Greetings and salaams all,

I’m blogging these days at my new website at www.barakabirth.com and hope to connect with you there!

 

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Newborn in Haiti

Germ of new life, whose powers expanding slow
For many a moon their full perfection wait,—
Haste, precious pledge of happy love, to go
Auspicious borne through life’s mysterious gate.
(Anna Laetitia Barbauld)

Sometimes, after a thing has happened, I can look back at it and realize that it worked perfectly. I feel that way about my marriage; all the little moving pieces fit together right at a time when any one of them could have thrown the whole thing off. A birth, two nights ago now, was like this.

Worried about slow fetal development, the doctors scheduled an induction two weeks before her due date. As if to prove that her body knew exactly what it was doing, and that the baby was right where he needed to be, she went into labor two days before it was scheduled. She could barely feel her contractions, though they expected labor to pick up and move quickly at any moment. I arrived at the hospital to find her and her husband chatting calmly. “Oh, you didn’t need to hurry!” they laughed. About a half hour later, the contractions had strengthened and moved into her lower back; she was unable to talk through them. The mood changed, became quieter. Her husband put on The Burda, a beautiful poem in Arabic that gave a rhythm to her swaying. The midwife had a lavender and clary sage massage oil that I used to rub her back, applying counter-pressure during contractions. Very quickly, she started to feel the urge to push.

Time moves differently in a delivery room. I look at the clock and then am startled looking again, an hour having passed. I don’t know how long it took, certainly no more than two hours from when I arrived to the moment the baby did. It happened quickly, but there were places where time stopped.

The baby was small and feisty, all squall, an Apgar score of 9. I cried a little, hearing his first yop. He immediately calmed against his mother’s breast and quietly observed, little eyes blinking and searching. The midwife told us that a mother’s body regulates the baby’s temperature; a woman’s body will spontaneously heat up if it senses the baby’s temperature is too low. Things like this floor me, grip my heart, fill me with awe. He seemed content there, as if this was just a change of scenery, nothing to be afraid of.

I am reminded of how much I love this work.

A very good and old friend of mine, my oldest friend even, told me that she is 12 weeks pregnant. Another friend emailed me the images from her first ultrasound, titled “waving!” I am filled with so much joy at all this life in orbit around me. I’m counting time in trimesters, in birthdays, first steps, first words. I can count on two hands the number of pregnant friends, on one hand the number who have just given birth. I know they’re pregnant the moment before they tell me; the tone of voice they use, the pause before they begin. For the first-time mothers, which make up most of my friends, I am aware of the threshold they are crossing. Pregnancy is that liminal state of knowing/not knowing/unknowing, of remaking. Anthropologist Victor Turner called the threshold, the limen, “a realm of pure possibility where novel configurations of ideas and relations arise.” It can be unbalancing, frightening, unreal, or too-real, but it can come back into balance, it can bring a new center, can be an umbilicus to other worlds. I have been rolling the word alterity around on my tongue; during the birth, the external fetal heart rate monitor kept slipping, such that the screen would regularly display his heartbeat, then hers, then his. Another pregnant friend remarked to me that she has only ever known herself one way, has only ever related to her body as hers, has only ever been her-self. Women cross boundaries so beautifully.

Happy thing: tomorrow morning I’m flying to San Francisco, and since it’s for work I’m staying in a fancy-ish hotel (as opposed to couch-surfing) and my meals are covered (yay, no shoe-leather soup or cardboard sandwiches!).

Sad thing: My husband has given me the flu. Oh, and my flight is at 5:30 am. Which means that I have approximately 12 hours to completely recuperate. Otherwise I’ll be that horrible person on the flight that everyone gives dagger eyes.

I’ve been doing the following, and can recommend any of these to others to treat a viral infection. Incidentally, the flu is a virus, and treating it with antibiotics is not only not the correct approach, but it’s harmful to one’s body: a single antibiotic treatment kills off nearly all of the bacterial flora we have going on in our guts, and we need those little guys. Friends don’t let friends kill bacterial flora.

1. Taking tinctures of echinacea/goldenseal  for immunity, yerba santa/plantain for sinuses, and ground ivy for sinuses. I’m particularly fond of the yerba santa, as I can immediately feel it working.

2. Lots of teas with reishi mushrooms and astragalus for immunity, anti-viral sumac, marshmallow and slippery elm for my throat, licorice for the adrenals, comfrey for sinuses, and ginger to warm me up.

3. Eating weird but powerfully anti-viral dehydrated sumac and taking an amazing elderberry syrup.

I’m not better yet, but I’d like to think that this herbal regimen is helping me get better faster, and preventing me from getting much, much sicker. And hopefully, with a little luck and a lot more sumac, I’m going to beat this thing before heading to the airport…

I was going through some old computer files and found this sheet of notes that I took while chatting with a friend who is a specialist in the Hanafi fiqh of menstruation, shortly after I converted. It continues to be useful, and hilarious. I have no explanation for the cat-mouse scene, or happy stars, but they make me smile.

 

I’ve moved quite a bit over my lifetime, and when people ask me where I’m from I respond with whatever state, or country, best fits how I feel in the moment. I spent significant time in suburban Maryland, with which I have the least affinity. I lived in India as a child, went to high school in France, and spent a year each in both Cairo and Doha. I feel varying degrees of fondness for each of those places, but the one city that scoops me up in her sweaty embrace and covers me in kisses is New Orleans, where I spent seven of the best years of my life. When people ask, that’s usually where I say I’m from. New Orleans is special. Tamar Taylor, an artist, wrote something I’ve always thought summed it up best:

The allure of the city is inigmatic [sic] and subjective. For me it resides in dichotomies: joy/tragedy, devout/hedonistic, criminal/hospitable, arrogance/humility, apathetic/spontaneous, corrupt/generous, elegant/seedy, eccentric/mundane–one could go on and on. It is the fact that these dichotomies are not polarized that sets New Orleans apart…

I grew up there, in the sense that I started learning how to live, and it’s where I discovered Islam. It’s also where I learned what food really tastes like (note–I might have learned this in France had I not been such a sulky teenager), where I learned how to give directions based on restaurants instead of street names, and where I found out what food culture means. By the time I left the city, I took pride in the fact that a good percentage of my daily conversations were dedicated to food. I spoke with friends, colleagues, and strangers alike about where to go to get the best po-boy (Parkway Tavern, oyster), who had the tastiest french-fries (Delachaise, because after all, what doesn’t taste amazing fried in duck fat?), which was the best restaurant lost in the storm (Marisols, R.I.P.), and how to cook seafood gumbo. New Orleans is the sort of place where you can spend every weekend at a different food festival (strawberries, shrimp, crawfish, oysters, gumbo, mirlitons, po-boys), or overhear cops arguing with all seriousness about whose mama bakes the better king cake. And speaking of king cakes, the king cake eating ritual (in which a cake is shared, and whoever gets the plastic baby baked inside is lucky, or the king, or buys the next cake) is an essential aspect of the Mardi Gras season and not to be trifled with. The point is, New Orleans is where I learned what it meant to be part of a living, breathing, vital food culture.

Food cultures are important. Famed food writer M. F. K. Fisher wrote “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” To me, a food culture galvanizes these connections into a meaningful network, where food is about place, pride, identity, and pleasure. Not the exotic pleasures of taking a bite of something new, but the pleasure of the familiar. I can give an example that I suspect many can relate to, especially women, who tend to have a particular relationship to food preparation and gatherings. Half of my family is Polish, and for each holiday on the Polish Catholic calendar specific foods are shared. As a child, I always ate pierogies, mushroom soup, and smoked fish on Christmas Eve for a dinner called Wigilia. All across the world Poles are eating these foods on December 24th of every year. Pierogies are dumplings typically filled with some combination of potato, caramelized onions, slow-cooked and deeply flavorful mushrooms, and cheese, topped with butter, more onions, and sour cream. They’re simple enough to make: prepare and roll out the dough, prepare the stuffing, fill, pinch, boil, fry, but it takes a certain finesse to ensure that they don’t come out looking mangled, or burst during the boiling stage. I have finally come to a point in my life where I can make a perfect pierogie, and for this I am immensely proud. Every bite I take of a pierogi that tastes just like my mother’s, or my grandmother’s, I count as a great triumph. It calls to mind holidays and gatherings throughout my life, and the pleasures of familial communion.

In his book Blithe Tomato, a series of reflections on farmer’s markets and farming in Northern California, Mike Madison writes:

With enough repetitions, a certain perfection creeps into things. The pianist who begins her daily practice by playing some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations finds that after thirty years she has not become tired of this piece. Indeed, it continues to reveal new depths. This is not just because of the complexity of the relationships between each note and all the other notes. It also has to do with the ten thousand previous performances, some on joyful days, others on grievous ones, which have somehow permeated the score so that every phrase is laden with layers of memory. And our lunch of tomatoes with basil and grilled aubergine on toast is similarly freighted. It is not just a July lunch, it is also an unconscious echo of all those other Julys, the ones before we had children, when things were simpler, and then when the children were small and their little faces crumpled into dismay and betrayal at their first taste of aubergine. We’re not actively thinking of these things at lunch; but they are an unacknowledged condiment that flavors the experience. (136)

Food cultures are not static. Buying a tomato at the grocery store twelve months out of the year is the death of true food culture, because food changes as seasons change. Those of us who shop at farmer’s markets know that what’s available in March is not what’s for sale in September. All of the New Orleans festivals I mentioned above are harvest festivals, corresponding with the peak harvest of a particular fruit or vegetable, and thus are scattered throughout the year. Madison’s tomatoes, basil, and aubergine are July staples. Because they are as much about place as they are about taste, true food cultures situate us indelibly where we are, which is why shawerma in Egypt is different from Palestine, and each Palestinian village has it’s own way of making maqluba.

Lately I’ve been thinking about food culture in the United States, and what has happened to it over the last century. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her chronicle of a year on an Appalachian farm with her family, Barbara Kingsolver writes:

The main barrier between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint–virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. The virtues seem to find precious little shelter, in fact, in any modern quarter of this nation founded by Puritans. Furthermore, we apply them selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances (the story goes), will they know it’s true value. “Blah blah blah,” hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now. We’re raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires. (31)

Kingsolver argues that to revive, or to reconnect with a true food culture means eating locally and seasonally. In eating with the seasons, we become aware of a different kind of abundance. In celebrating harvests, in admiring the color and flavor of a backyard vegetable or crawfish boil, in growing our own food, in witnessing the absolute miracle that is the emergence of a shoot from the speck of a seed, and in sharing that abundance with the people around us, we fully live in place, and together wade through bounty.

I originally wrote this post for Beyond Halal, a project on Islamic law, ethics, and food, but wanted to share it here.

I recently completed my apprenticeship with the Boston School of Herbal Studies, which culminated with the exchange of all the various herbal products that students had been making throughout the year. I had made a variety of tinctures (in a nutshell: by soaking herbs in a menstruum, typically vodka or apple cider vinegar, for an extended period) and I received a variety in return, as well as teas, salves, soaps, and even a mugwort, lavender, and flax seed eye pillow, which I am never very far from in bed.

One of my favorite gifts so far has been a tincture of Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, a strange little plant that grows in the woods in the Northeast. It lacks chlorophyll so the entire plant is a ghostly white, and instead of growing to face the sun the flowers bend over towards the earth. We learned in class that it is used for pain and especially intense pain, but it can also be used to induce or support meditative and strange, but not unpleasant states. The tincture is an unusual violet shade, and the flavor reminds me of sweet dark soil. It’s also taken medicinally as a nervine, antispasmodic, febrifuge, and likely other things as well. The roots are used, and the flowers are notoriously delicate; they essentially disintegrate upon handling.

Indian Pipe in Massachusetts

I went for a walk in the woods a few months ago and kept spotting Indian Pipe. Herbalists believe that if one is drawn to a particular plant, then there’s something there worth exploring. Indian Pipe is hard to find if you don’t know what to look for, but my eyes kept falling on it. At one point I sat down with the plant quietly and just listened. There’s an idea in Islam that all plants and animals and even inanimate objects are engaged in the worship of God, that they are naturally in a state of pure submission (and various prophets and saints were acclaimed to have been able to tune into the speech and states of other created things), and that’s what I bring to these quiet little chats with plants. Believing that we are all here with a purpose, I asked the plant what it had to teach. The impression I got was one of black earth, the worms crawling inside, the secretive movements of life beyond what we could see and where we choose to look, and of connections between life and death. When I had the opportunity to try Indian Pipe as a tincture in class, I had a similar sense of the plant. I also had the feeling that my perception just sort of sat like a bird on my shoulder, and then went to the corner of the room and took in the space and conversations inside.

After weeks of constant work, I finally had a quiet few hours last night for prayers and zikr. I wanted to see what Indian Pipe could bring to this. In prayer, in ruku’, I kept thinking of these little plants bent over. It occurred to me that they are constantly in this state of ruku’, of acknowledging their smallness before the divine. This is the part of prayer where the words suhbhanna rabb al-adheem are recited, glorified is the Lord, The Greatest, and I thought of them whispering this. I also felt that I was surrounded by these plants, praying in congregation with them. It was a lovely vision. Throughout, I felt relaxed and clear and engaged.

It’s not something that I would want to use regularly, but I’m happy to have it on my shelf and in my life.

There’s a thing that happens to me at weddings more than it happens anywhere else. Maybe it’s the somewhat increased sense of intimacy that people seem to have, that we’re not quite strangers simply because we’re there for the common purpose of celebrating a mutual friend’s love for someone else. They come up to me, maybe ask a warm up question, and then go straight into “So! You’re Muslim?” There are various permutations of this awkward question, and usually no follow up. “You’re Muslim?” “Uh, yes.” “Oh.” End of conversation.

I’ve been to two weddings recently, and this happened at both. In Arizona, a woman clearly too uncomfortable to ask about the Muslim thing just pointed to what I was wearing (a lovely, carefully-planned ensemble) and asked “So! Do those colors have some meaning in your culture?” “Uh, I was sort of going for an Arizona-sunset theme.” Awkward silence. Incidentally, she was wearing a black dress and had I been a different sort of girl I would have pointed out that in our culture that’s the color we wear to funerals. At the most recent wedding in New Orleans, I was chatting with someone when a guy walked up, cut right in and asked “Sunni or Shi’ite?” I stared blankly at him, not sure of whether I’d just heard him correctly. “You are Muslim, right?” “Oh, um, yes, uh, Sunni.” End of conversation. Later on I’m getting a glass of water from the bar and a beady-eyed fellow sidles up cautiously and asks how I know the bride. “We went to school together, and I’m so happy to see her getting married. He’s such a wonderful guy!” “Are you Muslim, or did you become Muslim?” “Um…oh, uh, I’m Muslim.” End of conversation.

There is a part of the brain, I’m sure, that regulates rude behavior. That’s generally why we don’t go around saying things that make other people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, and why we hasten to correct unfavorable impressions or misunderstandings. Why does that slice of brain matter seem to shut off in my presence? On the one hand, I’d rather people ask the questions they have and realize that I’m a friendly and approachable person who is willing to engage in conversation, and to be, perhaps, the first Muslim they’ve met, and for them to understand that Muslims can be normal, friendly, approachable people too. On the other hand, people, before you ask that question, please, please ask yourself whether you’d ask someone in a yarmulke “Oh! Are you a Jew?” or whether before even asking someone’s name you’d ask “Catholic or Protestant?” It comes off as ignorant and obnoxious.

One last vignette. I was sitting with a friend at the New Orleans wedding when the father of the groom sat down and asked our names. Then, he turned to me and said “Are you Muslim?” Sigh. Yet again. “Yes.” “Well! Asalaamu alaykum!” Smiling broadly, I replied “Alaykum salaam!” “Kayfahalluk?” Beaming now, “Alhamdulillah!” “Tamam!” He went on to explain that he’d spent ten years working in Dubai and sincerely enjoyed his time living and traveling in the Arab world. We had a lovely, charming conversation and he singlehandedly made up for all the other silly questions that other people had asked and restored my faith in humanity. Love it when that happens!