Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Story

I was born January 9th, 1982 during one of the worst blizzards to ever hit Kentucky and its surrounding states. My Mother still tells the story of when she went to the hospital to deliver me they pulled all the hospital beds as far away from the windows as possible to keep all the patients warm and hung heavy curtains along each window to act as insulation. The only way I was able to get home was because my Father had a 4X4 Chevrolet pickup truck that was able to power over and through the snow drifts. My first home was a small house on a dairy farm where my Father worked, as the snow continued to fall through the rest of the winter blocking the roads so badly they were impassible for vehicles my Father would walk over a mile to the nearest gas station to buy me the milk and food that I needed to survive.

Soon we left the dairy farm and moved to a large beef production farm where my Father made his living by partnering with the farm owners to raise and sell cattle along with growing crops such as tobacco and corn. Since I was the only child I too helped work in these crops and with the livestock. I kind of had the best of both worlds really, some days I could wear dresses and play with dolls and other days I could run through the fields and climb on the hay bales or ride on the tractors. I think all farm kids whether male or female have enjoyed playing in the mud or wading in the creek to catch crawfish, minnows and other small fish and aquatic life. If you can imagine a narrow country road with a little white church on the side of the road, lots of open fields and open spaces that's the kind of place where I grew up. Our closest neighbors were over a mile away. Growing up on a farm that used to be a southern plantation teaches you a lot about history, animals and yourself. The house was built in the 1800's and so large that we only used half of it. In the backyard there was a slave house built of stone so early in my life I became familiar with the plight of slavery and the horrors that it caused to the Africans that were brought here. There were still items in the slave house like the old iron stove they had used to keep themselves warm, unfortunately for me my cats always thought this was a good place to hide and have their babies. Every time a storm or heavy rain came I would climb over the rocks of the fallen wall and into the slave house, round up the kittens so they wouldn't drown and put them in a box as fast as I could so I could climb back out of there because I believed the ghosts of the slaves would get me for what their owners had done to them!  Even as a child I felt sadness for those subjected to slavery, all I had to do was look in my backyard and know that the shackles and injustice was real and not just a dramatic movie aired on TV at night. It saddened me that those slaves were buried out in the woods instead of having a proper grave in the public cemetery, but even to this day that cemetery is segregated with the white families buried in the main part and the African American families buried in a separate field close by. 

Growing up my favorite hobby was always my pets. During Christmas time my Dad and I would even go out in the woods and cut down a small Christmas tree that we would put inside our screened in back porch just for our pets and I would wrap them presents such as new collars and cat and dog treats that I would open and give them on Christmas Eve. My first dog was a Collie like Lassie that I named Popcorn and my first cat was a black and white one that I named Halloween. I really don't know why I chose those names except for the fact that I may have had a very active imagination. we also had other cats, dogs, orphaned calves that would would feed with huge baby bottles and raise as pets, chickens, ducks and a Tennessee Walking horse named Lady.  I would spend a lot of time reading, my favorites were the Jack London novels White Fang and Call of the Wild. I would sit for countless hours watching Reading Rainbow and nature shows on PBS and almost always fell asleep with a book or magazine in my hands. Another one of my favorite things is when my parents and I would get in my Father's truck at night, taking a blanket with me so I could stay warm and my Dad would drive around the fields shining his lights so you could see all sorts of wildlife that comes out at night such as foxes, coyotes, and deer. This was important because not only did it keep newborn calves safe from being attacked by coyotes it also gave my Dad a chance to catch people that would climb over the fences and hunt deer, raccoon or turkeys illegally because my Dad was never the type to hunt the animals and didn't like anyone else killing them for fun either. My Dad is so brave that he would walk up to the hunters holding their shotguns while he was unarmed and tell them to leave and he would make them walk back off the farm while he drove the truck behind them to make sure they left. Can you imagine doing that today? The way people act now they may shoot you just to get you out of their way so they can go hunt some more. 

I was raised Presbyterian so weekends meant church and Sunday School, even back then I didn't spend much time with other kids. instead I would sit with some old ladies that knew my parents and they would have me read Bible scriptures to them. I went for years without missing a single Sunday and the Preacher and his family would give me gifts ever so often. One was a doll based on the women of the Bible and she was wearing a gold colored scarf over her hair and a maroon cloak over her clothes. Now I look back and see that all those years I was playing with a doll in abaya and hijab. One year I was Mary on the Church's float during the towns Christmas parade and wore a scarf over my hair, little did I know that one day I would want to do that everyday. I also became fascinated with nuns, I would see them walking in town and always thought the way they dressed was so beautiful. For the longest time my aspirations were to be either a veterinarian or a nun. 

During summers I would go to Bible school at 3 different churches. I had so much fun learning the stories and doing crafts. This soon came to an end though. To make a long story short and because I was young and don't remember the details the Preacher got into some legal trouble over sexual misconduct so I never went back to that church again. over time my parents and I started to attend the church my Mother's family went to. The first thing they did was baptize us,  which is usually a happy time but to me it didn't feel right. Instead of it being a spiritual time I remember feeling embarrassed because everyone was gathered around laughing and making jokes about how we might need to be baptized again because we may have been so sinful that once wasn't enough. Their methods of worship were also different, I  had always prayed to God but they ended their prayers with 'in Jesus name, Amen'. I started to question them about this and other things that had started to confuse me, and trust me when I say questioning is one of the worst things you can do in a church because they automatically jump to the conclusion that you are against them and maybe even possessed. 

I had always had a hard time in school, I didn't have many compassionate teachers that cared whether I was learning anything or not. Other kids had always made fun of me because of how I looked, everyday they would call me 'jew' 'jewface' or a goth because my hair was always so dark or ask me what was wrong with my nose to make it so big. Even teachers would get in on it some days and question me about why I liked to wear dark clothes and why I always liked to wear a black quilted jacket that I would wear almost every day. The truth was that it was soft and comfortable and kept me warm but they couldn't understand that and saw me as being 'suspicious' thanks to the reports passed around the school systems after the school bombings and shootings in other states that told teachers to watch out for students that were quiet and wore black clothes because they may be in a cult or be planning a school shooting of their own. Male classmates would treat me violently, one even punched me in the back of the head during the middle of a class and as I sat there at my desk crying from the pain while all the other students laughed at me the teacher and principal decided that I was making the whole thing up so I could get attention and nothing really happened at all. 

It was around this time that I started to think that God hated me and I couldn't understand why because I had never been a bad kid, I lived so far out away from the city that I never got into the drinking and partying lifestyle that so many teens fall into and while my classmates were out having wild weekends I was at home on the farm reading books and spending time with my parents and animals. This went on for several years and I would continue to find things in the bible that confused me. I started to get really aggravated by the Bible's injustices against women and girls such as in the book of Deuteronomy where the bible demands that a victim of rape must marry her rapist, and yes there are Christians who believe in that and will try their best to make it happen. 

Every year in Kentucky the spring time is exciting because it means it's time for the running of our most popular and beloved horse race, the Kentucky Derby. Horses have always been very important to me and I loved all the different breeds and learning about the countries and cultures each breed originally came from. The Kentucky Derby is an all day event on our TV  it was during one of these Derby specials that I first saw HRH Sheikh mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He was walking across a bridge wearing a kandoora (or thobe/dishdasha if that's what you prefer to call it) and it was the first time I had ever seen someone wear that  in at a horse race and I became intrigued and wanted to learn more about his horses, family and country. At the time I never imagined that someday I would be actual step my feet within his country. 

Years were passing by and I was still struggling with the Bible so much that I had started to dislike going to church. I felt so out of place within this church even though my parents and other family members were sitting right beside me. I've always been a very sensitive person, maybe even too emotional at times and it showed while the congregation sang hymns or prayed because every time I heard these things tears would well up in my eyes. It did cause a lot of people to stare, laugh at me and ask what was wrong but how can you really explain that you feel sad and are crying because you love God but you don't know why he hates you and keeps causing bad things to happen to you? When 9/11 happened people started talking more about Islam and Muslims and in the bigger cities I would see news reports of Islamic learning centers and mosques receiving bomb threats and other threats of violence and pretty much made out to be the Big Bad Wolf. I couldn't understand why people were targeting the people of this particular religion that from what I had been reading seemed to be a peaceful group that even had rules on how you should respect animals based solely on the actions made by some extremists in other areas, to me that was like blaming all Christians for the actions of those Christian extremists that bomb clinics or shoot the doctors they suspect for allowing abortions. 

The next place we moved to was a thoroughbred farm that raised and bred racehorses. I was surrounded on every side with Kentucky's racehorse history and straight across from my front door was a farm that had raised and raced Kentucky Derby winners. I had started to miss the extra money that I had been earning while I had worked for a dog breeder and started searching for a new job. I found one another county that I could commute to at a factory that made automotive parts. When I began my job there I was just a regular assembly worker making minimum wage and doing the most basic and simple jobs on the production floor, but when the factory eventually shutdown I left as the Administrative Assistant/Maintenance Buyer over the entire molding side of the factory. My parents and even my Father's bosses still to this day talk about how proud they are of me because every job I've had I have been able to advance myself. During my time working at the factory my boss put me in charge of working with the Japanese managers and engineers from Gambia because I was the only one that would be patient and work with them to solve things despite the language and cultural barriers we sometimes faced. My coworkers from Gambia were Muslim so that gave me a great chance to question them about their faith and lives while we worked on projects together. For the most part they didn't mind my questions but when I expressed interest about spending some time with the women because I was interested in joining their religion they were quick to tell me that they didn't think that would be a wise decision for me and my life would be better if I continued being Christian and anyways their mosque was over an hour away since they lived futher away from the factory than even I did. 

During the economic downturn when the automotive industry was hit hard the factory where I worked was shut down and moved to Thailand so the parts could be made cheaper. Unless you have been involved in a mass layoff yourself you can't really understand the sorrow that is involved when you and hundreds of people that you've spent everyday working with lose your jobs in the blink of an eye. A loarge nmber of my coworkers had to settle for unemployment and struggle to try to find another job, while others moved to different statesfor employment or went back to their home countries. I took the severance pay the company gave me and planned a trip to Finland. I know Finland is a strange choice but I had been researching online about the safest destinations in Europe to travel to and I really, really wanted to see a reindeer farm and Alaska was out of the question because of its high female assault rates. I wanted some time to compose myself and gather my thoughts because I had just lost so much. My job was my way of paying for college so I had to quit and I was also in the process of buying a house and had to give up on that as well because without a job there was no way I could make payments to pay for a home of my own. Finland wasn't as helpful as I thought it would be, although it was peaceful and I did get to do some fun things like seeing a real castle and visiting a cathedral for the first time I felt out of place in their culture which predominantly revolved around getting drunk.

They even had boats dedicated to the purpose that people could get on them and get drunk while they float around the river that ran through the town and into the ocean. Luckily they are very weary of outsiders so if you look different to them not even the drunks will bother you as you walk around or take the ferry to cross the river. Out of my whole trip the memory that stays with me the most is when I was sitting at the airport in Copenhagen, Denmark waiting for my flight watching people busily milling around the shops and food stations out of the corner of my eye there was a lady in a black abaya and niqab pushing her baby in a stroller. This was my first time seeing a lady wear niqab in person and I thought she looked beautiful, not scary at all like the media tried to lead me to believe. I looked her way and smiled before she disappeared into the mass of people and went back to reading my book. I felt the shadow of someone walk up and stand next to me, when I looked up it was her! She handed me her ticket and pointed at the numbers, she was lost and couldn't find the direction of the gate she needed to be at so I found the direction she needed to go in and sent her on her way. Looking back now I don't think it was just a coincidence that she came to me, I think she and her baby were meant to come close to me so I could admire their beauty and help them. During my whole trip she was the only person who approached me in any way, I believe there  is a significance in that.  

When I came back home I started researching Islam more deeply online and signed up on one of the websites that sends free copies of the Quran and pamphlets to Christians who are interested in learning more. I was pretty excited when I got my copy of the Quran and put all the other books I was reading on hold and delved into the Quran right away. Being unemployed I had plenty of time to read the Quran day and night and I would also read articles online and watch videos on youtube. I started asking around to find Muslims that would talk to me and a friend introduced me to some that were visiting from somewhere else but they were more concerned about my ethnic background and whether I could get them a greencard than they were about my burgeoning interest in Islam so I cut ties with them and started trying to network online. I too was once a user of the website most of us have left behind now, Myspace. It was through Myspace that I found a group in Saudi Arabia that said they were experts at helping people that wanted to revert to Islam. I signed up for their newsletter and started to correspond with one of their representatives but it quickly turned sour. I was not prepared for how demeaning and judgmental these conversations would be, they wanted to know every little detail of my life thus far and would frequently tell me things that discouraged me such as my parents were going to hell unless I made them revert and that I would never be able to pray for my parents again and must act as if they are dead to me unless they embrace Islam. I became so upset by the things they were telling me that I cut contact with them and started searching elsewhere.  

I started to become really discouraged and unsure if I sure pursue my interest in Islam or not, I decided that I had nothing better to do so I continued to read things online in my spare time and noticing the similarities between the lives of Muslims and mine, plus I'm really stubborn. I voluntarily stopped eating pork after reading about how nasty it really is and because the reasons the people gave me at church on why we can eat it even though the old Testament says not to didn't make any sense to me. Plus I have been scared of pigs my entire life. To me there is nothing scarier than a farm animal that can actually kill you and eat you, my fear may have partially come from scars that my Dad had before they faded away from where he was attacked by a pig and it injured his arm. When I would go to livestock auctions with my Dad walking across the catwalk that goes over the pig pens was always my least favorite part because I was scared I would fall over into the pen where the pigs were and they would eat me. 

Time kept passing by and every person I would talk to about Islam and converting turned out to be a dead end. Just when I was about to give up I gained a friend that would take the time to answer my questions and explain the facets of Islam that I did not yet understand. My interest was peaked again and in January of 2011 I found myself making a voyage to Abu Dhabi. As soon as I stepped off the plane I could feel how different the atmosphere was, with each breathe that entered my body I felt as if I was breathing in the air of a holy land. It was there that I heard the athan the way it was supposed to be. I had heard the words spoken in the past by reciters and acquaintances but those could  in no way compare to the feeling you get when the beautiful voice of the muezzin is projected over a load speaker and surrounding you on all sides.  As I stood looking at the majestic beauty that is Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque I felt like there was a storm brewing inside me. I felt the tears in my eyes but held them back. I felt a deep urge to run straight into it and beg for their help but I digressed and stood outside admiring its beauty, after all I did have to try to act normal. You really don't want to embarrass yourself or those around you when you are visiting a new place. 

When I came back home I asked even more questions and finally got an answer from my friend on how to revert. They told me that first it must be done within your heart and mind and then you go to a mosque and you revert officially with an Imam. I entered a time of deep thoughts and evaluations that coincided with a lot of family drama that my cousin decided we should all be involved then. It was at this time that I realized that the feelings I have that I'm not like my Christian relatives wasn't just in my head. I really was different. I had different thoughts, behaviors and values than they did. That was the moment I decided I was going to embrace Islam on my own. Their were tears, this time not out of sadness but out of happiness because I realized that all those years that I thought God hated me he had actually loved me deeply and was only testing me to see how strong I could be. During the bad years, through the periods of depression and hopelessness I had never stopped praying before I went to sleep at night. In that moment of clarity I understood why. 

I kept my decision to myself at first and continued to study on my own and started searching for an Imam to take my shahadah with. I entered another series of traumatic and stressful events; my Father was injured by a horse so badly that it nearly took his life, I lost other loved ones, several family members developed severe health problems and even the death of pets took its toll on me. I took my official shahadah May 13, 2011. 

In many ways I'm still just a farm girl from Kentucky. I still like to go fishing, run free in wide open spaces and I'll always prefer sitting on the ground playing with baby chickens to spending all day in a store staring at fancy things that cost more than normal people earn in a week. The only difference is that now I understand life and I know I have a deeper purpose for myself and to everyone else I come in contact with. 

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