Outside My Comfort Zone

Recently, I attended my first and (maybe) last photo-walk with the local Flickr group. I had looked forward to this walk for a month. I wanted to meet people from whom I could learn things, in a relaxed, pleasant atmosphere. Photography is fun, but it’s not easy.
The venue was a small town railway station about thirty miles south of my home. I arrived on time, and introduced myself to the group of four women and five men all carrying cameras. We shook hands and exchanged names. Most of the group had met each other at previous photo-walks, so I expected they’d start talking, but they didn’t. The leader told us the route we’d walk, and the things we’d find interesting to photograph– a garage for the trains, a town square with some of the oldest buildings in the state, and an old-fashioned ice cream shop.
We started walking. The clicks of shutters made more noise than any of the few words that passed between the walkers. When they did speak, they made small talk, saying nothing about photography. No one asked anyone questions about anything. No one gave me the time of day.
Cameras of all kinds hung around necks. Some walkers carried full-frame cameras with L lenses. One man must have been strapped with six thousand dollars worth of gear. My own is a Canon 60D, a respectable machine that gives me a challenge. Those people knew what they were doing, but they didn’t talk about it. I was disappointed. I meandered off on my own, as is my habit when I’m supposed to be in a group. Eventually we all came together again, in front of a bar. No one had missed me, and sure enough, they had to enter the bar for a beer.
I hate bars, and I don’t drink.  I went in with them in hopes that a beer would loosen their tongues and they’d start talking about photography. Their tongues loosened, but instead of talking about photography, they talked about drinking! The bar owner got friendly and told us the history of the bar, and how it was used as a hotel one hundred years ago. He took us upstairs, where several rooms had been preserved as they might looked back in the hotel days. We all took pictures in the heat, and sweated.
Afterwards, we continued our walk around the town square. They conversed more, about inconsequential matters having nothing to do with either photography or their personal lives. I wanted to know more about them, especially about those who might have been professional photographers, but I didn’t speak. At this point, I was curious to know whether any of them would say a single word to me.  One did, to tell me that a local custard stand owner is now on record as supporting the legalization of marijuana.
I couldn’t wait to reach the old-fashioned ice cream parlor and soothe my frustration with a Turtle. Surely then, when everyone was sitting, they’d talk about photography. They didn’t. They talked about those old rotary telephones we used in the sixties. The Turtle was also a disappointment. The caramel syrup was not caramel, but cheap, chemical butterscotch, and not much of it, thank goodness.
I ate it in silence. We threw our money on the table and walked outside into the heat. I said my phony, “goodbye-nice-to-have-met-you,” lines several times and headed for the parking lot. One other person headed there with me, as silent as the rest of them. Of course, I could have spoken to her, but by then, I felt as though I’d just spent two hours in the Twilight Zone. I restrained myself from running to the car.
During the next several days, most of the participants posted their images to the Flickr group . Every single one of their images was better than mine. Every one of those photographers knew how to use their equipment better than I did. Still wanting to learn from them, I looked for the EXIF data of their images. Several of them had chosen not to share their EXIF data. I had spent two hours with highly skilled photographers who didn’t talk about photography nor shared their technical data nor spoke to the new person– me– and yet, they all had seemed in good moods, happy enough to be doing what they were doing.
If an Arab had been amongst us, he or she would have gotten the life stories out of every one of us. None would have parted as strangers. I think, though, that this group’s  aloof attitude is typical of Americans. No one wants to invade the privacy of anyone else by asking personal questions or expressing interest that could be misinterpreted. Americans are touchy about their privacy and their independence.
Maybe they are behaving normally for Americans, however. I don’t know because I haven’t socialized with a group of Americans for thirty years. Maybe I am overreacting; it wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe it was me who exuded an air of aloof indifference; that, too, would not have happened for the first time.
I’ll continue to read, experiment, and improve my technique, but I’ll do my next photowalk by myself. If I overcome the sense of weirdness that enveloped me while walking with this group, I may walk with them again next month, to test the idea that they are simply geeky Americans, insular and provincial, but willing to open up when they realize I’m safe. We’ll see.

Hyphenated Names– for Women Only?

I’ve wanted to write this rant for months, and now I’ve succumbed to the urge.


Hyphenated names for non-Muslim  women make no sense to me.  They are long, phonetically awkward, and cumersome to write. They suggest that the poor woman didn’t know what name to call herself after marriage, so she simply tacked the married name on to the maiden name, much like one would add blond extensions to a full head of auburn hair.


I work in a hospital. Hyphenated names cause no end of confusion. They don’t fit on forms, they don’t get entered correctly in certain computer programs, they get mixed up, reversed,  exchanged with first names, and ulitmately abbreviated when expedient.


Some women hyphenate their names because both names consist of one syllable, and the two together sound better. Why don’t they finish combining the two into one,  forming a new name altogether, similar to the way in which John’s Son became Johnson? 


Why don’t they ask their husband to take the second name, as well? It seems ridiculous that a man has a single name, and his wife sticks  his name behind her maiden name, and what about the children? If the hyphenated name is given to the children, what names will their spouses use when they grow up and get married? 


Some women use a hyphenated name because one of the names has social recognition, but why not simply drop the obscure name and use the name that carries social weight?


Some women want to keep the maiden name, in a salute to feminism and the maintainance of identity, an awkward attempt  to exert themselves as equals, but it doesn’t work. When was the last time you heard that a husband tacked his wife’s maiden name onto his own, because he wanted to preserve his identity?


Ah, but we still live in a somewhat patriarchal society, feminism and working women notwithstanding. All family members should use the same name, the father’s name, no? In the olden days of my childhood, fathers were the “heads of family”, working outside the home,  carrying the entire financial responsibility for the well-being of the family, making all the important decisions. They were also the disciplinarians. Most people as old as I am remember their mother’s chilling words, “Wait til your father gets home!”


Now, however, most mothers work outside the home, too, many full-time, just like the father, and therefore feel entitled to share in the decision-making as well as  the  financial responsibility. Hyphenating their names may point to women’s desires to fully participate in the two major life roles most people embrace– working and having a family.


In Islam, women do not stick their husband’s names behind their own. The children carry the father’s last name. While this might suggest gender inequality, it recognizes the father as the head of the family.  Gender inequality, if you could call it that, does exist in Islam, in the sense that the father is supposed to work and bring home money, while the mother works inside the home, providing the kind of nurturing and domestic organization that is never paid its worth in currency. The deal for women is that they give up their earning power to gain financial security from the husband, and the right to stay home and raise their own children (rather then having to take them to day care).  The fact always remains, however, that he who pays the piper calls the tune.


Naming customs reflect the social, economic, and religious realities of families.  If hyphenated names for  non-Muslim women are meant to suggest  gender equality, then all family members must carry the hypenated names. Multiple  names are awkward, however, and suggest nothing but indecision or equivocation on the part of the woman. I don’t know how women are going to evolve in the future, with respect to “balancing” major life roles such as working and child-bearing.  


While I’m at it, let me add that I hate the word, “balance.” It suggests that two or more quantities can be manipulated so that their weights become equal. This is not the reality with regard to women who work and bear children during a twelve week maternity leave. Instead of  talking about balancing, let’s talk about  dividing. How does a woman divide herself so that both work and family get an equal share? Why must work and family get equal shares, anyway? In reality, they don’t, yet women keep trying,  whether they want to or not.  Hyphenated names are the objective correlative to the reality of Western women’s lives– cumbersome, awkward, and suggestive of division rather than unity.

Book Review: Love, Insha Allah

Book Review: Love, Insha Allah

The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Though Islam is growing in America, one bumps up constantly against ubiquitous incompatibilities between Islam and Western culture. Nowhere is this incompatibility more prominent than in an American Muslim woman’s search for a mate.

The stories in this book reveal the problematic position of American Muslim women who would like to get married. They must either make compromises, or take a hard line with respect to their religion, further limiting their chances for finding a mate in a society that is still composted of mostly non-Muslim residents. Some of these writers have shaved the edges off Islamic teachings , even to the extent of doing haram behavior, knowingly, deliberately. The instinct to find a mate and establish a family often takes precedence over familial and religious dictates regarding how to do so.

Islamic customs, which relied heavily on community relationships, now operate in an anemic facsimile of their original effectiveness. American customs for dating, sex and marriage, are not officially available to these women.To make matters worse, Muslim communities in the United States are composed of people from varying cultural and linguistic traditions. American Muslim women sit between a rock and a hard place; even men tiptoe across a loose tightrope when courting them.

When the Abrahamic religions were being codified, the human life span was much shorter. Young people did not have to navigate a prolonged period (named adolescence) between childhood and adulthood.  Mating occurred at  physical maturation. These days, physical maturation plays second fiddle to religious mores that were not written for adolescence or homosexuality. Add to that the economic and educational demands of today that also postpone marriage well beyond the best physical stage for it.

At least one of my readers will remind me that Islam is applicable to all peoples for all times, and to that reader I say, “Then it will have to find a way to reconcile human nature with the unnatural frustration arising out of modern  adolescence. It will also have to accommodate an increasing incidence of homosexuality.”

Homosexuality, by the way, does not recede when it manifests in a Muslim, and several of these writers are brave enough to talk about it. One would think that if Allah hated homosexuality enough to forbid it, He would give us better tools for coping with it in a halal manner, but this is not the case. Homosexuality will prove to arise from physiological  and genetic predispositions, and therefore will never be responsive to blame or volition on the part of those who find themselves claimed by it.

I respect the women who’ve told their stories, and I admire their courage in trying to find a third way, a way to live as Muslims and as Americans, partaking in the blessings of both identities and navigating the inherent troubles. Some women have tossed Islamic teachings out the window, while others have have cut themselves off from the benefits for which people choose to live in America.  None, however, have turned their backs on Islam, itself, and most have become stronger in faith as a result of their trials, regardless of whether they succeeded in finding a mate.

Not all the essays are marked by conflict or frustration. Several of the women met their husbands in the traditional Islamic way, through the help of parents and relatives, without having to date and sift through a succession of boyfriends. These women are the lucky minority. Several others met their husbands by means unconventional in either American or Islamic cultures; their stories prove that finding a mate need not conform to a strict prescription.

The women represented in this book are pioneers, and through them, especially with respect to how they raise their children, a stable American Islam will develop.  Oh, I know. There’s no such thing as “American Islam” or “Saudi Islam” or, or… Well, yes there is. How do you suppose Islam, or any other religion, survives over the centuries, migrates to different continents, and serves populations that have never have heard of one another? An Islam that thrives in the West is still evolving.  This book forms a link in the process, and will eventually be regarded as an historical document. I hope the children of this book’s authors will read their mothers’ stories with a sense of relief because they will not have to blast through the moral and social difficulties endured by their parents.

Pronounce Your Name Correctly, Please

The Muslim families in my community want to build a mosque. They are tired of driving thirty minutes to the central mosque downtown; they want a mosque in their neighborhood. They convened and bought a piece of land, drew plans and submitted the project to the city for a conditional use permit. Naturally, some of the surrounding non-Muslim families objected.

Tonight I attended a City Hall meeting regarding whether the project should be granted its permit. Several hundred people attended, many of whom stood at the podium for as long as three minutes each, voicing their support or objection. For two hours, the people took turns speaking their minds. Three local television stations swung their cameras around to catch the action.

I sat in the middle of the room and listened. I was pleased to hear nearly ninety percent of speakers urge for approval of the permit. Most speakers were Muslims, but of the non-Muslims, most of them, too, voiced approval and even welcome of the addition of a mosque to the neighborhood.

Two people gave strong objections. Those two were featured on the television news broadcasts later.

Watching TV, one would think that a mosque on the magnitude of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was being considered. In reality, the mosque will be small, with only 114 prayer spaces (including the women’s section). Our community has 100 Muslim families that would use the facility. Many of those families were in attendance tonight. Each person who spoke introduced him or herself.

I was appalled to hear some of them mispronounce their own names. Men named Ahmed called themselves Amed. One named Hassan called himself Hassahn (accent on the last syllable.) A woman named Suhair became Sue Hair. Khalid became Kalid, Iman became Eye Man, and Quraishi became Kereshi. My poor ears nearly curled up and folded over!

Several years ago, I met the wife of one of the Ahmeds, and even she pronounced her husband’s name, “Amed.” I asked her why, and she gave me the predictable answer, “Americans cannot pronounce Ahmed.”  I wanted to say, “But you can pronounce it!” I wanted to tell her not to cave in to poor pronunciation simply because the majority of people in this country cannot pronounce the names. I wanted to tell her that many people here can, indeed, pronounce the names correctly, especially if they want to do so. They need a little tutoring, and then they’ll pronounce just fine! As a native-born American who did not pronounce my first Arabic word til the age of thirty-six, I disagree that most Americans cannot pronounce Muslim names, or  any names in a language other than English. A name is just a short sound that can be learned in a matter of minutes.

Well, I didn’t tell her all of this; that would have been impolite. I’m telling it to you now, you who read this and might have a name you think,  “Americans can’t pronounce.” You may be right. Some non-Muslims, non-Arabic speakers may never be able to pronounce your name, but you must make them try. They’ll respect you for it, and you’ll respect them because they will try. Some of them will actually learn their first non-English word– your name!

Learning names is a first step in forming relationship. Muslims are missing out on an important step in building relationship when, in their eagerness for acceptance, they do not teach their names, but instead pick up the incorrect pronunciation of native English speakers. I wonder whether the people who objected to the mosque in question had ever met a Muslim person, let alone been taught a Muslim name.

Blogging a Book

Blogs, Books, and Good Writing

Blogs and books don’t share much in common, at first glance, but they should share the most important, critical aspect of the written word: good writing. Now that blogs have “grown up” as a literary form, blog authors need to  pay attention to craft.

Nina Amir is a writer, coach and editor of both books and blogs. Her guidance not only improves the writing of blogs, but opens an avenue for bloggers to publish their work in book form. Since many blog readers are blog writers, I offer her website as an invaluable tool for those whose blogs could, or should, be published as books:


I’ve read several blogs that deserve to be immortalized in books, and I’ve read at least one book that started out as a blog:  


I’ve considered using my own blog to construct a book, eventually. Book or no book, a blog should offer good writing. I encourage all who  write blogs to learn about the craft of writing, even if their blogs are simply places in which they release a pressing stream-of-consciousness. Readers deserve good writing.

Book Review– The Butterfly Mosque

Book Review
The Butterfly Mosque
by G. Willow Wilson

To say that this book was written by an American woman who went to Egypt, explored Islam, became Muslim, married an Egyptian, and spent a year assimilating into Egyptian society, would be like saying that a human body is composed of a skeleton holding organs and covered by skin. The inner workings of both processes are wonderful, complex, and beyond easy description.

By now, anyone interested in the topic can find numerous accounts of Western women who fell in love Arab men, married, moved to the Middle-East, and brought back stories of assimilation and/or abandonment. This story is different.  Willow went to Egypt with nothing more than a niggling urge to explore Islam and the people who live it. She was raised an atheist, and therefore did not wrestle with the usual conundrum of whether or not Jesus was the son of God, a savior (and all that is borne of that belief). She decided (without the help of a Muslim boyfriend) that the evidence for the existence of God not only held water, but held water within Islam.

Youth and nature being what it is, Willow did fall in love with an Egyptian and got married. Her story, however, does not focus upon this process, or upon the religious conversion. Hers is a story that pulls together the disparate elements of her life into a whole that makes sense. Hers is a multi-layered story that not only reveals who she is as an American, but who the Egyptians are, and how the enormous, but sometimes subtle differences between American and Egyptian culture really do clash in ways we cannot even predict.

She writes authentically, honestly. I know this because I, too, married an Egyptian, and I spent a little time in Egypt. No American can write about living in Egypt without addressing the difficulties of daily life there, or the discomfort of trying to stay healthy in a polluted environment. At the same time, no one can deny the spirit of generosity and optimism  that percolates through the national character of Egyptians.  Egyptians themselves are what make Egypt livable and actually loveable.

This book is well-written from several perspectives. Stylistically, it flows well, without the inconsistencies that sometimes pervade first memoirs.  Willow is a good writer, and she knows how to weave objective reality with her own inner reality to present a narrative that carries the reader in and out seamlessly.

I admit to suffering from a sort of jealousy. Willow had the blessing of marrying a man she could talk to, a man whose world view expanded beyond the boundaries of Egypt. Her husband encouraged her to learn colloquial Arabic. Many Arab husbands do not. Willow also drew upon enough intestinal fortitude to stick with Egypt for an extended period of time, long enough to accomplish a decent assimilation.

I married an Egyptian who had what we euphemistically call “issues.” Also, though I loved visiting Egypt, I could never stay in Cairo for more than five days before becoming sick and stressed to the point that I’d have to leave.  I’d dreamed of attending school there to learn Arabic, but a dream is what remains after all these years. I miss Egypt. I miss the Middle-East. Willow’s book reminded me why, and renewed my sense of who I am as a result of where I’ve lived.

This book is a gift to those who would venture into the waters of an intercultural life. It is especially good reading for those who have an interest in Egypt– not from an academic point of view but from the view at street level.

Confession– Envious of Evangelicals

My mother worships at an evangelical mega-church, one of those “born-again” organizations that have sprung up across the United States in recent years. Her church, like others of its kind, has attracted thousands of members and their dollars, keeps growing year after year, adding programs and services, expanding and developing its capacity for Christian outreach, with single-minded focus, dedication, and effectiveness.

This particular church dedicates itself to global ministry. It now trains and supports full-time missionaries to dozens of countries around the world. The missionary families go to “third world” countries ostensibly to teach, administer medical care, or develop cottage industries for women and children. They return to the States from time to time to give presentations on their progress.  They sometimes bring back human proof of their success.

Recently, my mom came back from church energized by one of these presentations.  A pair of Romanian girls gave a heartfelt speech about they had been rescued from prostitution by the missionaries, and how thankful they felt for their new faith in Jesus. My mom wanted me to be interested in the story, and I pretended, for her sake, to be interested, but inside, my heart cringed.

While Christian mega-churches organize, proselytize, work together, and rejoice in their success, Muslims are still trying to separate Islam from political terrorism. While Christian evangelicals bury their real goal in the delivery of desperately needed social and economic services that should be available to all people in all places, without an underlying religious impetus, Muslims are still fussing about head-scarves and the rights of women to drive cars and work outside the home. 

The Christian evangelicals, like the Tea Party to which most of them belong, are doing something right in America, right in terms of achieving their goals. I don’t like evangelicals, with their back-door approach, and I despise the Tea Party, with its contempt for the rest of us. I recognize that my negative attitude towards these groups masks a sort of jealousy. I want to see Muslim mega-mosques– here,  in the United States—- doing the rescuing, the teaching, the doctoring, and the ministering to populations that need these services. 

Oh, I know, we are making progress. My community’s Islamic Center continues to grow in size and influence. An additional mosque is planned for my end of town, but maybe I’m still “homesick” for the Muslim majority environment in which I cultivated my Islam. Maybe I still miss hearing the azan from a dozen nearby mosques. Maybe I wish daily activities could be planned around prayer times rather than business hours. Maybe I wish restaurants could close during the days of Ramadan.

Evangelicals are certainly supported by the culture of the masses. American culture has evolved around the daily practices of Christians, not Muslims, and therein lies an impediment to the further integration of the Muslim lifestyle into the American mainstream. Muslims must insert themselves into this pre-existing culture, rather than build one from scratch. My community offers instruction on Sundays and calls it, “Sunday School.”

The evidence does show that Muslim communities are growing is size and influence, right here in my community. I must give thanks for this, rather than let my heart sink because of the superiority of evangelical efforts. Islam has not matured in America, and will not mature in the near future. In some ways, living here as a Muslim is more difficult for me than for a Muslim who was either raised in a Muslim society or converted to Islam without having lived in a Muslim country. I was raised as a member of the majority, and converted to Islam while living in a Muslim majority. I don’t like being a member of the minority with respect to religion.

This is my personal struggle. I accept it.

Sweet Hasan, and Why I Work

A few weeks ago, while visiting my grandson, he said, “Stay with me, Gramma. Don’t go to work tomorrow.”

“I have to go to work,” I replied. “I’d love to stay with you, but tomorrow is a work day, and I have to work tomorrow.”

“No! I don’t want you to go to work!” he cried, tears erupting from his eyes.

“I don’t want to go to work, either, Habibi, but I have to go.”

He pouted, with big, dreamy eyes and a poked out lip. “No more work,” he begged.

“I’m sorry, Hasan, but I have to go to work. That’s how I get my money. If I don’t work, I don’t get money. Without money, I can’t buy gas for my car, and I can’t come and see you, and I can’t take you places or buy toys for you.”

His eyebrows drew down as he thought about this. “Buy me toys?”

“Yes,” I replied, relieved that I’d touched a spot that would help him let me go.

He brightened. “OK! You can go to work tomorrow!”


This morning, Hasan phoned me and asked, “Gramma, do you have to go to work today?”

“Yes, Sweetheart, I’m sorry. I have to go to work today.”

“No! I don’t want you to go to work!”

“I don’t want to go, either. I’d rather spend the day with you, but I need to get more money.”

“Why do you need money?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, suddenly feeling the weight of work and the need for money, “I need money to pay for my food, my clothing, my electricity, my car… and to buy you toys! Remember? I need money to buy you toys.”

“Gramma,” he said slowly, “I don’t need any more toys.”


As true as it is that I need to work, and as true as it is that thousands of people are now out of work and cannot earn money even for their basic needs, I felt resentful that I cannot spend the day with this lovely boy, this dear boy who is getting his first lesson in the necessity for work, and isn’t liking it.


On second thought, I could have given him a more positive lesson. I should have said something about contributing to society, making myself useful to others by means of work, fulfilling my need to do productve activity, etc., but that would have been false, and he would have known it.

For me, work is nothing more than a means to make money, and I work no more than absolutely necessary to earn the absolute minimum needed to live comfortably. Ironically, my work was the sole reason I ended up in Riyadh, and that was an experience I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

No Pooping on My Property!

Yesterday morning, I noticed a man lingering at the end of my driveway. I went to the door for a better look, and saw that he held a leash, at the end of which a little dog was poking its nose in the grass. “Not again,” I thought to myself. I come upon this scene regularly, with different men, women, and dogs, but the scenario remains the same. The dog wants to poop, and the owners think nothing of letting it poop on my property.

When seeing this, I always go outside and say, “Good morning,” or, “Good afternoon,” or whatever, and quickly proceed before it’s too late, “Please do not let your dog poop on my lawn.”

Invariably, the adult holds up the little plastic bag, the glove and the spoon, and says, “I pick up,” as though that should reassure me, but they misunderstand.

“Yes, I know you pick up, but I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t let your dog poop on my grass.”

At this point, I might get a dirty look, but you’d be surprised how many dog-walkers repeat the bit about picking up the poop. They actually think I should be OK with dogs pooping on my lawn simply because they pick it up. What they don’t realize is that they can never pick it up entirely.  Traces remain, and other dogs smell it and think they’ve found the toilet.  Also, I have to walk on that lawn when I cut it, and my grandkids run on it when the weather is nice.

Yesterday, after the man shook his little plastic bag at me, and repeated, “I pick up,” and I repeated, “Yes, I know, but I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t let your dog poop on my grass,” he replied, “Don’t worry, she won’t do anything.”

I stood there for a moment, watching the dog root around for a likely spot. “You can let your dog poop over there,” I suggested, gesturing to the neighbor’s lawn, “or over there,” I added, gesturing to the lawn across the street.

“Don’t worry, she won’t do anything,” he repeated.

I started walking toward him, not wanting to become rude, but feeling my heart-rate accelerate.

“I’m asking you nicely not to let your dog poop on my grass,” I said, and he finally pulled the dog along. I stood there until they meandered across the street, where the dog immediately dropped its nose and then its haunches.


During my twelve years in Riyadh, the only dog I ever saw was a big brindle Boxer running loose in the city. I felt sorry for the dog, who had obviously escaped from his Western expat compound, and was now lost. He would come to a bad end in Riyadh, where no one loved dogs, and no one kept them.

Most Arabs dislike dogs, and will avoid them. Their abhorrence originates from a religious belief in the ritual impurity of dogs, a belief that is controversial, and sometimes exaggerated.

Before living in Riyadh, I loved dogs, but after twelve years during which not a single dog crossed my path, except that poor loose Boxer, I was used to living without them. In fact, I grew to appreciate an atmosphere free of dog hair, dog breath, and other leavings. I started to wonder why anyone in his/her right mind would keep a dog in the house, and have to feed it, clean up after it, walk it, and treat it somewhat like a member of the family.

Upon repatriation, I noticed that most American households— most, I am not kidding— had dogs. Some people kept more than one. Strangely, all these dogs sat home in empty houses every day because everyone worked.

When I was a youngster in the 1950s, only married couples with children kept dogs. Single people did not keep dogs or even cats, out of a consideration for the emotional well-being of the animal. We believed that pets should not stay alone all day while adults  worked. We believed that domesticated animals belonged with families where women stayed home and took care of the household matters, including dogs, and children came home from school early enough to take dogs for walks before dinner.

Anyway, today’s pet owners think nothing of leaving their dogs and cats home alone all day, sometimes in crates. These people are clearly in the majority, but I remain in the minority. I still don’t believe pets belong in empty houses while the human occupants run off to work or school all day, and sometimes into the evening.

In any event, I do not want dogs pooping on my lawn. I’m ready to put up a few NO POOPING signs. I’ve seen these little signs in stores, but my mom (with whom I live) thinks they look tacky, so I have to keep an eye on the lawn through the front window. I’m on the poop-patrol, and I chalk up one more way in which my Riyadh years changed my life in a fundamental way, taking me further away from mainstream America than I could have imagined.

A Difference of Degree, not Substance?

With the approach of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we are seeing many programs on TV, on the Internet, and in print media, programs that honor the lost lives as well as try to heal the residual emotional trauma felt as a nation and as individuals. We see programs outlining the museum and park that has been built on ground zero,and also programs that underscore the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America.

This last focus– upon the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America, concerns me.

I was laying on an acupuncture table when the planes hit the towers. The partitioner did not know I was Muslim– I do not cover. My gut reaction was that “Muslims” did it, and that I did not want to be associated with those who had caused the catastrophe. I did not want to belong to same religion they belonged to, especially after they’d used that religion to justify their heinous, megalomaniac cruelty.  From that day forward, I stopped efforts to practice Islam here in America, where the practice of Islam is a challenge, to say the least. This was not an active decision on my part. I merely stopped. If I had not embraced Islam years before 9/11, I would not have done so afterwards.

As the chain of events leading to the catastrophe unfolded, two words were heard repeatedly: extremists and fundamentalists. I cringed, as I still cringe, every time I hear these words. They imply that those who fit the definitions are indeed Muslims, just like the rest of the Muslim community, with the exception that their ideology had taken on an “extreme” character. Their ideology is one of degree, not substance.

That means that the entire Muslim community holds similar views, but stop short of committing murder. First-hand accounts from Middle Eastern countries support this idea. Muslims were seen celebrating, smiling, cheering, as the images of the falling towers dominated the screens and headlines. Those Muslims, surely, endorsed the ideology of the terrorists, and were maybe too cowardly to act upon those convictions, therefore cheered the handful of brave souls who gave their lives for their ideals.  Books have been written to prove that Islam is a religion of force, misogyny, and oppression of all.

Over the years, Muslims groups have denounced the terrorists and tried to convince the greater society that Islam does not condone terrorism and murder in the name of Allah. Qur’anic ayahs have been dug up to testify to Islam’s peaceful nature. Why has that message not prevailed? Why, for instance, does the opposition to the New York Mosque project still chug along?

Well, Muslims themselves have not eradicated these two words: extremism and fundamentalism.

They have never said, “There is not such thing as extremism. There is no such thing as fundamentalism. The majority Muslims practice Islam using the customs and rituals into which they have been born, and much diversity flourishes. Men and women who murder in the name of Allah are not Muslims. The constellation of ideals and acts that are commonly referred to as extremism and fundamentalism do not embody the spirit of Islam, nor illustrate its teachings. People who subscribe to them are not Muslims. They may have been born into Muslim families, or they may have embraced ideals of terror and murder as a result of mental illness or severe political oppression that have nothing to do with Islam, but they are not Muslims.”

As long as the Muslim community cannot say the above, it implies that extremism and fundamentalism are indeed, part of Islam, and that the difference between peaceful Muslims and terrorist Muslims is one of degree, not substance.