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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

In The Midnight Hour: Parenting Special Needs Children

So much of what is involved with parenting is a mystery. You can by help books and sit at the laps of all the elders in your family soaking up all the mother wit you can stand. Yet there are seasons when - by the decree of Allah - you will still find yourself in places: valleys so low and on mountain tops so high that you as mother or you as father will have no clue what to do. In those moments: when you hear the doctor, therapist, or specialist tell you that your baby/child is sick, covered underneath a life long disorder that will impact his or her quality of  life, it will feel like the world has stopped for you and you have lost your way.

My dear sister - my dear brother, if no one has told you yet, let me tell you something I'd wish someone had permitted me to do when my daughter was first diagnosed with Infantile Spasms and Autism nine years ago: go on and  cry it out! Don't try to hold in your hurt, your confusion, your sadness, or your disappointment. Cry, weep, wail, and drop down on your knees and call on Allah! Cry a whole day or whole week, if you need to and don't let anyone stop you either. Don't let anyone disrupt your tears. You earned those tears and you earned the right to mourn. What are you mourning? Someone will boldly question you, no doubt. They will tell you your baby/child is still alive. They will try to force you to be grateful indignantly. What they might not understand is that your tears are mixed with gratefulness but you are facing a change in not only your life but in the whole life of your baby's. Certainly, enshallah, there will be better days and some relief, but whatever you wanted/prayed for/thought your child's life would be like before he/she was diagnosed with a special/different/challenging need, will not be actualized in this life. You will have to let that dream go. And it will not be easily buried. It will resurface many times through your life. So cry and mourn.  Turn back to Allah to find other goals with smaller steps to reach. You will have to accept the truth that your child may not ever coherently talk, walk, run, pray, read, write, or feed themselves independently. You will have to plan for the reality that you will have to take care of that baby/child for your entire life and when you die, if they outlive you, you will have to have someone in place to continue to care for them. So if they won't let you cry in peace, politely show them the door. And then cry, please! And when you are able......

Stand up in the midnight hour and continue to cry out to and for Allah's help. Do this regularly. Plan for it weekly or monthly or even daily! For sure Allah understands your hurt and your worries and He, alone, can grant you relief. And you will desperately need this alone time because there will always be some new challenge, struggle, or an all out fight to push through. The tears will continue to be necessary to shed. Happy tears when Allah grants respite and opens closed doors for you  and sad tears will also trail you too. Remember though, He, the Most High, has promised after difficulty, relief will come.

 Parenting special needs' children requires a superpower that doesn't come with a cape or some cool mask. If parenting special needs children and adults teaches you nothing else, you will learn very quickly that Allah holds all the power and might and you have none. You are weak, emotional, and prone to make so many mistakes with your child and yourself. But with Allah, your Lord, your Friend -  Ar Rahman - He has the ability to help you find some superpower strength-dedication to sort out medications, schedule and get to a bijillion doctor appointments, potty training, learn sign language, unearth research and alternative treatments, stay up all night taking care of your restless child, and work a full shift during the day. So my dear sister - my dear brother, take care of you! 

Nothing is easy, except what Allah wills to be easy. Crying isn't easy for some of us. It's hard to be vulnerable for many of us too. There are no short cuts or secrets to parenting any children and certainly not children with special needs. But with Allah, He can bring you ease and protection. So stand up in the midnight hour and seek His help and relief and guidance.

The Messenger of Allah sallallahu alyhi wa sallam said: "The closest one can be to Allah, is during the last third of the night. If one can remember Allah, the Almighty, at this time, let him do so." (At-Tirmidhi, An Nisaa'i, and Al Haakim)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tried & Tested Book Discussion Questions

For those of you have already read Tried & Tested or you just got your book, here are some discussion questions for you to think about as you are reading. You can also use these discussion questions at your own book club meetings:

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Essence Magazine's Bold Erasure of Black Muslim Women

A couple of days ago Essence magazine released a stunning new cover for their 47th anniversary that features 12 amazing women who have used their voices, resources, and platforms to speak out against and change/interrupt  oppression through activism, art, and film. Some of the 12 notable women includes my personal favorite writer and producer Shonda Rhimes, social activist April Reign, Opal Tometi - cofounder of #BlackLivesMatter,  Sybrina Fulton - Trayvon Martin's mother and founder of Circle of Mothers, political commentator Angela Rye, Women's March co-chairs Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and our good sister and community activist Linda Sarsour in her hijab. The rallying theme of the magazine is: "100 Woke Women - How we rise up, speak out, and push the movement forward"! It's an epic cover because as far as I know, it's the first time Essence magazine has ever featured a Muslim woman in full Islamic hijab - rather than just a cultural head wrap!

So I am cheesing hard thinking I can't wait for this month's Essence to be dropped into my mail box (Ummi and I have been subscribers for many years). And yes, Linda Sarsour definitely deserves to be featured on the cover. 2016 and 2017 have been great years for our sister and we are proud of her. Happily, I watch the little video of some the honorees explaining what it means to each of them to "stay woke"! I am bobbing my head and Mmm hmming along as they mention sisterhood, love, and doing our part in our communities. It's all doable and needed encouragement. But then, hold up: I scroll down a little further on the page and these words jump out at me:

"Each woman talks about her role in the fight for Black liberation..."

Hold up! Slow down, they don't love you, like I love you, Muslim girl! I say to myself, self, is this article going to be focused on how each of these women are working to help black people get liberated in their black communities? Could have fooled me! I mean, there wasn't one Black American Muslim woman included on the cover. Why come? Historically, Black Muslim women have been fighting to liberate Black people since they dragged us off the slave boats (check the Book of Negroes)! Scroll back up, I tell myself. Someone spoke of Sisterhood? Another spoke of  Love? Boldly someone even mentioned intersectionality in the black community without acknowledging the perspective of the Black Muslimah! Ugh! I am beyond disappointment by Essence's erasure of Black Muslim women. I am dismayed and enraged.  Step down though and understand that by pointing out my disappointment and tiredness of the erasure of Black American Muslims in no way, shape, or form diminishes my love and support of other Muslim groups being included! 

See, this is a community problem among Black Americans. I can't blame no one but us for this mess. Ya'll know good and well a couple of folks up at Essence may very well have some Black Muslims in their family, friends they went to high school with, a husband, brother, or uncle who reverted to Islam while he was incarcerated - or those Muslim sisters in their  hood that they buy dinners from, have borrowed that Islamic name book from so they could see how to spell their baby Karim, Latifa, Amina, Jamilah, Imani or Malik!  Or they buy their fresh oils, shea butter, black soap, kufis, or those hijabs/scarves from your Muslim shopkeeper so you can look authentic during that Kwanzaa festival or Reggae concert.....and we see you, queens!

More importantly, Black women, you see us Black American Muslim women, too! You see us at work, at the daycare center, at the doctor's office, in the parks, at the hair salon and in the mall. We have shared parents and grandparents, recipes, red icees, jelly shoes, cassette tapes, cds, spouses, relaxers, brown gel,  milk, butter, sugar, hair grease, fears for our children - especially our sons, we sit on trains together, we correct directors/supervisors when they mispronounce either of our names, and we have such similar paths to cross - trials and tests!  Which is why when I look at that instantly classic Essence STAY WOKE cover and see all of those accomplished, amazing, hard-working, and intelligent black women who were selected to grace Essence magazine's cover come together, survey the room, spot one hijab from someone not from your family, your community, or from your journey and feel okay in your hearts and minds with your Black American Muslim sisters being excluded ...forgotten and overlooked, it's sobering. 

"Fox news is out of their mind," the black folks will say. "I am tired of media only showing those types of blacks," the black folks will say.  "We ain't all like that!" the black folks will say. 

I concur! But if we don't see each other and support and make space for each other, we all lose out. 

And check this out: the really sad part about this cover is that it is going to be dropped into thousands of black (how many Arab, Desi, Turkish, Kurdish subscribers does Essence have?) Muslim mailboxes with little black Muslim girls who will immediately spot our sister Linda Sarsour. They will smile, big and bright. "Look! Ummi she has a hijab on!" the little brown and black Muslim girls will exclaim excitedly. And then as they continue scan the cover and see all of the other melanated non-Muslim women of varying beautiful hues - without hijabs, it will hit them like a ton of bricks....

Essence magazine didn't want to include anyone who looks like me!

Stay woke, y'all! 

For a list of amazing, woke Black Muslim women making an impact in our communities and around the world, please check out on my blog, Be Inspired: Black Muslim Women Shine!

If you subscribe to Essence magazine, consider these simple actions:

1. Shoot them email about their erasure of Black American Muslim women
2. Tweet @Essence on Twitter with your views and disappointment
3. Write a blog about this issue
4. Create your own list of WOKE Black American Muslim women and circulate it on social media.
5. Open up and communicate with Muslim sisters in your community of other ethnicities about how we can support each other and truly become helpers and supporters of each other. Share what you learn with Essence magazine! 

Shout out to Steve Harvey for allowing Ibn Ali Miller to acknowledge his black Muslim mother for raising him to do the right thing on national television! 

Author Spotlight: Malik Salaam

Meet author, poet, business owner, film writer and producer: Malik SalaamThis Author Spotlight has been a long time coming and I am excited to finally share it on the blog. As an avid reader, I am always on the prowl for a good read, especially a good Muslim fiction read! Enter the big brother: Malik Salaam! He was running a promotional on his debut book back in early 2016 and I saw it and sent out the link to our readers on #MuslimGirlsRead and Author Umm Juwayriyah Facebook pages. A couple of days later, a friend wrote me and was like, "Thanks for the hook-up! Sunnah is so good and hood!" I went ahead and bought the book, too! It took about two days to get through the book due to all my other duties and shenanigans - but for sure it was a page turner. I remember the moment I finished the book, I was sitting on my bed speechless. Really! I felt a mixture of excitement, disbelief, lots of ideas, love, confusion, and a splash of "No, he didn't!" all swirling around my head.

Growing up my reading diet was diverse and lengthy. Out of the pack: Midlred D. Taylor groomed me, Terry McMillan inspired me, and Umm Zakiyyah pulled me up and opened the door for me.  But my first love is definitely Urban/Street Lit. Sista Souljah, Omar Tyree, Wahida Clark, Nikki Turner and Sapphire were writing champs in the late  90's. I was reading like three or four of their books week with wonder. I resonated with their style, but I struggled with how to merge urban Muslim life and the world-wide Muslim ummah that I was committed to targeting my work to. Urban Islamic Fiction is what I came up with - it's toned down for my demographic, but still has a little room for some edge and so far it's worked well for me. That said, when I read Sunnah by Malik Salaam, I was teleported back to my high school days. I read it and I laughed, I panicked, I worried, I got angry and I had to clutch my pearls a few times, too! I was reading Muslim Street Lit by a Muslim! And I was inspired! Without further ado, here's  Malik Salaam: (SPOILER ALERT!)

UMMJ:    Sunnah is filled to the brim with many social ills, violence, illicit relationships - what made you want to title the book Sunnah? Was there any underlying issues that you intentionally wanted your readers to get from the title?

MS:The short answer… Sunnah means the way. And I feel like as humans we are all searching for our way. Being raised Muslim, I was always taught to follow the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Christians ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” Cola Rum- an amazing spoken word artist in Atlanta- always says, “Malik, we all down here treading water, and when we see somebody treading water with more ease than us… we naturally want to join them.”

I think the search is what joins us as humans. And I think that overall, that is what I wanted everybody to walk away with. We all are rifling through life in hopes of finding our way. And that is not a surface thing… following just a way of dress or a diet doesn’t cut it. The way starts at intentions but ends with action.

UmmJ:  Mustafa (Stafa) was such an interesting, complexed, and wounded character. The opening scene with his parents really set the tone for his actions through out the story. I liked him at times and then at other times I was severely disappointed in him. Who is Mustafa to you? 

MS: Mustafa is familiar to me. He deals with the struggle of first being a black man in America. And then he must deal with the battle of being a Muslim man in America. Both roles seem to be peppered with confusion. The fact that his father wasn’t present was the first nail in his coffin. And even though he had some role models, they also had their demons to battle.

If you came up in the late 80s/early 90s the celebration of the street culture was very much a part of our lives. And being born and raised Muslim didn’t save me from that. If anything, because Islam doesn’t associate any partners with God… and I don’t have to go through “a man” to get to My Creator. It gave me a certain edge. I don’t associate man with God… so it made me fearless of men.

UmmJ:   Ayanna was another interesting character. I loved her sense of self and high purpose. My heart felt content at the end of the story when she began to frequent the masjid. That said, I was taken aback by her agreeing to mut'ah (temporary marriage) so easily and fully bothered by Stafa checking out on her the night after. Why do you think Ayanna agreed to be intimate with Mustafa so easily given her strong character?

MS: Ayanna’s contradiction, like Mustafa’s, started in her childhood. Introducing her mother’s mental illness and Ayanna feeling measured by her near-perfectly packaged sister, gave Ayanna the same longing for real love as Mustafa.

I think people no matter how strong or spiritually grounded have weaknesses. They look for things to escape into. Sometimes its sex or drugs… or food…but maybe its self-righteousness. We are complicated. I feel like the fact that Mustafa took something that could be carnal or illicit and turned it into something spiritual, though, also intrigued her… which is how, unfortunately, some men with a stronger spiritual understanding will bait a woman. The Christians call it Jesus Pimpin’ but it happens in all beliefs. But the acceptance of something as right or wrong really just depends on the lens that we look at it through. Perspective.

    Umm J: I often discuss mental illness within urban communities, especially within urban Muslim communities so I was touched by how tactful you handled and displayed Ayanna's mother's health issues. Was there any particular motive for adding and discussing mental health in the book?

MS: I feel like mental illness goes undiagnosed in the black community. We don’t believe in/can’t afford/haven’t been exposed to mental healthcare.  Although the government will dope you up if you can get in enough trouble. Mental illness is a big part of our communities and we do a poor job of identifying it. In more affluent neighborhoods, a troubled child gets help. Our children get beat, doped, and funneled through the public school to prison pipeline.

I don’t feel like we can have a healthy dialogue about the things that take place in our neighborhoods without discussing mental illness. Those suffering from depression, bi-polar disorder, narcissism, socio-pathic personality disorder walk amongst us on a daily basis and we dismiss them as trigger happy, materialistic, or junkies. The average person in good mental health would not choose some things that are widely accepted in our communities.

Umm J:   Tariq (Reek) was a mess from the beginning to the end for me. I didn't like him at all. He was so harsh and careless, but so real it made me love his characterization. But I wanted more backstory about his life and what experiences modeled his behavior. The scenes between his son and him were heartbreaking. I could tell he wanted to connect, but really just didn't know how to. For Reek "providing", by any means necessary, was the only station for a man to be respected and he seemed locked in that small role. He never showed any tenderness, even when he was with Rashida. Was Reek crafted after anyone real? What do you think made Reek so heartless? How do you heal someone like Reek?

MS: Yeah… Tariq is very real. In my mind Reek was a northerner primarily, because up-north Islam (in all forms) are very connected to the street culture. When you think of cats from DC, Philly, and New York, names like Tariq and Karim are normal. And although you can find very strong Muslim communities in these cities - there are also brothers, in particular, that blur the lines.

I can remember being taught as a young Muslim man that my primary job is to be a provider. That thought is not exclusive to Muslims, but to Blacks in general. In Black American communities, they have us completely fooled into believing that a man’s worth is directly related to his net worth. And if we accept that, then there is no wonder Black Men are out here taking penitentiary chances for crumbs… because they are taught that those crumbs are bigger than purpose. As a matter a fact, purpose is not even a part of the conversation.

If we were smart, we would recognize the game they play. It is not an accident that more Black women are graduating college than any other ethnic group, while Black men are doing the same thing in the prison system. Or that there is no government assistance with a man still in the home. We are pitted against each other with education, paychecks, and social exposure. So, a cat like Reek feels like he has already fulfilled his duty by bringing home the bacon (pardon the pun)… But that's his worth. Meanwhile he has no time  to develop the emotional depth necessary to be a father and husband.

UmmJ:  I loved how you intertwined the locking up of Imam Yusuf with the overall plot of the story. Of course, because the setting of the book took place in Atlanta, it brings to mind Imam Jamil Al- Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown) (may Allah free him, grant him health, and ease his trials) and his case. Did Imam Al-Amin's case influence your writing? How so? And how did his arrest affect the Muslims in Atlanta?

MS: I went to Mohammed Schools almost my entire life. So, I knew Imam Jamil Al-Amin. My Masjid was on the east side of Atlanta. And Imam Jamil’s was on the west side of Atlanta. But we came together for Eid, went to school together, rivaled each other at basketball games, and some of us used the two sides of town to simply expand our network.

The Muslims from the Westend always had a reputation for policing their communities and it was very clear that Imam Jamil had a stronghold on his community. The arrest of Imam Jamil reaps of government conspiracy (to me).  Imam Jamil introduced himself to the United States government as H. Rap Brown- a fiery revolutionary. And although, Islam helped him adopt a more global perspective, he never lost that fire or the love for his people.

Of course, I don’t have all the facts of the case. But as I watch hipsters buying property in the Westend and you understand that billion dollar projects like Atlanta’s Beltline make plans to run right through Imam Jamil’s community, you must know that other forces could possibly be at work.

   UmmJ:  Staying on the character  Imam Yusuf, Mustafa had mentioned how the locking up of his Imam made the community weak and he felt obligated to "protect" the ummah. His style of protection was clearly against Islam, but there are certainly Muslims with that type of mindset - where they don't know how to draw safe lines. What do you think causes that type of perversion of Islam and the Sunnah in real life? 

MS: I think we are given religion because the pull of the world is so strong. Even for people I know who work hard at staying on their deen. There is no escaping the world’s influence. A lot of Islam in the Black community, historically, has spread through the prisons. So, then there's a [criminal] perversion from the streets [that seeps in]. Also, stories of the Mujahedeen and warriors like Umar and Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with them) becomes the basis for young Black [Muslim) men, who know that war has been waged on them. It's  easy to turn your daily life into a “jihad”. Especially, without the proper guidance.

UmmJ:  You mentioned quite a bit of the religion of other characters in the book. The relationship between Levison and the crew was really ironic and corrupted being that Levison was Jewish and the crew were Muslims. Do you think it is difficult for Muslims and Jews to build authentic, moraled  relationships? Do you think interfaith activities have been helpful in aiding that effort?

MS: I don’t think it is as difficult as we make it. I think it benefits those in power to feed us a narrative of anti-Jew or anti-Christian. Allah says, “I made you into different tribes so you  will know each other, not despise each other”. Young Muslims are allowed and taught to throw around words like “kafir” and “believer” without true context. If we are following Islam as a lifestyle and not just as a religion, then there is no room for discord.  Most of us are around, friends with, and working with or for Jewish people every day and have no idea. 

UmmJ: Mustafa didn't really have any real guidance or real love in this story. Brother Abdullah wasn't a real friend. Reek wasn't a real friend. Ayanna was trying to be a real friend, but Stafa wasn't really ready to part with his criminal lifestyle. There really wasn't anything left for him, but death. It still surprised me how his life was taken and then the setting was shocking - again considering Reek and Stafa were Muslims - even if only in their hearts. Do you think there was anything that could have saved Mustafa and the rest of the brothers from their demise?

MS: I don’t think that he lacked any real love. The love that the streets provide, is perverse. But it doesn’t make it any less real. The conditions change. Saif loved him. Shim loved him. But their love for one another was steeped in the streets. So, it’s different… not less real. Unhealthy is probably the right term to me.

I think that had his father been in his life, Stafa’s chances would have been greater. A father figure is not the same as a father. Because a father knows his son's heart. It is the direct reflection that helps father and son both grow. Stafa needed that. And Stafa needed a more righteous war to fight. If money is our only battle, then we are bound to lose.

UmmJ: Malik,  you have a fan in me! What's next for you? What do you want your readers and soon to be readers to know about you, your passions, and your projects?

MS: Thank you! Well, to be honest… my initial plan was not to write a novel. I am a screenwriter. I decided to take my screenplays and adapt them into novels to build my audience. Sunnah is a screenplay that I turned into a novel which accounts for its brevity with certain interactions. But I am currently working on the sequel for Sunnah, as a screenplay and as a novel. I am producing a few shorts to attract investors to turn Sunnah into a feature or maybe a series. Depending on what makes more sense.

I want readers to know that I believe in the richness of storytelling. I am searching for layers and uncovering the layers of the human condition. Even when it comes to Urban Fiction or Street Lit or Hood Movies. I don’t think we are one dimensional. There is more to us than has been exposed or exploited in the media. I find it my job to paint the perfect picture.  

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Autism Awareness IS everyday for me!

April is a packed month for me. Poetry, Shakespeare lesson plans, it's my birth month, conferences, vending, and several speaking engagements and workshops always happen in April. April is also Autism Awareness month in many countries, too. If you've read this blog, you know that I wrote a children's book about Autism with my oldest daughter, Juwayriyah, about her sister and my middle child, Hind. Hind's Hand's - A Story About Autism was a way for us to explain to our community and other communities around the world that Hind and other people like her on spectrum have different abilities, needs, and joys, too! 

Hind's Hands - A Story About Autism continues to makes rounds around the world, libraries, and homes of children who need their stories to be heard. My goal, for the Muslim community especially, was for Hind's Hands - A Story About Autism, to be a conversation starter that takes on a life of its own about the needs of Autists. I also wanted Muslims to start talking openly about the needs of families caring for children and adults on the spectrum year round.

Right around the end of March many friends and family will email me about Hind's Hands. They will want to know where to purchase the book or if I am available for read-alouds and a very select few will ask about Hind's health. I am always humbled and grateful when my readers can connect with any of my literature. Without a doubt, Hind's Hands - A Story About Autism was one of the most important and influential books, I have worked on to date. The story line was developed by my daughter, Juwayriyah, and the illustrations were crafted by the super-talented sister Emma Apple - who is also a Mama of Autists. It was a project that was dear to us and necessary for all three of us to work on at the exact time that Allah willed all of us together.

However, Hind's Hands - A Story About Autism was never meant to be a show pony that creeps out of the stables each spring to trot. Autism Awareness IS everyday for us. We are never waiting for fundraisers in the parks,cookie sales, designated months, or colored ribbons to be attached to street lights and school bulletin boards to deal with Autism! We don't have that luxury. Every day is Autism Awareness for mothers like me and Emma and sisters like my daughter Juwayriyah and millions of other families affected by Autism around the world. I have to advocate for my daughter every single day - in the schools, in the masajid, in the hospitals. There is never a day I get to be off!

Still, I know that some times friends and family members may not know how to be supportive. It isn't always easy to find the right words to say to parents dealing with Autism. But there are many ways to be supportive of your friends and family members besides wearing a blue ribbon or pin or wishing them a Happy Autism Awareness Month (read: don't every say that)!

Instead you could:

1. Go see them! Go sit with you friend for a half an hour (bring coffee, if you can) and just listen to them.
2. Offer to watch their child for an afternoon once in the blue moon so they can go to jumu'ah, grocery shopping, go for a walk or to the barber/beauty shop alone (it is extremely difficult to find a babysitter for an Autist that the Autist likes and the parent(s) feels safe enough to leave alone with)
3. Call your friends who are parenting Autists once in a while just give the salams or say Hi (you wouldn't believe how many "friends" and family members will forget about you or distance themselves from you because you have non-neurotypical child/adult to care for)
4. Drop off a meal! (Parenting autisitc children or adults is challenging, some times it is extremely difficult especially if the child is globally delayed and/or non-verbal! It is tiring caring for someone else 100% of your time and still having to care for yourself, work, a household, etc.)
5. Write them a letter/email or send a Thinking About You card. (I get that everyone may not feel comfortable around autistic children/adults - especially, if you don't make time to do it regularly. It doesn't mean that you don't still have a love and concern for your friends and family members. I love to read and I am always grateful to get a short email or note from a friend. Thinking about you cards are great to add onto --- just don't write Happy Autism Awareness Month on it!