh." He remained silent.

We sat at the back of the dark room, our actions highlighted by the glow of the laptop screen. 34%... 37%... The night's lecture was being converted from WAV into RealAudio format for online distribution. The audio input and output meters on the screen danced from green to orange to red as I sat with my head down, listening to Nadeem Sarwar's "Mil Kay Sub" nauha being recited so beautifully over the hall's loudspeaker.

"How about now? Are you listening to songs now?" "No," I replied once again. "I'm not listening to anything." Tears rolled down my face as the nauha went on: "Yeh maatam mazloom ka maatam... Zahra ke masoom ka maatam..." ("This maatam is for the oppressed... For Zahra's innocent [children]...") I sat with my head bowed down, my right hand on my chest and my left hand raised above my head, shooting my finger to the sky, proclaiming that there is no god but Allah.


This is the third Muharram since I decided to change the method by which I would mourn in this holy month. I decided I would only do maatam when it truly came to me, not just stand like a drone, forcing myself to beat my chest to words I didn't understand. Yet tonight, as we observed the sacrifice of Hazrat Ali Akbar (A.S.), the eighteen year old son of Imam Hussein (A.S.), my instinct took over as I wept and I started to beat my chest. Visions of the tragedy flashed through my mind: of Ali Akbar's body being trampled by the enemy's horses; of Hazrat Abbas (A.S.)'s canteen being pierced as he fought to return water to his niece, Sakina; of the women of the Imam's household being paraded as prisoners of war through the streets of Damascus.

Growing up, I was like every young boy in the community: beating my chest, right hand then left, only to compare whose chest was brightest red at the end of the night. As I got older, I tried to learn more of what was being recited and concentrated less on barbarically beating myself. Urdu is not my native tongue, so only bits and pieces would come to me. I would look at the Indians and Pakistanis around me and see the tears in their eyes as their hands reached for the ceiling only to come crashing down on their bosom as they cried out, "Ya Ali!" If only I could understand what they understood, maybe maatam would've been different for me.

I still remember the first time I stood and didn't put my hand to my chest. The laash procession (also known as juloos; a mock casket covered in red-dyed cloth as to simulate that of a martyr) had just come into the room, its carriers yelling "Ya Hussein! Ya Hussein!" The people around me leapt forth to touch the laash as it made its way around the room; they kissed it, wiped their eyes in it, and lifted the children up to do the same. I had touched the laash for years, but only now did I question why. Seven months earlier I had returned from my second trip to the holy cities of Iraq, including Karbala, the site of the tragedy of 'Aashura. God knows that I feel for the sacrifice of Imam Hussein, but I could no longer bring myself to do maatam solely for the sake of doing maatam. I wanted to feel the tragedy first, then I knew that mourning would take place.

The laash came around the room, and as it passed me by, I stood with my head down, just listening to the elegy being recited. The brothers around me looked at me out of the corner of their eyes as they saw that I didn't step forth to touch the laash. Yet the night went on. The nauhas started and people started doing maatam. I remained in my position, hands crossed across my chest in a solemn manner, with my head bowed down contemplating what was being recited. I didn't feel enough anger and raw emotion to beat my chest, but I did feel that I was weeping inside. After the program, friends came to me and asked me why I wasn't doing maatam. When I explained my new tactic, that I wouldn't do maatam unless I understood what I was listening to and actually felt compelled to do it, they looked at me like I was some type of foreigner. Word soon spread to the elders in the community as discussions on the origins of maatam arose in our weekly halaqas (study circles). Behind the scenes I was blacklisted as a misguided youth. Was it because of my newfound friendships with many of the Sunnis at my University? Was it because being a Muslim was more important to me at this point in life than being a Shi'a? Or was it really just because I couldn't bring myself to do maatam during the month of Muharram? Regardless, they didn't like the fact that I would talk to their children, my friends, about why I didn't do maatam. I was a troublemaker, no questions asked.

As the years have gone by, people around me, including my parents, have slowly come to understand that not doing maatam is simply my choice. There's still those youths in the jamaat that continue to do maatam as they admittedly don't understand a word of what's being recited, but I am not one of them. I stand at the back of the room, head down, trying to imagine the battle of Karbala taking place. When I do occasionally understand what's being recited, tears do well up in my eyes and I feel my hand return to my chest. Today was one of those occasions.


My concentration on the nauha was again disrupted as the young Iranian boy turned to the Khoja boy sitting next to him. "Why do they cry?" he asked. "Man, my mom was really crying yesterday. I don't know why..." he said, as he looked on at the crowd of mourners performing maatam. Maybe one day he'll go through the same reflection process I'm going through, I thought. Then again, I hope he doesn't ever have to. Maybe he'll be able to grow up in a community that allows dialogue on azadari (mourning of the tragedy of Karbala), its history, its purposes, and its results. Maybe he'll know why he's supposed to beat his chest.

Sunday, January 21, 2007