Growing up we didn’t have money
Or much of those other things
That don’t grow on trees.
We didn’t have acceptance
By friends or classmates
Or any of those others so many want to please.
Yet Daddy said we were rich
And Mommy smiled,
And although I knew we were not,
I knew every word he said was true.
Because our richness wasn’t printed on green paper.
Nor did it grow like green leaves.
We had a treasure no one could take away.
At school I walked the halls in fear
And sought comfort in red checks and alphabet letters atop papers
Written at the stroke of a pen held in a teacher’s hand.
And never really expected
I hurt so much in the halls
But I pushed on
Knowing that after the red checks and scribbled A
My name would be on the wall
I grew to expect it
As if the wall belonged to
Perhaps I wanted to prove to them that I was better
Because of Mommy and Daddy
It was I who needed proof of purpose
I have been called a fighter
And thought myself perhaps
A martyr of sorts
But now I know that I am merely a fool
With so much skin and flesh in my reflection
That it covers my
And hides it
I can no longer carry the sword of strength
Because my arms have grown weary beneath its weight
And now I am only
I now must remove the mask that I mistook for my face
But I must keep my adornment of armor
Just in case.
Yet my armor is but ink
That flows from the pen
And acts as a shield between me and
Somehow the words are better spoken
But my prayer is only that they will be a shield
I cannot pretend to see only skin over flesh
When my reflection is before me
Mirrored in strokes of pen
Once held in Angels’ hands
And I won’t find my name on a wall
And Mommy and Daddy can’t give me
Should I fall.
Will I have
I returned to my dorm room late Saturday night shaken and moved. I was relieved that Felicia had already gone, although as I lay in bed, I vaguely remembered asking her if I could come along with her and Anita, even as I had no idea where they were going.
I glanced at the clock. It was three minutes after ten.
Where had the time gone?
I slowly shut my eyes, hoping to digest everything better that way.
I let the events of the afternoon, evening, and night wash over me. I hoped to analyze my reason for unrest as I had earlier concerning my faith.
It was the young man’s poem, I concluded, that affected me most.
As I recalled his monologue, I felt a storm of emotions that I couldn’t give name to. I could think only of the lyrics to a song I’d heard Courtney playing over and over when my parents weren’t home.
I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd
I felt he found my letters, and read each one aloud
I prayed that he would finish, but he just kept right on
Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Years later, I learned that these were the words to the song “Killing Me Softly” that I heard Lauryn Hill singing in my sister’s cassette player, though I have no idea who wrote these words originally. But, at that moment, it didn’t matter. And I didn’t care.
All I knew was that these were the only words that could give name to the emotions I had felt as the young man I’d met at the “Ask About Islam” table stood on a portable stage in the basement of a local masjid. I couldn’t remember his name—they had said it when they introduced him.
Naturally, he had not been the only performer. But he was the only one I remembered so vividly.
There had been children singing about their God “Allah” and His prophet Muhammad. A White woman talked about how she accepted Islam after being a feminist. An Indian man talked about converting from Hinduism. A Black man, an ex-preacher, shared his journey to Islam. A group of young men, who apparently were renowned in the Muslim community, sang a song, but I couldn’t remember what it was about.
A boy recited from the Muslim holy book—the Qur’an. Although they explained that it was like the Bible was to Christians, I’d never heard our book chanted so melodiously before. They had translated what he’d recited, but that night I remembered only this part: “We believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac…and in what was given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord…”
What surprised me was that their holy book mentioned the same prophets that were mentioned in the Bible. And Jesus was among them. Someone explained later that Muslims believed that Jesus was a prophet and that they held him in high esteem.
But I couldn’t get over that they believed in him at all.
This was so unlike the Islam that Darnell and Reginald had told me about that I was confounded. I now knew that the Nation of Islam and orthodox Islam were two completely different belief systems that were, at best, antipodes of one another. And that Reggie had had, at most, a marginal understanding of orthodox Islam. But I was still coming to terms with what that meant for me, and how it related to The Church and my Bible study group.
At that point, I wasn’t interested in Islam for myself so much as I was interested in it so that I could put the world’s religions into proper perspective. I felt an urgency to know the truth—the Truth. And I had no doubt that I was on the right track after discovering the parallels between The Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But my discovery that Islam recognized the same prophets of Christianity, and that they actually revered Jesus as an important individual in their faith, forced me to put them in a category with sectarian Christians. Before, I had relegated them to the mental category I had for Hindus, Buddhists, and other pagans. Now, I couldn’t even categorize them with Jews because apparently Muslims did accept the validity of Christ’s existence and were not awaiting the arrival of the “true Messiah.”
They believed in Jesus, so to me, Muslims were in fact Christians, even if they, or others, didn’t see it that way. And if they were not, then I had to come up with a new definition for Christianity because my belief about Jesus was closer to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and Muslim point of view than that of mainstream Christians. To me, Jesus was not God. To Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus was not God. To Muslims, Jesus was not God. To most sectarian Christians, Jesus was God.
To all of us, belief in his divine purpose was essential to faith.
So, if a Muslim isn’t a Christian, what makes someone a Christian in the first place?
I decided to attend my Bible study group for answers. I decided that I would call Sumayyah later to ask questions because I needed to figure out how to ask what I really wanted—how to get in touch with the young man who had read the poem. I had a lot I wanted to ask him.
At the meeting Monday evening I started by asking them the definition of a Christian.
“Someone who believes in the Trinity,” Natasha said.
“But what about Jehovah’s Witnesses?” I said. “They don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus.”
“Then they’re not truly Christian.”
Another member interjected. “A Christian is someone who believes Jesus is the son of God. But that’s not enough. You have to accept him as your Lord and Savior.”
“But what if someone believes in Jesus as a prophet. What are they?”
“Based on what?”
The Bible study leader quoted passages about Jesus being the Light and the Way, and accepting him as the Lord and Savior being essential to salvation.
“So are Jehovah’s Witnesses non-believers too?”
“Yes,” she said.
I grew quiet, already knowing my fate in their eyes. I said nothing for the rest of the meeting. But I wasn’t satisfied. I needed to know more. And I knew that the Bible study group wouldn’t be able to help me.
I decided that night that I would not return. There was no sense in a non-believer masquerading as one of the chosen.
It hurt like hell, I cannot lie, to realize how they would see me—if they ever learned who I really was—a “non-believer.” I had grown to love them like close friends, if not a second family. But I knew I could never be a part of them no matter how much I wanted their acceptance. I knew from the depths of my soul that Jesus was not God and that to believe in anyone, or anything, as God other than God himself was blasphemy. I couldn’t sell my soul for their approval.
I returned to my room alone and felt the depths of my loneliness. I thought of Darnell, of Reggie, of Natasha. And I cried.
O God, in the name of your son Jesus, help me!
Help me find myself. Guide me to Your Light, Your Way.
Guide me to You.
For the next two weeks, I read as many library books as I did school texts, and I didn’t sleep as much as I would have liked. I sat with religion professors, history majors, and any other “experts” I deemed unbiased. I read encyclopedias and religious history texts like they were novels. I even read the Bible more closely. But mostly I prayed.
I had no idea what I was looking for exactly, or at what point I would stop and be satisfied that I’d found it. I knew only that I hadn’t found it yet. So I had to keep searching.
If anything, my increased reading and research only added to my confusion. But what stuck out to me most was this, that allegedly the concept of Jesus as part of the Trinity was a concept not taught by Jesus himself, but by Paul, a man who never saw or met Jesus. I also discovered that all religious historians I’d come across stated that the concept of Jesus being God’s son was first introduced by Paul too. I learned that the Bible I had was not even a book until long after the era of Jesus, and that it was the result of arguing and voting, a culmination of a decision that many monotheistic Christians of that era opposed on grounds that it did not represent Jesus’ message. I also learned that most of these monotheistic Christians believed Jesus to be a prophet, and claimed that this was what Jesus claimed for himself. Also, I read that the entire idea of God having a son was a concept more akin to paganism and mythology than the Gospel. I learned further that December 25th was not Jesus’ birthday, but the birthday of a pagan god.
I was overwhelmed.
I knew that no book, no historian, no human being, in fact, was completely unbiased, and that I had every right to question what I was reading and learning. There was no guarantee that they were not writing these things for their own personal benefit, and that their words could very well be false.
But that also meant that the same logic applied to The Church and the Bible study group.
I prayed again, this time more ardently. I realized only later that I had abandoned referring to Jesus as God’s son.
O God, help me! Guide me to Your Light. Guide me to Your Way. Guide me to the Truth.
The arrival of final exams followed by Christmas vacation freed me from my worries for the time being. However, upon arriving home, the lights glowing and decorations shimmering from the Christmas tree standing in our living room was a sore reminder that even the tree itself was originally a pagan practice.
For the two weeks I was home, I had a difficult time with the previously naturally recited phrase “Merry Christmas,” and I was even less enthusiastic about attending and listening to my father’s holiday sermons. I wanted so badly to talk to someone in my family about my troubles, but I didn’t know whom I could turn to. But, mostly, I didn’t know what I would say if I found that person.
Courtney’s and Patricia’s presence was, oddly, a welcome distraction for me. I enjoyed getting to know my sisters all over again, and I relished in my new role as aunt to my adorable, chubby nephew Emanuel. I even surprised myself by liking my brother-in-law James, who was personable and had a wicked sense of humor. I could easily see how Patricia fell in love with him. Although my father couldn’t show it as much as he wanted, I caught the smile in his eyes and the subdued grin on his face whenever James said something funny. My mother, on the other hand, was unabashed in her welcoming her son-in-law into the family and doted over her grandchild as if he were a gift from Heaven above.
A few days before I was to return to school, Courtney entered my room after knocking lightly on the door. I was sitting cross-legged on my bed reading one of the books about Christianity that I had borrowed from the school library. Instinctively, I laid it face up to conceal the cover as I looked up to greet her. It took a moment for me to notice the neatly wrapped package in her hands. I narrowed my eyes in confusion because on Christmas Day she had already given me a gift, a hardcover collection of some books, including one I hadn’t heard of.
She sat on the edge of my bed and wore a hesitant smile as she extended the package to me. “Here’s your real gift.”
I raised my eyebrows and grinned. “What?”
The rustling of the cellophane filled the silence between us until I reached the box beneath and lifted the lid. It took a moment to register what I was seeing. I wasn’t accustomed to seeing compact disc cases and I was even less accustomed to reading names like Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston, so I took a full two minutes sifting through and reading each before it finally occurred to me that I was holding The Church’s forbidden music in my hands.
My eyes widened slightly and I have no idea what expression my face held when I met my sister’s gaze.
“Merry Christmas, little sister. Welcome to the real world.”
I would be lying if I said that Courtney’s gift was offensive or even unpalatable. I was ecstatic. The gift awakened all kinds of dormant emotions and desires inside of me. I couldn’t wait to return to school to indulge in the previously forbidden and explore a world outside The Church. What surprised me most was that when I did return to school and put the CDs into Felicia’s stereo system, I didn’t feel even a thread of guilt. I danced and sashayed around the room until my legs and arms hurt and tears spilled from my eyes. It was as if God had answered my prayers, and I understood in a new light the meaning of the oft-repeated words of Martin Luther King, Jr: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!
With the addition of music in my life, I had a renewed confidence in myself and discovered that I actually had rhythm. On Felicia’s urging, I signed up for an elective on popular dance and although it would become my favorite class, it wasn’t long before I realized that it was African dance that would always be my love. When Anita told me about an African dance course in Washington, D.C., I was determined to sign up and get there somehow. I quickly learned the public transit system and took a bus to the College Park metro station once a week to arrive at my class in D.C. every Saturday morning.
I laughed more, had a renewed interest in my physical health, and even began to dress differently. I didn’t have much money at my disposal, but the money my father was earning from the increased church membership after landing a spot to broadcast his Sunday sermons on national television helped me to build a modest savings. I wasn’t accustomed to shopping for clothes and found the prices, even at outlet malls like Potomac Mills, far beyond my budget, so my forced frugality inspired my being acquainted with the most popular thrift stores in the area.
I would have permed my hair if it hadn’t been for my friendship with Anita and Felicia, whose sophistication and self pride demanded they sport the latest fashions and proudly bask in the eccentricity of their natural hair styles. If I wanted “straight, limp hair,” as they called it, I could simply subject my hair to the hot comb. And, they said, when I tired of the singularity of a hairstyle that offered nothing in the way of originality or true beauty, I could let the cool water reach my roots and enjoy the endless possibilities my naturally tightly curled hair offered.
I loved them for inspiring in me an awareness of beauty not measured by television, magazines, or movies—or the mirror. They scoffed at the society’s so-called “most beautiful women” and mocked the shapelessness, paleness, and aesthetic sterility of the latest models, singers, and movie stars.
“The only reason people like us won’t ever be next to these so called beauties,” Anita would say, “is because, then, there would be no competition.”
We would laugh until our stomachs hurt. What amazed me was that I actually saw what she was saying. Years later, as a Muslim, I would see the world with those same eyes, marveling at how if every woman and man covered as they should and if society didn’t bombard people with images they literally told you were beautiful, human nature would kick in, and everyone’s taste in beauty would vary. Beauty would never be narrowly viewed or defined because there would simply be nothing with which to view or define it except your own heart, mind, and eyes—in that order.
With Anita’s and Felicia’s help, I selected clothes that struck a balance between my desire to be more stylish and my reluctance to divorce myself completely from how I was raised. In their words, my new wardrobe was “tastefully sophisticated.” I wore loose-fitting pants and slightly fitting shirts, the kind of clothes that would never turn men’s heads next to the more risqué styles worn at parties and clubs, but the kind that would confirm both my attractive physique and personal modesty. Occasionally, I wore wrap-around skirts and a short shirt that met the skirt at my waist, which strayed somewhat from my personal modesty.
For the first time in my life I felt both confident and beautiful. I was particularly proud that there was no man who had inspired this transition, and that I had freed myself from the shackles of a fickle society too caught up in others’ definition of pretty and ugly and good and bad that people rarely took a moment to define those terms, and thus their lives, for themselves.
Next… Story 7 of 11 Posted every Friday
This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE.
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