Wakanda: Black Asgard

BlackAsgard

Wakanda: Black Asgard by Professor A.L.I.

I am a fanboy. I am also an Afro-centric historian, and therein lies the disconnect I experience when watching Black Panther. I bought my tickets, action figures and other paraphernalia well in advance, and even tried 3D printing a Kilmonger Mask to no avail before I watched the film on opening night. As an owner of every single issue of the character, from his Fantastic Four debut, the Jungle Action run, through his involvement as a key Avenger, and the now-iconic runs by Priest and Hundlin, I’ve been a Black Panther stan. Therefore, I was prepared to channel my Frantz Fanon and engage in cognitive dissonance as I knew the film would be unable to escape the one critique that my inner-historian had, because the source material is born of ignorance to Africa, and what it entails.

Africa is not a country. It is a continent so large that it encompasses one of the longest stretches human beings can travel by land traversing two hemispheres. It is also the most linguistically diverse places on the planet. Nigeria, a single country, a little larger than Texas boasts over 520 languages spoken and thousands of dialects in addition. This is the story throughout Africa, and with linguistic diversity comes cultural, religious, political and social diversity as well. Africa is so much, and as such, it is too much for simple minds to comprehend, and therefore it is reduced to the size and persona of a singular nation, in order to diminish it for the intellectual palatability of ignoramuses. This is homogenous Africa present in the source material that gives birth to Wakanda and the Black Panther.

My dear ustad, Edward Said should be turning in his grave-since Wakanda represents as Orientalist a depiction as the classical paintings of Gerome. Wakanda is the other, as envisioned by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and as the other, it helps to elucidate what the West is in opposition. It was a tribal space, constructed with savage norms, like battles for succession, the mythology that depicted numerous deities, which wove Orishas (from West Africa) with Kemetic (Egyptian) beings in a new-pantheon. Its heroes and villains were bestial-invoking animalistic qualities, and the worst of these was literally named Man-Ape. This setting was created only 20 years after phrenologists and Aryan supremacists argued the racist, fallacious notions of the intellectual inferiority of Africans.

This was the source material, and over the years other writers and artists would revise the depictions. In particular Black authors tried to re-envision what the Black Panther represented and used the writer for social critique. Christopher Priest and Reginald Hundlin did so in relative obscurity, while Ta-Nehisi Coates has built his exposition in the era of the marketing around the film and around his own following and has tried to dig into some of the constructions of this character. The challenge for them is that T’Challa, was originally constructed as a b-list character; and if we used the metric that heroes are defined by their villains, then the Jungle Action series, which introduced Black Panther, gives us a spectrum of villainy from the Man-Ape on one side to the actual Ku Klux Klan (KKK) on the other! T’Challa never had an A-list villain in his early run, with only the Klaw being significant, but even he was an after-thought for the great heroes that Lee and Kirby had constructed.

T’Challa has in recent years fought Dr. Doom, Namor, and Morlun, but these characters, despite being significant in their gravitas, are not the Black Panther’s villains. The one reoccurring character and foil of significance for Panther was Kilmonger, and for avid readers of the Black Panther, it was always frustrating that this character could defeat T’Challa over and over again. The film brilliantly retcons (reconstructs) Kilmonger, in such a way and in such opposition that it elevates T’Challa in the process. The film also helps reduce some of the bestial elements of M’Baku, aka Man-Ape, but retains the animalistic totems that the source material is based on.

Yet, the film draws a line in the sand between east and west. T’Challa and Kilmonger represent two polarized black experiences. T’Challa represents a bloodline that has never been colonized, and Kilmonger is raised in the diaspora. This adds an element of social critique and draws from the best Black Marvel writers, who have used the character to critique the social fabric in which we live.

While all this was good, the cognitive dissonance had to be employed while the film took me to Wakanda. A place that wove Hausa with Swahili and disparate cultural traditions, and the aforementioned bestial depictions. Mythology compounded, and an exotified landscape which draws the best of all of modern Africa, and its numerous biomes into one mythic place. This was the one things I hated. It reaffirmed homogenous Africa that the source material spoke to-but then, my inner fanboy began a debate with the historian within. The debate took me from Wakanda to Asgard, and questioned why, as a historian and one who has taught Viking history in detail that I did not have the same issue with how the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) dealt with European (Germanic, Nordic, Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic, etc.) narratives in the same manner? I think I did, but to me, it did not matter in the same way this is when the third voice from within spoke.

Wakanda may be a Black Asgard, but, I was a man of color, a global Black man, a part of a larger diaspora, and so much of me was in the film. M’Baku’s quote “praise be to Hanuman,” to the East African garb, the ancestral worship, the mythology, the ritual-too much of who I am was woven into the film. The Jabari clan (the Arabic) the rescue from Boko Haram earlier in the film-all were touching on my faith as well. These were the complex layers I was navigating, even as and parts of me were in conflict with Kilmonger’s methods, while others championed his goals. C. Everett Ross as a hero figure despite being a CIA agent, and the dubious depiction that is, in light of the involvement of this organization in the destabilization of Africa, was not lost upon me either-nor was it that Kilmonger was constructed in a Malcolmesque way, while T’Challa was like MLK or Mandelan in his depiction.

In the end, the film is a must see-an all-Black cast, a Black director who shows love to the Town (Oakland) and Black Executive in Marvel who has championed this project since the very beginning. Analyze it, discuss it, and understand its critique of our world. Know that the source material is problematic but that the film tries to rise above, and at worst, it depicts a mythological space that is no more than a Black Asgard.

***

As always, I find the best way to deconstruct homogeneity and broach the bridge of Africa with the Diaspora is through music.  Enjoy this limited release EP entitled Black Seed that dovetails nicely with Black Panther and touches on these very themes:

blackseed

 

 

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Chandni and the Clothing Factory and Other Stories by Cold Dal

ColdDal.jpg

Chandni and the Clothing Factory and Other Stories by Cold Dal:

A Critique of Roald Dahl

Racism can slap you across the face when you least expect it.  Sometimes, when you are struck, it’s with such force that it sends you back into your own childhood and makes you wonder how severe the impact of hatred truly was in your life.  My exchange this morning with my colleague and good friend Tarecq Amer, led me down this path as we reflected on the words of a person, who I’d considered one of my favorite childhood authors, and one who we both had been introducing to our own children, with fond memories of giant peaches, chocolate waterfalls, talking animals, and magical children: Roald Dahl.

To call Roald Dahl and active racist would be unfair—but his writing belies a systemic framing of post-colonial narratives that clearly couches non-Western nations as subservient, savage and uncivilized.  His references to these places, and symbolic representations like the wild rhinoceros that kills James parents, the Oompa Loompas working in the chocolate factory or the monkeys tortured by the Twits all draw on the familiar tropes of the era and distill in the mind of the reader the themes of danger and ignorance inextricably related to these places through his writing.

Tarecq and I lamented this—since, we both champion reading, and love the idea of connecting books we read in our youth with our own kids; this led me on an interesting departure from our conversation to a thought—what if I re-wrote Roald Dahl?  What if I were to re-imagine his themes and plots from the perspective of a person of color?  What if it flipped the Orientalist dialectic and introduced an Occidental critique instead?  And what if I did this while flipping the patriarchal binary, so the protagonists went from being white males to brilliant women of color?  Tarecq laughed hysterically as I imagined writing the following 10 books, with the culturally appropriate pseudonym of Cold Dal (lentil soup):

  1. Chandni and the Clothing Factory
    • The story of an Indian girl who labors on end in a Western clothing factory for little to no pay. The clothes she makes are worn by trendy hipsters in the West, whose daily routine consists of gentrifying neighborhoods, lamenting the latest outrage of the other political party and the occasional convenient protest.
  2. Jin and the Giant Persimmon
    • Jin travels in a magic persimmon across the Pacific to escape the inevitable illegal incarceration of her fellow Japanese-Americans as a result of the racist Executive Order 5066 signed by F.D.R.
  3. BFC: Bastardizing French Cyclops
    • The story of a singular vision-ed French behemoth, which sees no other way to conquer, unless it is to create “brown Frenchmen.”  This myopic beast lurks everywhere on the planet, and while its cowardice amongst its own kind is legendary, it uses cunning and canons to subjugate masses of peace loving creatures in encounters in its planetary predations.
  4. Chandni and the Glass Ceiling (the sequel to #1)
    • It continues where the last story left off, where Chandni realizes that as a young woman, there is only so far that she could go in the factory—and deals with the realities that she is a prime target for human traffickers who profit off of Western predation of young women like her.
  5. Hyperbolic Ms. Hyena
    • An exaggerated story that imagines a word, in which the savage animals of Africa, sitting around a table, with a map, and carve up Europe into spheres of influence. In this imagined imperialist episode, Ms. Hyena, takes control areas occupied by the tribes of the Angles and Saxons, and laughs hysterically as she does so!
  6. Darya the Champion of the Dunya (world in Persian)
    • Darya, a Persian girl from Rey, champions her ancient and direct ancestor Darius, and creates a new empire, which grows and using her marvelous stratagems is able to conquer the West, thereby restoring the honor of her forbearers by avenging the Persian losses to the Greeks and fulfilling the promise of the Ancient Persians. She ushers in an age of peace and freedom of being (faith, expression and politics), much like her great ancestor Cyrus.
  7. Meera Tilda
    • The story of a little Punjabi girl, whose “magic” power is the ability to drown out the colonial narrative that chokes all those around her, making it appear that she is magical. Her story is one of deconstruction and of her pointing out the absurd behaviors that have become a part of South Asian society due to colonialism.
  8. King George’s ‘Targetted’ Sedative
    • This story looks at King George and the sedative he peddles to placate the populations he oppresses throughout the world. It is ultimately an examination of low-intensity-warfare, a strategy expertly used by the British to divide and conquer the populations it would take over throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
  9. The Brits
    • A story set in colonial times, that tells the tale of the most disgusting sort of human being imaginable.
  10. Girl: Tales of Patriarchy
    • This story recounts the “true” story of Cold Dahl, a child who grows up in a colonized state. She has to educate herself secretly, while she works for meager wages in a sweatshop.  A shrewd child she is able to tell the stories of her youth, as well as imagined victories for her people against those that stacked all the chips against her.

What if? 

What if, I lived in a world in which I could pick any book off the shelf and not wonder if it would subtly send the message of self-hate towards me or my children?  What if all voices, not just those of white men, were the narrators of what we deem as our cannon, history and memoir?  What if we could strip away every racist, sexist, ‘phobic references in stories and reimagine them with the themes we love and without the hate imbued within? What if Cold Dal really existed?

Peace,

Kalyan Balaven aka Professor A.L.I. aka Cold Dal

Inter(ned) Faith

interned-faith

Inter(ned) Faith by Professor A.L.I.

Thomas Munro had a vision of Raghavendra Swami,

Just as I had a dream of my own Samadhi,

For a piece of my heart is buried deep in Shirdi,

And another is covered by Karbala’s sands barely,

And the other vital organs are scattered beyond,

Amongst constellations like Trisanku body parts.

Put together like the rivers that flow unto sea,

The source is the same, this path is for me.

My ablution, an abhishekam performed with water,

From a well in Samarra, the bloodline of martyrs,

And my pilgrimage to Mecca begins in Sabarimala,

My fasting, a practice learnt from a devout mother,

And charity, in the blind generosity of my father,

And prostration learned by bowing down to elders,

So Islam’s rhythm was nestled in Vedic vessel,

And the cultural practices of traditional Tamils,

This is the complexity that helps to form me,

Yet ignoramuses like our president cannot see,

That Islam is everywhere, from the cycles of seeds,

To the circumambulation of atoms in the deepest of seas,

To banish this is to banish self, the essence is peace,

To war with oneself is the sickest disease.

 

The Middle East is not a Homogenous Place: A Brief Critique of Ibn Khaldun

me-homogenous

The Middle East is not a Homogenous Place: A Brief Critique of Ibn Khaldun

by Professor A.L.I.

Marshall Hodgson points out in The Venture of Islam, that the period between 1258 and 1503 marks a consequential segmentation pertaining to areas deemed Dar al Islam.  Although there remained greater unity between these lands as opposed to Dar al Harb, invading forces, and changing political boundaries alienated areas like the Maghrib.  Ibn Khaldun’s excised introduction to his world history, is therefore only adequately understood in light of the framework Hodgson furnishes.  Ibn Khaldun’s work is a project of categorization and development of social truths, which are designed to better interpret history.    Unlike Tabari, Ibn Khaldun’s history is less fact oriented, and more devoted to principles of sociological interpretation.  The lack of facts, problemetize many of his sociological examples and principles as they fail to consider that there may exist, groups outside his sphere of comprehension: the Maghrib.  These excluded groups cast uncertainty into Ibn Khaldun’s social equations.  His generalizations are also disputable within the area where they seem most pertinent.  In essence, Ibn Khaldun’s falsafah based history, constrain and limit a thorough understanding of the states and societies that have preceded him in Islamicate history.

Ibn Khaldun asserts in his introduction the existence of two groups: sedentary and Bedouin.  This universal classification scheme lacks inclusion of categories beyond the two, framed groups.  Although an argument may be presented regarding his passing mention of Kurds, Turks, and Slavs as emblematic of a deeper worldly consideration; its manifest flaw are other existing groups near his sphere which problemetize his claims.  Hodgson clarifies that the Maghrib was isolated especially from Persia prior to his introduction of Ibn Khaldun in his research.  This point, when understood in the context of historical events explains why groups like the Mongols are not considered.  The Mongols highly question the sedentary and the Bedouin classification system, as they manifest qualities from both groups that are mutually exclusive.

He later expands this classification scheme to draw out generalizations about both groups which greatly draw question to its application into the Maghrib area itself.  Claims into disposition of courage to Bedouin based on their natural condition rather than the sedentary is based on weak logic.  His arguments can equally be swayed by counter assertions of greater bravery by sedentary groups due the protection of an army, and walls, and the inability to flee attack.  Similarly, his arguments on the purity of lineage seem applicable to his area, where as Hodgson points out there is a constant shifting of rulers, and lack of a consistently powerful dynastic tradition.  He cites a hadith that elucidates the nobility of Joseph and his forefathers: Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.  His conclusions concerning the hadith that “four generations in one lineage are the limit in extent of ancestral prestige,” fails to consider other prophets that Muslims acknowledge that emerge from this dynastic tradition such as Moses, Aaron, Solomon, and David.  This particular argument also displays ignorance of Shii belief in the Immamiya: the vice regency acknowledged after the prophet in the Imams, who inherit their pure lineage from Fatima and Ali, and infallibility from the Prophet.

Many of Ibn Khaldun’s statements are generalizations based on examples he has interacted with, within his isolated sphere.  In what seems hubris he fails to even acknowledge the possibility of groups outside his definitions, and in some cases their beliefs and therefore remains an unreliable source for the comprehension of Islamic states and societies outside the Maghrib at any in depth level.  Hodgson cleverly states,

“Ibn Khaldun’s Maghribi focus was very fruitful for him.  But for a modern scholar to generalize from the Maghrib, as some do, can be very misleading, especially if his notion of the other moiety—‘the East’—is almost limited to the Jamai-Sunni Arabs in a period when the greatest cultural vitality was in the Persianate zone.”

Ibn Khaldun presents cultural insights into the areas that he discusses; but the use of Ibn Khaldun should be limited both to his sphere as well as his falsafah school, lest they restrict our historical understanding of the states and societies that comprise the Middle East.

 

I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream

Minister Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching at an event

I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream

A modern interpretation of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” by artist and educator, Professor A.L.I.

I have seen and heard “I Have a Dream” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. countless times and yet it still gives me the same spine tingly chills that I had when I first heard his soulful voice as a snotty-nosed, wide-eyed youngster in the third grade. For the longest time I thought those involuntary goose bumps came each time his bass filled voice echoed in my skull because I knew that I was listening to a martyr speaking passionately not too long before his inevitable assassination. I even postulated that when the fine hairs on my skin bristled that it was surely due to his eloquent oratory and the way in which he delivered his words, from his pulsating heart into the chambers of mine. Perhaps, the historian in me wondered at times if my reaction was not due to the context of his era; one I knew from the grainy black and white images on fast-clicking filmstrips that captured the brutality of bombed churches, fire hosed marchers and the viciousness of Billy clubs and rabid police dogs. While all those things continue to make MLK’s speech one that enthralls every fiber of my being, I have found that I still shiver when I hear his words, because I know that MLK is dreaming, and that his dream is an aspiration for the future, but in the words of Langston Hughes, Dr. King’s dream today, remains a dream deferred.

A Dream Deferred

There are those who will read that last line and automatically respond in their minds with pseudo-intellectual arguments, which are textbook examples of deflection like “but Obama is president” or “look how much Lebron James makes” or “how about Beats by Dre or the financial success of Jay-Z?” or simply, “Oprah!” As much as I would like to believe that we have advanced towards MLK’s dream, these perceptions are far from the truth of our times. The numbers don’t lie; holistically the Black community is worse off than it was at the time the speech was given, as exemplified by facts like blacks are at a greater risk than whites to suffer due to poverty from homelessness, illness, malnutrition and disease and as recent as 2012, Black men and women still earned less than their White counterparts with the same education, and they are more likely to lose their jobs during economic downturns. Even when you consider improvements, like the prior emblematic examples of Obama, Lebron, Jay-Z and Oprah, you realize these are exceptions to the rule and that the disparity between Blacks and Whites has only grown in the United States since MLK’s dream, and that furthermore the statistics that enumerate the divide are nightmarish—the exact opposite of the dream. The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander outlines this nicely, outlining how amongst other policies the so-called “War on Drugs” was a direct war on the Black community—and systematically undermined the dream. When MLK spoke his words students in America were segregated by race, however soon thereafter, it seemed that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act students would soon be integrated. This certainly seemed like a step towards the dream, but even here re-districting, the aforementioned wealth disparity and school board politics nullified what should have been great gains, and is shown in the fact that in 1968, 76.6 percent of Black children attended segregated schools and in 2012, it was still 74 percent!

Insomnia

I find it hard to sleep in these times, and my sister and fellow educator Dr. Heidi Mirza knows why, as she lamented last year in a piece on how MLK’s dream of a world free from “discrimination, intolerance, prejudice and extremism” has been replaced with one that is seriously considering candidates like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen in the so-called-West while remaining silent on genocides perpetrated by extremism and carried out in Burma, Bahrain and Yemen, to name a few places in the ‘Orientalist’ East. How can I sleep, let alone dream in this reality as a global Black man or a Muslim, or even a conscious human being? Shall I give into the fear that fuels ignorance or try to fight an ever-inclining uphill battle? I’ve diagnosed myself of having some form of spiritual insomnia—I am incredulous as I watch the news media unquestioningly giving airtime rhetoric that seems to echo Mein Kampf verbatim, save for Tavis Smiley who was lampooned by Trumpites on Twitter for his recent attempt to challenge their apathetic ranting, which seems to increasingly pass as normal reporting amongst the sheeple. I look to my brothers Deray Mckesson and Ameer aka Left of the University Of Left, who have become more authentic voices for the happenings of our time and try to make sense of it, as our cognizance of MLK’s dream continues to unravel. The dream seems dead. The dreamers lay bleeding on the concrete, their last act in life is usually raising their hands in the air, and when those that notice and care, like Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza and state that these innocent lives had value, and try to create a movement to highlight this fact, the naysayers come forth and mis-hear a phrase like Black Lives Matter as “Only Black Lives Matter” and thereby impugn attempts for solidarity and ultimately change. If only these dream-killers would’ve championed “All Lives Matter” when they heard of the countless extra-judicial murders in this country carried out by police officers—then perhaps little White and Black children could be found playing together as in the hopeful imaginings of Dr. King, but instead we are living in a nightmare in which teenagers are murdered in cold-blood and people seem to be able to stomach the justification given for their murders. It is a world where even the dream is slaughtered—where bullets can snuff out the life of a sleeping seven-year old girl (Aiyana Jones) by officers during a police search and there is no (official) national outcry.

Nas postulated on NY State of Mind off of his Illmatic album that “sleep is the cousin of death.” Yet we find the converse to be true, for in order to dream in the literal sense, one must sleep—however I find myself unable to sleep these days, with a deluge of death on ones newsfeed, hence my play on Dr. King’s words, “I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream.”

martin-luther-king-jr

I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream

I’m a light sleeper to begin with, so even a mere gasp–

A last breath, by one being choked upon the asphalt,

For selling cigarettes illegally, keeps me awake; let alone,

News of twelve year olds, shot dead, playing with toy guns.

The firearms echo inside the memory folds of my brain.

They awaken screams of Louima, and even Diallo’s pain!

Gone are sounds of chains, replaced by the din of skittles,

As they bounce off the concrete. Black life is now riddled,

With bullets from pistols (legal for white privilege to wield).

The NRA sponsored the Mulford Act, just ask Bobby Seale.

Dr. King, its hard to dream when one cannot fall asleep.

For even sleeping fauns like Aiyana Jones are targeted when they dream.

Hard to scream with broken neck, the sky seems Freddie Gray;

Will I dream in a Walmart coffin like John Crawford one day?

If I fake like I’m asleep, they’d Grant me an Oscar in fact,

Which I’d refuse, and instead ask for justice for Oscar Grant!

#BlackLivesMatter is a phrase for the nightmare to which we wake;

Does the dream of children holding hands involve a police state?

When one’s hands are up in the air, how can they join other hands?

Its hard to sleep, to dream when the days are Sandra Bland.

How can freedom ring, when injustice is protected by false justice?

And Dr. King, how can it be just when its set prey upon just us”

How can the imprisoned sing “free at last!?”—I cannot fall asleep.

This is why I have insomnia and have lost the opportunity to dream.

The dreamers are dead, and the dream is a nightmare, so I how can I sleep—even as I find myself tossing and turning, wondering as a law-abiding educator, who will try to break in and steal me away? It is a provocative thought, and yet, it’s so rooted in the reality of our time that it doesn’t seem like something unlikely for one of my faith or complexion. Guantanamo is just one notable example and while it is an ugly one, the ugliest is our domestic prison industrial complex. MLK spent time behind bars—many freedom fighters have, but fifty years later even his dream is imprisoned. When Dr. King dreamed back then, I don’t believe he could’ve fathomed that the incarceration rate amongst Black folk would be three times higher when I would write these words.

<Click for free download>

The Pen or the Pen(itentiary)

I wrote and recorded “The Pen” to introduce my audience and students of Hip-Hop in general to the concept of the double entendre and coded language in our (Hip-Hop) culture, while at the same time provide them with a critique of ignorance, which I believe to be the antithesis of Hip-Hop, which is defined by our community as “intelligent movement”, because one must be “Hip” or “in the know” to understand it and “hop” or move in order to live it, and ignorance is unintelligent and unmoving, and as a Hip-Hop artist and cultivator of this culture, I see ignorance as a tangible prison that diminishes our humanity and snuffs out our light as potential learned beings of this universe.

“The Pen” is a piece that asks the listener to stand in-between a sense of hope and a cloud of cynicism, hinging on how one perceives the word “pen”; it can either be a writing instrument representing knowledge or a slang-abbreviation for penitentiary, which is a prison. So the pen respectively represents the freedom of speech on one hand, and on the other it is confinement to a cage, which hinders both movement and speech.

I wrote this piece lamenting the existence of this very fork in the road for youth in America, and as an educator and artist I have seen too many young people from amongst my own peers in public schools situated in gang infested ‘hoods to my own students attempting to navigate this fork, two decades later, only to choose the path of the pen that is clouded by cynicism, which ends with them in prison as opposed to the path of the pen, which leads to wisdom and knowledge; at the same time the piece represents a larger historical conversation and a clash that our world is experiencing right now—an actual battle of survival between the people of knowledge and the people of ignorance.

Those who know me know that I abhor violence and increasingly as of late senseless violence born of ignorance have besieged my newsfeeds and timelines, filling them with egregious, gory examples of sick depravity. This plague has a common thread and it is that violence is constantly being aimed at sources of knowledge or legitimacy, whether it be those who hold the narrative truths or those that pose questions, and that these acts are carried out by the ignorant, willfully or otherwise.

Ironically, those that escape the actual prison, make it out of confinement through knowledge and those that avoid it altogether are those that embrace/ed the pen as a tool for wisdom. Old cliché’s inform us that this pen is mightier than the sword, but it is the sword that is being used as a blunt instrument throughout the world to write a modern narrative using innocent blood, seemingly pitting East against West, but in reality its inviting all the “crazies” or extremists to sully forth and use it to write their own narrative, and as the hemoglobin of innocence flows, so does our own faith in each other, polarizing our world into an endless clash of the “uncivilized”.

The Pen performed Live with Jazz Horizons in Oakland, California

In the end to paraphrase the words of Assata Shakur, the only difference between those in prison and those on the outside is that those inside can see the bars, while we operate under the illusion that we are free, as evidence by our inability to dream. We are not free to dream—but like Dr. King I do long for a day where I can say, at the top of my lungs, with my children that we are indeed free at last—and until then, I’ll remain awake.

With Peace & Love.

professoralimlk

Fear the Fear Itself

shout

Fear the Fear Itself by Professor A.L.I.

By the time the second plane hit, I had shaved my beard and almost didn’t recognize the face that stared back at me in the mirror, save for the eyes. My countenance showed the familiar fear I’d grown up seeing in my rippled reflection off of muddy puddles shortly before being pushed in, atop pot-holed, elementary school blacktops, or in the afternoons as the school bus window caught a reflection of my face, while the kids behind me brutally flicked my ears, snatched my hat, or pulled my collar ‘till I choked on my asthmatic breath. I grew up being “the other” so when I walked back into my apartment after attending my intellectual property law class early that morning at King Hall, at U.C. Davis, to find my Persian-American roommate glued to the television, weakly holding a soggy bowl of fruit loops precariously over his precious Tabrizi rug, uncaring that I knew that the “othering” had already begun.

I sat down and watched the horrific scenes, wondering if this was life imitating a Hollywood movie, vaguely remembering a scene from the X-Files Lone Gunman series on precisely this type of attack: a plane used as a weapon against the World Trade Center to terrorize our nation. I didn’t have to wait for proof that “Muslims” were behind this since that perception was already in the air. My thoughts ran to the Jordanian-American man, who had been the prime suspect after the Oklahoma City bombing, which was masterminded and carried out by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh. I remembered the bullying of my youth, being perceived as a Muslim ever before I became Muslim because of my brown skin; I was an American who was never truly seen as an American, due to my strange name and therefore I was constantly the other, only ever embraced by the black community.

I shuddered as I shaved my lengthy beard, which people jokingly said made me look like a black Rasputin (this was after all years before Rick Ross & James Harden made the look popular) and halfway through the process, I heard both commotion on the news playing and the audible gasp of my roommate, followed by the sound of a cereal bowl spilling; the second plane had hit. At this point, talks of an accident had been replaced by language of a coordinated attack; we then heard about the planes that crashed into the Pentagon and also in Pennsylvania. We heard of the flight plan for the two Boston flights, which were headed to California, and in that moment I couldn’t even wonder if people I knew were on those planes. I was so self-absorbed, so afraid, that I finished shaving before the buildings had fallen and returned, clean shaven, to watch in horror as they did. My thoughts went to my cousin in New York, my friends at NYU law school, that I had lost touch with in recent years, and others I cared about who lived in Manhattan and I was completely dumbstruck.

I thought about Oklahoma again, but this time it was Black Wall Street, and I remembered reading of its economic success and how a series of events set into motion whites to try and destroy it and reports of how planes may have been used to terrorize, by shooting and dropping incendiary devices on the black citizens of Tulsa in an event referred to in history as the Tulsa Race Riots. It was the first aerial attack on U.S. soil and could only topped in scope of aerial terror by the infamous bombing at Pearl Harbor and subsequent, yet failed Japanese attempts to bomb the west coast using weather balloon. I am what many would call a historical nerd, and as a student of the detailed minutia of U.S. history I was overwhelmed. The history of our nation is filled with reactions based on fear and actions that induce it. My mind naturally flooded with all of these images but in that moment they were overwhelmed by the din of the pen held by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he signed Executive Order 5066, which called for the internment of Japanese-Americans living on the lower 48 states. This was from the man who famously said that all we had “to fear was fear itself.” I could feel the sweat form on my brow as I began to imagine President Bush doing the same, I turned to my roommate, with whom I frequently debated on nearly every issue, and told him what I felt from my heart, just as the news firmly pointed fingers at Muslims as the perpetrators; in whispered tones I said, “they’re going to come for us!” and he surprisingly didn’t argue, instead he and I, silently barricaded the front door with the furniture in our living room.

Islamophobia

A Muslim in American Clothing

I converted to Islam in 1995, inspired by Malcolm X and Islamic references in Hip-Hop. The discipline of the faith attracted me – and as I became a Muslim, I became an instant demagogue amongst my social circle. People felt I betrayed them or that they no longer really knew who I was, or where my loyalties lay. My friends felt this “dramatic shift” in their opinion, was duplicitous; they saw it as a betrayal of our common values and a judgment of the friendship we shared. It also led to brutal arguments with my folks; arguments that were compounded by years of issues beyond choice of religious practice, and it eventually led to me becoming unwelcome for a time in their home. My father argued then that he didn’t mind that I had become Muslim, but asked me to stay away from the mosque and in my heated mind-state I wasn’t hearing his concern or what he was truly saying and adamantly refused. Years later, after both he and my mom died that I pondered their concern and have had to acknowledge in hindsight that it was perhaps their collective parenting that helped me stay guarded around the sheikhs (old-timers, taken as scholars) at various Bay Area masajid (mosques) who would encircle new Muslims and over time suggest to us that we needed to make hijra, or migration to Muslim countries. I balked back then at the idea of leaving the Bay, let alone California, and many years later, and again in hindsight when I heard news about the American Taliban I realized some of these same people were in the circles that likely hoodwinked a young John Walker Lindh.

In the short time between my conversion and law school, I’d become a known quantity in the Bay Area Islamic community. My work with the U.C. Berkeley MSA to leadership at a Sacramento mosque, led me to be the sometimes imam or prayer during Friday congregational prayer and khatib or lecturer for weekly programs. I wore a long beard on my face, covered my then long hair in a scarf that I wrapped like a pseudo-turban, and spent many days in spiritual fasting and nights in supplication. I was visibly Muslim and everyone on and around campus knew it. This was why, as those buildings fell that I felt so exposed. My roommate was a Muslim too, but he was white, and his Persian heritage manifested itself solely in his name. He had the privilege to blend in and even he was frightened—so it was unsurprising how fear gave me a precise to-do list in that moment. I’d taken care of the beard, and so next I sat and prayed. I prayed for my safety and that of my family. I prayed for the people in New York, my cousin, and my friends. I prayed for the families of the victims and then I called the one person who I knew would have something to say to make me feel better: my mom.

“Son, why did they do it?” she asked in a voice filled with a crackling fire’s warmth and empathy but it was question that I couldn’t answer. If I told her that they are not real Muslims, she would say that is what they claimed to be, and furthermore that in her eyes I wasn’t a real Muslim. If I told her nothing, she would use the opening to ask about why I had converted to such a faith and I didn’t want to cycle through my reasons in that moment, nor did I possess the words, to help her see the distinctions. So I said, “I don’t know.” I can’t recall how the conversation proceeded from there, but I remember how it ended, she told me my grandmother was taken to the hospital because she was sick and that I should stay safe.

I stayed in that apartment two days—and it took another horrible event, the death of my grandmother in New Jersey on 9/13 to bring me out into the sunlight, and it blinded me. The news jolted me from the encompassing fear; it was a shock that I wasn’t braced for, and provided a brief moment of clarity amidst the uncertainty that loomed throughout our nation. My tears fell will certainty and the sun warmed my face, as I walked passed our apartment complex towards the open grassy fields that lay beyond it. I wondered how this could happen to her, a woman who I had seemed Herculean in her strength. She had what I considered superhuman constitution; she had jet-black hair that had never been dyed and not a single strand of white. She gave birth to seven sons, six who survived to adulthood in British ruled Tamil lands and managed to overcome the withdrawal of the British, navigated post-colonial realties and migrated out of necessity to the North while being the primary caregiver for my father and uncles. My grandma gave birth to my dad when she was thirteen—let the weight of that sink in, and you begin to realize, if you haven’t done so already that this was one tough and resilient woman. I remain convinced that the reason she became sick in the first place was due to her worry over her favorite grandchild, my cousin, who looked a lot like her and lived in New York at the time. Her death was a shocker; everyone came for the funeral, travelling at one of the most arduous times in our nation’s history. My parents, uncles and aunts, cousins and friends all attended but there was one person who couldn’t get on a flight: me.

I would love to tell you the reason that I couldn’t board was due to the TSA, or some incident—but the reason I couldn’t attend was that I was still gripped with the fear of being victimized just like being bullied on the playgrounds of old, and I wasn’t in an emotional state—one that mourned the loss of a loved one and family matriarch, while I was trying to navigate how people would treat me for being Muslim. The clarity I had felt in my sorrow was being overcome by new waves of hate and violence, which rippled towards me, overwhelming me in a deluge of fear inducing imagery and pain. News of a Pakistani-American kid shot, walking on his way to another nearby campus didn’t help, nor did the news of altercations that singled out Sikhs and Muslims for their look, or the numerous attacks on mosques, Gurdwaras and Islamic Centers.

I couldn’t even visualize myself boarding a plane, exposing myself to being “othered” and so I hid. My uncle offered to fly me out, thinking it was a monetary issue, but it wasn’t. The combination of pain and fear paralyzed me and I found myself hiding, like I used to from the bullies on the playground. I hid under the weight of homework and papers and my general work as a student. I hid in my art, writing poetry and entries in long lost diaries. I hid in the act of lengthy prayer and recitation of supplications, and ultimately I hid within myself. The reflection in the mirror that stared back at me in those days looks more like the frightened kid on the blacktop than the man who writes these words now. I share these vignettes from my life shortly after 9/11 so you can understand how familiar the emotions were that governed my mental state and that in spite of my Muslim identity I acted as any human being would when gripped with fear.   

911footage

America No More

9/11 affected all Americans and many people throughout the world. It became the impetus for a new wave of military actions in the Middle East, new rules that changed the way we Americans could feel about our personal freedom, it pulled us into tough moral questions that we have yet to answer, like how we enabled what happened at Abu Ghuraib, the use of torture, such as water boarding, extra-judicial killings carried out by drones and the very existence of Guantanamo. 9/11 changed our nation in ways that made our country seem like the one envisioned by dystopian writers of yesteryear and we did so in fear. We feared for our safety and these were efforts taken to ensure that America would be safe. However in our effort to secure America, a significant group of Americans were locked out of the safe house we had constructed. American Muslims and Sikhs and anyone with skin-color and “a foreign Islamic or Arab look” fell prey to the machinations of the fear that encircled our nation like vultures, to find themselves not only barred from the safe house, but know that they are the reason for the construction of its construction in the first place.

Our nation did the things it felt it needed to protect itself, just like my roommate and I did, the first few days, worried about what would happen next. The difference was that for us the fear was doubled. I feared the Al-Qaeda’s, Taliban’s, and the ISIS/ISIL’s of the world too. To me they represent such backwards ignorance that it is hard for me to find a place for them in “Islam” though that is what they claim to follow. My study of Islam was in-depth and thorough. I’ve read the Qur’an in both literal, and phrase-by-phrase translations, in Arabic and various exegesis or tafaseers written by the pre-eminent scholars like Tabatabai, who help to contextualize verses to help the reader gain the most from the depth of the text. I’ve read the classic Arabic historians, cover-to-cover, Ibn-Kathir, Juvaini, and At-Tabari. I’ve picked apart Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, the Muwatta, along with Usul-E-Kafi, Bihar-Ul-Anwar and texts like Hiyat-Ul-Quloob while scrutinizing both their chain of narration as well as their content and measuring it up to the language and messaging in the Qur’an. I’ve studied the history of the Prophet Muhammad and his family, and looked at their example to help understand the Qur’an. I’ve done all of this under the tutelage of true academics like Dr. Hamid Algar, and by doing all of this I feel armed with the knowledge needed to say that ISIS/ISIL aka DAESH does not represent anything to do with Islam, and if one must be exact and precise, what they represent is Wahhabism.

This is why I continue to teach Middle Eastern History, Early-Islamic History in the academic setting and utilize art to educate, exemplified by this recent live performance of “An Ode To Zaynab” with Stephen Herrick of Jazz Horizons and Ian Heung, recounting the story of the family of Muhammad, and his granddaughter Zaynab, and how her shrine was recently attacked by ISIS/ISIL aka DAESH, and why her narrative, which represents the true Islam, remains a threat for these extremists to target:

However, despite all of this I understand, in my heart the fear my fellow Americans feel when they hear phrases like “sharia law” or “jihad” because Islamophobia is not a new thing, it is just a new name for a particular type of xenophobia that people who looked like Muslims had to deal with long before 9/11 ever happened—I mean just look at my life!

Hate Muslims, Love Islam

I was a Muslim kid throughout the 1980’s, post-hostage crisis, Libya, the wars we were involved in the Middle East and the Gulf War. People perceived me to be Muslim because of my dark brown skin hue, and the fact my parents and I spoke another language. They could not differentiate Tamil from Arabic through their xenophobic lenses and I found myself the victim of abuse as a result. If you ever look at my hands you’ll know that I’m product of public school since I have the callouses on my knuckles to prove it; I grew up hating Muslims because of all those battles I felt forced to fight and I believed then that they were the reason why I was getting bullied. The influx of Afghan refugees did not help, in the early 1990’s as this only exacerbated the tensions that had already existed. However a funny thing happened, even as I found myself hating Muslims, I began to fall in love with Islam. Malcolm X’s Autobiography wooed me, and as a Hip-Hop head Paris, Ice Cube and Public Enemy were doing dawah (inviting) with their lyrics.

I became Muslim as an eighteen year-old college student and if one person should be blamed for my conversion it should be Dr. Abbas Rana. I met Abbas at the Clark Kerr Campus Dorms at U.C. Berkeley on the first day of welcome week and we got into a huge debate about Muslims that lasted three hours. It would be the first of many debates, discussions and dialogue as our relationship would evolve from acquaintances to friends to eventually brothers. However that first meeting, when I was introduced to him by a mutual friend should’ve never have begun. I said something to Abbas, which was in my estimation, the most offensive thing I’ve ever said to another human being in my life, “…That name sounds Muslim, are you Muslim, because I (expletive) hate Muslims!” He was visibly taken aback by my words but thankfully didn’t let me off the hook, he challenged me for what I said, which was the first time I ever said something like that out loud and I became defensive. I spouted out every argument and half-truth I’d heard, used the idiosyncrasies of the Muslims I had known in my life, who were probably bad practitioners of the faith to continue my arguments, and he responded with empathy and intellect. I was attracted to his compassion and soon we’d become fast friends, transforming as I learned more about the faith, into brothers.

It’s when I divorced Islam from Muslims in my mind that I felt comfortable making the transition to becoming Muslim myself. In Abbas I saw a Muslim who was emblematic of what Islam taught, but the Muslims I had met through Hollywood, or were showcased in the media, or that I had met up until then were far outcries from the values of the faith. This was all before 9/11, when the ignorant tropes were magnified and the familiar image of a Muslim was that of a violent, gun or bomb-wielding villain who targeted innocent people. 9/11 merely helped America pull back the curtain, pun intended, on our assumptions of Islam. They gave Jack Shaheen more than he ever dreamed of in the stereotypical Arab in cinema. The media depictions and caricatures were Edward Said’s Orientalism on steroids. And yet the truth is that 9/11 only removed the façade, and that the bullying was always there. 9/11 merely transformed existing xenophobia into Islamophobia. Our efforts had transformed what had been existing xenophobia, and transformed it, with our reasoning behind those questionable decisions outlined above, into Islamophobia, the irrational fear of Islam. Islamophobia is equal parts fear of Islam and ignorance of Islam. It didn’t just bring down buildings it brought down our sense of what our values are and should be.

The world we live in one which is set up to doubly terrorize those with any affinity with Islam. We are terrorized by the act of terror, like our fellow citizens and then terrorized by our own because of their indiscriminant fear. Clarity only comes in moments when we are faced with a new tragedy and are forced to respond. For me after 9/11 it was the sudden death of my grandmother, for all of us it’ll be the death of an American Muslim, who we see as an American, more than as a Muslim whose inevitable victimization and God-forbid death will shake us to our senses. Today my social networking timeline is filled with abuse. I see a pig’s head on a mosque doorstep, bullied six graders, hijabis (scarf wearing) shot at and attacked. I see innocent Muslims and Sikhs illegally strip-searched, abused verbally and physically, and taken off of flights. I think about my kids and my wife. I think about my sister, niece and nephews. The fear I feel is real and it’s the same as I used to feel on the playground because it’s the same catalyst, it’s bullying plain and simple and we should not stand for it.

Fear

Fear “Fear Itself”

In the so called East, the combination of ignorance and fear has created Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Sepa-E-Sahaba, ISIS/ISIL aka DAESH, otherwise known as the tentacles of the same Wahhabi-Salafi Kraken that we support in Saudi Arabia, and we are being suffocated by their grip on our sense of safety. To put it more simply, they are the bullies of the Islamic world and their bullying, which terrorizes our planet has given birth to our own bullies like Marine La Pen, the English Defense League and Donald Trump. They gave birth to the new America we live in, one unrecognizable from the one I grew up in, when there was no NDAA, no TSA, no Guantanamo. It is a new America where book deals that homogenize over a billion people because of the gross violation of rights of a human being by a few, see Ayaan Hirse Ali. It gives Bill Maher fodder for his anti-religious views, which overly simplify the issue for lowbrow comedic effect. I am arguing that terrorists have created “Donald Trump for President”. His relevance is birthed by the fear caused by ISIS and the many tentacled beast described above. Every gunshot and explosion makes his candidacy more likely—his rhetoric is the protection that America is seeking—and it is not unlike the barricade I put up in that apartment on 9/11.

When I ran into that field of golden grass, out of my apartment for the first time in two days, I looked into the horizon and let the sun dry my tears and that is when I heard the siren. I saw a fire truck driving slowly through the neighborhood and saw people coming out toward the truck. I approached cautiously, pulled by the strings of my curiosity, fear replaced by a thirst for knowing. I walked closer to the street and what was happening became clear, the Fire Department of the City of Davis was collecting money for the first responders to 9/11. I dug in my pockets and without looking walked over to the truck, past my neighbors and others, and I gave. I remember the fireman smiled at me and I can’t remember if I smiled back, but I do remember that I didn’t feel the stares in that moment, in that moment I felt so American, and so at one with the sensation of sorrow stemming from the tragedy we all were reeling from.

While the clarity of that moment would diminish, because of the unchecked hate targeting people like me that followed it. It reminds me that the line between hope and despair is thin. While many of my social media associates have been busy “un-friending” Trump supporters, it’s given me pause to consider his candidacy in the context of world history. People keep comparing Trump to Hitler, but what makes Trump more compelling is that his rise is happening at a time where our nation is economically strong. In order to understand this one must understand the debilitating power that fear can have. Those that make the comparison, do so to make a compelling argument against Trump and ironically it’s seems the comparison itself is motivated by fear? I’ve lived through bullying, the ‘phobia after 9/11 and since then, and I do not find myself afraid like others do. I don’t fear Trump himself. I don’t fear his supporters or their reasons to support him. I do fear that which makes good people do bad things. I fear the “fear itself,” because it’s real and it is the culprit. F.D.R. was a hypocrite for signing Executive Order 5066, because the sole reason for signing it was for the fear of “fear itself.” Pearl Harbor was the catalyst, just as the Reichstag was for Hitler. 9/11 created this New America, but what will it take to put Trump into office? What is the fear to come? What is the fear itself? I’d argue that Trump is not Hitler, at least not yet.   What we should fear isn’t him, his rhetoric or his candidacy, but what his Reichstag might be.

History tells us that crazy things happen in times of fear. Executive order 5066 was a departure from American values and so are the NDAA, Guantanamo and the other changes we’ve made that walk the fine line of feeling pragmatically correct to safeguard against fear but ideologically wrong. We’ve created a world that is afraid of “too much toothpaste on flights”, belts and bottled water. We’ve given into fear wholeheartedly and it shows in the sheer ignorance that fuels it—like the analogy of targeting any snake for fear of a potentially venomous one seems an apt example to characterize Islamophobia, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of its madness. Half-truths, out-right lies and fabrications now circle around the life of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam and what Muslims believe. These then fuel the poison spit by bigots during these times of crisis and furthermore provide rationale for the Wahhabi-Salafi octopus, its tentacles, constituents and supporters for their crimes. There was a time, where I feared Islam too, because of the actions of Muslims, but that fear was dispelled by knowledge and I believe that feel that knowledge can help our nation, to discern what type of snake we should be afraid of and where its coil comes from.

Follow The Fear

My belief that knowledge reigns supreme was born from a Hip-Hop upbringing, a mom who put knowledge and the pursuit of it as the primary value she imbued me with, and a lifetime of welts and bruises given by the clenched fists of ignorance and stupidity. Knowledge was kryptonite to ignorance and this belief fueled my path in education. I started the City of Knowledge after-school intervention with the support of Principal Mireya Casarez at Cesar Chavez for students who were navigating post-9/11 realities as Muslim, Sikh or other students who had that look on playgrounds and buses on their way to and from school. It was an intervention, replete with coaching and advisory for students who were traversing the minefield of hate that had become America; I shared with them my narrative and how I had to code switch and assimilate to survive, and how those sacrifices made my people like me, were so we could be in a place of support for them so that they never had to shroud who they were in order to survive. It was a program that began with eight or nine kids then burgeoned to over forty students and then I went on to develop a multi-lingual inclusive program as an administrator in charter schools.

I believe in the phrase each-one-teach-one and truly believe that each of us can make a difference if we share our stories and the truths they hold. I continue to do this work as an educator and as an artist, through Hip-Hop and Hip-Hop Ed (#HipHopEd). Most of the work I’ve released speaks to the truth of the disenfranchised human being living in the shadows—In this moment its Muslims, and the story of our disenfranchisement fuels my craft. I leave you with a metaphor for our times, an-older piece, written to speak to core Islamic beliefs in the post-9/11 context. I recorded it and entitled it as a play on the Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri; the following piece is called the Divina Comedia: Part 2: Purge Story, and it is the middle part of a spoken word piece recorded in three parts on my first full-length solo album Carbon Cycle Diaries. This piece touched the creative mind of my colleague, and fellow artist, director and educator Stacey Goodman, who saw in it an even deeper narrative. The question I pose in the piece of “Who Do You Follow?” in repetition had another meaning in the times we lived in. It no longer is a question of faith, but a question of who follows you because of your faith. Stacey created a script that spoke to this intersection and worked with me to tell a multi-layered visual story of our fear-induced world, which questions not only “[whom] you follow,” but also as a result, “who follows you?”