Author Archives: Sofia Ali-Khan

About Sofia Ali-Khan

Sofia Ali-Khan is a Muslim American public interest lawyer now writing and raising her kids outside of Toronto.

Justin, with love.

One summer, when I was 19 or so, I drove out to the Gateway Ranch, which sits on the edge of the Navajo reservation, near Flagstaff. Intended to be a place of environmental sustainability and responsible, respectful cultural exchange, it is the home of a former AIM activist, who had been invited to be principal of the reservation’s first native-run school. I went with my friend Jenn, taking turns driving her Toyota eight hours out of the subtropics of South Florida, where we were at New College, and then nearly 3,000 miles across the Deep South, and Texas, a country all its own, and finally, into the dusty southwest.

That summer, I met a man named Justin. He was Navajo, and I didn’t know yet how Navajo men came to have names like Justin. I took him at face value, accepted the version of himself that he offered. He worked sometimes at Gateway, planning and putting in the permaculture garden, and at the school, doing the same. He had been off the res for several years, in the Vietnam War and then travelled around some, spent some time as a mushroom farmer in Japan. But when I met Justin he wandered around the still wild parts of the res, studying the slopes of the land and building long, elegant, tapered retaining walls out of rocks he found scattered around. He built them to capture water, he said, so that the trees he planted would grow. He told me that place was all cottonwood trees before it became a reservation, and all the trapped people cut them down to build with. Cottonwood trees catch and hold the rainwater in underground oases, and without them, he said, he had to contain it before it dissipated in the sand.

Justin planted every seed, from every plum or peach or nectarine he ate. I don’t know how many of those seeds sprouted in the desert, but Justin had a vision of abundance in his spirit when I knew him. He was graceful and kind. He invited Jenn and I to camp on the large, flat boulders near his place under the stars, and we did, wary as we were of snakes. He slept several dozen yards away in his modern version of a traditional hogan. It was the very first and the last time in my life when I was not at all afraid of a man twice or maybe three times my size. He must have been more than twice my age as well, but he was a real friend, the kind who show you their treasures plainly and only hope that you will see and appreciate them. We went for a walk to a mound made of broken Hopi pottery, and his sadness was quiet but evident. When I left, he gifted me an abalone shell that I carried with me though ten moves until it finally broke and I buried it. We exchanged letters, once or twice, but I moved so often then.

I think maybe we recognized a little bit of lostness in each other–a sense of being in-between cultures, and trying very hard to learn what it was to be good without any reliable yardstick. He had seen things that most people around him had not–war, and the atrocities it entails. And I had seen things that were entirely foreign to the suburban whiteness around me–the stark, brutal poverty of southern Pakistan, young children decapitated to beg on the streets. We both held things that could never be integrated, or even really spoken. But he had demons I had not imagined yet: the generational scars of genocide and forced displacement, of a reservation home that would always be, at least partly, evidence of ongoing occupation.

I learned yesterday that Justin died six years ago, after some hard times and before I had a chance to tell him how dear he was to me. It’s breaking my heart. So I am telling you.

Faith and Charlie Horses

It’s hard to explain faith. Someone–an acquaintance from college–recently wrote that they were doing me a kindness by not considering me evangelical and writing me off.

The truth is, I don’t mind being written off. But I am concerned about being considered evangelical. Because I’m plenty busy with keeping myself in line without getting involved with what anyone else is doing. (Unless those someone elses are trying to devastate large parts of humanity. Then I get upset and noisy.)

I can’t tell you exactly why I’m a person of faith. What I can tell you is that it has little to do with identity politics, or what I was born into, although those things are real and provide context.

It’s a million lonely moments. Times when I was crushingly without direction and full of anxiety. For some time just after 9/11 I lived alone above a little violin shop in Germantown. Muslims in America had gone from mostly unremarkable to public enemy #1 virtually overnight.

I had recently gone through a divorce, having found out that my husband was involved in some stalker behavior that, beyond wrecking everything I thought I’d known of him was just downright….creepy.

I was working a lot, running an evening clinic on top of my day job. And I was fighting to figure out where all of the energy to keep going was going to come from.

And the weirdest thing started happening. I’d been praying, for solace, out of desperation, I’m not sure exactly, except it was a space of peace. But I could never wake up for the pre-dawn prayer. Until I started getting charlie horses–muscle cramps in my legs at the exact time of the pre-dawn prayer, so intense it felt like my calf was being wrung out like a rag but someone forgot about the bones. First time in my life I had had them and I though I was dying; they’d wake me out of a dead sleep.

Once, a mouse trap went off just at the right time–the violin shop was next to a dive-y Chinese take-out place. Kind of terrifying because I can’t handle mice. It wasn’t always idyllic, but it was my small, strange conversation with something bigger than myself. I had asked for more equanimity, more comfort, more steadfastness and the morning prayer was it for me. It anchored something that had come unmoored, maybe something that had always been unmoored. It was the honey of my spiritual life, if only I could manage to wake up for it.

That period in my life revolved around a conversation more intimate than I can describe, made of dreams and mousetraps, pain and laughter and tenderness. And, you know, that’s what my faith is forged in. Not in what or how anyone else believes, not in a text or a cultural tradition, but in those minuscule, unimaginable, ridiculous moments of intimacy with the Divine in the form of charlie horses at 4 a.m.

My life is a lot different now, noisy with two young children. But the sweet nourishment of that time is what everything else is built on. It’s the well that I drink from; it’s how I make meaning.

My Body

I had an ectopic pregnancy in 2009. It was a pregnancy I wanted desperately. When the pain started, I tried to tough it out, thinking I could manage a miscarriage at home.

When the bleeding and the pain continued to worsen, I was triaged to the head of the line at the ER and immediately administered methotrexate, a cancer drug meant to break up the cells rapidly multiplying in my fallopian tube. Without the methotrexate, my fallopian tube would have burst and I could have died as a result. Despite what some idiot legislators think, ectopic pregnancies are not viable and can not be “moved into the uterus.” I am super glad that methotrexate stopped those cells multiplying; and am still shocked that no follow up care or support was offered. Instead, I painfully passed a bloody mass later in the week in a bathroom stall at work. I worked for the rest of the day because I was out of leave time and no one talks about miscarriage, forget ectopic pregnancies. The hormonal cascade of lost pregnancy was nearly unbearable; no one prepared me for it.

Then, I had two lovely babies, one born at 31 weeks and the other born at 35 weeks. Both required extensive and expensive oversight and treatment in the NICU for weeks or months. Without excellent insurance, without a supportive family, without a partner who had a stable job, I would never have been able to care for those two beautiful babies who are now rambunctious kiddos. Preemies require endless months of living in that newborn phase of no sleep, constant feeding, pumping and nursing where possible, extra monitoring, extra hospital and doctor visits, and plenty of skin to skin time. After my second baby was born early for reasons still undiscernible, I knew I could not risk another pregnancy.

We have a society with devastatingly inadequate health access, no right to paid parental leave, no adequate or affordable child care, and no in-home taxpayer funded maternal support or newborn care. Our public education system is crumbling, we have a school shooting crisis and we treat/pay teachers terribly. We have not created any of the infrastructure that would suggest we care at all about the lives of children, or their mothers.

Women are, without question, the only people in a position to make decisions about their bodies, their health, their ability to carry a pregnancy to term, and their ability to handle the risks and responsibilities of childbirth and raising children. This is especially true because in our broken society, we place nearly the entire burden of caring for pregnancies and for children in the hands of mothers, and we spend very little (almost nothing compared to other industrial countries) to support them.

As for people out there who feel like they need to save children, they can start by busting kids out of immigration internment camps, then they can demand legislation to create national health care, affordable and high-quality child care, robust paid parental leave, taxpayer funded in-home newborn and maternal support. Then they can reform labor and delivery practices so they are humane and make breastfeeding support widespread. When those are established, they can get to work on better housing and food subsidies, gun control and a robust public education system.

What We Have Now

North Americans and Europeans have created entire countries full of climate refugees and entire countries full of refugees from brutal colonial violence in South and Central America and the Middle East. We maintain the colonization and suppression of vast underclasses of Black Americans and First Nations people (and also often “immigrants,” by which we mean brown people). The only sound response, the only ethical response, is to open borders to those whose suffering we have, ourselves, created. And to engage in reconciliation and reparations to the internally colonized, including large transfers of land and power. The pressure and the brutality will not stop at our borders as climate crisis and late capitalism make it harder to sustain a middle class, and the first to suffer are always those who are already vulnerable. It would be a mistake to think it will end there. It’s not so complicated. This is not charity. This is our last best chance of us saving ourselves, or really anything about our societies worth saving.

Arguments about viability and limited resources are just code for “me first” in a moment of diminishing resources.

We are a lot like our leaders, in the end, I think: hoping to hang on to our own wealth and our own comfort, whatever we have of it, even if it is just routine and stability, jobs and homes and grocery stores and plastic bags for as long as we possibly can. I don’t blame us; the alternative is unpredictable and terrifying. I say we because it’s absolutely me, too. I can’t figure out just how to live a life of future sustainability in the present, or how to effect change in a system that operates at levels of money and power to which I have no access. I don’t even know how to set expectations and give encouragement to my children given the uncertainty that lies ahead. But I do know that we will all do terrible things, and fail to do the right things, so long as we remain most concerned about maintaining what we have.

An Emblem, An Anthem, and a Uniform: Why Red Hats Matter

The MAGA hat is a stroke of genius.

National identities are built on purpose.  They are defined and described in ways that either encourage unity and engagement or simply affirm the powerful.  But there are three ways, in particular, that appear in the making and celebrating of nations around the world:  emblems, anthems and uniforms.

Athletes compete under their national flag at the Olympics, soldiers fight under their flag in war, emissaries plant their flag as a symbol of achievement or conquest.  Anthems are played to symbolize victory, unity, and pride. Uniforms vary depending on the context, but everyone recognizes a military uniform and many associate certain colors or a specific cultural dress with a nation or a people.

Not surprisingly, when a leader is looking to create a nation in his own image, rather than to serve a nation as it exists, that leader creates symbols representing the new national identity.  Hitler adopted the swastika and pasted it on the flag of the Third Reich. Moussolini made Giovinezza the unofficial national anthem of Italy between 1924 and 1943. During China’s Cultural Revolution, badges emblazoned with Mao Zedong’s face were obligatory, usually affixed to unisex, plain tunics and pants, varying to designate which industry the wearer worked in.

The Trump team introduced its “Make America Great Again” slogan affixed to a visible emblem in the color of the Republican Party early in the 2016 presidential race. In the years since, the red hat has become a uniform, more accessible than clothing and more convenient than a badge, but signifying allegiance and membership in the same ways.  Trump signs them for loyalists in the military and sells them on his campaign website, while enthusiasts advertise MAGA-hat giveaways. People who wear MAGA hats understand that it signifies not only their support for Trump, but for a host of regressive and racist policies that Trump has introduced.  And the Trump campaign can easily discern who is on their team.

It seems clear that the ‘again’ in ‘Make America Great Again’ refers to some time before Obama, before the nation’s first Black president.  Maybe it is a promise to return us to times before that:  when indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes to be starved and beaten in concentration camps euphemistically called boarding schools, or when enslaved Africans were bred as commodities and forced to do all of the manual labor that provided white Americans food, shelter, and transportation, when Japanese Americans were interned for the crime of being Japanese, when people of color across the country were efficiently ghettoized, and faced widespread discrimination and abuse without recourse.

Of course the latter never really ended, but strong social movements among people of color and allies, who will together form the majority of Americans by 2045, threaten to destabilize a white supremacist status quo as never before.

The Trump campaign has effectively collapsed signifiers of America, of white nationalism, and of party loyalty in that most casual, most accessible element of Americana:  the baseball hat.   Remarkably, it provides both instant identification:  “the MAGA hat wearing boys from Covington Catholic” and plausible deniability of what it represents:  “they didn’t say anything, they were just doing school chants and smiling.”  It’s just a baseball cap, and it’s not.  It’s a uniform, an emblem and an anthem, and it’s just a baseball cap.  It’s a white hood made new again, a swastika you can wear in public, a unisex uniform for every loyalist.

 

Celebrating Christmas with Abandon

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This holiday season I’m fully embracing Christmas.  Those of you who know me know I’m not a little bit Muslim.  I’m ardently Muslim.  I love dhikr, I celebrate when my kids recite chapters of the Qur’an, I quote from its meaning in conversation, I talk about the meaning and solace I take from it and from the prophetic tradition as if I haven’t fully realized I live in North America in the 21stCentury.  Or maybe I talk about those things in a way only someone in North America in the 21stCentury would.  Either way, Christmas is in no way, for me, a repudiation of Islam.

Christmas started as a way to let my kids enjoy the lights in a dark season, to participate in the festivities that surrounded them.  But as they get older and ask more questions, as my son learns about Prophet Jesus, for whom he is named, it becomes clearer that Christmas is an opportunity for them to know and to live their faith.

The stories of the Abrahamic prophets are often told to emphasize their uniqueness from one another. We imagine Abraham smashing idols, and Noah on his ark; we imagine Joseph dreaming and Moses parting the sea; we imagine Jesus making a feast from five loaves and two fish, and Muhammad as a statesman.  But the stories of these men, and the women that weave in and out of their record, acknowledged increasingly as prophetic in their own right, are more alike than they are different.

They are the stories of people driven to solitude, and in their solitude, clinging to the Divine. Abraham and Muhammad are migrants, chased out of their homes for daring to challenge idolatry and corruption.  Hagar is a migrant, braving the desert wilderness with infant Ishmael, only faith to guide her.  Jacob arrives at the home of Laban with nothing.  Joseph is a stranger in Egypt, Moses and Aaron fled Egypt for freedom, Mary and Joseph fled King Herrod.

Jesus rejected and was rejected by his society for a humble life of preaching the Gospel with which he was inspired; Joseph told his divinely inspired dreams from a prison cell, and was elevated beyond his brothers, who disdained him.  Moses, stammering, hesitant Moses, believed he could not possibly lead a hungry nation to freedom through the desert.  Mary had to argue her chastity and give birth in isolation, in the elements.  Rachel and Leah and their sisters suffered the cruelty of their father only to become partners in the love and the labor of Jacob.

These are not stories of ease and plenty.  They aren’t stories of acceptance and belonging.  They are stories of people driven to rely on faith alone through hardship and grief.  To love more and better, to surrender to grace, in conditions that could easily drive one to overwhelming sadness and despair.  And they are the stories of goodness and Grace shining in landscapes built of corruption, drought and nihilism.

They are perhaps all shadows of the story of Mary (as told in the Qur’an), a woman as alone as a woman can ever be, birthing a child whose mysterious existence imperils her reputation and her place in society:

AND CALL to mind, through this divine writ, Mary. Lo! She withdrew from her family to an eastern place and kept herself in seclusion from them, whereupon We sent unto her Our angel of revelation, who appeared to her in the shape of a well-made human being.
She exclaimed: “Verily, ‘I seek refuge from thee with the Most Gracious! [Approach me not] if thou art conscious of Him!”
[The angel] answered: “I am but a messenger of thy Sustainer, [who says,] `I shall bestow upon thee the gift of a son endowed with purity.'”
Said she: “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me? – for, never have I been a loose woman!”
[The angel] answered: “Thus it is; [but] thy Sustainer says, `This is easy for Me; and [thou shalt have a son,] so that We might make him a symbol unto mankind and an act of grace from US. And it was a thing decreed [by God]:
and in time she conceived him, and then she withdrew with him to a far-off place.
And [when] the throes of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree, she exclaimed: “Oh, would that I had died ere this, and had become a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!”
Thereupon [a voice] called out to her from beneath that [palm-tree]: “Grieve not! Thy Sustainer has provided a rivulet [running] beneath thee;
and shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee.
Eat, then, and drink, and let thine eye be gladdened! And if thou shouldst see any human being, convey this unto him: `Behold, abstinence from speech have I vowed unto the Most Gracious; hence, I may not speak today to any mortal.
And in time she returned to her people, carrying the child with her. They said: “O Mary! Thou hast indeed done an amazing thing!
O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man, nor was thy mother a loose woman!”
Thereupon she pointed to him. They exclaimed: “How can we talk to one who [as yet] is a little boy in the cradle?”
[But] he said: “Behold, I am a servant of God. He has vouchsafed unto me revelation and made me a prophet,
and made me blessed wherever I may be; and He has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I live,
and [has endowed me with] piety towards my mother; and He has not made me haughty or bereft of grace.
“Hence, peace was upon me on the day when I was born, and [will be upon me] on the day of my death, and on the day when I shall be raised to life [again]!”

Qur’an 19:17-36

And so I celebrate Christmas, in this time that is uncertain, in this world that is unstable, and I let it remind me that faith requires me to treat every suffering as my own, to give more than I can, to dare tell the truth, to love more than I ought, to work for justice and integrity, and to demand it through peaceful struggle, even when it is a hardship.

The Sound of Music and Partition and How Normal Everything Can Be Made to Seem

One of my favorite films growing up was the Sound of Music. I know, I know–but one of the scenes I found most confusing was towards the end, where the VonTrapps go perform in a show in a big theater just before fleeing the Nazi regime. I thought surely, in times such as those, no one would be performing in theaters and doing things that seemed at once so normal and so frivolous.

It turns out that this is a dangerous misunderstanding of how things work. Right now, American democracy is under serious attack and the federal government is being actively starved and narrowed to increasingly autocratic and erratic rule.

And yet, life goes on. We are, inevitably, preoccupied with the stuff of life. In some ways, this helps us retain our sanity—at least we aren’t those bizarre militia guys in the backwoods of Georgia preparing for a culture war by shooting guns in the woods. On the other hand, we spend a lot of time hoping that if we just do things as we always have, we’ll continue to have the lives that we’ve always had. When you’re Muslim in America today, this is both an exceptionally comforting and an exceptionally naïve approach.

While I was rambling about this very thing this morning, my husband reminded me that his mother and her family fled Hyderabad, India, by “going to the cinema.” As part of the Muslim Hyderabadi elite in the middle of what was suddenly a postcolonial Hindu state, his family was already under house arrest. The brutality of partition had begun, and they were certain that their lives were at risk. Still, on one occasion, they were permitted the seemingly innocuous freedom of a trip to the local cinema under armed guard. With the guards at the front of the theater and the movie underway, they slipped out the side doors, split up and made their way alternately westward across India to Pakistan, and (in the case of my mother-in-law, who was a young child, her siblings, and their Mum) toward what is now Bangladesh and onto a boat around the tip of India to rejoin the rest of the family.

That day, having legitimate fear that they would all be separated, dispossessed, and possibly executed in the place their family had called home for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, they went to the cinema. Which was still functioning. During partition, in which millions of people lost their lives in perhaps the largest mass relocation of humans in history, it was still normal enough to go to the cinema that it was not suspicious at all. Because everyone was still mostly pretending that nothing had changed.

So that’s what we’ve been chewing on around here.