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Diasporic Musings

April 23, 2018

Up Close, from a Distance

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — fatemaelbakoury @ 3:41 pm


I was incredibly inspired by the simplicity, yet profundity, of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Nothing she writes is laced with academic vernacular, and yet I felt a deep connection to her story. Her poignant characterization of her family and her own upbringing in Iran showed me how growing up in a changing society is categorically political, even when one is simply attempting to cultivate a sense of identity. Still, young Marjane is a denim jacket loving, Nike-wearing, communist girl full of wit, mischief, and hustle. 

I identify with this young Marjane, but I am also in many ways, more similar to the Marjane who wrote this book: I, too, have to construct my identity from a distance. The older I become, the more I face my socialization in the States. As someone who has been marginalized in the US context for being a brown Muslim woman, it’s hard for me to believe that I am “American.” I tried to address this with the strip called “Egypt.” (Just as Satrapi does, I use particular objects and places–like the veil and alcohol–to propel my narratives). In the final panel, I am looking at a map, something I do often, and pining for a land that has also not opened its arms to me. 

My relationship with the veil is different though because I recall being very excited to wear something that drew attention to me. I felt deeply invisible all throughout grade school–a sentiment that germinated during my final years of elementary schooling. This was when my mother said I needed to begin covering. I liked the idea of standing out, of being different, but my father saw the political and social ramifications of such a difference as too risky. He made me take off the veil, but still punished me when I wore things that he saw as too Western. Again, I felt as if I was straddling a strange place: no veil, but no Western clothing. For the most part, I am a modest dresser, but my father’s policing of my outfits throughout middle and high school also showed me that what I wear is incredibly political, and cemented the idea in me that my body is inherently sexual–a notion that has also proved dangerous and difficult to unlearn.

Finally, the comic entitled “Boys and Booze” also speaks to my failed attempts to Westernize. Like Satrapi, I was in some ways enamored with Western culture. I too wanted the shoes and the jackets that would make me feel “cool” like my classmates. Ultimately, this hurt me, as I realized this desire was rooted in a worldliness that did not have faith in Allah’s love for me. Today, I am still confused, lost, and misguided in many ways, but my past experiences act as markers of growth and learning that mirrored many of Satrapi’s account. 


April 14, 2018

When You Can Only See in Gray

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 2:39 pm

To view the enlarged image, right-click, and choose the option that allows you to view in a new tab or window.


I was incredibly moved by The Conference of the Birds. I felt that the flaws (or excuses) that each of the birds possessed were in some ways my own; particularly the false modesty of the finch and the longing for the sea of the heron. Too often, I have longed for what was not meant to be mine. Upon receiving it, God has shown me through the trauma it caused why He did not want me to have it in the first place. The heron’s longing for “adventure” through the sea might actually be harmful to it, but instead of trusting God’s wisdom, the heron question’s God’s love for him. I, too, have made that same mistake. The false modesty of the finch also spoke to me: conflating a belief in modesty with deep-seated cowardice is a subconscious mistake I make constantly. Learning to parse the two out has shown me that I pretend that I am not worthy of God’s love as a way to obviate the necessary journey I need to go, despite that fear.

In this drawing, I depicted all the birds (except for the hoopoe, who is emerging from the Tree of Knowledge to relay the Simourgh’s messages) in gray to signify all of this lacking enlightenment. They are all tethered to the world through their fears. Behind them is the valley of deprivation and death, behind which is the sea. In order to reach the “divine ocean” they must first traverse the trials and tribulations of this world. I wrote the three stages of the Nafs as signifiers of the journey they will have to endure before experiencing the sublime of the ocean: nafs amara, nafs lawamma, and nafs mutma’ina.* The first stage is written in the sky to signify the arrogance of the worldy disposition, and the second stage is closer to the ground to represent the increasing humbleness, while nafs mutma’ina is written so close to the ground because one has finally understood their place in the world as a mere being. First, they will have to confront their vices before they can face themselves and lead a life of tranquility and peace, with faith in God’s vision for their lives.

Coloring the birds in shades of gray also represents the limited view they have of the world: the color is all around them, but their excuses render them incapable of perceiving the world’s beauty beyond the fulfillment others can provide them with. To see in gray is to only see color when everything goes according to one’s plan. To see in color is the be able to recognize hues and shades even when everything feels gray. This worldview is one that the birds are lacking, but I see it as the ultimate goal of the Sufi mystic. The hoopoe asks, “What matters more, the body or the soul?/ Be whole, desire and journey to the Whole.” One cannot be whole without journeying to the soul.


*nafs mutma’ina is spelled incorrectly in my illustration.

April 5, 2018

On Being Lost

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 3:18 am

Ghazal-Sonnet on Being Lost


They didn’t like me when I spoke in class;

Our relationships were always fraught.


Their gazes told me silence was best

To them, beautiful I was not.


I searched for beauty in the wrong places

I forgot that truth is not store bought


I asked Allah to grant me the wisdom

To believe in more than what I sought.


One day, you took all of it away

Reminding me of the person I forgot:


She was kind but lost. Beauty mattered,

But never more than it really ought.


You woke her up, asking her to forget

Those boys and girls who were also caught:


Obsessed with people they too couldn’t be.

You woke me up so I wouldn’t get caught.


Trapped in a web of material dreams.

When the real dream now risked being shot.


I now dream of being closer to you

Your love, so far: reach it, I could not.


But in class, stares or not, now I speak.

It doesn’t matter if our feelings are fraught.


You gave me strength instead of beauty.

It was never about what I wanted or bought.


I wanted to combine a Western and Eastern form to represent my own diasporic being. I used the meter of the sonnet (ten syllables on each line), but stuck to the rhyme scheme and structure of the ghazal (monorhyming couplets). The union is emblematic of my experience as an immigrant Muslim woman: the daily rhythms are induced with an American experience, but the general structure is still rooted in my Egyptian and Muslim identity. My days are always punctuated by prayer, reflecting on my heritage, my responsibilities unto my ancestors.

In this poem, I wanted to take on a modern twist to the general narrative of ghazals. I was inspired by Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem on Ferguson—a deeply modern issue, but for which the incredible consistency of the ghazal renders the form perfect for articulating the tumult of what happened and continues to happen in Ferguson—as well as across this country. I also relied on the ghazals provided in The Green Sea of Heaven, especially Ghazal 21 (“O invisible one I entrust you to God/ You burned my soul and with my heart I love you.”)

I wanted to document what I feel is a deeply diasporic tendency: a deep desire to conform with my American peers. I felt deeply inadequate my whole life: I didn’t raise my hand at all in high school because I felt that my perspective mattered so little. A lot of this sense of inadequacy was also tied to the feeling I had that I was not beautiful. I thought that if I was beautiful, more people would respect me. I remember how my wardrobe began to change; how I invested in makeup products and a hair straightener—all in an attempt to be seen by people who were also no more than God’s creations, and who surely had their own insecurities.

When I began committing myself to prayer, to seeing Allah’s wisdom in what He presented me with, instead of what He didn’t give me, I realized that my journey was about the strength I needed in order to speak up and not any physical features that would make my words more amenable to my peers. Today I ask for that strength.

While different from the ghazals we’ve read in class, I saw my journey as a modern example of the yearning for Allah. I also wanted to be closer to God, but I wanted to nuance my journey by adding that layer of being an immigrant and how trying to fit in created an extraneous distance that I first needed to overcome before I could begin the spiritual journey toward Allah.

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