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Many of you know that when I first started teaching at Staten Island, it was an incredibly difficult experience at first. Many of you were even concerned for my safety and suggested I get out of there. Somehow, I ended up staying. And what I’ve realized is that teaching there has been one of the most enlightening experiences I have ever had. When I first wanted to be a teacher of literature since the age of 6 when I was still in Bangladesh, I had no idea that when I would finally teach my first class, it would be across the world in a time in which America was electing a president who vilifies, degrades, and seeks to persecute Muslims. Nor did I know that I would be teaching at the heart of a community that overwhelmingly supported this man and his policies. And thus, nor did I know that my simple dream of teaching would become so much more than I ever intended – just because of the hijab I wore on my head.

For many of the students in this Staten Island community, seeing me up there in my hijab all semester long, every single week, talking to me, engaging with me, was the most interaction they had ever had with a Muslim, especially a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. And these interactions were based on often controversial issues – in which they had the opportunity to openly contribute. In my desire to teach, I never intended on any political purpose – but, social issues are inherently political, and thus politicized inevitably and unfortunately. Even my hijab is politicized in this current world. That seems to make, instantly, my very act of teaching in a hijab, political. And I teach in a way where I risk making my students uncomfortable in our discussions – because discussions of race, prejudice, police brutality, mass incarceration, war, or historical injustices are always uncomfortable, and it is necessary to therefore make people uncomfortable if such discussions are to be had. More than anything, my purpose in teaching is to enable students to see from perspectives other than their own, other than what they are used to. And of course, nowhere is that more possible than through literature. Most people fail to see that. But never had I been more aware of the importance of enabling students to see different perspectives than when teaching at SI and getting to know these students.

To have a space where people’s views are not shut down simply because of political inclinations and biases, but to engage in a discussion without malice, respecting each other’s perspectives no matter how different they are. Because understanding between conflicting perspectives do not come about through denigrating each other through political labels. Because what I learned from these students is the reality behind their perspectives. For example, for a significant portion of them, their parents are police officers and law enforcement. If your parents represent these very fields, if it creates the whole entire value system you have ever known, then you are automatically going to be defensive about anything that seems to challenge it, and therefore never really be willing to consider anything else. But to have an open discussion about it without anyone denigrating the very values others hold is the first step in engendering a dialogue. Because that is how I perceive teaching – a dialogue. Not between just me and the students, but the students themselves. Many of them have been raised their whole lives to see through black-and-white lenses, and that is all they know. Most of them do not know people of color or minorities on a personal level. So it takes that open dialogue to enable people to see the grey areas which they don’t even know can exist.

I had a student once whose goal was to join the military, who had staunch military views, and wrote a successful paper arguing for the advantages of drone use. Yet, as the semester progressed and in class we discussed both advantages and disadvantages, in his final paper he switched perspectives entirely to now consider the effects and perspective of civilians in the path of war casualties. In his presentation he explained why he had chosen to switch perspectives, and how he would be aware of these perspectives when he joined the military, and would strive to make others in the military aware of the consequences of their actions. I could not stop thinking about how it was the ultimate embodiment of everything I strove to do in my work, subhan’Allah.

I had another student, while I was teaching on gender inequality, who asked/implied that I did not or could not possibly believe in women’s equality (because of course it makes total sense that I am a Muslim woman teaching and yet believe that women should be oppressed). But for him it was inconceivable that I could possibly believe otherwise. This and many other instances made me realize that for many students, just by my very presence in a hijab, it confounded their perceptions of me and what they thought they knew of who Muslim women and Muslims supposedly are.

Teaching, for me, has always been about more than just teaching reading and writing – it has always been a means of breaking the boundaries between the us vs. them mentality that resides in our societies, in human nature and human history. But I did not know that simply by the very act of standing in front of a classroom in a hijab day after day for whole semesters would be an act of enabling the very thing I hoped to teach. In a way, teaching right in the heart of a place that perceives me as something I am not became more than just teaching. It became, unintentionally, unexpectedly, in ways I could never have anticipated, a way of breaking the boundaries, the misconceptions of who I am and what I represent, simply through my hijab.

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Excerpt from one of my current works from the perspective of a young disillusioned character:
I was looking at the moon the other night, luminescent in its orb, suspended in the sky. But it was of course New York City, and it was one of those nights when the moon is bright, yet the stars are nowhere to be seen, no matter how hard you scrutinize the sky. And it made me think about the beauty of people – how everyone walks around with a misty, veiled smoke around them, a facade they put on for the sake of society, pretending they’re so bad-ass or so darned brilliant or confident or sane or okay. Just okay. But by the unwritten, unspoken laws of society, everyone must hide what makes them truly beautiful – their flaws, their quirks, their sadness, their insecurities, their insanities, their frustrations, their urge to scream. To be real, or show emotion, or be different, is social suicide. And so they hide this beauty behind their veils of smoke like the way the beauty of the stars are veiled by carbon dioxide and monoxide and nitrogen and I don’t even know what other oxides in this city of a thousand lights and smokes.

Yet again this is one of my many attempts to comprehend the nature of hate and social aggression. Just two chapters in and I am already blown away by how much Staub’s every precise word is saturated with insight into the psychological inclinations in conflict, on an individual and societal scale.It is a manifestation of the irony of our times, of the declaration of the mantra that we as a human species are the utmost epitome of civilized, advanced beings.

So far the most intriguing element that I’ve broken down is this:

-Continuum of Destruction: The reason extreme “evil” is possible, that even seemingly “regular” people are capable of committing atrocities towards another outgroup in a conflict, is not because they commit it outright. But because there is a gradual accumulation of minuscule, less harmful acts, which builds slowly until it reaches an ultimate form that no longer feels unnatural to the individual, but natural; until it reaches an established systemic proportion. Because we must remember that such things do not occur simply by the machinations of a power structure/government/system but functions precisely when it is enabled by and carried out by other people within the society.

This can be applied not only to the larger scale of forms of conflict that Staub attributes to such as genocide (which we must remember is not merely in the past but still continues to this day in such as with the Rohingya people and other similar forms). But it can be attributed to other systemic persecution as well such as systemic racial injustice- gradual, slow accumulation until reaches grand systemic proportion. In some ways this to an extent can be similar to the birdcage metaphor that Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) mentions, where a few different bars, brought together in a certain structure, creates the overarching systemic structure of oppression. 
One of the other things that I find most interesting about this Continuum point that Staub makes is that this is described in the Hadith (Islamic narration) as one of the major concerns of Prophet Muhammad s.a for his ummah (people)- not that we would be committing massive large-scale wrongs and sins, but that gradually, slowly, minuscule sins that we would brush off as nothing would accumulate and build until it changes our hearts and our souls until we feel dead inside, until it becomes the norm. And this happens to so many of us. This is such a reality for us now from this perspective as well.

I totally veered off but this concept is applicable on so many levels. 

Just as when I attempted to read Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, I know this will be a difficult, excruciating read for me. But even as I try to comprehend the nature of hate, I will always be seeking for the corners and crevices where love and compassion hide as well. 

“I scanned my eyes furtively over my fellow patients. There was a woman in about her late 40s, with soft, dewy-looking eyes that seemed like they were ubiquitously watery, like she was always on the verge of tears. She was sitting there, looking down and fidgeting with her hands. Mid-life crisis? Anxiety? Depression? Or the latter two as a result of the former, or vice versa? You never can tell, these emotional and psychological things can get quite tricky. At least, I think so. If biological factors get in there too, it gets trickier. You never can tell where the personality ends and the illness, disorder, disease, whatever you wanna call it, begins. That’s the real reason why people find mental stuff so scary, I tell you. That’s the real reason why they don’t understand it, don’t want to understand it, or are in denial when someone they love or know begins to crumble underneath the weight of whatever chaotic mess the chemicals in their brains become entangled in. Because when the invisible, phantom illness begins to mesh with the personality, and you can’t tell one from the other anymore, people begin to define you by the phantom. The phantom becomes you.”

We live in our secluded worlds, our phones, our houses, apartment buildings, and every day rush through the door, down the stairs, and about our daily lives. It is incredible that many of us do not know the very neighbors around whom we live. And yes, I am guilty. As an introvert all my life, it is something that rarely occurred to me when I was younger. But I regret not interacting with my neighbors now that I’ve gradually come out of my shell a bit more now.

In my building, there is an elderly lady who lives alone, across from my apartment. I’ve said my hellos and how are yous and in middle school once asked whether she wanted to buy any sweets for my school fundraiser. That is about it. For the first time today, I had the opportunity to help her with some groceries, and she invited me inside. 

The commonly held notion of “old people” is that they ramble on about their times, the good old days, meandering words that seem arbitrary and people say/think “What is he/she even talking about?” Because we never take the time to really listen. If you listen closely, it is usually always about the aspects of their past that they are most proud of, their accomplishments and their kids’ accomplishments, and so on. And what I noticed today is that it is an attempt to retain the life you had – the life you lived. It is an attempt to retain a sense of dignity and pride when you are at a stage of your life in which you’re incapable of or feel deprived of “dignity” and a fulfilling life brimming with activity. It is an attempt to grasp onto those memories and accomplishments when you live every day with the knowledge that at any moment, you will expire and all of it will be gone. 

Lately I’ve been becoming more cognizant of the transient nature of life. I mean, really aware. Not just understanding the mere words, the mere concept. The extent to which the entirety of our individual lives are merely one short life in the midst of time. In the pages of history, we are all but merely just a blip in time. 

When we’re on the threshold of being/starting a new stage of life where everyone and everything changes, it all seems to be happening all at once: getting a job/starting a career, getting married, starting a family and all of that – at the same time seeing your parents/grandparents age. Right now for those 20-somethings my age, it feels like we’re already getting older and haven’t accomplished enough, but at the same time it also feels as if we have so much time left, like we are just beginning to really take on life – yet the older generation must have felt that way too when they were our age. But time crept up on them before they knew it. One generation withers away while another generation replaces it, over and over and over again throughout history, for all of humanity.  

Listening to my neighbor made me realize just how much we neglect the elderly – they who are testaments and witnesses to history and to a life lived. We neglect their words. They hold such rich histories within them, such rich stories – like a treasure trove of memories. And I think acknowledging them is so essential, for the sake of being human, and for the sake of recognizing what such a transient existence means.

Arise

From the ashes of decayed ink and dusty fluttering leaves

From the long-dried pages

Of hesitant words hiding behind their walls of fear

Tiptoeing in trepidation from page to page

Of lines riveting in a glance and mortifying the next

Should I? Will I? Can I? –

I hope they can survive

Past the cages of my brain

And onto a stage, a world, a page,

A seat on a bench next to a stranger,

From which they can communicate

(And whisper and laugh and tell their tales – and even scream if necessary)

With the creatures of the realm of three dimensions –

A world itself not always so dreary.

What realm, I pray, do the creatures of thought exist in?

If not one or two or three or more?

They must, surely, if we can weep and laugh with them and for them

And converse between one dimension and another,

Between worlds and realms vying to comprehend

How? What? Why?

The ever-revolving, ever-inscrutable questions of existence

The ever-elusive, ever-boggling wonders and horrors

Of the nature of man

 

Arise,

And beat on, whether you stumble or stagger or falter

Onto the next word, the next line, the next page

And the next

For religiously inclined individuals, this is a question that instantly incites exclamations of “Blasphemy!”, and for Muslims, “Astagfirullah!” For atheists and agnostics it is a “philosophically reasoned question,” but also a question with which to challenge those who believe in a higher “Creator.” However, despite the fact that believers usually have an instant reaction of eschewing these kinds of questions as soon as they are raised, (“You shouldn’t be asking questions like that!”), the reality is that when someone challenges them with that question, of course there’s at least a split second in which they wonder too. This is one of the reasons, in fact, why Muslim and Christian theology admonishes against asking these kinds of questions – because of course they are dangerous to faith.

But the reality is that this question does not even have any actual basis. The term of being “Created” implies that there is a definitive time frame in which the created thing exists – that there is a Beginning and an End for the existence of the thing. When man asks about God being created, he does so because the only kind of reality and world that he knows is one in which everything has a beginning and an end. Man is born, and then dies. Flowers and leaves bloom from trees in the spring, and then slowly wither away into nothingness by winter. Civilizations are built from the ground up, and then destroyed by another. In the galaxies, stars are born, and then die out. Even technology, the very great “feat” of man itself, is not capable of subsisting on itself without an energy source and “dies” without it sooner or later (phones, etc). And because this world that we live in functions on a system in which there is a beginning and an end for everything, because this is the only reality that we know, the only way in which we can think is through a time-constructed frame. Thus, the question of the “creation” of God. When man asks “Who created God,” he assumes that God’s existence functions the way that everything in our world does – that God, like everything else, also must have had a beginning. Otherwise, where did God come from? Our brains and our thinking are limited to the reality that we know, so we can’t even begin to comprehend the notion of something existing outside of time and space. (This hearkens to the question of how the Big Bang could have occurred from nothing). So because we can’t imagine anything being able to exist beyond a beginning or an end, we can’t fathom how it would be possible for God to exist without being “created.” And there lies the very illogical flaw in asking this question – the limitations of our own world and thus our thinking. Let’s halt over here for a bit for those who will declare, “But that’s an empty answer meant to pacify religious people!” But is it really? Does this limitation of our thinking apply only to concepts of God?

Let’s think about the incredible advances we have in science currently that allow us to further this analysis. The most important scientific advance of our time right now is that of string theory – more relevant to this discussion, how research on string theory¬† implies the existence of more than three dimensions. But we cannot even fathom what in the world a fourth or fifth or sixth dimension could be like, because we simply do not live in it, and thus do not know it. To illustrate, semi-sci-fi author Edwin Abbott wrote a novella in 1884 called “Flatland” about a world of two-dimensional characters – flat shapes without any volume, who can only see things in 2D – for example, a flat character such as a square looking at another flat square would only be able to see the side of the square, only as mere line like this: | , because obviously they have no volume. When a 3D figure lands in Flatland, the 2D figures cannot see the whole 3D figure (let’s say a sphere) except for a cross-section from their view; the sphere for example would appear as a dot. Because the squares cannot see beyond their 2D view or 2D reality, they cannot even comprehend the notion of a 3D world in which something with volume like a sphere could exist. Its not just that it seems impossible, but that it is literally beyond the reality that they know and live in. Historically renowned scientist Carl Sagan perfectly and easily illustrates this concept in this YouTube video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnURElCzGc0.

So although string theory posits that additional dimensions must exist beyond the third, we can’t even begin to imagine how such a world could exist or function, in the same way that Flatlanders in Abbott’s novel are unable to see or understand the 3D world. Here’s a virtual simulation of what a 4th dimension would be like:

Image

If something as simple as one more dimension beyond our own is so insanely, mind-bogglingly difficult to grasp due to our own limited perceptions of reality, is it logically flawed to say that this is also the reason that we are unable to perceive the functioning existence of God in a whole different reality in which God did not have to be created to exist? Thus, when man asks that ever-so-blasphemous question, what that reveals is that he does not comprehend the NATURE of God.