Divided We Fall

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The other day I saw an image quote that said something like race, religion, and politics divide us. Well, I think that’s a load of crap. I think that while race, religion and politics may differentiate us, what truly DIVIDES us is disrespect. We can be different, and still stand together, united, as long as we have mutual respect. When we are divided, then it is not race, nor religion, nor politics which are to blame: it is disrespect, plain and simple.

The truth, which for some reason people find difficult to voice, is that when we differ, we are in essence finding fault with the other opinion. For example: I, as a Muslim, do not believe that Jesus is God nor the son of God. I believe that is false, that it is wrong. And Christians, by their own creed, must believe that I am wrong. But what the hell is wrong with that? What is wrong with thinking another person (or group) is wrong? Nothing! Absolutely nothing…as long as our disagreements are not coupled with disrespect. I have no right to disrespect my Christian brethren. I have no right to disrespect them with words, nor with caricatures mocking their faith, nor with hateful actions. I do not have that right, and they have no right to disrespect me.

But that’s not what happens these days. These days, when people talk about religion or politics, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “You’re an idiot for thinking that!” The problem we have in our society today, is that we don’t know how to respectfully disagree. And that disrespect often manifests in the form of verbal and physical hate crimes.

In the Quran (chapter 49 verse 13) it says what is translated as “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” God created us with all our differences so that we can LEARN from one another! There is an innate beauty in our differences, if only we could recognize this.

Recently one of my Facebook contacts implied that I have no right to voice my concern about the results of the recent election. She claimed that since my feet do not currently tread on US soil, I don’t have the right to care about what happens there. I am simply enraged by her disrespect, on so many levels. She tried to revoke my freedom of speech, and she questioned my patriotism. She had no right to do either! Yes, I do not currently live in the US, but it IS my home. Not only is my family there, but I was born and raised there. I was educated there, I worked there. It is a part of me. I want to see it flourish, I want goodness for it. I was blessed to have been born and raised there. And although I think I may feel this way no matter where I had been born, the truth is that freedoms and privileges in the US shine above so many other countries. I’m not saying it is a perfect country. No, it is not. There is racism and sexism and all sorts of other prejudices. But the BEAUTY of America is that its very constitution works to keep those prejudices at bay. Its beauty is that at its very core is a promise to strive for a society free of prejudice. I wanted to see it keep moving forward, keep improving. I wanted to see the incidents of hate crimes decline and to see the gap of inequality diminish.

Since the results of the election, there has been a rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the US. Latino students have been verbally assaulted with chants that a wall should be built to separate them. The list does not end there, but the point is clear: the disrespect which the president-elect showed to so many minorities during his campaign is being put into action as hate by at least some of his supporters. And that is the saddest part of this election. It’s not about one man…it was never about one man. It’s about those who show support for division. If this behavior is not quelled immediately, it will undoubtedly grow out of control, and the country will fall. It’s that simple.

I do not want America to fall. The freedoms that it represents are too precious.

So what’s the answer? How do we teach respectful disagreement? How do we teach it with a president-elect who does not show it?

I want to say, as some of my friends have already pointed out, that discussion is the solution. That learning about those who are different from us from those very people may help relieve our fears and grow a feeling of respect.

But if I’m being honest, I do not think that will work. If an adult does not already recognize that they must respect people around him regardless of their race, religion, or any other differentiating factor, I do not think that he will learn it.

I want to be wrong. I want to be wrong about the direction the US seems to be heading in after this election.

I put my faith in God and pray that He will protect my brothers and sisters in humanity from all forms of disrespect.

This poem is my prayer of love for you.

 

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Rays of Love

 

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I pray the hate never finds you,

I pray you live protected from its jagged blade.

I pray it does not tear at your heart,

That it does not shred you

From the inside out.

 

I pray the hate never finds you,

I pray you live protected from its jagged blade,

I pray it does not puncture your flesh,

That it does not shred you

From the outside in.

 

Come,

Hide ourselves and our children in the bosom of compassion,

And when hate comes,

Hold up our shields of brotherhood,

Warn it off with our saber of love.

Stand our ground, lock arms,

And let it not penetrate the circle.

 

Multiple rays of love can melt the hate.

 

I pray the hate

never finds you.

©Hend Hegazi

 

(Thank you for reading and liking this post. You may enjoy reading the four interviews I wrote for the women characters of my novel, Behind Picket Fences. The interviews were super fun to write, and I think you’ll find yourself wondering if they are characters from a book or real people. Click here for the interviews.)

Regrets, In Life As In Writing

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Have you ever done something that seemed completely rational at the time, but when you look back on it you’re like, What the hell was I thinking?

There is one incident in my personal life which comes to mind immediately. I won’t go into detail mostly because, to be honest, I’m rather ashamed of it. Before I give you the recap, let me just say, for those of you who don’t know me personally, that I’m generally a kind person. I believe in being compassionate, I believe in spreading love. I think anyone who knows me would say the same. But one day over twenty years ago, when I was a junior in high school, I was extremely mean to a girl. My intention, my rationale, was that by telling her off, it would make the boy involved (surprise, surprise, right?) see that he was a being a prick. Now, in truth, the boy was being a prick. But this girl, she wasn’t responsible for his actions. She was innocent… and I was just vile to her. I didn’t see it until sometime later. But I do regret it, and I hope that, wherever she may be, she will forgive me.

Recently I’ve had another what the hell was I thinking moment, although decidedly less regretful. It is a literary mistake I made with my newest release, Behind Picket Fences. And this mistake wasn’t made clear to me until some of my readers started making comments about the characters, asking why a Muslim character would act a certain way. “Ah…,” I replied in confusion, “but that character isn’t Muslim. I make no mention of any religious affiliation with her. Why did you assume that?”

It was the name, some of them said. Others, I think, simply assumed all my characters were Muslim just because I am Muslim. And while the latter reason saddens me because it forces me into a box that—no matter how much I grow as I writer—I may never escape, the former reason is my doing, and I must take responsibility for it.

For six out of eight of my main characters, I deliberately chose names that work across cultures. You’ll find plenty of Muslims and non-Muslims named May, Morgan, Mariam, Summer, Sidra, and Farris. My intention was that both my Muslim and non-Muslim readers would relate to the names. But, for at least some of my readers, this non-commitment probably did the opposite of that, leaving their vision of the characters undefined. Interestingly, this prejudice came from my Muslim audience; none of my non-Muslim readers mentioned this to me. I wonder if they feel they same.

And I wonder if it matters. The differences in stories that readers experience is part of the beauty of this art. There is a personalized dance that goes on between the writer and each reader. And each dance is both unique and authentic, lending to a very special reading experience. So does it matter that some of my readers attributed to certain characters a specific religion which I had not?  I want to say no. I want to say it’s the same as me seeing a character as skinny and you seeing him as muscular. I really want to say it’s the same as that, that it doesn’t matter. But in this case, at least, yes, it does matter.

It matters for two reasons: First, my target audience is not only Muslims; I hope to reach and touch non-Muslims as well. And well, if a reviewer makes a comment that all (or most) of the characters are Muslim, this may discourage members of my non-Muslim audience. Someone who was thinking of picking up my book might change his mind based solely on the idea that he may be unable to relate to any of the characters.

Second, as a Muslim, it is my responsibility—taken willingly or unwillingly—to represent Islam. What I mean by that is, people who observe my actions, both in my life and in my writing, will judge Islam based on my presentation of it. It’s like that incident twenty years ago in high school: It tears me up to think that that girl thought my religion permitted my horrible behavior. As for my writing, well I can have Muslim characters do forbidden things because in life, that happens. But I will never glorify it. I will never normalize a sin. And for that reason, it is vital that my characters’ religious affiliations be clear. (Honestly, I thought that not mentioning a religious affiliation was the same as saying, ‘this person adheres to no specific religion.’ But clearly I was wrong.)

My readers presented me with a lesson, and I have learned it, and will continue to learn more with each piece I write. And I hope that my writing will be the better for it.

Whispers

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‘It’s just a little white lie,’ he whispers into your ear. ‘You’ll finish that report after you play the game…your mom doesn’t need to know exactly when you got it done.’ You call out that you’ve finished, the video game shaking in your hand and you hold your breath and listen. When her footsteps fade down the hall you force that feeling of guilt away with an unsure smile.

He’s a little one…still young. They start out small, too.

‘So many people do this; it’s not a big deal,’ he murmurs inaudibly as you nod your head and shove the pack of cigarettes to the bottom of the drawer, hidden beneath neatly folded shirts. ‘Good, now no one needs to know and you can smoke whenever you want,’ he cheers in his unheard voice.

He’s a bit older, a bit bigger. And he accompanies you everywhere you go.

‘If they didn’t want you to cheat, they wouldn’t give you unsupervised exams. You think everyone here is actually following the honor code?! No one is…why should you?’ His voice is firm. Watching you copy the answers from the book, he chuckles imperceptibly.

He’s an adult now. And he thinks he has full control over you.

‘You have no choice,’ he screams silently into your soul. ‘She’s given all her attention away with nothing left for you. That other woman will give you comfort. Call her, go to her. It’s your only chance for happiness.’

He sits between you and the woman who carried you through the years, consoled you in the dark and reflected your sunshine in the light, the one who planned to stand by you and lift you up, even if it meant that would cause her to drown. He sits between you, his presence tangible, causing you to look upon her with disdain. His laughter tears apart your life as he places it on his shelf as another trophy won, another paradise so gracefully brought to rubble.

Following his whispers – one by one – from his child form till he became a titan, you watched goodness collapse and your world crumble.

There had always been another voice, you know. There had been an inner feeling, guiding you away from him, urging you to remain pure, pleading with you to ignore the whispers.

It’s still there, that inner feeling. It’s not too late to tune out his whispers.

Tune out his whispers and tune in to you.

New Breath

bent flower

Your tongue shot the bullet that pierced my heart,

Rang confusion in my ears,

Filled my lungs with smoke…

And choked my soul.

Beaten and broken,

Without a friend to turn to,

I fell to my knees and whispered,

“God…my heart is heavy. I’m so very sad.”

He let me cry all the tears I needed,

Until His Grace covered me,

And I finally fell asleep.

Now my laughter is the dam

Which keeps the tears at bay,

Hanging to the thread of hope,

That the nightmare be forgotten,

That your shoulders have the strength to hold me.

All the while,

I whisper to my Lord,

Begging Him to bless us,

Begging Him to destroy the demons

Before

They destroy

Us.

An Arabic Lesson

Recently I read a Facebook post of one of my non-Muslim friends who was celebrating a turn for the better in her son’s health. Many of the comments read, “Praise God.”

This made me pause. And re-read. And think. And after a bit, I understood why I had been confused.

You’re thinking, “Of course she should Praise God that her son’s health is improving.” And I say to you, OF COURSE. PRAISE GOD!!

So now you’re even more confused: why, then, did this phrase make me do a double take?

It made me do a double take because it is so rare that I hear non-Muslims use that term. So rare, in fact, that probably I’ve only heard it used in similar contexts, expressing gratefulness for a hardship that has eased or passed. But Muslims don’t limit their Praises of God to just passing of hardships. We say it in almost every occasion.

Alhamdulillah. Alhamdulillah is Arabic for Praise God. Someone asks you how you are, you say, “Praise God.” You’ve just been released from the hospital: Praise God. You’ve arrived safely after a long trip: “Alhamdulillah.” You’ve just been in an accident: “Alhamdulillah.” You’ve just received horrible news: “Alhamdulillah.” You were denied the promotion that you KNOW you deserve: “Alhamdulillah.”

We Praise God always…ALWAYS…because we believe that God rewards the patient. Accepting hardships with an Alhamdulillah gets us one step closer to Paradise.

I’m sure many non-Muslims do the same; the similarities between all of us who believe in One God are much more than our differences.

Another term you’ll hear Muslims say like it’s going out of style is ‘in sha’ Allah.’ ‘In sha’ Allah’ simply means ‘God willing.’ Why do we say it so often? Because it is one of the six pillars of faith to believe in destiny, that our lives are pre-ordained and nothing happens without God’s will.

Now, contrary to ‘Praise God,’ I don’t think I’ve ever heard a non-Muslim say ‘God willing.’ Actually, once. Once I heard it being said. In the USA, I used to worked with a young man who came from Haiti, and I was pleasantly surprised when he said to me one day, “Don’t you think it’s strange that people here always make plans but they never say, ‘God willing?’ In Haiti we ALWAYS say it.”

So when you hear the Muslims around you say ‘in sha’ Allah,’ they’re not saying anything strange; they’re just affirming their faith that nothing happens without God’s will.

Not As Simple As It Sounds

Like every parent, I’ve always taught my children not to talk to strangers. “Even if they say they’re going to give you candy,” I’ve warned them, “you don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.” I’ve stressed, “Even if they say they’re going to take you to mom…you never talk to strangers.” And none of the boys had a problem with it…they got it: no strangers!

For my youngest, the only girl, it’s surprisingly different.  Don’t get me wrong, she gets it. She just takes it VERY literally.

When I first took her to daycare, I noticed she was more reserved than she normally is. “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you playing with the other kids?” And I sort of did a double take when she said to me, “But they’re strangers.”   Her comment made me realize that I had to qualify that term; not everyone she didn’t know was a stranger…at least not in the respect that she needed to be weary of them.  I didn’t want that warning to turn her into someone who is always reserved and anti-social…and apparently that’s where we were headed.  So I tried to narrow the group of ‘strangers’ somewhat: “Well, yes, you don’t know them, but they’re little, like you. You can make friends with them. And your teachers, too. You can talk to them.”

“So if they’re little…like me…I can talk to them?”

“Yes. And all the teachers and nannies at your school, too. You can talk to all of them.”

It still took her some time, more questions about which kids she could talk to, but eventually she got it. Of course, now that she understood that she could talk to some people she didn’t know, this had to be followed up with the whole, “But you never go out of the school with anyone! No one! And you never let anyone touch you…and if they try to you have to tell them no. And you have to tell me right away.” All these new warnings which, unfortunately, we must arm our children with.

The other day she was with me at a store, and the clerk asked her something. He was just trying to be friendly, trying to get her to talk and laugh. But she just hid her face behind me and ignored him, which isn’t her style at all. And I couldn’t figure out why she would act so shy.

When we left I asked her why she didn’t answer him.  “But you told me not to talk to strangers!!”

See people, it’s just not as easy as it sounds. It’s not just one sentence we repeat over and over until we’re assured that they fully understand it. It is so much more. If we leave it unexplained, our children may be safer, but they also risk losing some important social skills, not to mention being frightened by everyone they come across. So we take the time to explain, and give examples, lots of different examples, and repeat.

May God protect all our children…and may He fix this world so that one day, we won’t have to give those warnings to children. So that one day, they will be safe without those warnings. We certainly can’t make that happen…but nothing is out of His Power.