You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Diasporic Musings

March 18, 2018

Returning to Mysticism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 5:56 pm

I wanted to explore the ways in which I could participate in the practice of Sama’. As a woman, I always notice how these rituals are relegated to men, and women are at most allowed to participate in a peripheral manner. When I did research on the Sama’ practice and the whirling dervishes, this video came up. While I was moved by their cohesion, and the clarity of their commitment to a higher power, I was still wondering why I have never seen a woman do that. So I did some more research and came across this album of meditative Sufi music. While the woman is not seen spinning around, she repeats the phrase “La Illaha Illa Allah.” Her voice is beautiful and atmospheric. I wanted to highlight that, so I added an echo effect to her voice during the edits. I also lowered the men’s voices so that her’s took precedent. I did not want to demarcate or dismiss any particular practice, so instead, I decided to bring the two voices together. There are times where the instruments of one crash with the other, and the two voices create a jubilance of sound and communion. I debated whether I should attempt to splice the two tracks such that a harmony joined the two, but I liked the atmospheric chaos that the two voices brought together.

In Carl Ernst’s piece, he states, “The mass reproduction of Sufi music for new audiences in the twentieth century and the performance of Sufi music and dance on concert stages have to some extent redefined the spiritual practice as an aesthetic event for spectators in which music takes priority over the word” (198). I felt that the whirling dervishes defied this notion through their repetitive phrases, as does the woman who repeatedly states that there is no God but Allah. I wanted to try returning to an older time with my own, potentially modern sentiments for equity and representation. I wanted to harness a duality between man and woman; old and new; loud and quiet; the sharpness of drums and the soft vibrations of guitar strings. The piece I created has a steep ebb and flow, but it is one that I felt mirrors my own tumultuous yet tranquil relationship with Allah. My hope is that a different but also traditional meditative experience is cultivated so that I too can listen with my heart. 


March 12, 2018

A Brief Encounter

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 2:51 am

My prayer beads give me a quiet comfort. The green tassel and the tainted wood still feel foreign to me—nearly three years later—but I love them anyway. They go wherever I go, though I never use them for their intended purpose: to recite the name of God. Instead, I remember the circumstance under which I received these beads. I remember that morning I slipped on a pair of tight jeans (I could not shake off the scornful look my mother gave me every time I wore them). I remember convincing myself that whatever God she was praying to was a graceful one—one who did not shame me for something so petty as a pair of jeans that pinpointed where my legs end and my cellulite begins.

I moved through Paris that day with the self-consciousness of a tourist. I wanted my last day to be a quiet one: a visit to the mosque, and then a walk back to my rented room along the Seine.

As I approached the entry to the mosque, a hijabi woman asked me, “Vous-etez muselmanne?” I stuttered, as if saying, “Yes” was a lie. She stared at me, unconvinced, before letting me through.

I walk in. I take a few pictures. I move slowly, but not as slowly as I want. I decide to buy a souvenir—a set of prayer beads makes sense.

            I walk around, looking for someone to buy them from. Before entering a courtyard, I notice an open door to my right. I haphazardly walk in. Upon seeing a tall, looming man in all-white garb—signaling the depth of his observance—I suddenly become self-conscious of the jeans I chose that day. I ask if he has any prayer beads to sell me. He tells me he does. I watch as he searches his drawers, eventually looking up at me apologetically and saying something in Arabic along the lines of “I’m sorry, we’re all sold out.”

I assume my blank stare made him think I don’t understand.

            “Do you understand Arabic?” he asked—in English.

            “Yes—yes, I do.”

            “We are all sold out,” his tone is so remorseful that I am overcome with grief at the trouble I caused.

            He searches once more, and then looks up at me and says:


            In his hand are his own prayer beads.

            I stared. I am shocked. Still, I take the beads and place them gently in my tote bag. On my walk back through Paris, I feel for them regularly to make sure they are still there, because somewhere inside of me I cannot believe a man so devout can be that good to a girl as wrong as me.


That man will never know how much the immediacy of his generosity meant to me. Prayer beads are usually used to recite the name of God, but I only hold mine to remember that faith extends beyond lines I have not yet learned to draw—or erase.



I wanted to connect this brief memoir piece to our reading of the Mevlidi Sherif; specifically, “The Heavenly Journey of Allah’s Apostle.” Even though this was a Turkish poem, the supplication evidenced in the words and imagery tremendously mirrored my own desire to be closer to Allah. Phrases such as “Who bears love’s emblem in his body/ Shall know, some day, the joy of lovers’ meeting” and “Who presses on, in death’s despite, unshrinking,/Shall see his love, and stand, those features drinking” resonated with me because of their purely loving need to reach Allah. I feel that my own journey to reach Allah’s love began with this experience at the Grand Mosque of Paris. The love that man gave me taught me more about Islam than any traditionally religious experience I’ve ever had. In the poem, the prophet’s own journey is concluded with the conviction to continue his journey, as love has shown him that this is his main imperative. I similarly realized that love is my main imperative when that man showed me what it looks like to love as a Muslim, and with that in mind, I began a journey to find my own Islam. 

The prophets’ journey reminded me of this experience I had when I was nineteen and traveling through Europe. I am taking this class because I wanted to reconnect with my faith on my own terms; I’ve been struggling to parse what is “Islamic” and what is “not Islamic” based on how I was raised and socialized. That brief encounter in Paris had a profound effect on me because I was acutely aware that we both came from two different worlds–he, an immigrant to France, and me, an immigrant living in the United States and now a tourist in another country that is also not her own. I felt that difference, but it could not overpower the profundity of our religious connection. He was clearly more devout than me, a fact that I felt incredibly self-conscious about, but he held space for me in that moment by giving me his own prayer beads–an act that showed me the unity we have as Muslims regardless of our religious differences. It was the beginning of my realization that the ways in which Islam is practiced are infinite, and that despite this, we can still love each other’s ways of knowing Allah. 

The Mevlidi Sherif resonated with me on that transcultural level too: despite being from another culture, and being rooted in a religious practice that I am unfamiliar with, I adopted the sentiments in those words as my own, and that language is now part of my approach to my love for Allah, just as the immediate generosity of that man is, too. 

March 3, 2018

Seeing the Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 3:15 pm


For my first post, I used photography to study light as I see it in my daily life. I wanted to document my experience as I lived through this light. While the photos included here depict light as it shed itself on my quotidian experiences (on my way to class, while studying, while eating breakfast), I felt a certain effervescence that I hadn’t noticed prior to committing to this exercise of seeing the light. The light was so beautiful when I looked closer, and I felt a certain materialism in my attempt to capture it: this was meant to be temporary, a passing moment intended solely for that small space in time. The pictures, as always, could never capture the fullness of this light, but I processed them such that I increased the contrast and lowered the exposure so that the light stands out. I realized in doing this how symbolic that act is, to heighten the light. It is a choice one makes, to see the light. I made it twice: the first when I chose to see it, the second when I chose to capture it and then render it.

Of course, I am unendingly inspired by verse 35 of Surat al-Nur:

TRANSLATION: Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.

I wanted to capture light in the way it’s described here: an infinite and almost blinding presence. There are moments where I couldn’t look closely enough at the light as I took pictures of it–I could not handle the radiance. And yet, I took the picture. I think that being a Muslim is in many ways like the effort I undertook. We know we can never look the light in its face, but we try anyway–and when we must reckon with how far Allah is, we placate our fears by reminding ourselves that the effort alone is worthwhile. We usually call this jihad, but unfortunately, that word has been tainted with violent connotations. In Renard’s Seven Doors, he details jihad as the “…struggle against whatever stands between the self and its origin and goal, and strive to overcome injustice and oppression” but I felt a quieter jihad here (11). Mine was shaped by my desire to constantly see that light, to let it escape me by as rarely as possible so I do not lose sight of my love for God. To become better such that my attitude and philosophies always function as means by which I can see the light. 


Powered by WordPress