From Iran, With Love

FromIranWithLove
FROM IRAN, WITH LOVE, by K. ALI BALAVEN
I just returned home from Iran—where I spent a significant amount of time in thought, writing curriculum for my Middle Eastern History class, in deep-spiritual reflection at the holiest of shrines, and visiting with the richest person in the Middle East and perhaps, the world.  During my visit with this soul, I had an epiphany, one which I hope will help us avoid bloodshed and thwart the machinations of warmongers.
 
Imam Ali Reza is dead. However, as my most recent visit with him in Iran showed me, he is very much alive.  He is a direct descendant, seven generations removed, of the Prophet Muhammad, through his daughter Fatima.  He is also the 8th holy Imam of Muslims, who honors and emulates the family legacy and traditions of the Prophet. He is buried in the east of modern-day Iran and his story is an interesting parable/lesson for the geopolitical climate of war that looms over all of us now.
 
The Golden Age of Islam saw its height during the lives of Imam Ali Reza, his parents, and his grandparents. This was at a time when Muslim mathematicians, scientists, and physicians would advance the world, while Europe was in trapped in the Dark Ages. All roads led to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire, where wealth abounded. It drew Indian merchants bearing their exotic spices, the Chinese with their fine silks and porcelain, even the Vikings would come to Baghdad to trade their furs. The position of the Abbasids then is analogous to the U.S. in the world now, but all was not well in the Middle East.
 
The Abbasids were usurpers, like the Umayyads before them, seizing political leadership, creating hereditary claims, while systematically murdering and disenfranchising descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. By the time Imam Ali Reza became their target, the Abbasids had already murdered his father and grandfather, under the orders of Harun Rashid, an illegitimate leader seated on an illegitimate throne.
 
Harun Rashid, a despot and hegemon,  directed the systematic destruction of Persian, Azeri, Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkish cultures to advance his own coffers and did so in the name of Islamic rule. His son, Mamun, followed in the wicked footsteps of his father, but with great irony, in order to legitimize his own claim to the throne amidst a power struggle with his own brother, he used the love the Persian people had for the bloodline of the Prophet by forcefully maneuvering Imam Ali Reza to join him in Khorasan (Iran). Once he did this, he realized how popular Imam Ali Reza truly was, and seeing that this posed a threat to the entire illegitimate empire, even his own throne, he laid plans to have him poisoned.
 
Who would not love a person such as Imam Ali Reza, who championed peace over war, love over hatred with only kindness to give to others?  People came to him so that he could pray for them, to help deliver them from bondage, sickness, or debt.  His miracles are widely written about and they didn’t stop when he was given Mamun’s poisoned grapes, which caused this man of love to die an agonizing death.
 
To add insult to injury, Mamun ordered that he be buried next to his father, the very man who murdered Imam Ali Reza’s father and grandfather, in an effort to diminish him to a mere footnote in history. However, his presence there brought his flock, and as the reports of miracles continued at his gravesite, his flock grew and sincere lovers of the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad continued to come in droves from all over the world.
 
Every year, over 14 million pilgrims come to visit this man, but very few, if any, even know that Harun Rashid is buried beside him in an unmarked grave. Imam Reza’s vast mausoleum is now so huge that I spent one whole day walking through it, meeting with people and praying, and when I checked my step-counter, I was astonished to find that I’d walked 16km! It has expanded over the years, through the loving patronage of his devotees of all faiths, and denominations, with many giving their life savings and property to his trust in their wills. His grave is a tomb covered with gold and precious stones, and when you are within its holiest of holies, its sheer grandeur, built by love, surpasses the dusty legacy the Abbasids have left behind.  It’s because of Imam Reza’s tomb’s continued and exponential growth, that he is described by many as the richest person in Middle East, and by what I saw and experienced, I believe him to be the richest in the world as well.  Therefore, there is both great irony and beautiful poetry in the fact that, in death, Imam Ali Reza vanquished the legacy of those who murdered his family and he did so with love.
 
Imam Reza’s supremacy to the Abbasids is now clear, as measured by those who flock to his metaphysical embrace; and his domain is clearly an empire of love—which is the purist emotion you feel when you step onto the green marble, overcome by the hypnotic lights ricocheting off of precious stones, gold, and intricate glass designs while being simultaneously subdued into bliss by the fragrant dance of rosewater and frankincense.  Then there are the tears of deliverance irrigating worry-worn faces, the smiles, the handshakes, the hugs and kisses, all of which leave me drowning in a sea of love.  I emerged baptized with a sense of peace, only to realize that I live in a world trapped by the tensions of war.
 
Today, Saudi Arabia continues the despotism and hegemony that Harun Rashid championed, continues to destroy places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, while warmongering with Iran; and they do this with our friendship, blessing the name of fighting the terror they themselves spark!  Together, our loathsome friendship has created a new Abbasid empire that stretches from the oil-rich Middle East, to Washington D.C., and the illegitimate ruler who sits atop this throne is our very own president, Donald J. Trump. 
 
Imam Ali Reza taught me that love conquers, not hate, and that war is a shortsighted person’s means of achieving hollow victory.  I fear that we will follow the way of the Abbasids, and of Harun Rashid, reviled by those who champion the ideal of peace, and for history to judge us in the way people treat our legacy after we are gone. 
 
I learned of Imam Ali Reza as a young Muslim and went on my first pilgrimage to Iran, a year after 9/11, to pray for my mother who had been diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma and given merely a few months to live.  That journey changed my life and miraculously, my mother beat the cancer and lived another 6 years. This year, I returned to my Imam to pray for peace.
 
I pray that we all find it before it’s too late.
FromIranWithLove2
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The Test of the American Muslim

TheTestOfTheAmericanMuslimDear Daughter,

I have something I want to share with you, which I have never explained to you before.  When I was a young man, I made a decision that would change the course of my life and ultimately yours as well.  The skeleton in the closet of our lives is that as a wide-eyed, peach-fuzz lipped, knuckleheaded, eighteen-year-old, in the middle of one brisk March night, I said the following words that would change who I was forever: “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his last prophet.”

It was long before the frenzied age of rampant Islamophobia and nearly a decade before hijacked airplanes would slice into our hearts, like rusty blades that leave wounded tissue gangrenous with infection, claiming thousands of American lives along with our innocence, in a cacophony of death.  There was no Muslim “Kaiser Soze” (boogeyman) yet; Bin Laden was not in the public conscious and most people in our nation associated Islam with the eloquence and dignity of Muhammad Ali, and not the straggly bearded, turban clad foreign accents that terrorized us from faraway lands.

My two friends, the lanky and tall Abbas and the pudgy faced Osama, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” in unison to affirm the pledge I spoke that night that made me a Muslim, and the sound of their cry ricocheted through the air like a lost memory echoing in the back of my skull, for I too was a victim, spoon-fed imagery of explosive Middle Eastern tropes.  The hidden truth is that in the eyes of America, my brown skin and my unique heritage already categorized me as “other” in the eyes of xenophobic America.   America was already Islamophobic, it just hadn’t learned the vocabulary yet.  I grew up through the hostage crisis, embassy bombings, plane hijackings, and the Gulf War; I’d been the victim of school yard bullying and the default Iranian, Arab, Libyan, and Iraqi in all those instances, and ostensibly a Muslim, because of my brown skin.  The same lovely hued skin you have.

America had already considered me “the other” in many ways, long before I became one, and back then I always had a cowardly way to retreat from the otherness they asserted upon me.  I could say with conviction that I wasn’t Muslim or an Arab, or anything else other than what I was.  Or take it a step further, become strategic and grow to hate and then bully the Muslims around me. The venom inside me had burgeoned into racial and ethnic slurs that I found myself using under my breath, and eventually I’m loathe to admit, at the top of my lungs in order to distance myself from those who had distanced me from my identity as an American.

I became the bully that I despised by targeted the false-identity they ascribed to me, in others and challenging their othering with self-hate.  In that clouded time, Chuck D and Lord Jamar cut through my mental fog and spoke directly to me through cassette tapes stuffed in Walkman’s while the Poor Righteous Teachers taught me like no other teacher had in school and collectively, these Hip-Hop artists introduced me to a man named Malcolm X.  It was ultimately Malcolm who began the process of healing me, and by the time I met your uncle Abbas as an eighteen-year-old college kid, I was enamored with the discipline in the faith of Islam.

Abbas, now a successful surgeon, was the first practicing Muslim I had ever met, and in him, I saw a Muslim who was emblematic of what Islam taught, as manifest in the example set by Malcolm; in our friendship, I discovered the essence of Islam, is love. This was a far outcry from the Muslims I had met through Hollywood, showcased in the media, or those whom I’d previously interacted with. Our brotherhood helped introduce me to Islam, but my decision to become Muslim was a choice to become what the world already thought I was—it was ultimately a resolution to embrace my otherness.

From that day to this one, I have survived by living in the hyphen; as a Muslim-American, in a nation that devolved rapidly from President Bush making a distinction between American Muslims and those who committed the atrocities on 9/11, to a president calling for a Muslim registry and travel ban. The otherness I’d embraced in my youth now encircles me like the serpentine wrappings of the pariah I’ve become—but one I would have been regardless of my choice to become a Muslim or not. The Qur’an foresaw the test we’d face as Muslims in America when in Chapter 29, it states, “Do people think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe,’ and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and God will certainly know those who are true from those who are false.”

The great secret that I have kept from you is that I didn’t choose this life for you—but that it was chosen for us, by the ignoramuses that have equated brownness with otherness and have hung hyphens around all of our necks.  The fact is whether you choose Islam or not, you will be inextricably related to it, and you can deny it at every turn, join the bullies, or choose to follow this path and thereby control the hyphen.  This is the test.

Whether you choose to wear a scarf on your head or not, you will be a default ambassador for Islam.  You will be forced to explain it and its practices at every turn and stupid people will question your nationality because of it; they will question your loyalty and they will typecast you into the role of other, so they can define themselves as civilized citizens while they demonize you. This is your test.

What may seem like a vice grip akin to a being trapped between a rock, or in this case Iraq, and a hard place, is truly a special place to be, because like the Quranic promise of a test of faith, there is a test of what it means to be American too.  Ostensibly America is just a promise.  It is a dream deferred until it is tested and realized for those collecting on its promissory notes.  For example, it takes a person like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to test the promise of the freedom of expression by sitting during the national anthem, just as it takes a conscientious objector like the late Muhammad Ali to test freedom of religion.  It will take someone like you embracing the otherness they cursed you with in order to litmus test the promise of America for yourself, by walking this path, donning a scarf, and ultimately living in the hyphen, until America accepts you for what you are and who you choose to be.  This is America’s test, not yours.

Love,

Dad