When Naguib Mahfouz – the prince of the Arabic novel – accepted his Nobel prize for literature, he said in his acceptance speech that he was a child born from the marriage of two civilizations: Egyptian and Islamic. Being half-Egyptian myself, I paid homage to Mahfouz’ beautiful analogy whilst writing my personal statement in an application for a doctoral program in Islamic Studies and portrayed my upbringing as an embrace shared by three oceans: Egyptian, Iraqi and Islamic.
I feel it is only fitting that I present to you, as a first contribution to this wonderful magazine Hikaayat, a reflective and refractive story. It is a reflective mirror tracing a childhood across borders that delivers me now as a cosmopolitan project to your hands and ears. In turn, it is a refractive parable of spiritual awakening in the abstract; a meaning ready to be dressed in countless forms. This is a tale of learning how to be human while longing for a sacred past, channeling that sanctity towards the present moment, and awaiting the future as an imminent arrival.
I grew up in an artistic family. My Iraqi father is an entomologist who also happens to be a photographer of nature in all its glory. My mother, the Egyptian who was incidentally born in the same street as Naguib Mahfouz, is a painter and interior decorator who worked in the Iraqi television in the 1980s. My sister is a pottery maker and jeweler and my brother an architect. I spent the first six years of my life in Baghdad ingesting a creative output from all my family. These remaining works now stand like silent effigies in the present moment, while their spirits linger in a past torn by war, held captive by distant fragrances, places and memories.
In The Souk of Nostalgia: A Childhood Between Rivers and Mountains, an imaginative autobiography, I set out to journey into my past at the border between fact and fiction. The story of how this book came into fruition is in itself a tale worth telling. One day, I asked my spiritual guide, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, for permission and madad (grace) to write an article about the reality of Sufism; graciously, he granted me both. As I began typing the first words, I found my own being, written before my eyes. It was, and continues to be, an embodiment of the Sufi maxim: whoever knows himself, knows his Lord, or even more affirmatively in other narrations: whoever knows himself, has known his Lord.
With every passing letter and chapter, the harmony between my original motivation to explore the reality of Sufism and my own childhood which was resurrecting before my eyes became clearer: I would not be able to take a single step towards God, without first coming to terms with who I am. I have often described this process as negotiating one’s historical and spiritual selves. As a first-generation Arab Muslim immigrant in America, who also found his faith in the New World, I had to find the caring divine hand in all my early moments, before prayer, cognition and amidst the fleeting innocence of infancy.
I discovered much more than simply revisiting my own childhood while writing this autobiography. Most importantly, I realized that memories linger at the barzakh (interstice) between our physical and spiritual dimensions; hence why I described this work as residing between fact and fiction. I think about our apartment in Baghdad, where I spent the first six years of my life, and my grandparents’ house in another part of the city. Although the former still stands physically while the latter was bulldozed after being sold to a contractor who turned the 100-year-old family home into a parking lot for his hotel, neither abode truly exists. The brick and mortar of these places from the past is only the body, their spirit are the moments we spent in them, and that is forever distant, separated from us by an indomitable abyss.
But then, what is exactly the importance of this realization? I became convinced that the suffering of this separation from home, an inevitable emblem of diaspora, is redeemed by the power of memories. My family’s apartment, grandparents’ house, or the consequential six years which I spent in Jordan, much more influential on my upbringing than my time in Baghdad, exist now as spiritual memories and written memoirs. These reimagined forms constitute the storyboard of my identity, they are a source of power impervious to the trickery of war and diaspora.
If I have established the historical and somatic dimensions of my journey with memories, thus far, then the third dimension is the spiritual. This would be the essential thread that can connect my ethereal experience in writing my way into the past with my journey forward, towards God. I think the best example to describe and embody this third dimension is through another powerful realization I had whilst writing The Souk of Nostalgia.
A recurring motif revealed itself to me through this act of writing, and I am convinced it would not have otherwise. I realized that throughout my life I have been visited by white courtyards of marble. The first in Baghdad, nearby our apartment, where I used to walk with my friends after school, in Amman outside the first mosque where my father used to take me every Friday to prayer. Then, many years later, in the noble sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina and the sacred city of Touba, which embraces the shrine of the West African Muslim saint Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacke.
I began to wonder about the reason for the prevalence of these marble courtyards in my life. Suddenly, I was reminded of a film called Paycheck. Ben Affleck plays the role of an engineer who invents a machine that can predict the future. He uses the machine and, as a result, is pursued as a criminal by the company that hired him. To survive, he erases his memory but not prior to leaving traces – read memories – for his new fugitive self to rediscover its true identity.
At that moment I realized that the recurring places, personalities, and events that we witness during our life in this world are but traces that our spirits left for our bodies to know who we truly are and find our way back home, just prior to being born in this physical world. There is an intimate connection between the life we live here, in all its mundaneness and complexity, our characteristics and eccentricities, the people we meet, regardless of their religiosity or decadence, and our inevitable return to God. One way or another, we must perceive all of this as sacred. Until we do, we are stagnant. However, once we do, we are there, wherever we are meant to be.
In 1996, I visited America for the first time in my life. Until that moment, all the films, video games and music I had listened to during my childhood was my only window into the West. But when I found out one day that our immigration papers had been accepted, I realized that soon I would have to live my own Western in America. During Christmas of that year, we visited my uncle in California, where I stepped into the heart of ‘Californication’: Hollywood, Universal Studios and Disneyland.
We returned to Jordan after this first trip, with the hope of visiting a few more times before finally settling in the United States. Nevertheless, divine destiny had other plans, and my mother and I were forced to relocate to Michigan during our annual visit in 1997. The difficulty of living only with my mother, with the rest of my family still overseas, was compounded by the cultural shock of starting my education in the United States at the end of Middle School, specifically during the second semester of 8th grade, perhaps the worst possible time to make such a transition.
My trials were not only my inability to comprehend the concept of ‘slope’ in mathematics, but also my failure in the crucial art of making friends. You see, in Jordan, if a new kid enrolls in school, somebody is bound to speak to, befriend or at least make fun of them. I tasted the hard contrast here, where I spent six months alone, eating slices of pepperoni pizza day after day at lunch hour before finding out, many months later, that it was a cousin of pork. Like pepperoni, many of my peers were not kind enough to introduce themselves to me. Truly, no hard feelings, Middle school was a difficult time for all of us.
High school ushered a momentous change in my life. As a freshman, I felt safer among other kids my age, since we were all equally frightened by our initiation into this new educational experience. My first year at Huron High introduced me to American culture in the most primeval way possible: professional wrestling. Prior to this, my only appreciation of my new home away from home was classical music and video games. Now, I was suddenly launched into a modern myth. This was America at its best, and I am not being sarcastic!
It was the end of the blazing ‘90s, and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was vying with World Championship Wrestling (WCW) for the hearts and minds of wrestling addicts. I was immediately taken by this ‘Attitude Era’, and the drama of Stone Cold Steve Austin, a blue collar bruiser who defied the authority of his boss, Mr. McMahon, and fought supernatural villains like the Undertaker, Kane and Mankind. It would be many years, or a decade later before I understand the reason behind my infatuation with wrestling during those years. Only after I came across the writings of the Andalusian Muslim mystic Ibn ‘Arabi during my doctoral studies that I understood its significance: like all myths, professional wrestling is a modern reenactment of man’s struggle against internal and external demons, a way to work out a story to its end in all the pomp and circumstance.
Wrestling occupied my heart and mind throughout high school. Monday nights had their own rituals, since that is when both WWF and WCW televised their star shows, Raw and Nitro respectively. Then, during my sophomore year, my introduction to American culture took another heightened turn. I was blessed to be the student of a young teacher with a genius heart: Ryan Goble. As I write this now, I realize that I’m over a decade older than Ryan was when I first met him. This is in itself a surreal realization. As someone who had undergraduate degrees in English and screenplay writing, Ryan was convinced in the power of teaching English through popular culture.
Just to give you an idea of my high school English education at the hands of Mr. Goble, here is a brief itinerary of our accomplishments in the span of three years, from 10th to 12th grade: visits to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Chicago Art Institute Museum. Two trips, the first to Hollywood where we met the likes of Robin Williams, Robert Evans, and Scott Frank and the second to New York where we met Juliane Moore and William Goldman. Finally, we put together a symposium on genetic cloning, at a time when the concept was still as young, new, and exciting as the movie Gattaca. Without a speck of exaggeration, Ryan Goble planted in me an experience of education that not only affects me to this day, but very much directs my own work as an artist and teacher.
The whole class of 2002 who had met and known Ryan Goble, we all graduated from high school into the unknown. Perhaps we knew subconsciously that we would not be able to have another experience like this, or we simply did not know how to channel the zeal and energy which we gained from those years. Either way, departing was difficult. I found myself in college as an undergraduate student in computer science. It appears I had left behind the glamour of art and media which I enjoyed in Ryan’s class.
My higher education took 8 years of my life, coinciding with my spiritual ‘birth’. As I mentioned previously, I found my faith in America, not the Middle East where I was born. I had my ‘born-again’ experience a few months prior to my New York trip with Ryan Goble. My understanding of Islam at the point was as an ummi, an illiterate seeker who did not know the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, despite the fact that both sects existed in my family, Sufi and Wahhabi or any other ‘ism’ that had filled the halls of mosques across America with debates and contentions.
I was experiencing the simple yet profound joy of being in God’s presence, without language or expression. This was the bliss prior to the fall from Eden. Later, my exposure to Wahhabism and the larger religious bureaucracy that continues to plague the American Muslim community would become my descent from innocence to complexity. It would also, eventually, put me on my return journey, which I still find myself in right now, as I write, and you read. With every passing day, I tried to leave behind the fragrances of those trips to Hollywood and New York, the memories of my family’s artistic background and instead hide behind religious clothing and a constricted demeanor that betrayed an imprisoned soul.
One night, during Ramadan of 2005, I just left. To be honest, I became sick with the flu, but it was a spiritual sickness that manifested bodily. I left physically and spiritually. Shortly after, I found myself acting the role of a store owner in a short film titled Taffy Cigarettes. What saved me from Wahhabism was the T.V. show Lost. Because like the verse in Amazing Grace: “I was once lost, but now am found. I was once bound, but now am free”, we truly do not know where God’s grace will come from. If there is any point to my life, it is this recurring motif.
The spiritual journeys of Jack Shephard, John Locke, Kate Austin, and those of other survivors from flight Oceanic 815 taught me more about God in the span of a few seasons that my entire years at the mosque. Truth be told, I have found deeper meanings and insights into my faith from popular culture than I have from attending countless religious conferences and classes in North America. At the time, I knew this to be the case intuitively, but had no way to explain it. Thus, I just assumed myself to be naïve or simply a sinner for not finding spiritual comfort at the mosque.
Then, I met Ibn ‘Arabi. After finishing two bachelor’s degrees, in Mathematics and Computer Science, and a master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence, I applied to the doctoral program in Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan. I have not told this to many people, but my initial motivation for seeking this doctoral degree was to be accepted by a new Muslim group that I had joined: neo-traditionalists. This was certainly an improvement over Wahhabism, but one that still lacked the tools to help me translate and negotiate my existence in this world, to figure out the multifaceted nature of my identity.
Meeting Ibn ‘Arabi through my graduate studies healed me, in numerous ways. It would eventually lead me to depart, once again, from neo-traditional Islam into the embracing hands of my current guide Shaykh Hisham Kabbani and a truly traditional – in an ancient sense – taste of Sufism. Both Ibn ‘Arabi and my spiritual guide have placed me on a journey of synthesis which delivers me to you now, at the conclusion of this story. This is a voyage into the past, vis a vis The Souk of Nostalgia, the present and future.
Among the biggest gifts which my guides have given me is to let go of the ambition of becoming a shaykh or scholar, which the American Muslim community has unfortunately idolized as the only path to reach ultimate nearness to God. Until I met Shaykh Hisham, my understanding of Ibn ‘Arabi was an intellectual endeavor at best. The former gently took me by the hand and delivered me back to the hands of art and creativity, where I am able to now taste, in drops, the reality of Sufism, the reality of faith, the reality of being.
At the heart of my story, its refraction, is the imperative to perceive God’s grace outside of the boundaries of our understanding of religion. This is about appreciating the way that divine will unfolds in a particular land. For America, this means that God’s grace is inseparable from Native and Black American suffering. Their experiences and spiritual traditions ought to set the path and lens for how we Muslims practice our faith here. Perhaps, the essential role of art and creativity in providing healing to all those who did – and continue to – suffer in America is itself scripture in the form of culture, a message from God that the only way to reach Him here and now is by being perfected into works of divine art and, in turn, becoming artists of the soul. This leaves us at the shore of my future contributions, where I hope to explore this importance of art and creativity for the coming era.