All posts by mara.ahmed

where are the moderate muslims?

i’ve often been asked why the moderate muslim majority in america is so silent and invisible. there is a two-part answer to that question. first of all, everyday muslims are afraid to raise their voices and be labeled “troublemakers” for going against the grain. in an environment where any anonymous phone call can land you in a tête-à-tête with the CIA, where your house can be arbitrarily ransacked and your personal possessions confiscated, where you can be detained indefinitely for “questioning” without recourse to due legal process and where the FBI can open a file and spy on you to their heart’s content, it’s better to lie low and not provoke anyone. secondly, it’s not easy for muslims to be heard or seen. even if moderate muslims are courageous enough to speak out and voice their opinions (which is something that many have done), you will never know about it. newspapers will not print what they have to say and broadcasting companies will not show you what they look like.

for example, PBS broadcast a series of documentaries under the title “america at a crossroads”. they gave an hour to richard perle, known as the prince of darkness in washington circles, former likud policy adviser, associated with the american enterprise institute and the project for the new american century, an architect of bush’s foreign policy and an ardent supporter of the war in iraq, to this day. they gave an hour to irshad manji, disaffected muslim with no scholarship in religious studies or islam and writer of “the trouble with islam” which can best be described as a collection of personal anecdotes. all in all, 11 documentaries were broadcast by PBS including perle’s “the case for war: in defense of freedom” and manji’s “faith without fear”. other topics included a secret sunni muslim sect, jihad, al-qaeda, terrorism in europe, terrorism in indonesia and the gangs of iraq. in the midst of all this fear mongering there was no place for an alternative voice – a documentary called “islam vs islamists – voices from the muslim center” which was, interestingly enough, funded by tax-dollars (up to $700,000 of them) but dropped by PBS. i’m not sure about the content of this documentary but it seems to me that it would have been a good idea to include the voices of moderate muslim scholars and mainstream american muslims. it’s not that we don’t want to be seen or heard, it’s a question of access. maybe the rest of america out there needs to talk TO us and not just ABOUT us!

here’s a clip from the dropped documentary:

untitled darfur play

talking of darfur, i was lucky to see “untitled darfur play” by winter miller as part of geva‘s hibernatus interruptus festival of new plays. that was oct 14th, 2006. this year in april the play made it to manhattan at the public theater. it is now titled “in darfur”. winter miller is a playwright as well as a research assistant to nicholas kristof, the pulitzer prize-winning ny times columnist. she has traveled to sudan with kristof. the play is an alejandro gonzalez innaritu-style pastiche of different stories that coalesce into a powerful whole. there is an american journalist trying to make a difference, an aid worker and a courageous darfuri woman. joanna settle directed the reading i went to. it was harrowing to experience a small slice of the violence being committed in darfur.

darfuri refugee in chad

working class hero

just saw the video by green day – it is arresting. the song is obviously john lennon gold. it’s part of an amnesty international campaign to stop the genocide in darfur. yoko ono donated all royalties from lennon’s song book to support this campaign. the resulting album, instant karma, has 20 john lennon covers by the likes of u2 and rem. you can buy it at amnesty’s website or by calling toll free 1-800-862-0411. check out green day’s powerful video:

la tunisie – part 3

yasin dropped us off at hotel khamsa corinthia in gammarth. that evening we met badi again. the kids (and i – i have to confess) were dying for some american food. badi took us to champs, which was a pretty good rip-off of the original. there were huge plasma tvs with loud sports events (a soccer match), and gigantic coke bottle and plaster of paris replicas of football players. the food was awesome – we all had hearty cheese burgers with fries and lots of ketchup! it hit the spot. the kids were finally satiated and up for anything. we went to a shisha cafe next and tried some apple-flavored tobacco. i just had one puff. the best part was spending some down time with badi. what a great finish to a really long day!

on april 12th we had a leisurely breakfast, followed by a trip to the hotel’s indoor pool. for lunch badi took us to a hip little restaurant (very manhattan in look and feel, but way more mellow). the food was fantastic. next on our agenda: sidi bou said.

sidi bou said

la tunisie – part 2

on april 10, 2007 we left tozeur to visit the oasis villages of chebika and tamerza tucked away in the jebel en-negueb mountains, near the algerian border. these berber villages were roman defense outposts. in those days berbers used to communicate with mica mirrors thus the roman title “castle of light”. chebika means spring. this earthen village follows the contours of the mountain, rising and falling elegantly to accomodate pretty gorges, waterfalls and palms trees. the kids headed to the streams and waterfalls to catch tiny frogs and geikos. we climbed rocky staircases carved into the side of the mountain to access different levels. the town must have been enchanting. both chebika and tamerza were abandoned in 1969 after freak torrential rains resulted in a literal meltdown. we had tasty grilled lamb on skewers for lunch at hotel tamerza palace. this beautiful hotel, brought to life by a profusion of colorful berber rugs, overlooks the old town of tamerza.

that evening we left for nefta and for a rollercoaster ride along shapely sand dunes. the remote ong jemel (camel’s neck) was the location for films such as the english patient and star wars. one star wars set thrives still in the middle of the desert and attracts numerous tourist buses. we ran into a group of japanese tourists several times that day and were in turn amused by their face masks (the desert heat probably takes care of most airborne viruses) and impressed by their high tech wireless earphones which connected them to their guide. the desert sand was incredibly fine. it was cool on the surface but still warm underneath. we took our shoes off and let our feet sink into the sand. the sunset was vast and magnificent. the desert puts everything in perspective.

on april 11th we checked out of our hotel in tozeur and almost missed our train, le lezard rouge. this historic train passes through the selja gorges. the track was originally used for mining phosphates. the landscape we encountered was stunning: vertiginous crags, surprising waterfalls, precipitous ravines and quiet streams enfolded in vegetation. we had lunch at hotel gafsa palace and then began our long journey back to tunis (about 6 hours).

le lezard rouge

la tunisie – part 1

badi picked us up at the airport on april 7, 2007. it was wonderful to see him after so many years. he looked good. he took us to a hip little restaurant in gammarth for lunch. gammarth is a quiet suburban town by the sea, about 20 km from downtown tunis. after lunch we left for sousse to visit badi’s mom in kalaa kebira. we stayed at hotel el-mouradi palace where badi’s ex-wife and kids were also spending the night. badi had offered to take us out for coffee or shisha in the evening but we were tired from all the traveling (more than 12 hours from toronto to milan to tunis) and decided to crash after dinner. the next day badi took us to port el-kantaoui in sousse and then on to his house. his mom had prepared a sumptuous seafood lunch – there was grilled tuna and sardines and harissa (hot chili paste) and couscous (that tasted a lot like chicken biryani less the rice plus the couscous) and pasta for the kids and mussels (which gibran discovered and devoured with relish). it was a grand old feast. badi’s youngest sister sausan was there and so were his brothers nizar and saif. we had tunisian mint tea (which is intensely sweet) and talked about our lives. sausan spoke fluent english – she and i acted as translators whenever needed. my son played soccer with all the boys and managed quite well with his 6th grade french.

badi introduced us to our chauffeur/guide later that afternoon and we were off to the south of tunisia. we stopped at el-djem to see one of the best preserved roman amphitheaters. it had already closed down for the day so we couldn’t go inside but it made an impression anyway. late at night we reached matmata and stayed at a hotel i had read about on the internet, “les grottes de matmata”. it was supposed to be “cavernous” (like the caves matmata is famous for) and have a local feel but what we found was that it was simply run down and rather dirty. thank god we only spent a night there! the next morning we went to see the caves. for thousands of years these underground caves were used by berbers as homes and for safely storing their possessions while they were out on mercenary missions. subterranean homes stay cool and are obviously very useful in the desert. these are built around artificial craters 5-10 m deep – it’s a virtual moonscape.

after exploring the caves of matmata we began our journey to tozeur. en route we stopped in douz. we got a chance to ride camels at ofra (one of the country’s largest and most accessible sand dunes) for about an hour and a half – not the most comfortable of rides. the kids loved go-karting in the desert. we had lunch at hotel saharien in douz and then left for tozeur. on the way, we were amazed by the brackish water of lake chott el-jerid. it was pink on one side of the road and a rich turquoise on the other side. there was absolutely no vegetation anywhere – not even a lonely cactus or two. it was easy to see how the steamy heat from the sun could beat down on fine desert sand and create a mirage. we experienced a few ourselves.

tozeur has its own distinctive architecture. rectangular yellow brick is used in all construction and arranged in beautiful geometric patterns. we checked into hotel palmyre – a terrific hotel in the middle of the desert. the kids jumped at once into the hotel’s dreamlike swimming pool – a huge bean shaped pool surrounded by palm trees and overflowing with sparkling blue water.

in the evening, we took a horse and buggy ride through tozeur’s green oasis. 400,000 dates palms, pomegranates, bananas, peaches, apricots, citrus fruit, figs and fragrant arabian roses in a 2600 acre oasis irrigated by 200 springs and artesian wells. water is shared by different land holdings under a system developed by imam ibn chabbat in the 13th century. our “caleche” driver and guide told us how female date palms have to be pollinated with flowers from male trees – share croppers climb the long palm trunks barefoot and pollinate about 30 trees a day. he also pointed out the marabout of sidi aguili (shrine to a holy man), an important tozeur landmark. the oasis is lush, lavish, luxuriant and (unfortunately for me) abuzz with the whining sound of hungry mosquitoes! we had to get out of there, fast!

our next stop was chak wak, a historic theme park. this is their spiel, in their own words: “marchez sur les traces des ancêtres de l’humanité, au coeur de tozeur, dans la plus grande palmeraie de la planète. du big bang, au hommes préhistoriques, jusqu’aux grandes civilisations, vous allez redécouvrir le mystère des grandes religions. un voyage qui vous fera parcourir des millénaires d’évolution hunaine, dans le cadre enchanteur d’un jardin botanique oasien”. the kids enjoyed the giant dinosaurs. before returning to our hotel, yasin took us to the local bazaar. i looked at some rugs (the store manager was particularly ingratiating, starting and ending each sentence with “dear gentlelady”). i bought a beautiful berber rug. my daughter was feverish so we decided to call it a day and not go to the dar cherait museum.

tozeur brickworktunisian rugs

why tunisia – let’s talk turkey

in april 2007 we went on a weeklong trip to tunisia – stunning country. it’s got history (going back to the 2nd century BC – does hannibal/carthage ring a bell?), it’s got the mediterranean sea, the lake of tunis, and then it’s got the sahara desert filled with lush green oases (if you don’t believe me, read this ny times article on “how green is the desert“). not bad for a relatively small country (area = 63,000 sq miles) with a population of 10 million.

why did we just up and go to tunisia, many have asked. simple answer: i have a friend there. his name is badi ben mabrouk and he’s tunisian. i met him when i was 15 (he was 16) for a week, in turkey. what were we doing in turkey? the turkish government had organized an international competition to celebrate the creation of modern turkey by its founder mustafa kemal ataturk.

i wrote a lengthy poem in french (it’s called “le lever du soleil” and you can check it out by going to my writings page) and badi wrote one in arabic. all the winners were invited to turkey as state guests for a week. there were winners from france, great britain, belgium, tunisia and of course pakistan. we went to ankara, istanbul, izmir, and buyukada (one of the princes’ islands in the sea of marmara). we met governors and government officials. we sang on turkish radio and were covered by turkey’s most popular newspapers. we even got gold medals from the turkish prime minister (bulend ulusu in those days). we gorged on turkish food, luxuriated in turkey’s natural beauty and her rich history and culture, and we made friends for life. or at least i made a friend for life. badi and i wrote to each other for over 20 years – this was before the advent of email. over time we both graduated – i got an MBA, he bacame a corporate lawyer. we both got married. we both had kids. we swapped pictures. we upgraded to email. it was time for us to meet again – life is too short to hesitate.

and you know what, that was the best thing we ever did! my family loved badi. he has grown into an absolutely charming man. he’s soft spoken and warm and generous to a fault. he has 2 beautiful sons and a wonderful extended family. like he said, “la tunisie c’est pas l’etranger – vous etes avec moi”. that’s truly how it felt – very comfortable and cozy and safe. it warms my heart to think about it…

the blue mosque

brighton says thanks but no thanks to the patriot act

acts of terrorism do not justify the u.s. government’s attacks on civil liberties. the patriot act does not make us feel safe – it’s just another way to create fear and consolidate control over civil society. backed by many anti-war organizations including RAW (rochester against war) brighton passed an anti-patriot act resolution – go brighton!

Press Release
Brighton Town Council Passes Resolution Upholding Rights and Liberties In Response to Flawed Patriot Act Provisions and FBI Abuse of Power
Rochester, NY— In response to concern about flaws in the Patriot Act and recent revelations of FBI abuse of Patriot Act powers, the Brighton Town Council, in a vote of 5-0, today approved a resolution upholding the Bill of Rights and Constitution and protecting the rights of Brighton residents from anti-terrorism measures that the Council believes go too far. Brighton is the first community in the country to pass an anti-Patriot Act resolution challenging National Security Letters (NSLs), which were recently revealed to be overused and abused by the FBI. Brighton also joins 409 municipalities to have passed resolutions against the Patriot Act, according to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which tracks the resolutions and encourages a national debate on threats to civil liberties from the Patriot Act and other post-September 11th anti-terrorism measures.

The Rochester Civil Liberties Coalition (RCLC) was founded by Lee Price of Fairport , NY to encourage local governments in Monroe County to pass anti-Patriot resolutions during the reauthorization process of the USA Patriot Act. “Rochester City Council’s resolution last year was our first success”, he said. ACLU legal counsel, Scott Forsyth, worked with the town of Brighton, a suburb of Rochester, to craft a resolution to address Patriot Act threats to civil liberties, specifically the still-flawed Provision Section 215 and NSL provisions. Nancy Braiman, a coordinator for the RCLC, called the Brighton vote a vote for the Bill of Rights. Ms. Braiman coordinated media coverage, lobbying, and other community events to build public support to adopt the measure. After a year of lobbying, Ms. Braiman and the RCLC finally convinced the board to adopt a resolution after the Department of Justice released an audit revealing widespread FBI abuse in the issuing of NSLs. “Brighton’s courageous vote sends a strong message to Washington and our whole nation that the tragic attacks of September 11th were not a signal for the United States to abandon the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. It also lets the residents of Brighton know that their elected officials have taken the necessary steps to ensure public safety, while protecting the civil liberties of its citizens” said Braiman.

The full text of Brighton’s Resolution is available online at: http://bordc.org/detail.php?id=743 ]

african slavery

last thursday i met some friends for coffee, to discuss an upcoming fundraiser. we talked about everything under the sun including slavery and its implications. at one point someone compared african american slavery with jewish subjugation at the hands of the babylonians and pharoahs. besides the obvious difference in time elapsed since their respective liberation, there seem to be other unique factors inherent in the african american experience. african american slaves were ripped from their land, their culture, their language, their world and brought into an alien land. many africans were terrified by their captors because they had never seen people with white skin – they thought that they were ghosts, non-human, otherworldly.

they did not arrive in america as an exiled “community” but as fragments of tribes and cultures that most of them never came into contact with after their capture. most slaves did not speak the language of other slaves. the horror and loneliness of this fact alone is unimaginable. there was no cohesive community, no common language, no shared traditions, no comforting rituals, no common stories and myths, and no shared religion. there was nothing to tell them who they were and where they came from. no one to validate their sense of self-identity. it is truly nightmarish to be isolated to this point. on the other hand, most jews have a strong sense of community, of where they come from and who they are.

if one thinks about it, it is quite admirable that african americans overcame this by turning their experience of slavery into such a vibrant and strong culture. whether it be worship, music, language (strongly recommend toni morrison to get a feel for the african american experience through the “language” of the slaves), dance, or fashion, african americans have evolved into an incredibly creative community. if more of them were given the right circumstances to bloom and exercise this creativity, god knows how wonderfully explosive it would be.

btw here’s a great short film by kiki davis – it highlights problems of identity that stem from what I have tried to describe above – check it out.

a night of religious music

on march 8th i had a meeting with my mosaic partner pat domaratz and my friend sarita arden, at java joe’s, rochester’s farmers market. i had never been there before and loved the ambience. there weren’t that many people at 11am but i loved the art and the sunflower-yellow paint on the walls, and their crepes were great, especially the homemade cheese sauce.

in the evening we went to an event organized by the center for interfaith studies and dialogue (CISD) at nazareth college. it was a night of sacred music – an energetic performance by cantor sam asher of temple beth david, the islamic call to prayer performed by imam ishak kizilaslan, supplications by youness tihm and his group, a qawwali (sufi music) performed by the pakistani american society of rochester, afro-american spirituals performed by the mt baptist church, performances by the downtown presbyterian church, hindu invocations by the hindu temple of rochester and finally buddhist chants. i filmed bits and pieces of the entire show for the documentary, especially the qawwali in which my husband and many of our muslim interviewees were taking part. thom came along and shot with a different camera. it was 9.30pm by the time we left. my husband and i hadn’t had dinner and it was way past our kids’ bedtime but all in all the CISD is doing a great job in bringing people of different faiths together by highlighting the common thread that runs through all religions – music inspired by god.

a quick aside on qawwali (devotional sufi music from pakistan and india) – check out a brief intro on wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qawali. i find qawwali absolutely fascinating. not only is the poetry exquisite in its simplicity and emotive earnestness but the music is equally entrancing. there is a slow but steady build-up to a crescendo as the qawwal (the qawwali singer) lets go more and more of the rhythmic understructure of the song and paints with increased intensity on this musical canvas. such variations soon turn to repetition until the words start to blur and lose their meaning. the goal is to achieve a state of ecstatic rapture, an altered state of consciousness, a union with the divine. nusrat fateh ali was a great qawwal. he collaborated with peter gabriel and eddy vedder (of pearl jam) to bring qawwali to the west. some purists hold that against him but truth be told, whether it was traditional qawwali or some creative fusion between different genres, fateh ali was a musical genius with immense range. he died tragically in 1997 at the age of 49. here is a sample from nusrat fateh ali’s rendition of “allah hu”.

my first post ever

so i am an artist and filmmaker and i’m presently working on a documentary about mainstream muslims, which is most muslims out there. the only problem is that they’re completely invisible. when you can do a story about gun-toting terrorists and their burqa-wielding better halves why bother with the vast majority of us who are just like everybody else? well, i bothered. maybe because i can feel the frustration of being invisible or maybe it’s just that i’m tired of being represented by people i cannot relate to. whether it’s the raggedy suicide bomber or the westernized muslim “insider” who’s made a cottage industry out of denouncing islam – i have problems with both.

an essential part of getting to know muslims on film is getting to know non-muslims first. the film has to acquire the form of a dialogue. i wanted to survey a cross section of non-muslim americans and ask them what they thought about islam and muslims in general. i wanted them to frame the questions i was going to pose to muslim interviewees. to this end i went to starry nites cafe today along with thom marini, my cinematographer. customer traffic was disappointingly slow but we got a few people to do a vox pop. vox populi is latin for “voice of the people”. it’s a technique used in documentary filmmaking to gauge popular opinion by asking a large number of random people the same question and aggregating their responses. thom and i filmed for about 3 hours and got some interesting questions. many women wanted to know about female subjugation in islam. one woman made a brief but cogent statement that was so wonderfully phrased i’m tempted to use it as a closing. the sun was out and we had plenty of light inside the cafe, which is visually stunning anyway. it was all good.

van gogh’s starry night