Victory is in the struggle

“Resisting means assuring oneself of the heart’s health” – Mahmoud Darwish

Mohamed Abu Khudair

Mohamed Abu Khudair

In the early hours of Wednesday 2nd July, 17-year-old Mohamed Abu Khudair was making his way to his local mosque for morning prayers in the refugee camp of Shu’fat, occupied East Jerusalem. Leaked CCTV footage has since emerged depicting the moment in which Mohamed was forced into a car by three men who had been watching him and pounced when the street was left deserted. The next morning, his body was found dumped in a forest, badly burnt. Lifeless. Autopsy reports have revealed that Mohamed’s maimers set him alight while he was still alive as “forensic studies found chars in the lungs, indicating that Muhammad was still breathing while he was being burned”. Mohamed was buried yesterday after a funeral procession attended by thousands in Shu’fat. His body was laid to rest beside his cousin’s grave, Amjad Abu Khudair.

If you’ve been following, even vaguely, the news regarding Mohamed’s death, most likely you’ve been told that this was a purported “revenge attack”, a reaction to the murder of three Israeli teenagers: Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar. That’s if your recollection of history spans a grand total of one week and your source of news is the BBC. So let’s just conveniently ignore that this happened on 15th May shall we? Or the fact that since 2000 up until April 2013, 1,520 Palestinian children have been murdered by Israel, equating to 1 child every 3 days for the last 13 years. Whilst mainstream media outlets will have you know that this latest “cycle of violence” was triggered by the murder of Israeli settlers, this started a long time ago. This started in 1948. It began when a clan of colonialists thought they could casually invade a country, settle in it, ethnically cleanse it of its indigenous populace, and attain peace and stability.

What of the three Israeli settlers who were abducted and killed? It turns out that Netanyahu et al had known that the teenagers were dead for over two weeks, including the bodies’ whereabouts and the suspected perpetrators, but they “concealed this information through a gag order“. Rather than return the bodies to the families of the victims and deal with the perpetrators of the attack in a civilised manner, the Israeli government used their deaths to launch a violent onslaught on Palestinians. Netanyahu stifled the Israeli press, buying time to milk this opportunity for what it was worth. Anyone who still believes in the myth that the state of Israel compassionately enshrines human lives, or is the “only democracy in the Middle East” needs a brain check. A corpse, an incident of murder, an entire town are reduced to mere tools, used as means of incitement, to drum up anti-Palestinian rhetoric and justify relentless aggression against millions of displaced families. And as the story of the Israeli teenagers proves, it seems that even the life of an Israeli is distastefully seized as an opportunity, an instrument for tactical, racist manoeuvring by Israel’s states(wo)men.

The kidnap and murder of the three Israeli teenagers has lead to over 600 arrests. Meanwhile, the kidnap and murder of Mohamed Abu Khudair has led to, wait for it… 0 arrests. Despite clear CCTV footage depicting his abduction, despite his corpse being found literally consumed and choked by flames, despite this horrific act of barbarity. In fact, not only have no arrests been made, the Israeli government has imposed a gag order on the ‘investigation’ into his death. It is safe to say that no one will be brought to justice. That is the painfully sad truth. Mohamed’s blood is not simply on the hands of the barbarians who preyed on him. Neither is it just on the hands of Netanyahu, his fellow war criminals, or even Israeli civil society. It is on the hands of every apologist for the racist apartheid state that is Israel. Every single person who has yet to categorically condemn and work to debilitate the colonial cancer that is the Israeli state’s obsessive and illegal occupation is responsible. You will answer to Mohamed and every martyr, child and man, whose life was robbed, on the Final Day. We all will. Be under no illusions; mere silence and senseless apathy is most certainly complicity.

Tariq Abu Khudair

Tariq Abu Khudair

And as if to deliberately add insult to injury, it has now emerged that Mohamed Abu Khudair’s cousin, 15-year-old US citizen Tariq Abu Khudair, visiting Palestine for the summer holiday, was brutally beaten up by undercover Israeli “police” personnel on Thursday 3rd July. His beating has been caught on camera by multiple witnesses. Here’s one. And another. Tariq is in need of urgent medical care, suffering from a broken nose and chin as well as internal bleeding, but take a guess as to where this boy is right now. He is detained, handcuffed to a hospital bed, awaiting a court hearing on Sunday 6th July. Unconscious. There are various reports emerging about other missing and/or assaulted youths. Yesterday, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was reported missing in the Wadi Al-Jouz neighbourhood in occupied Jerusalem. Late last night, Israeli settlers kidnapped and beat up 22-year-old Tareq Odeily from Nablus. He was left severely bleeding and is now hospitalised, in critical condition. 9-year-old Musa Zullum was snatched by settlers and had his neck slashed on Sunday 29th June as he walked with his mother in the West Bank. And another, Yosef Eghnemat, assaulted by a bunch of settlers in Hebron. Be under no illusion, these are just some of the many. The documented.

My questions are abundant (I won’t hold my breath for satisfying answers): where is the US government in all this? Where is Obama and his statement of “concern”? Tariq Abu Khudair is a US citizen; isn’t his protection the duty of the Obama administration? Or does the fact that he has Palestinian blood running through his veins negate his right to care? Where is David Cameron and his tweets of empathy? Where are the Arab ‘leaders’? Too busy constructing skyscrapers and casinos? Where are ‘ISIS’, the self-proclaimed freedom fighters now rampaging their way across Syria and Iraq, vacuously claiming to be motivated by a yearning for Muslim liberation? Where are the keen journalists, the media outlets profiteering from bloodshed in the Middle East? Where are their privileged voices? We saw how much of a stir they caused when details about the three Israeli teenagers were finally released by Bibi: special features, interviews with the mothers, up-to-date live commentary of proceedings. What about Tariq: have you seen one piece about him? I haven’t. Although I know better than to be shocked by it all, this hypocrisy and selective reporting will never cease to make my blood boil. The people who should be writing about this aren’t, and when they are, it’s an Israel-is-the-victim sob story. We keep hearing the same narrative, the same “cycle of violence” nonsense, recycled and bulldozed to rhetorically censor all talk concerning the real problem, the root cause of this cold-hearted villainy. To pit the Palestinians and the Israelis on an identical plane of scrutiny, and subsequently insist that they are two sides of the same coin is to do a great disservice to what this ‘conflict’ is about. This is not a conflict. This is about an apartheid state that rules over people with an unquenchable thirst for dominion. This is about millions of oppressed families fighting with their breaths and blood to reclaim what was stolen from them. This is about justice. To delve into debate after debate about what is commonly referred to as a “cycle of violence” is to misunderstand the essence of this fight. It is to misunderstand what Palestine means.

Muhammad Al-Dura, shielded by his father Jamal Al-Dura, moments before he was killed in September 2000

Muhammad Al-Dura, shielded by his father Jamal Al-Dura, moments before he was killed in September 2000

And just like in September 2000, when 12-year-old Muhammad Al-Dura was shot dead during the second intifada in Gaza, Mohamed Abu Khudair has perished, with no remorse from those responsible. More than a decade after Al-Dura’s cold-blooded murder was etched into my 10-year-old consciousness, it seems that things are just the same, Abu Khudair’s ordeal this time scarring my 23-year-old heart. However, I refuse to accept that their deaths were in vain. The utter strength, relentless tawwakul, and the unabating mentality of resistance of the people of Palestine bewilders me. Their humility even more so, displayed no more jaw-droppingly than Muhammad Al-Dura’s father (who literally watched his son die in his embrace):

“I don’t hate Israel, I hate the occupation. I am for peace. War is against humankind. I don’t want others to lose their sons. Which parent doesn’t want their children to grow up safe and secure?” – Jamal Al-Dura

Astounding. I am struggling to string the words to be sincere enough in claiming that I could say the same had I been in his mighty shoes.

We find ourselves in the Holy month of Ramadan and in yet another month of bloodshed. I admit, I have come dangerously close to despair. I am only armed with a voice and my kuffiyeh. Make use of these sacred days and nights. Pray hard. Ask Him, for verily He has promised to answer the sincere call of His loyal servants: may God watch over every child; may He hasten victory over the oppressors; may He weaken the occupiers; may He instil Love in the hearts of every man, woman, and child. For all power lies with Him.

“Yet indeed, as for any who defend themselves after having been wronged – no blame whatever attaches to them: blame attaches but to those who oppress [other] people and behave outrageously on earth, offending against all right: for them there is grievous suffering in store” – 42:41-42

Mohamed Abu Khudair's funeral procession on Friday 4th July

Mohamed Abu Khudair’s funeral procession on Friday 4th July

I ain’t happy

“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave” – Assata Shakur

Today was a frustrating day. Everywhere, I was bombarded with the #HappyBritishMuslims tagline. I didn’t get why at first; I thought it was merely one of those vacuous hashtags that trend on Twitter. That was until I found the video below. Intrigued, I clicked the play button:

I thought it would make sense. I watched it repeatedly, allowing myself the possibility of having perhaps missed something, the moral of the story, if you will. But in the end, having exhausted all rational speculations, I was left to dwell on an uneasy mixture of embarrassment, disillusionment, and defeat. I have a few problems with what is evidently a PR campaign, and whilst many have been quick to label such objections as cynical, I would argue that they are founded on very legitimate and important grounds, ones that we are obliged to confront honestly.

Whilst it may, at first glance, come across as “just a bit of fun”, the seemingly harmless often ends up being deviously repackaged, presenting itself as the biggest thorn (and obstacle) in the struggle for inter-cultural understanding, awareness, and cohesion. Internalised projections of orientalism are lethal precisely because they are perceived to be unobjectionable, and unconscious assimilation of stereotypes has emerged as the biggest threat to Muslims and their identity in the 21st century, particularly to those residing in the West.

How can we claim to actively fight the stereotypes that plague Western perceptions of Muslims if we operate under the veneer of those very prejudices? What the video very evidently does is it seeks to humanise Muslims by implicitly submitting to orientalist accounts. Why do we continually insist on trying to prove our humanity and normality through such nonsensical antics? And just for the record, I don’t take issue with the dancing or the music, although I know some elements of the Muslim community will. To be clear, I am taking issue with a very specific point, the underlying message that is being bulldozed through this video: “Hey Britain, check us out, we’re not all suicide-bombers. Some of us are even in touch with chart music. And look, we can even crack a smile when we’re happy”. We never play by our rules, we only seem to be efficient when reacting to standards imposed upon us. That’s not smart. The worst “Other-ing” is that which one imposes upon oneself. Self-enslavement, unknowingly absorbed, is the most dangerous form of bondage. Failing to understand that by the very act of attempting to defy dehumanising stereotypes, we have (in)conveniently bought into the status quo’s sophisticated trickery, and have done an unprecedented disservice to ourselves and to our heritage. The result is, to put it bluntly, amateurish and we frankly do not have the right to complain about negative portrayals of Muslims by Western discourse-setters if we have chosen to submit ourselves to such narratives.

If stereotypes are imposed upon us, which they sadly are, the most obvious trap we must avoid falling straight into is acknowledging them. And by zero acknowledgement, I don’t mean passive ignorance; rather, we should avoid, at all costs, adopting those stereotypes as the premise for our public engagements with the wider society, which this video fails to do. Ironically, it has fuelled the fire of bigotry. Dancing to Pharrell and force-feeding a shallow and superficial notion of ‘happiness’ won’t change anything, and it certainly won’t have an impact on the ingrained prejudices of the very people who have constructed false narratives and racist profiles of us, period. Nor does it defeat orientalism. It has credulously taken the bait and reinforced misinformed stereotypes, thus propelling the status quo precisely due to a lack of foresighted calculation and a lazy cognisance of the game that the Establishment has instituted.

These concerns have not surfaced in most of the conversations I have seen, and frankly, that is a prime example of the worrying reality that our community has become comfortably complacent, ready to constantly defend the faith rather than produce proactive social actors. This video does not speak for me as a British Muslim. Even if it is only because I am relentlessly unhappy – frustratingly unhappy and disillusioned with the state of the world, the daily massacres and injustices that we have become desensitised to, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. There is too much pain being inflicted onto the impoverished, underprivileged, and oppressed for a bunch of Muslims from the West to be carelessly dancing in a futile attempt to prove to the West that Muslims are not miserable fundamentalists. And for the record, being dissatisfied with the world and honestly declaring my unhappiness doesn’t mean I’m a scrooge as some have assumed. Rather, it points to the fact that the very notion of my being happy is contingent upon the happiness of others. Altruism lies at the heart of the Islamic faith, and it pains me that some members of our community actively disengage with the very principles that the Islamic faith is premised on by making such assumptions.

This isn’t personal. I’m not cynical of those who put time and effort into this video; in fact, I genuinely believe that the people behind it set out on this initiative armed with the best of intentions and out of a noble desire to portray our community in a positive light. However, I’m cynical of the agenda it plays into and the narrative it enforces. As adherents of Islam, we are obligated to study, understand, and position ourselves astutely within the society we live. Foresight and intelligent engagement is lacking throughout this stunt, and that is to the detriment of the Muslim community as a whole.

Happiness, although appealing, is not a truth, as Pharrell claims in his lyrics. The struggle to overcome the self and to subject our individual (and collective) ambitions to the One is the Truth. We already have the answer to the problems of societal discord and oppression; it glaringly shines throughout Islamic philosophy.

When we stop attempting to defend ourselves as followers of a doctrine of Divine Essence vis-a-vis superficial standards of normalcy, and start defining ourselves on our own terms, then may we have hope of bridging the gap between our community and the world writ large. Until our minds are decolonised, don’t expect distortionary perceptions to perish.

“Verily, God does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves” – 13:11

Wedad

Somewhere amongst the politics, the money, and the wars that the world wages on itself, real people are forgotten. People whose stories are tales of inspiration are lost. The global race for wealth and sordid power has deemed them voiceless. Worthless. Their existence may as well be a non-fact. Collateral damage.

My beloved grandmother, Wedad.

My grandmother was one of these people. The spoils of imperialism and West-sponsored dictatorial tyranny meant that the first time I ever met her was during the summer of the year 2000. There was little Yaz, in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and a monobrow that only a Middle Eastern girl would be gifted with, meeting Wedad for the first time in Amman, Jordan. I was 10, and excited about the prospect of finally meeting my grandmother. Her name puzzled me at the time. Wedad. Thankfully, I have since become relatively well-versed in the language of Divinity, Arabic, but at that age of youth and ignorance, I had never heard of it nor had I bothered establishing and feeding a curiosity to know.

Wedad’s warmth captured me almost immediately. I fell in love with my Bibi (grandmother). I would sit in the kitchen gazing at this beautifully delicate woman while she taught me how to wash and prepare rice, animatedly recounting story after story about her life in Baghdad. Wedad spent her whole life in her house; cooking, cleaning, and praying. Her family life, career, social life, and hobbies, were synonymous. She didn’t have friends. Experiences that we take for granted like going to work, shopping, chilling in a cafe to catch up with a friend – all of these did not feature in her life. Every fibre of her being revolved around her house and her family, with God firmly at the centre. The axis point. Her only solace.

The way our lives have come to encapsulate so many embellishments makes what I’m saying sound utterly unfathomable, which renders Wedad all the more extraordinary. Imagine having no friends. Imagine that the notion of having a social life didn’t exist in your realm of understanding. Imagine not owning a bank account, not holding a penny to your name. Imagine that your wardrobe consisted of two outfits in total. Identical. One for when the other needs a wash. The point is, I could keep asking you, and myself, to imagine. But the truth is, it’s next to impossible to fully empathise with that which defies our very perception, and understanding, of what we have come to define as ‘life’. As such, hers will perhaps remain a mystery to me. A beautiful mystery.

Sadly, I only saw Wedad on six brief occasions throughout my life, during every other summer holiday when her, my grandfather, my uncle and cousins would drive from Iraq to Jordan, where we’d meet them. When I look back at the very little time I spent with Bibi, I get the feeling that her memories – those stories she would narrate to us over the kitchen table about her neighbour’s scandals, her Iraqi recipes, her family – were an escape from a sad truth; that she never had ownership of her life. She couldn’t chase her dreams because she wasn’t allowed to concoct them. It was precisely in those moments, as she vocalised those memories to her grandchildren across the kitchen table, in the vivid awareness that we were listening to her intently, that she could momentarily reclaim the freedom and luxury of free-spiritedness and agency that many Iraqi women just like her are robbed of. 

Wedad’s final years were her most distressing. She woke up one night in 2008 to the sound of gunshots, only to find her son, my dear uncle, lying in a pool of blood in her house in Baghdad, murdered. The house she watched him run around in as a little boy, do his homework in, get married in, had now also become the very roof that would house his final breath. She was heartbroken, as any mother would be. But I guess for Wedad, her beloved son’s martyrdom was the most challenging predicament she could’ve been faced with, precisely due to the extent to which her home had defined her very existence and offered meaning to her life. She envisioned and lived her dreams through her family.

I saw her twice more after my uncle passed – a year following his tragedy, and finally in 2010, when I visited her and my grandfather in Jordan with my mother. She was unwell, bed-stricken and physically weak. She’d cry every night about not being able to stand or use her legs anymore. Not because she wanted to go out, but because she could no longer physically bow down to the Most High for the daily prayers that she never once missed. We spent two weeks there in the knowledge that this was the last time we would see her. God was soon going to rest her soul in Peace. She knew this was the end.

No one knew pain and suffering like this woman. No one embodied tenderness, patience, and God-consciousness like her. And I say that with the fullest sincerity – I’ve met a lot of people. Wedad is unrivalled. Her relentlessly difficult life proves one truth: the righteous will be tested with the hardest battles, and there will be no rest, because nothing worldly could ever appease them except but to return to the Most High. God prescribes the hardest battles to His strongest soldiers. Wedad was on the frontline. 

Disaster capitalism and America’s sideman Saddam Hussein kept her and I physically apart, but Love allowed our hearts to beat as one, for the One. Her capacity to love was incredible. Her warmth was godly, heaven-sent. Her smile was always broken yet complete. And although I type these words with tears streaming down my cheeks, my heart smiles with the knowledge that God is enveloping my grandmother with the immeasurable mercy she devoted to every single person she crossed paths with, all those who had the pleasure of immersing themselves in her unbounded grace. Nothing in life is a coincidence; fate gave her the name Wedad. Love.

“And most certainly shall We try you by means of danger, and hunger, and loss of worldly goods, of lives and of [labour’s] fruits. But give glad tidings unto those who are patient in adversity who, when calamity befalls them, say, “Verily, unto God do we belong and, verily, unto Him we shall return” – 2:155-6

Marvels of Arabia

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime” – Mark Twain

Home is where the heart is

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” – Marcel Proust

Despite being born and raised in London, I’ve never felt like this city is home. For a long time, I was convinced that I would leave the UK to find somewhere I could call home, where I could belong. I considered Iraq, if circumstances in the future ever permitted and it was finally safe. Maybe Jordan, where my grandfather now lives because Iraq is too dangerous. Perhaps even Dubai, which seemed to be the ideal combination of east and west, the quintessential cultural transfusion that may have the capacity to accommodate an Arab born and bred in the west. This identity crisis had been brewing in my head and fuelling existential perplexities for years, and I didn’t once believe it would solve itself until the day when I would finally leave London for good.

Over the Christmas break, I left London (briefly). When people talk about vacationing, the impending excitement tends to centre around the exotic food, the relaxation (as if one must physically relocate in order to relax and tune into the Divine, but that’s a whole other conversation to be had) the sun, the parties, and just generally letting loose. The purpose of my “holiday” was to visit family, so none of the things I just listed were applicable, which I was grateful for. Maybe this holiday would turn out to be the perfect opportunity to find home, envisioning myself spending the rest of my short days there. Dad in Dubai. Granddad and cousins in Jordan. Standard affair. 

Wandering across Dubai, I witnessed the pits of luxury, glamour, and unbounded opulence, unashamedly exhibited across one of the world’s most lavish (and arrogant) cities. Everyday, we’d drive past a 50-metre billboard on the highway that read: “whoever said winning isn’t everything doesn’t know Dubai”, in reference to Dubai recently winning the right to host the World Expo in 2020. Every time I saw it, my head would say, “whoever thinks winning is everything doesn’t know God”. I felt guilty for simply being there, knowing that the buildings people were admiring and posing around were built by impoverished migrant workers contracted as slaves, paid pennies, and treated like dirt to stack bricks and glass for twelve hours a day in the scorching desert sun so that Dubai could receive the trivial ‘honour’ of housing the world’s tallest building. The “Saudis in Audis” vibe permeated everywhere. As an Arab…wait, let me rephrase that; as a human, I felt uncomfortable, embarrassed. This could never be home.

Jordan couldn’t have been more different. Centuries-old houses, mountains, and downtown vegetable market antics inspired a sense of nostalgia. I immediately felt a connection and, however faint that connection was, it struck a chord. Everyone spoke arabic. Poetically. The call to prayer could be heard in every street five times-a-day, without fail. My sisters and I spent mornings huddled around my grandfather, immersing ourselves in his lyrical storytelling. His experiences as a political activist in Iraq, a businessman in Germany, a prisoner in Iran, and now an immigrant in Jordan ignited an almost blinding, if not militant, nationalism within me. As always, however, it wasn’t all joyous. Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps scattered across the country in ailing, lifeless fields reminded me of the dark side of mankind. These families once knew of home. Now they were banished. Homeless. What started out as a nostalgic, heart-warming journey, had now led me to the pits of disillusionment.

Political exile. Seven-star hotel resorts. Refugee camps. Luxury villas. Destitute migrant workers. Bedouins. I witnessed so many paradoxes. So many inequities. My eyes, and heart, wept at the sight of some of the atrocities of mankind. Ironically, as I was preparing to make my way back to London, the concept of ‘going home’ felt more alien than ever.

As I tearfully waved goodbye to my dear grandfather, my two orphaned cousins, and their mother, I knew my life had changed. Over the course of a mere few weeks, I had become increasingly aware that my conscience had been harbouring ambitions about my role in this transient human existence that I could no longer ignore. The school-university-work-die construct doesn’t appeal to the awakened spirit; it doesn’t offer anything that a mind driven by the existential Question will, even remotely, settle for. A meagre 9-to-5 that only serves to (just about) pay the bills, neutralise the intellect, and desensitise the soul is too painful for the living.

The taxi sped away from my family; from what, for a little while, genuinely felt like home. It hurt to see my grandfather cry, to hear my little cousins weep, to watch my widowed aunt wave goodbye. But it was precisely at that moment, teary-eyed at 6am having had no sleep, that I realised that ‘home’ isn’t a destination. It’s a state of mind. Home is to be at one with Him. He is the Home that can never be stolen. The Light that never fades. The Mercy that never withholds. He is Home.

“Have they, then, never journeyed about the earth, letting their hearts gain wisdom, and causing their ears to hear? Yet, verily, it is not their eyes that have become blind – but blind have become the hearts that are in their breasts” – 22:46