The ease by which we can get sucked into pessimism about humanity and the state of the world these days is startling. Not only do we have more and more continuing oppressions coming to light through the voice of the internet (see: growing vocalizations of white supremacists all over the world, violence against people of color, increased terrorism etc), but we also have pretty unique moments in history arising because of these circumstances – one example being the absolute freak show that is the American election where, frankly, there hasn’t been much hope since Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic candidate race. (Although I heard just yesterday that his name is still going to be on the ballot at the Democratic National Convention – do I dare to dream?)

Part of the problem is how we receive our information: particularly through Facebook. A lot of people don’t realize that this particular social media platform operates based on complex algorithms designed to show you what you are most likely to click on. The more doom and gloom you are engaging with, the more you will find in your newsfeed. There isn’t really a way to get around this and stay informed, unless you want to take the time to outsmart your Facebook account. This is my first tip for shifting over to optimism. A lot of people will simply disconnect or disengage from their social media accounts and that’s great if that’s what they really want to do – but for people like me, whose livelihood is connected to being a netizen and whose clients are managed under my general account, that’s not really an option. Every time I have tried to delete the Facebook app off my phone (even without deactivating my account), it takes less than half an hour for a client to message me asking me to post something. Contrary to appearances, I’m not sitting in front of my computer all day and even if I was, I can’t just connect to the internet through magical computer data, so I’m stuck with my phone and with Facebook burning an ever-growing hole of pessimism in my literal pocket.

hope and dreams

What to do then? You can start by liking positive stories or commenting on them. And no, I’m not just saying that because I’m a content developer and I want you to engage more with the barrage of things people post on the internet. This is not shameless self-advertising (even though it takes place on my business blog haha). Rather, liking positive stories is simply the quickest way to get more of them in your newsfeed – and, by extension, more positive people as well. Surrounding yourself with positive stories and positive people will start to shift the messages that are filtering into your brain every day.

Of course, I am not advocated shutting off completely. At. All. People absolutely have an ethical obligation to stay informed and educated about the issues we face in the world today and they absolutely must keep informed about political movements that will dramatically affect the countries in which they take place, and (in the case of America especially) every other damn country on the face of the earth. I am simply advocating for a little softness in the harshness that is the world, and to remember (or learn) that there really is more good than bad, or at the very least some good and a whole lot of neutral or irrelevant.

hopeful hearts

The other place that I have been finding solace lately will not come as a surprise to anyone that knows me is having faith. I was sitting in a grassy field with a new friend of mine the other night and she was talking about horrible atrocities against Muslim women who have come under the enslavement of various oppressors like ISIS. She was talking about how they had asked sheikhs for dispensation to commit suicide in the event that they will certainly face unspeakable and unending torture until they die. And she also mentioned how a sheikh she knew had gone from a hard-lined answer on this ruling to being unsure and simply stating that “he doesn’t know” if suicide is still forbidden to these unfortunate souls.

Regardless, when she was telling this story to me, she mentioned how this particular sheikh was different than other people – that he had a real kind of faith which, even if the face of hideous and cruel oppression, violence and death, still holds hope about the idea that justice will eventually be served by a Merciful God.

When she said that, I thought of my past self when I first converted to Islam, right up until the time I nearly died in a traumatic child birth in which I was repeatedly assaulted and had my rights violated. Until that time, I held out hope for justice no matter what the world was faced with – constant and persistent hope. Perhaps when I had faced true oppression from another still-unpunished person (and the profound disappointment in humanity that comes with that) and when the veil started lifting on just how much of it is out there, is when I started to operate in a pessimistic framework, I’m not sure. It certainly feels like I am always waffling between the two and some days are better than others.

My friend’s words in that field, however, reminded me what faith can do for people in terms of hope. Militant atheists are probably going to jump all over me for pushing my hope onto a transcendental entity, to which I would reply that hope for future justice need not be in a different metaphysical realm. It can mean hope for justice right here, right now, wrought by over hands – and, as a believing Muslim, that still comes from Allah for me even if it doesn’t for people who don’t believe. The type of justice that can be brought in this life, however, is often not enough and this is where I take comfort in my belief in a Merciful and Just God. One sheikh was talking about how, if Hitler hadn’t gotten away with suicide, and the court had had their way with him regarding the Holocaust, there is still no way to achieve a certain level of justice necessary to account for the six to eight million lives he extinguished (never mind those lost in the war he instigated). Only with Allah can we be certain that, for such an individual, it is possible to be awoken and killed six million times throughout the rest of eternity.

But having faith is not only about hoping that criminals get their due punishments (while, very often in this life, they go free). It is also about having faith that we can garner the strength and energy needed to bring mercy and justice to this life as well. At the Black Lives Matter rally downtown a few weeks ago, I met an amazing couple of sisters who I instantly connected with. In talking with one of them, I was discussing the prophetic hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him) about the end of time and how many people claim (and have also claimed at other unstable times in history) that that time is now because some of the signs appear to be upon us. How, then, can we be certain that all of this is not in vain and that things just won’t get irrevocably worse as we move towards the Last Day? All of that (I should note) fits into warped terroristic worldviews as they seek to bring about the apocalypse with their apocalyptic atrocities.

One of the sisters, however, was quick to state that even though that prophecy will inevitably be true, it does not have to be now. Doom and total destruction is not necessarily on the horizon for us because we can simply choose to live justly, seeking justice and doing good deeds together. We don’t have to give in to the rhetoric of fear, division and pessimism and, as a result, we can work towards a more optimistic future. Sounds pretty damn hopeful to me and something simple enough to be empowering and therefore doable.

hopefulness

The other inspiring thing I have been up to is working on my thesis. And while, for many disenchanted grad students (I’ve been there!), that can seem like a pretty weird place to find hope for the future (aren’t we all supposed to be procrastinating and eating cheerios while watching Netflix in bed?), it’s actually not that surprising. When you follow your passions, you will certainly find hundreds, if not thousands or millions of people right there with you. And that kind of unspoken community is enough alone to give you hope. After writing a thesis outline the other day, I went through a list of authors whose works I need to compile to inform my theoretical framework. Somehow, writing this book list to get from the library made me positively giddy. I started to literally swoon at my desk just thinking about all of the brilliant ideas that I would find between the covers of these books – all the information and careful thought put into assembling it, all the delightful analysis and discussion that would take place, all the changes in my own patterns of thinking that would take place, and that I would be bearing witness to all the time people had spent developing discourse on philosophical or historical ideas instead of time spent killing and oppressing each other. It was a sober reminder that there are libraries full of books, full of information, full of art, full of poetry, full of life and when we choose to engage with it, we come alive again too.

As of late, I have also been going back to nature to get recharged and renewed. That is not to say that we are somehow separate from nature, nor are we actually going back to it just by sitting in a forest instead of a city somewhere. Nature is not only all around us, it is us. “Going back to nature” is as simply as eating mindfully: chewing your food slowly and really seeing, smelling and tasting it. “Going back to nature” can happen in a concrete jungle simply by watching the ants move, or watching the wind whisper through the grass of your suburban lawn. Constructed nature tamed by humans is still nature and frankly, if you are always waiting for that trip to the mountains to slow down, recharge and marvel in the incredible and insane miracle of life, you’re probably going to fall into despair a lot faster than you need to.

Don’t lose hold of the mundane and sublime absurdity that is this life – the fact that we are water-based beings in hairy sacks of skin, occupying a blue and green planet in space and when we put the stuff that grows on this planet into our mouths, we somehow extract energy contained in it from a burning star to continue living for years. This place is pure magic and totally insane. In the relentless agony that is human politics, it can be very easy to forget that fact which is too bad because it certainly makes all that nasty human crap melt away pretty fast, doesn’t it?

What are your strategies for remaining hopeful?

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

In an age of diversity and, unfortunately, hideous bigotry, it’s understandable that most of us are concerned with making sure the people around us are safe people. Are they racist? Homophobic? Sexist? Islamophobic? Judeophobic? Ageist? Sizeist? There are a lot of forms of discrimination to look out for.

Sadly, in many cases in our efforts to make sure we aren’t subject to stereotypes and generalizations we lump people into categories. Religious people aren’t safe for queer folk. Queer folk aren’t safe for religious people. White people aren’t safe for people of colour. Jews aren’t safe for Muslims, skinny minnies aren’t safe for the fat-bulous – the list goes on and on.

These are obviously problematic, and I don’t think it needs saying that stereotypes of all kinds are violent. They are pervasive though, and recently I’ve noticed a trend in some of my communities to simultaneously want to bring an end to bigotry while absolutely abhorring belief in God.

Of all the things to abhor in this world, that seems like a strange one. It’s like abhorring yoga, or a passion for decorating, or cooking with coconut oil – except it’s actually worse than those because abhorring belief in God leads to the alienation of religious (and non-religious, believe it or not) people the world over. Any kind of alienation causes more trauma than it prevents and it’s ultimately hugely problematic for anyone who believes in the beauty of diversity and wants peace. How can a person say ‘Ramadan Mubarak,’ and then unsubscribe to someone’s feed because they talk about God too much? That’s like going out to celebrate Chinese New Year and then getting angry that everyone keeps speaking Chinese.

So what’s the problem? What stereotype is causing that discomfort? Is it the idea that religious belief leads to violence and discrimination? Proselytization? Judgement? Ignorance?

Obviously each of these is problematic. Each is based on bigoted stereotypes.

Every day, every one of us has choices. The choices I make may not be the right choices for you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the right choices for me. It is our duty to be nonviolent people, and that includes abstaining from discrimination in all its forms. In addressing violence, it is important that we do not become violent ourselves.

Eid Mubarak, everyone.

With the launch of Dolce and Gabbana’s haute couture hijabi line in January, many people are questioning the motivations behind such a move. This wouldn’t be the first western fashion group to launch a line aimed at garnering a chunk of some of the $266 billion spent by Muslims annually (a number expected to rise to $488 billion within 3 years). H&M also launched a campaign that was aimed at supplying hijab-wearing shoppers with modest and fashionable apparel. Dolce and Gabbana represent a much different market than H&M and are looking to tap into the haute-couture market of the gulf countries, where approximately 33% of the world’s haute couture purchases originate from.

dgcollage.jpg

Hijab fashion is nothing new. Take five seconds to plug that into Youtube or a search engine and you will be inundated with videos of hijabi women from around the world saying “Salam Alaikum everyone! Today I have an amazing hijab fashion tutorial for you.” Usually these videos and blogs offer fashion tips and tricks for looking good while staying modest, ranging on the modesty scale from jeans and boyfriend sweaters, to all-out maxi dresses or fashion abayas.

Dolce and Gabbana are at the more modest end of the spectrum, coming up with a range of long flowing abayas and complementary head scarves with eye-popping accessories to boot. So if the hijab fashion market has always been around? What’s different? Why are some people questioning the motivations of the Sicilian designers? Is what they are doing an example of the now-infamous “cultural appropriation” or patriarchy or neo-colonialism (or all of the above) simply because they are non-Muslim, Western men?

I don’t think that such accusations are very productive or make a whole lot of sense. For me, what they are doing depends on their research. I’ll admit that so far they don’t have a great track record for research, especially considering that last summer, the designer duo scheduled an ultra-exclusive fashion show during Ramadan, meaning that many of their Middle Eastern/Muslim clients could not or would not attend. The faux-pas has stimulated the pair to learn more about Islamic religious practices though, and with such prominent names doing this research, especially while Islam is continually and perpetually under siege (that’s not up for discussion folks), I can’t argue with that kind of publicity.

And, in actually looking at their designs, I am floored by how stunning they are while being much more modest than most fashion hijab purports to be these days. They are obviously catering to the Gulf aesthetic taste for abayas and that’s great: they know their market and in the world of business, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. They aren’t forcing it down the throats of women and they aren’t necessarily dictating what those women should wear. In fact, hijabis around the world have been cobbling together modest outfits (let’s be honest about how many of you have about 5000 layers going on daily in an effort to make sure you’re just covered) from designer fashions and clothing labels not marketed towards them since…forever. And we’re all going to keep buying our scarves at the same store that hipsters do but instead of wrapping them around our necks ironically, they will be pinned to our heads. Suddenly, because someone decided to pitch something directly to us, it’s an issue? Frankly, I’d prefer if someone took us into consideration because I am getting really tired of wearing turtlenecks under everything because the sleeves are too short.

My first real concern comes from an Islamic perspective more than anything and centers on the ethics of the labour that went into making them. This, of course, is something that can be asked of everything Muslims wear. Are we dressing ourselves on the slave labour of others across the world? Are children being forced to make our clothes? As Muslims, believe it or not, these are important questions to be asking. We should not be supporting companies that partake in poor manufacturing processes or do not take care of their employees’ working conditions and pay. While the ethics behind a company’s manufacturing practices is not always clear, we should feel obligated to do the research necessary to make sure we are not unknowingly participating in the entrapment or forced servitude of other people. This is critical wherever manufacturing takes place and whoever is doing it. For Muslims who might not particularly care, it is important to note that clothing manufacturing dominates in places like China, Bangladesh, India, and Turkey – all countries that have large Muslim populations which could be directly affected by poor work conditions. Of course, it is the duty of the Muslim to care for all people in positions of injustice, not just other Muslims; however, if it takes imagining your little brother or sister chained to a sewing machine for 15 hours a day to wake some people up, then so be it. Theoretically, Dolce and Gabbana manufacture most of their clothing in Italy, however, some of their eyewear and accessory lines are made in China, and knockoffs abound from all over the world.

DG_LB_DONNA_PE_16_DUBAI_16-xlarge_trans++G0T6zsWKXhWl85lXUYuEhdwvDhOs18LfuZtl8Whhl88

Other issues have been raised by Muslims about the new line and others that will follow suit, including the fact that it’s too little too late – that after a lifetime of suffering because of wearing the hijab, the slight joy of it becoming a fashion statement does little to ease the trauma. While I don’t doubt that some women have felt that their modest Islamic dress has caused them untold suffering, whether from limited opportunities to outright physical violence, it doesn’t follow for me that if an industry suddenly starts to catch up on that fact that, hey, we’re women too and we like to present ourselves well to the world (indeed, looking good is part of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him) it is negated by the fact that they have operated in ignorance for so many years prior. Bring on the knowledge and understanding!

The claim that the move reeks of Western double standards (because people in the West don’t want women to wear hijab?) is also a gross conflation of a) the opinions of Westerners and b) the entire concept of the West. There are plenty of people who have zero issue with hijabi women choosing to wear a headscarf and modest dress every day and to presume otherwise is unproductive and accusatory. I have little patience for binaries (in case, you hadn’t already noticed). Sure, D&G might be more interested in tapping into a lucrative market, but there is something to be said for the fact that they even have the gall to try. It might have something to do with the fact that they are Sicilian and the gorgeous Italian island was colonized by Arabs for 200 years, but I’m a Calabrese (neighbouring province to Sicily) convert to Islam so I’m a bit biased when it comes to residual cultural DNA cropping into my vocabulary.

The final criticism that I want to address is an important one: the whiteness of the model used to photograph the abaya collection. The issue of this woman’s skin colour has come up more than I can count and while I do agree that Dolce and Gabbana missed a huge opportunity for intersectional visibility here, I don’t necessarily think it’s the worst thing to have happened. In fact, it actually goes against presumptions found within the Arab world itself: that Arabs are the truest Muslim because they come from the same tribes of Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) and they know the language of the Qur’an, despite the fact that they only represent about 15% of the worldwide Muslim population. Having a white (or Italian?) hijabi Muslim also flies in the face of stereotypes lobbed against paler converts to Islam who get accused of converting only for marriage or of being Orientalist – pretenders who will never actually grasp the weight of their conversion by virtue of having come from the land of the great colonizers. For me, embodying my own peripheral intersectionality as an Italian convert from the West, I didn’t mind such a model, but I wouldn’t, obviously. And I suppose that’s just my privilege talking because it just so happens that some of my people (even though I hate nationalism) decided to represent some of my other people (ie. Muslims) – an overlap I never expected to happen.

Islamically speaking, the price tag is the real issue for me when it comes to buying modest, hijabi clothing from designers like Dolce and Gabbana, simply because it is the only part of the equation that is not modest. The collection has yet to be priced, but if it is anything like the rest of their designs, it is going to be substantial. To put this in perspective, the only floor-length maxi dress in the D&G 2016 collection is priced at $7070 US and a standard headscarf from the same collection is approximately $484 US. That’s a lot of dollars being spent on “modesty”. Money that could be better spent on charitable ventures, one’s own family or the general betterment of society.

For modest, fashionable hijab options, I recommend Modern Hejab and Afflatus Hijab.

 

For the past 5 months, I have been studying the Arabic language at the University of Alberta. This is not my first foray into the Arabic language: I have been enamoured with it for years, even before I converted to Islam. I have taken some online self-study classes, bought books at the local bookstore to teach myself, took a few private tutoring lessons and the like. I even lived in Morocco for three years where I picked up a significant and usable amount of Moroccan Arabic to survive taxi rides and trips to the enchanting Moroccan souk (market). Even though Moroccan Arabic stuck with me and is really the first language I can safely say I speak besides English (my strengths in French are reading and writing), darija as it is called, is quite far from the formal Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha, as it is known).

arabic-calligraphy

Since I began my Master’s degree in History at the University of Alberta, I have had to focus on learning the Arabic language to further my research in Islamic-Jewish studies, particularly if I want to continue on and do a doctorate degree in a similar study area (which I do). As such, I enrolled in a couple of courses to learn Modern Standard Arabic and it has been an incredible experience, but for reasons that might surprise you, as they most certainly surprised me.

The Camaraderie: The last thing someone would expect when I tell them I am taking an Arabic class is that the class would be full of Arabs. Well, it is. I weaseled my way into the “heritage” class which is full of students who have grown up speaking the dialects of their parents but have little to no knowledge of formal Arabic or how to read and write it. There are three other non-heritage students in my class, each of whom I love dearly for various reasons, most significantly a kind of solidarity in the face of the madness of learning this language. Mainly the class is full of amazing, jovial people who are enjoying learning the language together. The class takes place at night, for two and a half hours, twice a week. Since the class is so long and at a weird time of day, we tend to get a bit delirious together especially when you add the complexities of Arabic grammar concepts to the mix. I have rarely had as much fun in a class as I do in this one, and I have to say that I actually miss the class when there are days between meetings. Part of this has to do with the fact that I am a convert to Islam and I don’t have much of a strong connection to the actual Muslim community even though I do a lot of activist work on behalf of that community. Most of my time, however, is spent with academics or family and both of those groups don’t necessarily overlap with Muslimness at all. The Arabic class, however, is full of Muslims and even though we don’t always mention much about our way of life (deen), just being in close proximity to people who have a similar religio-cultural context as you is more of a relief than I expected it to be. To not have to explain ever micro-action of your behaviour or character is refreshing, even though I normally relish in the opportunity to do so with people who may lack knowledge about Islam.

tumblr_m3s9zdwIF11rr3vvpo1_1280

Pages of Arabic: I regularly have moments of looking down at my homework or an exam I have just written, or even some extra writing I have done for my professor, and I have to marvel in awe at the fact that the entire page (in fact, pages upon pages) is written in Arabic. How is this even possible? How can I possibly understand what I have just written? And time does not cure the awe either. It just keeps getting more and more pronounced as my writing improves and expands. This used to happen to me when I was studying Greek and I think it is for no other reason than the alphabet is different. I genuinely feel like my brain is being rewired (and it is) because I am introducing an entire new set of meaningful symbols into my linguistic repertoire. And more than that, I can express myself with these symbols in ways that are affective for people who know and understand Arabic. I’m living part of my life in another language; I’m saturated by it. When you choose to express yourself in another language, it is not merely an act of translation. You are adopting and carrying the depths of meaning from that language into your self-expression, and with a rich language such as Arabic, where oceans of meaning are contained in one word or phrase, the expressions are almost limitless – especially when combined with those I have in English and French and Italian as well.

Egyptians are hilarious: This is not news to many people, especially not me. One of my best friends is Egyptian and his wit simply cannot be matched, so this is one cultural stereotype I am happy to uphold. My professor, Mai, is Egyptian and the stereotype holds true and strong for her as well. Her sense of humour is impeccable and she puts up with all sorts of class antics with a smile on her face and a laugh on her tongue. I have come to know a bit more about how Egyptian people view themselves through her (passionate, temperamental, hilarious, lovers of love and beauty, impatient, generous, kind, caring etc) even if I don’t necessarily subscribe to universalizing narratives about cultural systems. I am interested, however, in how individuals within that system talk about themselves and what stories they tell, and especially when this is done in good humour. Frankly, there is a kind of rapport between the heritage students and Mai that you don’t find in other classes and it reminds me of how my students were with me in Morocco – always trying to get away with no homework or leaving early, being trolls in general but respecting their professor to death at the end of the day. Her presence has only fuelled my unnatural obsession with the Arab world in general and the Egyptian world in particular, so I look forward to the day when I can visit the homeland and see these gorgeous stereotypes firsthand. I only hope I can touch a fraction of the language before then to make that experience really come to life.

Using different parts of my brain: It should come as no surprise that learning a new language messes with your head in a good way. You are forced to think about things in a completely different way, especially when the alphabet is something different than what you are accustomed to. Sometimes I find this process painful, especially during vocabulary lessons in class where it feels like every heritage speaker in the class knows everything and I can’t even remember how to spell the first word on the list; however, that kind of hyperventilating suffocation that I feel when learning Arabic is pure bliss. It’s the feeling of being on a precipice, about to tumble over an edge, head-first into the world unknown. It is the feeling of pushing your own boundaries of knowledge and existence, of unlocking worlds within worlds and breaking down our assumptions. I love this kind of ego-slay, especially when it is as humbling as learning Arabic is for me. This is exactly the kind of work that academia should be for people: the kind that makes the boundaries of who you think you are, and what you think your world is, ambiguous and blurry.

arabic-art-work-212x300

Thinking in Arabic: When I am particularly immersed in my studies, which is a lot these days, I find myself thinking in Arabic. I will pass street signs written in English and imagine how I would spell such a thing in the Arabic alphabet. Or I will try to translate simple conversations or sentences to Arabic in my head. Sometimes, especially because of my visceral understanding of Moroccan Arabic and the fact that I am Muslim, I feel compelled to respond to situations in Arabic, uttering a Yallah or an Alhamdulilah wherever it fits. In Arabic there are just so many key words and phrases that encapsulate so much meaning in a tiny package that sometimes I find I am at a loss for words in English. It just doesn’t sound the same when you see a particularly beautiful sunrise and you say to yourself “All praise, glory and thanks are due to God Alone” when you can just say Subhana Allah instead.

Reading the Qur’an: On that note, my connection to Arabic is not only cultural in the sense that I love Arabic cultures but it is also cultural in the sense of religion. For those who do not know, Arabic is the language in which the holy book of Islam (the Qur’an) was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him for all eternity). One incredible outcome of learning to read and write Arabic fluently is that I can now read the Qur’an in Arabic at a pace that is a lot faster than before (let’s be realistic, I could barely read 6 words every 2 minutes before). Even though Qur’anic Arabic is quite different than Modern Standard Arabic, many principles are the same and the same basic letters and sounds apply, even though there is an entire science behind reading the Qur’an (tajweed). The fact that I can read what I and other Muslims consider to the exact and direct word of Allah (God) in the language it was revealed lessens the temporal and spatial gap between myself and the Prophet Muhammad and brings me closer to my spiritual practice, even if I am slow in learning the meaning(s) of such words in their own context.

My journey with the Arabic language will be life-long and this is only just the beginning. There have been moments of real agony already where I feel like I will never touch the depths of meaning that I want to with the language, where I lose myself in its music, tinged with melancholia and sorrow that it is not my mother tongue as I fail to remember terms or pronunciation again and again. But there are successes along the same path, big successes, things that I could never imagine were possible like those pages full of words I can understand and feelings I can describe. And for now, that will have to be enough until the day when  I will fully memorize the Qur’an while internalizing its meaning and when my own Arabic poetry will roll flawlessly off my tongue, insha Allah.