Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Sweetness of Tears “That was how our friendship began”

The monkey and the crocodile. My father used to tell me that story when I was very young. But the version he told me was different from the tale I told Sadiq. In my father’s story, the crocodile is put up to the betrayal of his friend, the monkey, by his greedy wife. She deceives him, feigning illness to get him to do what she wants--to bring back the monkey’s heart for her to eat so that she might become well. Same ending, though. When I was eight or nine years old, older than Sadiq was when he was taken from me, I told my father that I didn’t like his story.
I said, “That’s not right. The crocodile himself made the decision to kill his friend. Why should his wife be blamed? Women are always the ones being blamed for everything!”

My father laughed. “Oh? So this is a subject you’ve given some thought to?”

“Yes. When a man is bad to his mother, it’s his wife’s fault. When a man is bad to his wife, it’s his mother’s fault. When is a man ever responsible for himself?”

“Hmm. This is a very good point. People tell stories. And people listen to them. The way a story is told says something about the one who tells it. And the way it is understood, the lesson drawn from it, tells something about the one who listens. How would you tell the story, Deena?”

“Me? I would say that the crocodile himself was greedy. That he was never really the monkey’s friend. He only liked her for the fruit she gave him.”

“Ah. But I don’t like your version.”

“You don’t?”

“No. For me, the beauty in the story is that the crocodile and the monkey were able to be friends, even if for a brief time. That they rose above their own natures and the way they had been taught to live--to live by fear or to live by greed--and became friends in spite of it ll.”

“But their friendship didn’t last.”

“No. That doesn’t matter. They were friends for a time. For me, that is such an important part of the story that I’m not willing to change it.”

I was quiet for a long time. Then I said, “All right. What if it’s the crocodile’s brother who tempts him?”

“His brother, eh? All right. That I’m willing to accept. That is the new tale of the monkey and the crocodile. Deena Iman’s version.”

“And yours.”

“Oh? You’ll share credit with me? So kind of you, little Deena. All right then, Deena and Iqbal Iman’s version of ‘The Tale of the Monkey and the Crocodile.’ Shall we tell it together? Yes? I’ll begin...Once upon a time...”

And so it began. My father and I, together, gave each other permission to change old stories, to challenge old ways of understanding. Monkeys and crocodiles. Fear and greed. Who hasn’t succumbed to those old temptations? And how many can claim to have risen above them?

When I was nine years old, I used to spend time on the terrace of our house. There was a jamun tree in the neighbor’s garden. You are nodding. Sadiq told you about the tree? Well, remember, I am speaking of a time long before he was born. The tree was younger then, not so tall, its branches not so wide, as when Sadiq knew it, its fruit spread from branches that shaded one corner of the terrace, within easy reach for him as it was not for me. When I was a child, the top of the tree was level with the top of the low wall of the terrace. To get any fruit, I had to lean down at a dangerous angle, to reach for the one branch that stretched out to meet my grasping hand. That didn’t stop me. The fruit was tasty enough to make the risk worth it. One day, when I had already consumed all of the fruit from the tip of the branch, I leaned farther than I should have, too much of my weight hanging over the wall, and gravity had its way. As I lost my balance, in the second before I fell, I heard someone call, “Look out!” A child’s voice, from the garden below. The voice of someone who was there--in the right spot at the right time--to break my fall and save me from certain death.


That was how our friendship began. We were only children. Neighbors. Young enough for it to be all right, despite the fact that he was a boy and I was a girl, he a Sunni and I a Shia. Even so, there were limits we knew enough about already for us to keep our interaction secret--or try to, at least, though we had no chance of succeeding, considering that the volume of our interactions had to accommodate the distance from my terrace to his garden, and that there was no real way to hide from these vantages, despite the constant ducking I grew accustomed to. Once, I ducked late enough to catch a look on his mother’s face--cold and hostile, enough to make me want to keep ducking.

Normally, Umar’s afternoons would have been like those of the other boys in our neighborhood. As a boy, he would not have been confined to the boundaries of home. Boys could spend their time in the street. Riding bicycles and playing cricket. Umar was still young, so he would not yet have been allowed to travel far, by bus and rickshaw, to the movies and around town, like other, older boy in the neighborhood. Without my parents, I went only to school and back--by horse carriage, no less--a two-wheeled tonga, with a driver contracted for that purpose, always accompanied by Macee. My world, a girl’s world, was smaller than his.

Nafisa Haji is author of the new book The Sweetness of Tears (HarperCollins), which was published in May 2011. Nafisa Haji's first novel, The Writing on My Forehead, was a finalist for the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award. An American of Indo-Pakistani descent, she was born and raised in Los Angeles and now lives in northern California with her husband and son.

By SONDOS KHOLOKI-KAHF, Staff Writer, IN Focus Magazine
Afaf*, 25, has been searching for a husband for a solid two years to no avail.
“All my friends were getting married by the age of 22, so, naturally, I wanted to be part of the ‘wedding club,’” she recalls. “And, of course, there was this romantic notion that it would be the love story of love stories.”
Afaf started feeling the pressure as her friends talked endlessly about wedding dresses, halal caterers and honeymoons, even though she had not been planning on getting married while in college.
“For whatever reason, getting married seemed to be the only, if not main, goal they strived for,” she says. “So, I felt I had to have this goal as well, and felt lacking among my friends that I was not married upon completion of my undergraduate studies.”
Thus began her search after graduating from college. When suitors came knocking, Afaf was surprised at the mediocrity of the suitors available and was left wondering, “Where are all the ‘good guys’?”
Afaf, now a first-year law student, is one of thousands of American Muslim women between the ages of 25 and 30 struggling to find a decent suitor. Educated, pious, beautiful and accomplished, these women should have a gaggle of like-minded men waiting outside their doors. Unfortunately, the few, if any, men who approach these women appear less than satisfactory.
“I tend to meet two types [of men],” says Maryam*, 28, who has also been searching for a mate since college. “The first is the practicing Muslim brother who has his act together, but unfortunately has some really incompatible ideas about women and gender roles. The second type I meet is progressive and open-minded and is truly looking for a partner in life, but is not a practicing Muslim.”
“For me,” Afaf says, “a good man is someone who lives a balanced life between Western and Eastern culture, giving precedence to religion.”
The lack of noteworthy male suitors is a topic frequently discussed between female friends. Muslim women are frustrated with the options left, and many are worried that their degrees and careers are getting in the way of meeting Mr. Right.
“We’ve been pushing young women to get educated and to get jobs, and now they’re being penalized for their ambition,” according to Munira Ezzeldine, author of “Before the Wedding: 150 Questions for Muslims to Ask Before Getting Married.”
“However, while these men are impressed with a successful and active woman, they do not consider her ‘marriage material,’” Ezzeldine adds. “Despite the elevation of women, many men have maintained traditional ideas as to the type of wife they seek. After all, they do not see anything wrong with the way their mother was.”
“I recently had a suitor who told me he would be willing to help me [around the house] by not making a mess,” Afaf recalls, adding he also told her she should not use her job as an excuse to ask him to help out at home.
“Furthermore, if he comes home from work hungry, I guess that would mean I would have to work part-time in order to have dinner prepared and ready when he comes home. I think that is the most frustrating aspect of being a female, only to be seen as a maid and a cook,” she says.
Dr. Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, agrees. “Men are being programmed by their parents to look for a specific kind of woman: submissive, comforting, shy, and obedient,” he says. “The reality is that women are educated and looking to be comrades in marriage.”
The marriage crisis materializes when these women in their late 20s and early 30s become settled in their careers or studies and seem like less desirable options to men because they will not bend into this traditional role. While these women work on their personal goals, young Muslim men appear to give up on them and marry from “back home” or marry non-Muslims, making the pool of suitors even smaller.
“Education is becoming a sore point for the girls because the guy moves on,” says Shaikh Sadullah Khan, executive director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Irvine. “Our immigrant community has this mentality that our kid must graduate first, and for the girl, we’re stressing graduation versus marriage.”
Indeed, a startling number of young Muslim women are finding themselves scrambling to find a husband before reaching their 30s and possibly never marrying. Many accomplished and educated young women end up lowering their standards for the sake of avoiding lifelong loneliness.
“Unless this crisis is addressed seriously, honestly and scientifically, it will lead to the disintegration of our community through a dilution of the next generation Islamically, a sudden revolt against marriage by women or a decrease in self-esteem among wives who lowered their standards just to marry,” Hathout warns.
One young Muslim bachelor still searching for a spouse shares his take on the seeming lack of “good guys” on his weblog, “Marriage & Islam: The Quest for the Sweet One.” In the post, Quest, as he is called to maintain anonymity, states that the worthiest bachelors start looking for a spouse when they are in their early 20s to “satisfy their built-in, intense desire for women. … And this desire is always there, in the back of every man’s mind since puberty, like a ticking [bomb].”
These young, pious men begin looking for a wife, Quest reasons, who is closest to their age — basically, 19 to 21 years old.
“And what are these ‘good, smart ambitious girls’ doing when they’re in that age range?” Quest writes. “They’re also busy working on their education” and aren’t considering marriage. Or those who are considering marriage may be in a different location, so the two never meet, and the bachelors get fed up and marry from back home, he says.
Essentially, Quest emphasizes that the lack of a meeting forum is at the heart of the issue. “I think that is the BIGGEST problem – Muslims are scattered all over the country, and we’re not well connected. It’s hard to identify, know about, and meet the families of all the ‘good girls’ in a major metropolitan city, let alone the country,” he explains. “We put all these obstacles between faithful Muslim guys and girls, that I think even a Muslim Tom Cruise would have a hard time marrying!”
With the current circumstances at hand, Ezzeldine advises young women to plan realistically. “You have to realize that you can’t have it all,” she says. “It’s not going to be a fairy-tale where you excel at school, work 40-hour weeks, and marry a perfect guy. If you want to focus on a job or a higher degree, know that you might not have time to meet people.”
Quest echoes this sentiment by clarifying that women shouldn’t have to give up their goals, but should realize that in doing so, they are taking a risk. “The longer they delay marriage in favor of education, the less [number of ] eligible men they’ll meet once they’re ready for marriage,” he says. “And marriage and education are not necessarily conflicting. With the right husband, both can continue. It’s definitely a topic that should be brought up when considering a potential husband,” he adds.
Dr. Hathout also favors a path that allows for both education and marriage to flourish simultaneously. “We need to change the current family model into one that builds the self, the family, and each other at the same time,” he says. “Think of marriage as a tennis match — you want to play doubles, not singles, to win. In other words, struggle together and build your empire together. You are ready for marriage as long as you can get food on the table and a roof over your head, and there’s a potentiality for growth,” he stresses.
Ezzeldine draws on the life of the Prophet Muhammad for guidance, specifically the example of his relationship with Khadijah.
“The Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, was an established career woman who was 15 years older than her husband,” Ezzeldine says. “Khadijah was a very confident and successful woman who actually proposed to the 24-year-old Muhammad. Yet, the Prophet was not intimidated by her nor found her ‘unmarriageable.’ They maintained a strong marriage as she continued to be a businesswoman, as well as wife and mother.”
Ezzeldine goes on to remind Muslims that Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah were married for 28 years, the longest of all his marriages. “Many Muslim women seek not to compete with men, but rather to establish a partnership with their spouse,” she continues. “Ultimately, these women want to be cherished and loved in the same way that the Prophet loved Khadijah. This type of partnership in marriage can only exist when both people are accepting and respectful of one another’s ambitions and priorities in life.”
Afaf has not given up searching for Mr. Right, but meanwhile uses school as a welcome distraction. “I used to be obsessed about marriage until I entered law school,” she says. “Pursuing my graduate studies has really allowed me to learn a lot about myself and to focus on things that matter. It is very sad to see girls who are 22 and depressed as to why they are not married. I have no problem with a woman who chooses to be a wife and a mother, but I do have problem if she believes that is all she can be … or doesn’t define herself as accomplished until she attains her MRS. Degree.”
* Names have been changed.
SONDOS KHOLOKI-KAHF, Staff Writer, IN Focus Magazine

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