There is this teenager at Masjid al Hayy, in Sanford, that recently arouses my curiosity in him. He is striking, with clear eyes and is very fair – definitely not a typical Khoja. He is tall, with a full head of hair that is marred by a ghastly hairdo. The kind that teenagers think is cool? He has it shaved to the almost pink scalp at the fringes but lets it robustly sprout on the crown, making him look like a handsome, high-priced brand-name mop. His attire, too, is somewhat odd. He sports brand-name, pricey jeans that are seemingly deliberately cuffed on the knees. He is at the masjid for prayers, keeping to himself, communicating with the latest version of an iPhone.
Except for the hairdo and the odd attire, he is obviously from a decent family by the looks of it. Coming for daily salaat the last few days I’ve seen him, and participating in congregational prayers, when the masjid is otherwise devoid of worshipers, especially teenagers his age, is a refreshing novelty. Usually, it is only farts like me, with the angel of death around the corner ready to spring a deathly surprise, that shows up for regular prayers; not more than twenty maximum when it is not Friday or special event eve.
The next eve, when the Imam who leads the prayers is late, which is increasingly, frustratingly frequent, I get to have this young man as my neighbor in the last row; he leaves me even more intrigued. His manners in prayers are impeccable and he follows the Iman to the tee. Unlike most other teens his age, he stands still and calm during kiyaam, never precedes the Imam and his movements are serene and collected, unlike the jerky movements and yawns by the overwhelming number of teens his age; I am mighty impressed.
So when I see him lounging in the sofas outside the masjid later, punching the daylights out of his cellphone buttons, I sit near him. He gives me a nonchalant look and smile but the eyes revert to the cellphone and texting. So I wait until he senses I am waiting on him to finish that he pays me attention. He informs me he is visiting Orlando with his mother and older sister from the north. He is the seventeen-year-old son of a white American father and Lebanese mother. Let’s aptly call him Gehraa, for he has a very profound mind as I am to soon discover. I am delighted with his demeanor, however, witty and with a formidable grasp of current affairs for someone so young, once he opens up to chat. There are many topics we talk about – high school, friends, girlfriends, movies, sports, politics…
So, I tell him how happy I am with how well he prays. Mum, he responds promptly. You see, Mum’s dad was an Imam in Beirut, and he insisted his family pray together, on time. Mum continues this tradition with her kids. She is very particular about how we pray, so…
He shrugs his shoulders and smiles lopsidedly.
What about your Dad? I ask, where is he?
Gehraa’s smile slips for a brief second and a look of pain crosses his startling eyes. He is quiet for a brief while, looking me over as if debating who I may be. He must find me acceptable, for he informs me his parents are divorced. Before I can express dismay, he has steered the conversation to me, and who I am and what I do and why is the masjid so barren. So I tell him the sad history of the feuding Khoja communities and the parallel HIC facility not too far away.
This is where his maturity comes alive, as he opens up and talks for a while. Aren’t we all a travesty? Don’t mind me saying Sir, but we stink. My dad likes everything about Islam, but he hates the disunity and infighting among Muslims. Sunni – Shia, Iran – Iraq, my marja says this – his marja says this – differing on the same subject, reference being one Allah, one Quraan, the same Prophet (s) and the same Imams (a). Eid tomorrow – fasting tomorrow, this music is halal – that is haraam, nail polish is permissible – not permissible, again; same references. Heck, we can’t even agree on the time of salaat! We stand divided. In defense, some scholars say this gives us diversity and choice. Excuse my language, Sir, but that is a bullshit excuse because they have no logical answer for the differences.
It made Dad’s head swim in frustration. He converted to Islam, you know, out of my Mom’s insistence and to win her love. And he really liked the religion after he converted and began earnestly practicing it. But all the differences within us drove their marriage apart. He uses logic to practice Islam and does not allow for tradition or rituals to guide his emotions while Mum is a strict follower of rules and customs. And now you tell me about this community all tore up as well… And this beautiful house of Allah dead and forlorn…I’m sorry Sir, we are a sorry bunch.
I look at the young man in astonishment. That is a mouthful from a seventeen-year-old. And deep. I do not have apt words to respond since what he has said is a struggle most teens go through without expressing them, so I stay quiet.
Gehraa comes up to say goodbye the next day. His sister’s PhD dissertation presentation at a local university is over and they are driving home early tomorrow. So, for whatever it’s worth, I take him aside and I give him some advice. I tell him to take the lead and demand the change his generation wants. I tell him my generation is done, ready for the insects to make a meal of us six feet under.
Unless you guys impose change, the likes of us are not going to alter our paradigms and dig our heads out of the sand. You’ll have to push and seize the moment. Do not be scared of us, we are a front that is hollow inside. So, young man, you are a rare individual that has the acumen to see beyond your age. I commend your parents, for they have done a splendid job of raising you. Please do not be disheartened, stick with the values Islam and your parents instilled in you and you’ll be fine insha’Allah. Good luck and Allah bless you.
We shake hands and Gehraa walks towards an idling SUV in which sit two women in hijaab. They wave at me and I keenly respond. I wait until the departing vehicle is shrouded and engulfed with the darkness yonder.
What a remarkable young man! No?
Vivid Imaginations – A Memoir
$66,000 has already been raised from the pre-sale booking of Vivid Imaginations – A Memoir. It is a recount of a memorable life of a Khoja Muslim with Gujarati genes, born and reared in E. Africa, migrating to the Middle East and then to the US. A frank and self-critical account, funny yet somber and very telling. A not to be missed read insha’Allah. You can read a brief preview here.
This will be a limited print issue, only 320 copies (284 already booked). All proceeds, 100%, benefit CAI’s circa 600 orphans worldwide. Please purchase a copy or more for $50 (or more) each? For legal and administrative purposes, the donation is not tax-deductible and must be purchased online at bit.ly/VividImaginations. Allah bless.
Please note this book will be published end of the year 2019 and mailed immediately thereafter. Insha’Allah.