Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Month: January, 2013

Rochester Writers’ Group

Reading

The day didn’t start off quite well. My daughter and I argued in the morning over her wanting to stuff her snowsuit in her backpack to take to school. There was no room left for her shoes, which she would slip on after she took off her boots in class. I ended up squeezing everything in, yet we still managed to be upset at each other. So before I took my son to nursery, I dropped off a card at her school to tell her how much her dad and I love her.

I spent a few hours at Panera Bread working on my book before I picked up the kids from school, then went home and prepared dinner. I was hoping I would have a chance to stop at Barnes & Noble for the writers’ group meeting that is held on the second Thursday of every month at 7:30pm. Although I joined this group over fifteen years ago, I have not attended in a very long time. I have however made it to the Christmas potluck almost every year. The potluck is always at Marie Gates’ house. She has been leading the group for the last 26 years.

It is in this group that I first dared read my work to an audience. There must have been at least ten people when I read the rough draft of Chapter One of my first novel, The Feminine Art. I was so nervous that I had to stare at the carpet as I awaited my turn so that I would not lose my courage. The experience was powerful. The listeners gave me so much constructive criticism that I became a regular attendee.

The Rochester Writers’ Group started out at the Rochester Hills Library and in the process of rebuilding a new library, the meetings were held in different members’ homes, and then they finally settled at Barnes & Noble. It was led by a couple who later decided they wanted to travel and so handed the job over to Marie Gates. When I met her, Marie was working on her first book, Shadows on My Mind. She has since published a second, Are We Our Past? Marie Gates managed to be a wife and mother while earning an M.A. in psychology. For several years she taught in colleges and universities and she has spent the past thirty years exploring reincarnation.

Last Christmas when I went to her house, I enjoyed drinking wine, tasting good food and talking to “intellectuals.” I learned from others’ personal experiences things about China, Poland and Russia. Over tea, I expressed my ideas about starting this blog, received the usual support and honesty that I’ve gotten from this community over the past 15 years, and returned home thankful that I have friends who understand my career that live just around the corner.

Gone With the Wind

Gone with the Wind

While cleaning the house and folding the laundry, I first watched a movie, The Words, and then a documentary about Margaret Mitchell who wrote my favorite book.

The first non textbook I ever read was Gone with the Wind, in Arabic. I was nine years old, had recently left my birth country of Iraq and was living in Amman, Jordan with my family. We were awaiting a Visa to enter the United States. I loved Gone with the Wind because despite my young age and eastern cultural background, I connected and fell in love with Scarlett O’Hara and the other characters which resembled my tribe. Seeing my attachment to this story, my siblings took me to the movie theater for the first time in my life where I watched a black and white version of Gone with the Wind, subtitled in Arabic. The book and film was my first impression of America. I thought I would come here and see “the South” as it was described by Margaret Mitchell. Well, I was in for a big surprise. Michigan in 1981 was not Georgia in the 1800’s. Still, this became the pattern in my life – being inspired by western storytellers while writing about the land, culture and descendants of Iraq.

Earlier this year, I read Gone with the Wind for the third time. I saw it with completely different eyes. This time around, I saw the politics of war that I’d missed as a child. Some of the most memorable quotes were:

Ashley Wilkes: “Most of the miseries of the world were caused by wars. And when the wars were over no one ever knew what they were about.”

Rhett Butler: “All wars are fought for money. All other reasons men go to war are just false reasons, pretexts and empty words fed to them by stay at home orators.”

I guess we either do not want to learn our lesson, are too lazy to find other solutions, or war is just too good a thing to pass up.

 

 

 

Food, Prayer, Marriage

Wedding rings

Ever since snow arrived, my children wanted to build a snowman. So Sunday we gave them a substitute snow activity – sledding. Needless to say they had a great time. Myself, who as a young girl rode roller coasters at Cedar Point, simply videotaped their adventure. Yes, I was too scared to slide down the hill that my three-year-old and six-year-old thought nothing of.

Yesterday was so packed with activities there was no way I could write a new post at night. We bought the children snow gear, took them sledding with their cousins, I discovered black tomatoes at the produce market and we attended a small 500 guest Chaldean American wedding (usually they’re 700 plus). And most importantly, church!

“The Life of Abraham” lecture series started at Freedom Christian. As the pastor spoke of Prophet Abraham, I thought of my ancestors’ land, Ur of the Chaldees in Iraq, where Abraham originated. This city, which is mentioned several times in the Bible was one of the great urban centers of the Sumerian civilization of southern Iraq and remained an important city until its conquest by Alexander the Great a few centuries before Christ. Ur was eventually incorporated into Babylonia. The Ziggurat of Ur, believed to be 4,000 years old and originally a temple to the moon god, has become a symbol of honor for Iraqi ingenuity and culture, as well as being the birth place of the prophet Abraham.

During the lecture, the pastor said something very important about marriage.

“Your marriage is not your true identity. It is not the job or your wife or your husband to make you happy, not that they should attempt to do otherwise. Your hope of who you are should be based on your relationship with God.”

I agree. Many marriages fail today because a lot of pressure is placed on what spouses should do and not do for each other. In the movie Eat, Pray, Love, Julia Roberts plays a married woman who is not happy in her marriage. She wants a divorce to go out and find herself but her husband desperately does not want the divorce. He asks her, “Why can’t you find yourself inside our marriage?”

She could have.

“Enjoy your vacations,” said the pastor. “Enjoy your relationships, enjoy your work, but don’t make them the source of our joy or your status. God is the source.”

Prophet Muhammed’s Promise to St. Catherine

Peace

I had a meeting Saturday afternoon with a friend producer about a film project we’re currently working on. I told him about my experience at the masjid and he said that people have created so many divisions when really we are all cousins who stem from Prophet Abraham and today. He said that, if Prophet Muhammad or Jesus saw what we were doing to each other, they would turn around and go back into their graves.

“All this fighting is not about religion,” he said. “It’s about real estate.”

He said quite a few interesting things, some of which I knew, that Jesus and all the prophets are revered in the Quran and Mary is the only woman’s name mentioned. Surah 19, one of the longest chapters in the Quran, carries the title “Maryam: Mary.” One thing I never heard is the story of the document that Prophet Muhammed wrote to St. Catherine’s Monastery, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited monastery which is located at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Egypt. The document that Prophet Muhammed wrote is hung inside the monastery along with its other manuscripts, which are outnumbered only by the Vatican library.

The Promise to St. Catherine:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.

The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

Well, off to church I go now.

Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Mosque

Today I feel as if I visited South Asia for two hours. Last night I received an email from CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) mentioning that its Executive Director-MI, Dawud Walid, was going to give a lecture at the AMDA Masjid about the importance of recognizing and properly addressing extreme religious rhetoric in Islam. I met Mr. Walid a few years ago. He and I have spoken at some of the same conferences and he is part of a documentary that I’ve been working on. We once talked about the possibility of doing a type of forum to open up dialogue between Muslims and Christians here in Michigan. Noticing today’s lecture was going to be only minutes away from home and liking the subject matter, I decided to go. Well, I was in for a big, but pleasant, surprise.

As soon as I entered the masjid, I saw people taking off their shoes at the door, women wearing head scarfs and kurtis, and a gold-colored silk curtain partially separating the men from the women and children. I have been in a mosque, which is similar to a masjid, once before when I was in London, so it was not a real shock. However, given the announcement of the “lecture” I was expecting a different setup. I asked the women who were warmly greeting me whether it was okay for me, as a Christian, to be here. They said, “Yes, definitely. Please feel at home.”

I took off my shoes, wishing I had worn my better socks, and although no one batted an eye, I respectfully put my long hair in a bun. I joined the ladies on the beautiful burgundy rug with beige and light green decorations. A number of the women approached me to introduce themselves and answer questions I had. From them, I learned that many of the attendees were Bengali, but there were others from countries in South Asia. This masjid has been around for approximately three years, but it’s temporary. A larger one is being built a few miles further north. It’s always available for prayer but on the first Friday of every month, there’s a community gathering where everyone brings food and eats together, then prays, then listens to the speaker of the month give a lecture.

The conversations around me were similar to all women topics – nails, weddings, etc. All the young ladies were university students. The food was heavenly, the call to prayer reminded me of my childhood days in Baghdad, and the lecture was something we don’t hear about in non-Islamic media outlets. Mr. Walid talked about the importance for American Muslims having good manners towards differences of opinion.

“In other Muslim communities around the world, each town and village may follow one school of thought,” he said. “But there’s a diverse pluralistic community called America where many different ethnicities live. So we have to open our minds and be flexible to others’ opinions. Just because we don’t understand something does not make it wrong or un-Islamic.”

He encouraged for people to instead give advice, if they’re qualified to do so (he noticed the worst debates on Islam are those who know nothing about it) in the manner the Quran asks for – with tenderness and gentleness so that they do not commit verbal aggression on each other and so no one feels slighted or embarrassed.

“In Islam there are some things that are non-negotiable, but most are flexible. We shouldn’t let our small differences disunite us as a community. Scholars debated centuries ago about such matters as whether the Quran is a word of God or if it the creation of God, and about other matters. They never sorted out those questions so we don’t have to get bogged down about it.”
Another quote he used from the Quran was “Let there be no compulsion in religion because right action is clear from error” – meaning, anytime we use pressure to make someone do something against their will, they will naturally hate it.

I have so much more to say about this experience, but I have already gone over the limit of how long I want my posts to be. So I may just have to pay the masjid another visit in the near future.

Mesopotamian Forum for Art and Culture

The Minaret of Samarra

The Minaret of Samarra

Mesopotamian Forum for Art and Culture held its monthly meeting today at Abu Nawas. My husband said he’d watch the kids so I happily prepared dinner, tidied up the house and then lo and behold, my daughter decided to throw a tantrum because her dad couldn’t take her to the dollar store. I tried everything to pacify her frustrations, even considered not going to the meeting, but she kept at it until she knocked onto our beige rug the bowl of curry stew I was feeding her brother. That got me to quickly change clothes, grab my purse and head out the door!

MFAC was established in February 2012, and since that very short time, they’ve held five successful events, two of which I had the honor of participating in. Today’s meeting was to establish the New Year’s activities. On their agenda are lectures on story-telling, poetry readings, theatrical plays, cinema and an art gallery. Nabil Roumaya, one of the founders of MFAC once said to me, “We want to ignite the cultural awareness that was once present in Iraq in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.”

Civilization was born in ancient Mesopotamia over 7,000 years ago. That is where writing, astronomy and science were invented. The first school, law, literature, map of the world, and the idea of dividing time and space into a multiple of 60’s started in this historic land. The first writer in recorded history was Enheduanna, a woman from ancient Iraq. She lived, composed, and taught roughly 2,000 years before Aristotle. Man’s most important invention, the wheel, was devised in Mesopotamia, as was plumbing, the plow and the sailboat. Like other Iraqi-American organizations in Michigan, MFAC, which consists of a number of distinguished artists, writers and intellectuals, attempts to shine light on a culture that only small groups of people know about.

When I returned home, my daughter apologized for her earlier behavior and my son threw a couple of tantrums because I wouldn’t let him play with the butter knives.

Freedom Christian

Church

Christmas vacation is officially over. Schools were back in session today and I had a hard time putting my mind back into place, having lost it – in a good way – for the last few weeks. With no schedules intact, my children and I did pretty much what we wanted when we wanted, most of the time doing nothing but lounge around. I skipped church, the gym, the coffee shop.

Today I prepared to get back into our usual routine. Wednesday evenings is Bible study at Freedom Christian, a nondenominational church, which I started attending shortly after Halloween 2012. My sister-in-law first learned of this church some six years ago, after she got a tip that every Halloween they put up a huge tent and provide free donuts, coffee, popcorn, caramel apples, and candy for the kids. They also have free kids’ games, recently even a petting farm. Every year, we would take the kids trick or treating in the neighborhood and then meet up at the church. In the beginning, rarely any Chaldeans (Christian Iraqis) came to this tent. Then their numbers increased, to the point where it seemed they were the majority of attendees. I had a good vibe about the church and often wondered what it was like inside. Last Halloween, members of the church were passing flyers about a kids’ program and daycare center they had for all ages. I thought, “I’m in.” I had wanted to find a church where my children felt happy and welcome and hoped this would be it. It was.

I pulled to the back of the building and saw the parking lot empty. The church was closed. On the way home, I stopped at McDonald’s to pick up hot chocolate for the kids, as promised. At home, I parked the car, looked behind me and saw two children completely knocked out. I thought, how heavenly! They napped for two hours and I got to work on the book I’m currently writing.

Thanks, Freedom Christian.

Happy New Year

IMG_0097

It’s 3:30 am. I finally have a chance to sit down, drink a fresh cup of coffee, a caramel drizzle, and to write my very first post. My in-laws left a few hours ago, but I could not leave the house a mess and go to bed. We had a few unexpected guests tonight. Unexpected guest number one is a cousin who happens to not get along with unexpected guest number two. Needless to say there was a little bit of drama, but that’s expected in any home let alone a Middle Eastern one.

I made the appetizers, my husband made a wonderful barbecue and my in-laws brought over a lot of food like stuffed grape leaves and saffron rice with lamb. Much preparation went into the dishes, but it was nowhere near what it takes to make pacha, a traditional Iraqi dish usually made during the holidays. Pacha is made from sheep’s head, trotters and stomach; all boiled slowly and served with bread sunken in the broth. The stomach lining is filled with rice and lamb and stitched with a sewing thread. The brains and tongues are considered the best parts. The eyeballs are a delicacy. Every Christmas, my sister-in-law spends three days preparing pacha and then on Christmas afternoon my family and I go to have a pacha lunch and exchange presents. As a child, I never understood why grown ups savored pacha so much, but now I do – although I won’t eat any brains, tongues or eyeballs. When I visited my cousin in Germany, he made a pot of pacha – eyeballs and all – but told me he had gone to a farm an hour away to get the ingredients because it was illegal to sell them in the regular market.

It’s nearly 4:00 am. My coffee cup is almost empty. It’s time to say goodnight.