by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
One of the things I find I most enjoyed — and, now, most miss — about my travels to the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Istanbul is the periodicity of the muezzin’s call to prayer. It greets you in so many unexpected ways.
Standing on the Mount of Olives, one call drifts across the valley from the Old City only to be washed over by another one down the way. But walk within its walls and it beckons you to stop. Sometimes sternly and at others as a mother would remind her child.
Walk around a corner in Ramallah and the muezzin’s voice may greet you as a friend and wrap its arms around your shoulders; walk down another alley and it barks at you. Sit atop a rooftop patio in the oldest parts of Istanbul and several voices vie for your affections without competing with one another. The voices of small, underpowered speakers from a nearby local mosque provide background vocals for the melodic mix of the more prominent mosques like the Sultanahmet Mosque, the Blue Mosque, in what seems like a talent show of some of the world’s best.
And, then there’s the greeting from one’s home, as you can hear in the audio embedded audio above. It’s the maghrib athan, the fourth call that summons the faithful to prayer just after sunset, during Ramadan from what seems like an apartment window somewhere outside of Nablus.
One sees so many sites, eats so much delicious food, meets so many wonderful people. But it’s the rhythmic reminder that stays with me, a discipline I’ll cherish long after the memory of such encounters slowly erode themselves in my mind.
About the photo: The muezzin at the Madrassa of Sultan Hassan in Cairo demonstrates his vocal abilities in the liwan. (Photo by Christopher Rose/Flick, licensed under Creative Commons)Comments
by Emily Frost, guest contributor
When Jeff Roy first met Maya Jafer in Los Angeles, he had prepared a long list of questions. But he barely got in one; Jafer had finally found someone with whom she could share her story.
Ms. Jafer, a 42-year-old transgender woman and a practicing Muslim from India, spent the next hours detailing a cultural and religious background that never accepted her and describes a personal journey full of upheaval. Mr. Roy, who had never made a film, decided Jafer’s story needed to be told.
Rites of Passage is all about the journey. The metaphor is central to the documentary. Before the film begins, Ms. Jafer has been on an internal voyage during two years of hormonal and psychological therapy. In the opening scene, she is moving again.
Without any explanation, the viewer is thrust into an airport in Thailand, the only place where she can afford gender reassignment surgery. The harsh lighting and close-up shots make it feel as though we, too, have been on the impossibly long flight from Los Angeles. The director favors immediacy and honesty above all else, shooting with a cinéma vérité style.
Ms. Jafer rarely needs prodding to open up. She views the camera as a chance to share wry and self-deprecating commentary. As she and a friend of the director’s, whom she just met, taxi to a nighttime shopping area, she discusses a sexual massage. There’s lightness in how she addresses this stranger as she tells him “she hasn’t had sex in two years,” but, after the surgery, men will be all over her. She’s basking in the liberation of her decision. There’s no turning back.
The film benefits from its tight focus on Ms. Jafer. These opening confessions hook the viewer. And lest the audience think the trip will be all light-hearted quips and high jinx, Mr. Roy cuts to the heart of the matter, inserting a climatic scene early in the film.
Riding in a taxi through congested streets, Ms. Jafer speaks directly to the camera: “I have no one to talk to at all,” she cries, “all I have is God.” This may be the most intense period of her life, a turbulent mix of dread and anticipation. Though Mr. Roy is filming, he’s beyond her reach. Jafer is alone.
Here’s where Mr. Roy’s film strikes out on an independent path. Other American documentaries have focused on the enormity of transitioning from male to female or vice versa. They delve deep into the physical and social side of the transition. But what about the spiritual side? The tendency is to think of transgender or transsexual people as progressive and, by extension, secular. But Mr. Roy puts religion and ethnic identity at the heart of Ms. Jafer’s journey.
In the taxi, she begins to pray. The prayer has a soothing power, but Ms. Jafer’s trembling voice bespeaks the fear and anxiety washing over her.
Prayer and her faith are the only connections she still shares with her Indian and ultra-orthodox Muslim family. Her father is devout, and was also abusive. As a child she was awoken early in the morning, beaten, and ordered to pray. “How would you find love for God in that way?” she asks, sweeping tears from her face, trying to preserve her black eyeliner and mascara. It took Ms. Jafer many years to create her own relationship with God, separate from what she knew as a child. Here, again, the director lets the camera roll, and the uninterrupted scenes of Ms. Jafer struggling to regain composure don’t seem out of place with the “along for the ride” quality of the film.
Early on, the film establishes the stakes are high. “If it were not for God and spirituality, I would not be alive today,” Ms. Jafer says, pressing the palm of her hand to her forehead, her yellow headscarf slipping slightly. There was a time when she realized her choice was transitioning or suicide.
God plays a huge part in her decision to live — and to transition. Ms. Jafer pushes aside the temptation to curse God for giving her the wrong physical body. As the taxi pushes forward, she works through her distress, the camera tight on her face, knotted with tension.
The film is intentionally short. Mr. Roy trimmed the fat so moments like those in the taxi stand out, but it’s hard not to wish to see more of Ms. Jafer getting from point A to point B in Bangkok. In a later scene, she sits with a group of Thai men, sipping her first ever glass of wine and eating a bowl of long, steamy noodles. How did she get there and who are these men? They barely seem to know each other.
Back at the hotel, the film shows Ms. Jafer dancing in the dark, losing herself to trance music. She drapes herself across the couch, rises, and spins around her long, black wavy hair. Mr. Roy illustrates her moment of release — a respite from her direct confessional approach to the camera.
After the wine and the dancing, the film moves back to reality. Ms. Jafer, brow furrowed, consults graphic anatomical photos as a Thai doctor describes how the surgery works. The filmmaker’s choice not to interview doctors or nurses helps capture Ms. Jafer’s disorientation, as does his quick and choppy editing style.
Mr. Roy stays in raw mode in the next montage. Ms. Jafer has her photo taken and is shown nude from the waist up, her new breasts exposed. Her red toenail polish is removed, her genitals are shaved, and her playfulness is gone. She’s wearing a blue hospital shower cap and murmuring prayers, prone on a gurney and quietly weeping.
The film closes as it began, with movement — and with the audience thrown into the middle of things. It feels like a suspense movie. Kudos to Jeff Roy for transforming what could have been a very talky documentary into a film full of action. In the final shots, the camera angle is low, the world seen through Ms. Jafer’s eyes — the neon lights glaring down, the anonymous Thai nurses moving efficiently — and then the doors of the operating room swing shut.
"Rites of Passage" screens at the Palm Beach International Film Festival on April 15 and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 21 and 26. The full version, “Mohammed to Maya,” will connect with Jafer after the operation and will premiere in Mumbai at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival from May 23–27. A special preview screening of “Mohammed to Maya” will be held on May 1st at Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, with a question and answer session with Jeff Roy and Maya Jafer.
Emily Frost is a radio reporter and online journalist. She is an Annenberg Fellow at USC’s Annenberg Graduate School for Journalism and an executive producer and host at Annenberg Radio News.
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by Arezou Rezvani, guest contributor
When a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters became international headline news last month, national dialogue around the incident centered mostly on its impact on U.S.-brokered peace talks, the safety of military personnel in the region, and the military culture that some argue contributed to the dehumanizing act. Largely absent from mainstream news media coverage, however, was any meaningful attempt to understand how the global Muslim community viewed the desecration of the corpses.
What took place in January was not unique. In 2010 images of a group of U.S. Army soldiers dubbed the “kill team” posing with mutilated Afghan corpses emerged and were eventually published in Rolling Stone magazine. Now, just over a year later, a similar war crime has been committed by American Marines, sparking a fresh but familiar conversation about how the psychology in and around war is not well understood by the American public.
It is indeed an important conversation to be had, particularly if there is any sincere interest in helping the latest and largest wave of U.S. troops that left Iraq in December transition back to civilian life. What is equally important, however, is a discussion around the recurring theme of desecrating the dead in a Muslim country.
In Islam, desecrating enemy corpses was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad and is regarded today by practicing Muslims as a sin and a crime. The religion also rejects cremation as a proper rite for death as it is believed that the tailbone, which is thought to regenerate the complete human being on the Day of Resurrection, would be destroyed. Another interpretation within Islam condemns any desecration of a corpse on the premise that the resurrected body will appear as it did at the moment of death.
When one considers the funeral rites and regulations in Islam, from the process of washing the body — a step that in itself entails a very particular set of instructions — to the act of shrouding a corpse in white prior to interment, it becomes clear that the rituals associated with the transition between life and death are an integral part of the faith.
The most recent incident of depriving the dead Taliban fighters of that ritual could have been an opportunity to start a dialogue around Muslim religion and culture. Instead, most of the coverage further enabled the American public’s blindness toward the “other.” This disinclination to examine the global consequences of collective ignorance, which in this instance manifested as an indifference toward the desecration of Taliban corpses, only serves to exacerbate tensions between Americans and the broader Muslim world.
American news media have an obligation to offer comprehensive coverage and fine-grained contextualizing of events that the public is not always ready confront. To be sure, debates around whether the incident will prompt another wave of anti-American sentiment in the region, or whether military culture is to blame for the dehumanizing act, makes for good television and two-page spreads in print publications. But ultimately it’s cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that will help to avert similar future acts of dehumanization and diffuse tensions. Until the news media are willing to create the kind of broad narrative understanding of events that makes such dialogue possible, their tacit enabling of collective ignorance means that they will be complicit in any future acts of dehumanization.
Arezou Rezvani is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work appears on NBC Los Angeles and American Public Media’s Marketplace, where she explores themes related to business, religion, and foreign affairs. You can see more of her reporting at Spectrum.
by Marwa Helal, guest contributor
The Learning Channel (TLC) recently aired the new reality television program, All-American Muslim, amid a great deal of buzz both within and outside the Muslim American community. Set in Dearborn, Michigan, a city that is well-known for its large Muslim and Arab populations, the series focuses on American-born Muslims and aims to answer the question: “What is it like to be Muslim in America?”
America’s Muslim population is diverse in ethnicity, class and religious expression. Attending a Friday prayer or better yet, an Eid celebration showcases this diversity at its best — Turkish Americans next to Bosnian Americans, next to Bangladeshi, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian and African Americans — the list goes on. There are those who attend mosque regularly and others who show up to socialize during the holidays.
While TLC does not claim to represent all Muslim Americans, by focusing only on American Shia Muslims of Lebanese descent living in Detroit, and with a title that claims to speak on behalf of the “All-American Muslim,” the series certainly raises the question of whether it represents the experience of Muslim Americans in general.
by Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman, special contributor
More than 80 participants attended the second northern women’s security shura on Monday in Mazar-e Sharif at Camp Marmal in Balk province, Afghanistan to discuss women’s roles in governance transition. (photo: DEU Capt. Jennifer Ruge)
As an imam at a mosque in the Jordanian capital Amman, I have been following the dramatic developments across North Africa and the Middle East with a combination of high hopes and grave concern. The phenomenon of young people organizing peacefully to demand political reform, economic opportunity, and human rights is a source of pride for me; numerous worshippers in my mosque are among them. On the other hand, the mounting lethality of conflict between state and society in so many Arab countries is terrible to behold. So is the tragedy of burgeoning crime, economic struggles, and insecurity in countries such as Egypt that are undergoing dramatic transformations.
In these riveting times, the role of Islam is essential and Arab societies seem to know it. I can tell just from the growing number of worshippers in my mosque, which overflows every Friday during weekly prayers. Young people draw comfort and inspiration from Islam as they face an uncertain future.
At the same time, political analysts — both within Arab societies and in the world at large — are raising concerns about the role of so-called “Islamist” groups in the on-going political transitions. Members of my own congregation often ask me for counsel on this issue. In response, through sermons every Friday as well as more intimate conversations, I have been trying to articulate the distinctions that will be necessary to ensure that the tenets of Islam are properly applied — and that the language of Islam is not co-opted by opportunistic political movements.
In the present state of flux in North Africa and the Middle East, there is robust competition for political popularity in a new marketplace of ideas. When assessing any political figure or movement claiming to draw legitimacy from Islam, one should pose several questions and demand unambiguous answers.
The first question is: do you support equal political, social, and economic rights for all citizens of your country, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sect?
The answer should be yes. The Qur’an and prophetic traditions present a vision of social justice in all its forms — not only for men but also for women; not only for Arabs but also for other ethnic groups; and not only for Muslims but for all humankind. This is my conviction as a lifelong student of Islam. The texts that prove this are many, but suffice it to say that the Qur’an’s vision of equity and justice is addressed not to any subset of humankind but to all “Children of Adam” (7:26).
Over the centuries, interpretations of Qur’an and prophetic tradition have varied, and some of these interpretations have been incompatible with essential Qur’anic values. The most accurate interpretation would never differ with the principle of universal equity and justice — nor deny political or economic opportunity to anyone. Such an interpretation can and should be achieved by the principal of ijtihad, the practical application of the human mind to the world’s ever-changing circumstances.
The second question is: do you believe that Islam is compatible with a definition of the rule of law that transcends a particular religion’s jurisprudential precepts?
The answer should be yes. From a contemporary Islamic perspective, sharia is not a document that supplants the legal system of a given country. To the contrary, it is a set of principles that demand of believing Muslims that they respect the laws of the country in which they live, provided that the laws are compatible with the universal values of social equity and human rights. Moreover, in the event that a given law is inequitable or unjust, sharia demands that believing Muslims work within a legal and democratic framework to amend the law. Islam stresses the principle of shura, or consultation, as a means of reaching decisions that affect the body politic. Those “whose affairs are a matter of counsel” (42:38) are considered to be worthy of a divine reward.
Finally, the third question is: do you maintain that your political platform is a flawless rendering of the precepts of Islam?
The answer should be no. The Qur’an attests to the fact that humankind, granted worldly power, is prone to error and corruption: “[Humankind is liable to] break the covenant of God after ratifying it, and sever that which God ordered to be joined, and make mischief in the earth” (2:27). Islam, for its part, is innocent of the errors of those who presume to interpret or apply it. Because it is hubristic and suspect to suggest that someone is without flaw, it is equally hubristic and suspect to claim to speak in the name of Islam.
Moreover, to claim to speak in the name of Islam is to assert superiority over other political platforms — a position that leads to totalitarianism.
Islam, as I understand it, demands that humankind negotiate over difference and govern consensually. There are no modern-day prophets or rightly-guided caliphs. We must endeavour to collaborate in healing our region and the world as best we can.
Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman is the imam of the Ibn Sinan mosque in Amman, Jordan.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on September 20, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.