Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007 Endings

Yesterday, I learned of the death of my aunt Selima, Dad's sister. She passed away on Friday. She had suffered a lot lately from diabetes and other health-related issues. Her health deteriorated dramatically, especially after her son Khalil bin Hemadi was taken to fight in Chad and never made it back. Earlier this year, I received indirect communications from Khalil, or so the messenger claimed, asking for a certified birth certificate from Libya. The source claimed that Khalil is well and alive in the US, married to a Tunisian and has kids. Something was fishy and I wanted no part in it. I got the birth certificate from Libya, and told the source that Khalil needs to call me himself if he wants it, or he better stop those games I'm not interested in. I also said that I will report the communication to the authorities if it continued in that way. Never heard from them again!

Back to Auntie Selima. This picture was taken in December 1, 1998 in my Fatha party in Benghazi. That was the last I've seen of her. She was such a sweet and tender, loving person. Always reminded me of Grandma Mardya Tarbah (her mother). She looked a lot like her: Height, size, skin color, persona and all.

My family is now in Derna for the funeral. I've been trying to reach Dad and will keep trying. I dread the call because I am obliged to talk to every single person there and give condolences. To me, that does not mean anything. It is a mere rhetoric of repeating the same words and phrases to every person and moving on to the next. So artificial. I dread those calls and wish to be left alone.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from my brother Waleed. He told me of abla Fatma's death. Abla Fatma was his mother-in-law, Manal's Mom. She was in her 50s, a victim of cancer.

It is so hard to hear of the loss of a dear one when you are far far away and all you can do is give meaningless condolences over the phone. I don't even have the luxury of mourning the dead ones; life goes on with no feel of the recent loss. Why? Because I have lost those people from my life a long time ago; I haven't seen them all those years, and had no idea if or when I would see them again. Every time I receive such a call, I find relief in that it's not of my parents or siblings. And I wonder whom is the next call going to be for.

I don't shed tears any more, not so easily anyway. But I do feel an ache inside. It's like a stab or a constriction. I ache more for the living left behind... My father who lost his sister, and Manal who lost her mother. May they all find peace!

I move on... Death is a fact of life.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Little Big Eid '07

This is a busy month for us, always busy from beginning to end.

December 1st is one anniversary of our wedding, the official part called al-Fatiha. December 10th is the party anniversary, called Laylet ad-Dukhla (The Night of Entrance)--let's not get into that. lol lol lol! This December we marked our ninth anniversary with our friends Tawfik and Magda, who were in town for a couple days. That was really nice, as always with those guys, but it was also nice because we were both too busy to plan anything. The kids noticed, too, they were wondering who was coming to watch them when "Mom and Dad go out for anniversary dinner." We did go, as it turned out, but they came along this time! Happy nines, Hannu: one 9, 99, ...

The Annual Rigney Party

December 14th was earlier than usual for the Rigney Carol Party. That might explain the smaller attendance. But that also meant, most members of the 12-days-of-Christmas crew were absent. Enter: Mr. Moody and Ms. Tala of Goofballs-R-Us, Inc. Of course they were more than willing to get up and clown around. It was like watching a movie with subtitles, always just a step or two behind. lol lol

Running into all the wrong places!

It's hard to say when it all started, our close public encounters with God. Maybe it was in Moody's preschool days, when he started to bring home classroom works of art representing certain holidays. Christian holidays mainly, with a couple token Jewish holidays thrown in to ward off the evil eye (that'd be mine). After some green-tea conversations, we decided to have a talk with the teachers. We explained that public schools are the wrong place to learn about religion, any religion. They explained that it does not make educational sense to ignore the things happening in the surrounding culture. We accepted the argument but pointed to a practical bias, which did not square with the diversity of American culture and even the local culture that includes (in principle) over 35,000 Somalis, who predominantly have an Islamic heritage. Our point was and still is that it would be best to keep all religion out of school, but if it has to be included, then variety is a matter of necessity in order to avoid a de facto promotion of a particular religion by the state. It turned out, ignorance was the main adversary, and we met our obligation by informing the teachers about other holidays, which they did their best to acknowledge in the classroom. Moody read a book about Eid and Ramadan, and once he took moon-shaped cookies, etc.

There were other encounters, outside school, but still in settings where one would expect some sensitivity to the issue. Once it was at an end-of-season party for one of Moody's soccer teams. One of the parents got some discount at Pizza Hut, so we went there. Moody and I got there just about the time the pizza was ready. The coach, who was a perfectly reasonable person said, "If you don't mind, we'd like to say a little prayer before eating." I said, "Actually, I do. But Moody and I will go over to the other side and join you guys after prayer." We did, unnoticed by Moody and uncomfortable for me. Just to add flavor to the story, the adults had ordered the pizza, and it so happened that there was pork on every single one except one plain cheese pizza. Interestingly enough, most kids that age prefer plain cheese pizza! Moody got one slice. Soon some of the other kids were peeling off the pepperoni so they could enjoy the pizza as they liked it. We paid a full share. I tried to keep Moody quiet, but not silent. I also wanted to ask the coach rhetorically whether he knew why soccer teams wore the same uniform. Later, by sheer coincidence the coach ran into a work colleague of mine, whom I'd told the whole story. The coach sent me a pizza coupon. I said a secular prayer for him. It goes like this: "Best wishes for mental health."

Another outdoor experience with God was on a visit to evaluate a summer camp where we were thinking about sending Moody. Hana had made the arrangements and specifically asked on the phone, "Do you have any religious activities or affiliation." The lady said they didn't. When we got there, we saw it was a beautiful camp. They seated us in the big dining hall with nice wood beams in the high ceiling. My eyes swept down to the posters and artworks hung on the walls, and there it was: The G-word! Then the L-word! Then out of me, the word "Hannuuuuuuu?" We basically told them we were not interested, thank you very much, but they really should tell people up front about the religious content of the program. They did not quite get it because they thought of "religious" as meaning "denominational," but they refunded our advance payment. That was the best possible outcome because they were a private organization and they could run their business however they liked.

This year, it was the Whittier Holiday Performance. Mr. Moody started speaking of 1st and 2nd graders practicing for a "Christmas concert." My reaction was, huh, Christmas? So we asked for copies of the songs they were practicing and got them. There were about a dozen Christmas related songs and a couple of token Hanukkah songs. The well-known Silent Night was one of the songs. It is a beautiful piece of music, and it is just as beautiful when done a cappella, just vocals. But the words? It says in one verse, "Round yon virgin mother and child," and then, "Holy infant so tender and mild."

If orthogonality be defined...
We objected to Silent Night on the grounds that its verses expressed a specific religious doctrine, not a secular, cultural representation of Christmas like Rudolf or Frosty the Snowman, etc. We sent multiple e-mails to the teachers, the principal, and the district superintendent. We got nothing! I mean nothing, no reply no confirmation, NOTHING! So, I got on the phone. They said they had not received any of our e-mails. Three e-mails times four recipients all went somewhere in space? Never mind. I repeated everything on the phone, stressing to them that we objected to inclusion of any religious doctrine, regardless of its origin. As a matter of fact, the statements "virgin mother and child," and "holy infant," are entirely compatible with Islamic doctrine, but that did not matter. For the general good of everyone, we said, there should be no doctrine of any sort. Recalling the experience with the soccer coach, I said that we also would not accept for Moody to be excluded from any activity because that would be alienating him, and they needed to ensure that every curricular activity was fit for every student. I also told them that a 'fixed variety' is no variety, and that if they really wanted to do something about that, it might be well and timely for them to acknowledge Eid, which happens to fall in the "Holiday season" this year and happens to be celebrated by a significant number of students and families in the community.

Our interaction with the school staff was very friendly and very fruitful. They completely understood our concerns. They took Silent Night out of the program. They included classroom discussions about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan and Eid. Moody's teacher asked us for materials she could use on Eid. That put the ball in our court. Ouch! It is very difficult to find any suitable material, let alone find it in English. The teacher also made a good suggestion. Knowing Moody's reading skills, not to mention his being a complete ham, she suggested that Moody read a poem in the concert, something related to Eid. We looked hard to find something suitable. I finally found a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi, which is not about Eid per se but it reminded me of my conversation with Moody in last year's Eid. The poem was simply a little conversation between a mentor and an apprentice, in the Sufi context, but it could easily be a father-son conversation. So we printed it and Moody started practicing.

Show Time!

The concert was on Tuesday, December 18. We showed up early and got front-row seats. Moody was backstage with his two sheets of paper, with a brief Eid intro on one and the poem on the other. They held the show at the gym--standing room only! There must have been well over 200 people in the audience. Not one Somali family was there, as far as we could tell. Our Jordanian neighbors we meet at the school bus stop every morning? Not there. Oh, well...

I noticed, they had a microphone... Hmm, I thought of the potential and quickly dismissed the thought.

After a couple of numbers, a young man came to the microphone, two loose sheets of paper in hand. He said, "Hello, welcome, you are all here now." I looked over at his teacher, and I could read her thought: "Oh, no, Moody's mouth and a microphone...somebody call the fire department..." Moody did an excellent job! Of course he went off script and was actually doing a little improvised shtick! lol lol He turned around and was interacting with his mates, who were all just having a blast. The amazing thing is, he actually did his shtick to manage the pressure, and then he got right back on track, asking the audience, "Is the volume high enough?" Then he read a little intro about Eid and the poem that follows.

Moody introducing Eid-ul-Adha and reading a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi.
Holiday Performance, Whittier Elementary School, December 2007.

This is the week of Big Eid, a Muslim holiday in memory of Prophet Abraham and his son. In my family, Eid is about parent-child relations.

I am going to read a poem about a father and son conversation. It was written by the famous Muslim poet named Rumi.

Happy holidays to all of you.

["Now I am going to read the poem."]

I asked my mentor
In our happy hours
The ins and outs of this life
And far beyond
He said
Your salvation is on the way
When you try to take
People's pain away

Unknown existence
Undiscovered beauty
That's how you are
So far
One dawn
Just like a sun
Right from within
You will arise

All the precious words
You and I have exchanged
Have found their way
Into the heart of the universe
One day they'll pour on us
Like whispering rain
Helping us arise
From our roots again

[Jalaluddin Rumi, translated by Nader Khalili.]

When Ahmed was finished, there was a little silence, maybe contemplation and awe, or maybe wondering whether he was finished. He broke it by saying, "Where's the applaaaaaaaaaause?" lol lol He was the only solo act, and quite entertaining!

After the show, a couple of parents came over and complimented Moody, telling him what he'd done was really nice. "Work on his self confidence," the teacher joked. "We are," I replied. I told Moody, what he'd done was hard to do even for some adults. Maybe more important than the parents who were or weren't there, Moody's mates were full of joy and appreciation. Brandon, our neighbor, thought Moody was really funny. One girl, Libby, saw us leaving, and she ran back down the corridor, got real close to Moody and whispered, "I loved your performance!" Little Libby, too, did what some adults could not do. I am happy to let that moment of innocence usher in my Eid this year. Later today, the flag goes up over the garage door. No "ghiddeed" this year, might be a little tough to dry it. Life is not easy anywhere. But whether hard or easy, big or small, life would be tasteless without reason. That is the joy of our little Big Eid this year in buckeye land. Reason wins. How sweet it is! Happy Eid to all.

She thinks the world of her big brother! And she is still not too shy to kiss him.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Yes, say it again, Uncle Sam!

Well, well well... This year is another hat trick year for God, with Hanukkah, Christmas and Eid-ul-Adha falling in the span of a couple of weeks. Needless to say, for us it is a time to reflect on the thorny mess that has as ingredients: State, Religion, Education, Culture, Heritage, Equality, Citizenship, etc. It is a long story, but it will be the subject of another post, or maybe a series of posts. This season we are again in the midst of an interesting experience with the kids' school, but that is part of the long story to come... In one turn of that story, Hannu found a very interesting article by a teacher and author of children books. She writes to raise awareness of Islamic holidays. She lives in Ohio, interestingly enough, but her research on the subject is quite broad based, and her findings probably resonate with parents all around the Western world.

A small request: Please share this article with your local school teachers and administrators. We did.

Say the Word Again? Eid
An author and teacher strives to raise awareness about the Islamic holidays

By Fawzia Gilani-Williams -- School Library Journal, 12/1/2007

When I visit public libraries and peruse resources on children’s holiday literature, I am always confronted with a glaring absence. The two major celebrations in the Muslim world, Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha (see explanation boxes), seem remarkably obscure in American libraries. If I am fortunate, I may find one or two nonfiction titles addressing the topic. While informational books on the Islamic holidays are few, fictional tales are even more scarce. Not surprisingly, very few teachers and librarians are familiar with them. When I recently asked a group of children librarians if they had ever heard of Eid, there was silence. “Say the word again?” said one librarian. Even my computer’s spell-check, which recognizes holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa, underlines Eid in red–highlighting it as a mistake.

»

[Note: The article gives a link to a bibliography of Eid books for children, but that link is broken. I found the file, and you can view it in your browser, or download it as a Word document.]