“WORD MAN: A Quest for Self-Discovery Through Shakespeare, 2Pac, and the Holy Qur’an” was published in 2022 by Wayne State University Press. It appears in an anthology of creative nonfiction by Arab Detroiters titled Hadha Baladuna: Arab American Narratives of Boundary and Belonging.
from WORD MAN
I was hostile, and I had every right to be. Middle school didn’t make any sense. If you were mean, people liked you. If you were nice, people were mean. If you teased girls, they smiled and laughed. If you complimented them, they frowned and walked away. If you were bad in class, you were hailed in the hallway. If you were good in class, you were bullied in the locker room. The pretty girls dated the ugly boys, and the only friends you had were the ones you didn’t want.
If school wasn’t bad enough, things were even more confusing at home. Suddenly, there were all sorts of rules, and everything I did fell into one of two categories: ‘ayb or mafrooth. ‘Ayb was shameful, discouraged behavior that hurt and offended others or demonstrated disrespect. I was forewarned that such behavior not only reflected upon me as an individual, but also my family and community. With the whole of the Collective at stake, compliance was nonnegotiable. But many of the things that were considered ‘ayb did not seem ‘ayb to me. What shame was there in wearing a hat, or chewing gum in the company of guests, or sitting in a manner that exposed the soles of one’s feet? What was so disgraceful about bright-colored clothing or a high-fade hairdo? Then, there were things that were mafrooth, or required by expectation, but they seemed just as arbitrary. It was mafrooth to greet elders with “Salam” in Arabic, but the English “Hello”—or, God forbid, “What’s up?”—was ‘ayb. You could wear shorts outside, but inside, especially among elders, wearing long pants was mafrooth. When it was time to eat, it was mafrooth that the eldest or most distinguished guests be served first, followed by the remaining elders, followed by the children.
The social rules were buttressed by religious rules that classified behaviors as wajib (mandatory) or haram (forbidden). The religious rules were easier for me to obey, partly because they were consistent. What was wajib and haram in adolescence had been so in childhood. The rules weren’t arbitrary, either. They were derived from an arduous evaluation process called fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, which establishes laws of conduct through the study of the Qur’an and the Hadith. But the social and religious didn’t always correlate. Wearing shorts was ‘ayb but not haram. Rising when elders entered the room was mafrooth but not wajib. If hats were ‘ayb, then why were sheikhs supposed to wear turbans, which are functionally hats?
Many of these expectations seemed to contrive and enforce a collective respect. But as an adolescent, it didn’t make any sense to me. The lists of dos and don’ts were so contradictory and inconsistent that the only conclusion I could gather was that it was ‘ayb to be an individual. I was nothing more than a cog in a greater wheel of blind conformity in which my only role was to pay homage to others and suppress my personal identity. Any attempt to stand out or establish my individuality, whether by dressing or talking uniquely, was somehow disrespecting the Collective. At least, that was how it seemed.
No wonder I was hostile.
Music was the most baffling paradox of all. At home, music was out of the question; it was both ‘ayb and haram. It was not permissible to perform it, listen to it, or attend events in its presence. The laws of fiqh prohibited music as a gateway sin, since it was often accompanied by gender mixing, alcohol and drug use, and suggestive dancing, which all invariably led to cardinal sins. Although some scholars permitted instrumental or classical music, most of them strictly forbade it. In addition, the content of most music was unmistakably ‘ayb. At home, we substituted music for recitations of the Qur’an, the nasheed—or Islamic hymns—and the occasional latmiyyah, the cadenced elegy poems of Ashura.
But at school, musical knowledge was a social code of conduct. You were expected to keep up with the latest trends in music and to recog- nize and sing along with any and all teen references. If anyone so much as suspected that you couldn’t rattle off the week’s latest hits on 93.1 WDRQ, then you were instantly labeled a pariah. I made sure to avoid that irrevocable law of teen nature by secretly tuning in to my clock radio when I was alone in my room, which at least kept me armed with the latest lingo for evading social humiliation: “britney spears backstreet boys nsync vida loca noscrubs kissmegenieina blah blah blah . . .”
The music paradox infuriated me. What was so bad about music? What is music, anyway? Any inflection of sound, from the chirps of birds to the jingle of wind chimes, was musical, wasn’t it? What was the basis for the sweeping assumption that music inevitably leads to sin? I could just as easily sin without music, couldn’t I? And was I the only one who noticed that what we were listening to instead of music was actually music? Call it what you want, but the Qur’an reciter was singing, the nasheed was a song, and the latmiyyah was a ritual dance. Besides a language shift and the religious overtones, there wasn’t a lick of difference. Nevertheless, calling them “music”—especially the Qur’an—was haram. But incanting the Qur’an was wajib and mafrooth! I had been wearing towel-hats and singing Qur’an all my life, to the admiration of adults and peers alike, yet suddenly, if the words were in English or the song didn’t praise God, I was violating some cosmic ancestral order!
In time, music became more than social currency. I listened to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys to survive the peer pressure of middle school, but Jay-Z, Eminem, and DMX made me feel alive. This was the most haram music of all: gangsta rap. It was profane, sexual, and violent, but it revved my soul and gave voice to my rage against the duplicitous world around me. It was real, raw, ‘ayb, and proud. It shunned the rules and defied social norms. It was hostile. But most of all, rap was individualistic. It asserted the rapper’s right to be who he is. It defied establishments in the name of individual expression and did so with unapologetic courage. It was the most precise expression of my personal hostility against the cultural conformity of my environment.
I had to devise all sorts of schemes to gain access to gangsta rap. Since it was rarely played on the radio due to its explicit content, I could only listen to it on CD. Up until that time, I had always honored my parents’ directive that music CDs, cassettes, and instruments were not allowed in the house. But technically, if I happened to be over a friend’s house and he happened to own a large rap CD collection, then I wasn’t exactly breaking their rule. So, I’d visit friends and we would listen to DMX, Eminem, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre. I committed many of the songs to memory and would rap them to myself when I was alone. Eventually, I started to compose my own rap lyrics in my head to match the beats of my favorite songs. And in the course of that process, without realizing what was happening, I underwent some serious changes.
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