My mentor at the UN

When I started my internship at UNICEF, I was exhilarated to be a part of the glamorous world of the United Nations. People dream of being part of this system, of making the world a better place in an organisation that has been doing it for the longest time, and, in the biggest way possible.
A few weeks in, my exhilaration quickly turned to disappointment when I saw tall cubicles, extremely departmentalised ‘silo’ like working styles, and, a culture that reeked this immense fear of non-conformity. ‘Meet the bureaucrats!’, I would vent to myself. My formal Supervisor went on a three month mission and I had to make do with minimal coaching and maximum initiative.
In the process I got to know my mentor, Nicholas. Although not part of the official team that I work in, Nick and I sit adjacent to each other. So, on my first day in, because of the ‘tall walls’, I couldn’t see him, but, I could hear him. A lot can be told when a guy talks-His intelligence, how he organises and analyses the thoughts in his head, his level of knowledge. It took me only a few minutes of listening to Nick and just being around the conversation he was carrying out to realize that it’s all the Nicks that lend the UN its glamour and prestige. They are these super well-spoken, super smart people who have the exceptional ability to make the most mudane of topics like fetching your laundry on the weekend, super interesting.
Being the knowledge-hungry person that I am, I had to go introduce myself. I gravitate towards smart people like a parched and thirsty dessert traveller towards a mirage. Except in my life experience, these mirages have proven to be life-shaping realities.
I continued to struggle with the organisation culture till long after knowing Nick ameliorated my initial disappointment. But like with everything else, you go through the motions and learn with each passing day. I had the great opportunity to talk with a person who had worked at the UN for 23 years and my conversation with her made me ‘see’ what the UN does. People tend to have a perception of what the UN does and when they find that perception is different from the reality they get disappointed (just like I did). The key is to understand what it ‘really’ does and making an intelligent decision about if that means something to you. It took me a while to get to that point. However, when I did, I saw with huge respect and admiration, the ‘value’ of what all the Nicks do at the UN.
Nick’s ‘democratic’, ‘keep-everyone-together’ attitude reminds me of a very special friend of mine from my Undergrad days-He was a real leader of the pack. And years later, after we had graduated and were all working, he was there for me when I was going through a rough time. I find him to be so perceptive that with my interaction with him being so limited, the advice he gives, is ‘gold’ every time!
What touches me most about Nick, is the fact that he manages to remain extremely humble despite everything else around him happening like its purposed to go straight to his head-my biggest lesson integrating myself in a city which houses the world’s smartest and the world’s brightest-greatness goes hand in hand with humility. Thank you, Nick, for inspiring me so.

Our bodies are sacred

I have recently re-started my thrice a week gym regimen, along with, eating right and in moderation with a new found zeal and spirit. I’m trying to follow this as ‘religiously’ as possible.
The Prophet (PBUH) supposedly had a habit of keeping 1/4th of his stomach empty after every meal, (portion control ring a bell?). Also, I can imagine he was a super fit man, given that he was close to 60 years of age and was busy digging trenches for the Ghazvah e Khandaq (the Battle of the Trench) and fighting the war physically himself. He was also reported to sometimes put a brick on his stomach to control hunger pangs (you thinking detox and fasting? I certainly was :)
Not only do we have examples in the life of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), we also have some divine guidance on the subject. The funeral prayer at a Muslim burial involves repeating ‘Inal ilah e wa Inal ilah e Rajeoon’ (‘Surely we belong to Allah and to Him shall we return’). We are all Allah’s, we belong to Him in mind, spirit and body. Hence, by being mindful and aware of our bodies and by taking care of them, we are actually living true to a sacred trust that we have been entrusted with by none other than God.
Our bodies are sacred, we MUST take care of them. They belong to Allah and like all honourable people we must rise up to the challenge and do justice to that which we have been entrusted with.
Go hit the gym, people!

My new friends Katie and Matan

Recently, we had a women’s Open house in collaboration with the women’s caucus at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I met Katie who is a Rabbinical student married to an Israeli guy. I told her how I would be so scared to meet a guy from Israel because of my superbly conditioned brain that thinks of the ‘other’ in a very specific, stereotyped way (just for the record, I want to mention that I don’t say this very proudly).
So, I told Katie the image I have of an Israeli man is that of someone who serves in the army, who is very chauvinistic, is ruthless and very, very mean to Muslims. And she smiled. She said when she was in Egypt and she saw men wearing Arab Shemaaghs she had the same reaction of fear, of being ‘scared’. We spoke about other things, had a great conversation and that was that.
A couple of weeks later, Lauren came and told me that Katie had asked for my number and she and her husband were going to be in the neighbourhood over the weekend and they wanted to come over so I could meet her husband. I was so touched. And then I was really excited.
Matan turned out to be a kindergarten teacher at a Jewish school. Among other things, we spoke about the laws of marriage in our 2 religions. I showed Matan my Pakistani passport which says in Urdu, Arabic, French and English, ‘This passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel’
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I made (my now almost-famous) Pakistani potatoes and Katie and Matan brought their home-cooked Halah. And lo and behold ! The Halah went really well with the Potatoes ! The sweetness in the bread complemented the spiciness of the Potatoes in a beautiful, very natural and unforced way. Just like how the two ‘others’ mixed so well and so beautifully.
I feel the buds of a friendship with the ‘other’ were planted that night and not only did it feel so good, it also felt so right.

Multidimensional Connections

Yesterday morning, we had our “official” (scheduled) weekly check in. We’re all busy, but I check in almost every day with each of the women of the Womb – over morning coffee/tea, breakfast, lunch, brief crash/rest moments on the couch or late night studying in the kitchen. Still, I treasure our Sunday meetings. In the midst of our busy schedules it’s nice to have at least one full-group meeting each week.

At the beginning of the semester, each of the five of us identified a book we’d like to share with one another and this week, Lauren’s pick In the Image by Dara Horn was up for discussion. As usual, our time together was powerful and our reflections covered multiple topics. It might not be a surprise that in our space in the Womb, interconnection was one of the key themes I picked up on as I read the book. The book weaves narratives of characters from multiple generations, so in addition to talking about connections among and with people who are our contemporaries, it emphasizes the roles experiences of generations past have in shaping our present experiences. Further, it explores cultural and social connections.

In the Womb, any number of these themes come up as regular topics of conversation. We often discuss our our identities as women, people of faith and students. We talk about our passions for justice. We talk about our families and our ancestors – the way they shaped us and our journeys. We talk about our nationalities and more. I’m ever grateful for the opportunities this home of ours provides for exploring similarities and differences. Through it all, we are deepening our connections with each other and our expanding circles!

Here’s a quote from the book that resonated (not without a supplementary link to express recognition of at least some of what’s problematic about the diamond industry, though):

“Diamonds are pure carbon, pieces of coal, more or less, buried beneath hundreds of miles of molten rock, emerging one billion to three billion years later as shining stars, like hardened fire. The carbon that forms them comes from the earth’s mantle, the layer of molten matter that forms the bulk of the planet. But some diamonds come from organic matter forced into the mantle…Others come from meteorites, carbon remnants of the corpses of distant stars. Which is a long and complicated way of saying that, despite all the conquests across the surface of the earth, nothing is really lost.”

The Love of a Mother

I had a great, work-related meeting recently, where I feel I made some new and intelligent acquaintances. As with most such great meetings, the conversation shifted to personal life experiences and the love of a mother and the comfort of being in a mother’s presence. One person asked me if I was a mother and if I could relate to what a mother probably feels like. I thought about it and said no I couldn’t. I mean other than that odd maternal urge during my monthly period that I have gotten, once in a blue moon, I really don’t know what it feels like to be a mother.
A man came to the Prophet and said: O Messenger of Allah! Who from amongst mankind warrants the best companionship from me? He replied: “Your mother.” The man asked: Then who? He replied: “Your mother.” The man asked again: Then who? The Prophet replied: “Your mother.” The man asked another time: Then who? He replied: “Then your father.” (Sahîh Bukhârî 5971 and Sahîh Muslim 7/2).
At another time the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) is said to have said, ‘Paradise lies at the feet of your mother’ [Musnad Ahmad, Sunan An-Nasâ’i, Sunan Ibn Mâjah].
All of us have had experiences of melting into our mother’s bulbous frames, having her care for us when we’ve been unwell, and, of having her comforting meals. I have a happy childhood memory of my mother oiling my hair, making me sit in the sun to get some fresh air and light, clipping my toe nails and then giving me a bath, after which a nice long nap was only the most natural thing to do.
In the Islamic tradition, while your mother loves you so much more than any other human being possibly can, it is also commonly believed that Allah loves you far more than your mother. Can you imagine the power of that kind of love and the sheer magnitude of it? I can’t! Next time you despair about something not working out your way, think about this, and think how valuable you are to God.

Protecting Allah

At this Friday’s congregational prayer the Imam said a very interesting thing-he said while we ask Allah to protect us, we have to protect Allah as well. How you ask? Well, he said we can do this by doing what is prescribed for us in the way we lead our lives, our code of conduct, by telling the truth, by being fair and just, by conducting ourselves with dignity and self-respect, by avoiding what is forbidden or ‘haraam’. He said this is what Allah stands for, and what he means to us. If we can do this, we are actually protecting what is His name or image to us, and, in the process, we are protecting Him.
It was a very interesting, unusual take on how Islam is preached and I thought I’d share.

My First Halloween

I had never been to a Halloween party. Given the constraints of a tight schedule I was musing over perhaps to go as Benazir Bhutto in my Pakistani Shalwar-Kameeze and a white scarf on my head (not to mention a lot of foundation to make me white as she was very fair-complexioned  !
And then it happened, just like that, like most strokes of genius are, Lauren had an idea! Lauren and I were sitting around the kitchen table just chit chatting and she said, ‘why don’t I go as a Muslim lady from Pakistan all covered up and in your Pakistani clothes, and do you want to go as a Jewish person? I can find you a Kipa and a couple of accessories to complete the look?’ It was brilliant !
The result! DSC05176
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We were an instant hit  People loved it, thought it ingenuous and wanted to take pictures with us.
That night made me realize how beautiful America is and why-it’s the common people of this country that populate its every nook and cranny. People who are full of life, true, just, idealistic, peace-loving (even though their government is not necessarily so most of the time).
I think Lauren and I cross-dressing was a huge success among the people because they loved seeing the harmony and love which existed to make something like that happen. I think what every person in that room, by liking it so much, was really saying, ‘Give peace a chance people!’
It was the first, and I think it’ll be safe to assume, the best Halloween for some time to come!
Thanks Lauren.

“The more that I give, the more I’ve got to give…”

Last Saturday evening, twenty-eight women gathered together in “The Womb” to begin a conversation about faith, appearance, and identity.  Rabbinical students across a denominational spectrum, future ministers, social workers, educators of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and multifaith backgrounds came together in a spirit of listening to each other and giving voice to our own stories. 

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It’s hard for me to describe the feeling that got created in the room.  I had a sense that something special was happening, but it wasn’t until the end of the conversation, when we sang together, that the energy was able to take a tangible form. 

Here’s the song:

Deep inside my heart I’ve got this

Everlasting light

It’s shining like the sun

It radiates on everyone

And the more that I give

The more I’ve got to give

It’s the way that I live

It’s what I’m living for.

Before the conversation, I had been thinking a lot about this video, posted a few weeks ago on Upworthy.  In it, a young woman speaks powerfully about the way her family and her culture had taught her to take up as little space as possible – both physically and in conversations.  She had been taught to apologize before speaking, to think her words weren’t worthy. One of the most powerful and memorable lines in her poem is something like “I spoke five times in genetics class today, and every time began with, ‘I’m sorry.’”

I’ve heard many women rabbinical students express the frustration of feeling like they can’t speak up in class or share their voices in the community.  Part of the responsibility for fixing this balance lies on those who frequently take up too much space to step back and give others a chance to speak up.  But the rest of the responsibility rests with those of us who hold ourselves back to step up.  To share our voices unapologetically.  To venture a thought, an opinion, or a question, even if it’s not fully formed or flawlessly articulated.

It’s my deep hope that this space, this incredible, energetic, safe space for women of faith, broadly conceived, can also be a space where we practice stepping up and stepping back, cultivating our strong voices, and making space for new voices to be heard.  Sharing our light, giving what we’ve got to give.  

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Shabbat shalom!

My Salam to Serene Jones

While the Muslim greeting Salam derived from Arabic literally means ‘peace be upon you’, and used exactly like that in Urdu as well, there remains another use of the word Salam in Urdu. Sometimes when you want to pay tribute to someone for a job well done or, when you want to salute someone out of admiration and respect you tend to say in Urdu, ‘my Salam to him or her’
Through this blog I want to send my Salam to Serene Jones. When we first started this program, we were told how it is Ms. Jones’ vision to involve women in inter faith dialogue because they usually just aren’t as such jobs are stereotyped as ‘men’s jobs’. The softer, more interpersonal nature of women was talked about as probably being an advantage to the whole process.
Serene Jones’ mission dawned on me never more clearly than when we all read, ‘I saw Ramallah’ as suggested by our housemate, Norah. We all saw Ramallah…through Norah’s eyes, through Lauren’s eyes, through Muslim eyes, through Jewish eyes, through Christian eyes and mostly, through the eyes of responsible global citizens…
The emotion, empathy, tears and apologies in that book discussion made me think about how perhaps it’s time we told the men to move over, they’ve had their chance for more than half a century now…it’s time we let the women do their magic….the fairer sex or the ‘sinf e nazuq’ or ‘fragile sex’ as it is often referred to in Urdu poetry… let them give their soft, delicate touch to peace for all humanity.

And for her vision, which I see so much more vividly as I live it, I send my Salaam to Serene Jones.

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