After 18-Years of My Grandfather’s Passing, I Hear His Voice on WhatsApp

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My grandfather, Mohammad Taha Zaitoun.

I was checking my messages on my phone, when I noticed 12 notifications from my WhatsApp. When I opened the “Rabeeha Girls” group—a group I named after my late fraternal grandmother and created for my aunts and my female cousins—I saw that my aunt Suraya, 57, had sent an audio recording. Under it she texted in Arabic “I found it [the recording] in the closet between old tapes, and I found myself really missing dad and his voice that I started crying.”

I was confused. I hadn’t heard the audio recording yet. Was she saying that the recording is the voice of my grandfather, who had passed away in 1997? I quickly played the audio. As I heard the voice coming from my phone, I froze. I literally felt chills from my spine go up to my ears. I was listening to my Grandfather (Sidi, in Arabic) reading the last two verses of Surat al-Kahf (The Cave chapter) from the Holy Quran.

Muslims believe that when a person dies all his deeds stop except for three things: 1) his/her good deeds, 2) his/her knowledge, and 3) his/her pious child who prays for him/her. As I reminded myself of this hadeeth (teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) I was determined to keep my grandfather’s recitation of the Quran alive in cyber space, forever.

My grandfather, Muhammad Taha Zaitoun, was born in Hebron, Palestine in 1927. At age 18, he married my grandmother, Rabeeha Zaitoun. She was 16-years-old. They moved to Amman, Jordan for work in 1954. There, he worked in the Central Market selling fruits and vegetables. They eventually had 9 children: Four boys (my father, Robeen, the fourth of the nine) and five girls (one of them, Haya, died at the age of three).

I have blurry memories of my grandfather. My favorite one was when I was 8-years-old. We were at their kitchen table finishing up the lunch which my grandmother (sitty, in Arabic) had made. She had cooked a very tasty meal with chicken. I loved it so much that I was biting on the chicken bones afterwards. My grandfather smiled at me, and said to me in Arabic: “You eat like a cat.” I giggled, and from then on I smile at the memory of my grandfather whenever I catch myself biting on a chicken bone.

The last time I saw my grandfather, in 1997, was in the hospital. I was 9-years-old. He had lost a lot of weight, and was looking pale in the face. He had cancer. Nevertheless, he was excited to see us again after our two-month trip to the States to see my mother’s family for the first time. A few nights later, our land-line rang. It was my father calling from the hospital. My grandfather had passed away. An hour or two later, my father came home and found my brother, Ali, and I in my bedroom in shock ( I can’t remember where my brother Hasan was). My father sat on my bed between my brother and me, and the three of us cried in each other’s arms.

My grandfather had recorded three chapters (al-Kahf, al-Rahman, and Yaseen) in his voice one year before he passed away at the age of 69.

Before my Aunt Suraya found the tape last Sunday, she said, she had been remembering her mother (my grandmother) all day. When she made her bed, cleaned the window, and put the pot on the stove she made a prayer for her late mother. Later that day, her son, Murad, 20, asked her for some tapes to try in the car’s old stereo. She gave him a few old tapes from the closet, and a few minutes later her son asked her to come to the car.

“This is for you, Mom,” Murad said in Arabic.

When my aunt heard the first two words being recited, she recognized her father’s voice immediately. She began to cry.

“I always pray for both my parents,” said my aunt in Arabic. “I was only remembering and praying for my mother that day. Hearing my father’s voice was like a reminder for me: Don’t forget your father.”

-The End-

“Living on One Dollar”: is Living on Other People’s Kindness

Living on One dollarI love going to the dollar store. The minute my foot is in the door, I feel like I’m three again. If I like it, I want it—now. The best part is that I can afford it.

But what if I only had one dollar a month to live off?

“Living on One Dollar” portrays a different meaning to the dollar sign. In the movie, four college students set out to experience poverty by living off an average of one dollar a day for two months. The result is an award winning documentary and many lives changed.

In a slideshow at the beginning of the film, we find out that Chris Temple, from New York, and Zack Ingrasci, from Washington, met in college. After graduation, they decide to travel to Guatemala and discover answers they could not find in their textbooks when they majored in international development. What’s it really like to live in poverty?

Soon after arriving at Pena Blanca, Guatemala, where 7 out of 10 people live under the poverty line, the four Americans realize how far they are from their comfortable lives. Temple and Ingrasci bring along with them two film making students. Together, they strive for survival by learning first-hand how to live off $30 a month, and get it all on tape.

Though it is a documentary, the first few days in “Living on One Dollar” are a lot like Tom Hanks’ time stranded on an island in the fiction film “Cast Away,” as we watch the main characters in both figure out how to acquire their basic survival needs. The four students arrive at a shack, which they turn into their home and their first project is to try and make a fire. The next day, they find a water source. It’s not their usual trip to the kitchen. Rather, it’s quite a walk into the village. One of the students is disgusted when he sees a bug swimming in his murky glass of water.

The extreme poverty is an obvious element in the film. The students play soccer with local village boys on a narrow, gravel slope. But far in the horizon, are breathtaking mountains. Thankfully, nature is free to look at and enjoy. In that aspect, villagers from Pena Blanca are wealthier than many of us.

The 60-minute film is made up of stories of people who are ready to give you all they have, despite their difficult living conditions. It’s about Chino, a 12-year-old boy, who dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. About Rosa, a 20-year-old woman, who dreams of becoming a nurse one day.

When Temple asked Chino, wearing faded jeans with short sleeves—who, by the way, has a smile that will make your heart melt—what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said a farmer. It’s as if he had accepted his father’s fate as his future, no questions asked. Temple rephrased the question to: What would you want to be if you could be ANYTHING? Only then did Chino say a professional soccer player.

Chino’s smile reminded me of smiles I saw in a refugee camp in Jordan in 2009. There were three boys in particular who caught my attention. The first wore stripes. He was about 9-years-old. There was something in his eyes—a light. He was happy. He looked forward to the future. I couldn’t understand why, when his life was lacking almost all basics of life. Then, there was another boy about the same age. He was angry. Serious. His eyes reflected burdens weighing him down. A third boy, about 6 years old, looked naïve and oblivious, unaware of the opportunities other children had outside the bubble of his limited experience.

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Photo by Janan Zaitoun

The boys living in the refugee camp in Jordan all expressed joy in different levels when my college friends and I visited them. It was similar to Chino’s reaction to the four foreigners, who traveled a long distance to “feel” with them. The children’s smiles were not triggered by the new clothes we bought them. I think they appreciated the human connection we wanted to make. They liked the pat on their shoulder. They yearned to feel equal to “the others”—you and I, and not be looked down on by us. They wanted us to ask them what they dreamed of.

Rosa, a mother of three and care-taker of seven, took a $200 loan from a small, privately owned non-profit and used it to start her home-based weaving business. She then used what little profit she made to go back into school, where other grown women like her sat on small desks with big dreams to pursue. At one point, the camera is directly in her face as she sits outside her house weaving a multi-colored rug. She is blushing.

Her shy gaze took me back to Muscat Festival in the capital of The Sultanate of Oman, part of a set of festivities that the Omanis have across different parks every February. Qurum Park, the largest festival location, is in a well-off neighborhood. In the center of all the liveliness, cameras and reporters of the Omani local channels were filming men and women folk dancing, and making traditional handicrafts. Some women made straw baskets, while some men made leather shoes. On the other side of the cameras, children dressed in traditional clothes walked in groups singing folk songs.

One Omani woman stood out. She wore a white dress with a green cloak, and a golden metal burka was covering her mouth. She was making a bracelet with red and silver threads. I kneeled down right in front of her face, aligned my camera, and took her picture. She never looked up at me, even though, I wanted her to. I had hoped to talk to her, and ask her about who she was. But she was clearly in robot mode. Her picture was taken by hundreds of people that night—tourists, who traveled to be entertained by simple villagers. Those villagers crossed a long distance by bus to be paid by the government for displaying their country’s history, and for entertaining foreigners.

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Photo by Janan Zaitoun

The Omani woman seemed like a professional at what she was doing. Most probably, when the month of festivity is over—and she goes back to her village—she will continue to make her bracelets to generate income.

I couldn’t help feeling that Rosa and the Omani woman were on one side of the lens, and the rest of us on the other side. The four American college students broke the barrier by experiencing first-hand what they are documenting.

On day 57 of their journey, Temple writes in his journal:”What can I do to help?”

“There is no one answer,” said Temple. “[There are] $3.5 trillion in international development trying to end poverty. And, a lot of times it’s just made things worse. That’s what we’re trying to prove here: The power of partial solutions. Each individual can help and affect a single other individual to change the world.”

In two months, Temple and Ingrasci teach Chino and other village children some English and Spanish. Until March of 2015, their website shows that they have raised $195,000 for education, nutrition and health in Peña Blanca & for microfinance around the world.

A day before they returned to the US, the four students danced after dinner with Chino and his family of eight to Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” which played on a big old stereo from the 90s. The four students were repaying the family for their help and generosity. The humble family taught them how to make a fire faster, get a better bargain at the local market, and figure out how

to get the calories they needed to survive on their meager budget. But most importantly, they offered their unconditional friendship.

In a context of dominant poverty, giving to others is the prevailing theme in the film. Such a value is deteriorating in our materialistic lives. Joseph Garner’s “Craigslist Joe” film presented the same theme in a different way. In the film, Joe sets out on a one-month journey across the United States depending solely on the kindness of peoples’ Craigslist posts. The majority of the strangers that offer Joe a meal or a room to crash in for the night are clearly barely making it themselves. He got rides across the country in beat up cars, and even shared a burger with a man he had just met. Yet, the strangers in both “Living on One Dollar” and “Craigslist Joe” were happy to share all they have.

After watching “Living on One Dollar”, I checked out their website. Having been raised in Jordan, I was thrilled to find out that their next project was al-Za’tari camp for Syrian refugees located in Jordan. That reinforced my feeling of trust in their film. Their journey was more than just documenting. Their quest for making a difference has only begun.

“Living on One Dollar” is geared toward creating awareness and positive change. The next time I went to the dollar store, I set a budget and returned some items back on the shelf.

This film will not only change your outlook on poverty and make you question your financial decisions. Hopefully, it will encourage you to change another person’s life.

-The End-

Confessions of a Mother Raising a Bilingual Toddler

Last week, I was thrilled when my 19-month old daughter, Aisha, correctly pointed at the giraffe, elephant, bear and bird when I asked her where they were in “The Little Engine that could”. I didn’t use the English words for those animals. If I did, she wouldn’t know where to point. Instead, I asked for the “Zarafah”, “Feel”, “Dob”, and “Asfoor” in Arabic. She clapped every time she got one right. And I kissed her—and squeezed her—every time she assured me that my efforts did not go to waste.

I was raised in Jordan with Arabic as my first language. On the other hand, my daughter is being raised in the United States. I figured, since she is bound to pick up English from her surroundings, I must speak to her in Arabic—and only Arabic. I thought to myself: “She’s all set. My daughter will grow up fluent in Arabic.”

I kept reassuring myself. Until, I asked many of my older friends with teenagers if what I’m doing was sufficient. They all shared the same opinion.

“If the mother speaks only Arabic at home,” said one of my friends. “That will NOT be enough.”

Most of my friends’ kids are more comfortable speaking in English, and are struggling with Arabic.

POP! That’s the sound of my bubble bursting.

They highly recommended two methods of teaching Arabic. The first was immersing the child in an Arabic speaking culture. Fortunately, we plan on visiting Jordan soon. Second, they recommend putting on Arabic cartoons on TV. Bear in mind though; The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends putting off TV exposure till after the child’s second birthday.

I remember watching a talk on Ted.com about the language development in children. The video showed an experiment done on six month-old Taiwanese and American babies learning English and Mandarin, respectively. The results showed that the babies who were tutored a foreign language by a human picked up far more than babies taught by a TV or a radio language-teaching program.

In this same video, Patricia Kuhl, a Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, said that there were two peaks when children pick up language signals. The first peak, surprisingly, is when a baby is only two months-old. The second, is when a child is seven-years-old.

That had a great impact on me as a Mom, who is raising a bilingual child. If I had been too tired changing diapers and coping with being a first-time-Mom 17 months ago, I thought, I still have the next five and a half years to prepare for her second language developmental peak.

When I visited my family in the Middle East last summer, I made sure to buy Aisha books and toys in Arabic. Then later, my family sent me Arabic flash cards, Arabic alphabet refrigerator magnets, and more Arabic books. Even though I read to Aisha the English children’s books in Arabic, I want her eyes to get familiarized with the Arabic calligraphy.

So, I set up a board—hanging on her closet door—with a weekly Arabic letter. Right now we are on the letter “Ra”. Next to the letter is a picture of a pomegranate, a butterfly, and three squares. All three have the equivalent letter R (“Romman”, “Farashah”, and “Moraba’”).

When it’s time for our Arabic lesson, Aisha drags her small violet chair and sits in front of the board. She almost never pronounces the letters correctly. And when I take out her learning notebook to write the letter of the week, her scribbles extend to her clothes and floor. That’s why you’ll often find me with a wet rag scrubbing something after our lesson.

But still, I feel that that’s not enough. Especially, after watching a video of my friend’s daughter in California—who by the way is only a few days younger than Aisha—clearly pronouncing the English alphabet. I felt like a lousy Mom.

More needs to be done. Not only with teaching Aisha the colloquial Arabic, but with classical Arabic as well. In some ways, teaching classical Arabic is like introducing a third language. After watching this alarming video (below), I decided to speak to Aisha in Classical Arabic more often. I try to practice with her on a daily basis. When I do, she often stares at me with a giant question mark on top of her head. But I am not giving up.

The video says that studies have shown that three year-old English speaking children know an average of 16,000 words. Meanwhile, kids speaking colloquial Arabic—as opposed to the rich classical Arabic—only know 3,000 words.

I almost fell out of my chair when I heard those numbers. I also turned into a high pitched classical Arabic cartoon character with my Aisha.

If I want Aisha to be accomplished in both languages, I must dedicate more learning time every day. Currently, she knows more than 10 words. So far, she is bilingual in one word only.

“NO!” (La’).

It’s a start.

Raising an Arab Child to Become Bilingual in the West

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Photo by Janan Zaitoun

Raising an Arab child living in the West to become bilingual can cause constant rewiring to the brain for both children and parents. The child is always processing two languages: Arabic and English. Meanwhile, the parent is continuously trying to find new methods to make Arabic interesting.

Let’s face it, Arab kids brought up in the West are speaking English at home, even when their parents have been talking to them Arabic all their lives. Parents and educators I spoke to from the Boston Muslim community all share the same concern. They are worried about their family’s grasp to the main bridge of understanding the Holy Quran—the Arabic language.

Amal Noor, an Esthetician, is mother to two girls and one boy. Since they were young, Noor spoke to her children in Arabic only. Now, her oldest is 13 years old. All three kids prefer speaking in English. Noor is frustrated.

“I thought speaking to them only in Arabic since they were very young would be enough,” said Noor. “It’s not. It’s about making them interested in the language.”

When Noor teaches her kids Arabic, they raise tough questions. Such questions are: “Why do we have to learn Arabic grammar?” and “Why do we have to learn Arabic poetry?”.

Noor admits that there were times when she told herself to lower her expectations. But she quickly followed that remark with remembering converts, such as Imam Suhaib Webb and Imam Hamza Yusuf, who embraced Islam in adulthood and went on to become fluent in Arabic.

“They [children] ARE capable of it. Why can’t they do it?” asked Noor rhetorically.

Amira Ramadan, an Arabic and Quran teacher at the Islamic weekend school in Sharon, Massachusetts, said that there is a problem with the approach parents take with teaching their children Arabic. They teach them based on what they think is right, not based on a scientific method.

“Mothers come up to me and say ‘you should write the Arabic word in English letters next to it’,” said Ramadan. “But that’s not right! That’s not the way to teach a foreign language.”

Ramadan emphasized that when teaching any foreign language, that language should be used 90% of the time, at least. Students may complain that they are not learning anything in the beginning, but if the teacher sticks to it there will be results, said Ramadan. The problem is: We want results right now.

Sometimes parents complain that their child does not understand what he is reading in Arabic. Ramadan’s reply to that is: Learning a foreign language needs focusing on one part at a time, and having lots of patience.

“In teaching, there is one thing called reading, another thing is writing, and another thing is understanding. So when they [students] read, they don’t have to understand [right] now. ” said Ramadan.

Language emersion is the most favorable teaching method. Ramadan mentions how one of her students tries harder to learn Arabic, because over the summer she visited her extended family in an Arabic speaking country. Now, she communicates with her cousin overseas on a regular basis in Arabic.

Both Noor and Ramadan agreed on the importance of teaching Muslim children Arabic. They summed it up in four words.

“To teach them Quran,” they said.

Muslims recite verses from the Quran during their five daily prayers, and strive to read the entire book at least once a year during the fasting month of Ramadan. That is the bare minimum for Muslims’ reference to their Holy Book.

Reciting the Quran is, also, a big part of Muslims’ daily activities. To mention a few examples: Muslims recite verses of the Quran when they wake up, and before they go to sleep. Parents recite verses on their children to protect them from evil, and caretakers recite verses on sick patience to speed their recovery. Muslims recite verses before they take a test, and when they first hop on any means of transportation.

The concerns of immigrant parents raising bilingual children in the United States are understandable. But the importance of learning the Arabic language has a larger impact not just on the Arabs living in the West. For Muslims of all nationalities, learning the language of the Quran is learning the Islamic traditions and way of life.

The Growing Trend of Islamic Weekend Schools in Massachusetts, USA

Are You a Hijabby or a Hijatty?

 

Faten Ramadan is the founder and designer of Fetoun—the latest no-pin headscarf for Muslim women. She designed a revolutionary head piece, which includes 27 parts as opposed to the one-piece under scarf sold in the Islamic fashion market. Ramadan calls her product a Hijat with a T as opposed to the common Hijab with a B. While a one-piece under scarf is sold for $3, Fetoun’s no-pin Hijat is sold for a minimum of $38. Is the creativity behind the no-pin Hijat worth the switch from the simple under scarf?

Only recently has Islamic fashion taken a sharp turn to modern styles, and yet maintaining its modest signature. Ramadan spent the last three years creating her Hijats. In 2000, Shukr, a new Islamic fashion brand was created. It focuses on designing conservative full length dresses for young women with a contemporary look. Silk Route, another Islamic designer brand, was established in 2006. Before the two latter rival brands, Islamic fashion was “grandmotherly-like”, as Tabassum Sedqui, Shukr’s designer, describes it. Creativity and modesty are finally walking hand in hand, and that’s how it should be.

“I am selling comfort,” said Ramadan standing behind her booth in a bazaar during the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) regional convention in Connecticut on 22 March 2014. “95% of the women who try it [Hijat] end up buying it.”

Ramadan emphasizes the features which make her Hijat unique: no-pins are required to wrap the headscarf, its comfort lays in its light weight on the head, and it is a total makeover to the common headscarf.

“I love my Hijat. I bought the FH853. My hair is very hard to tuck into under-scarves, “ said a review on Fetoun.com by Amy R. “But since the 853 is open on top, I easily pulled it down around my neck and then pulled it back up, holding up my hair. It felt so much better than wearing my hair in a ponytail or bun.”

When I visited Ramadan’s booth during ICNA’s regional convention, she had me step into a tent she set us as a changing room. She had three chairs and three mirrors hanging in the ventilated khaki tent. She asked me to take my headscarf off and undo my bun. She then took three head measurements. First, she took the measurement of my head circumference, second, she extended the measuring tape from my right ear to the left, and third, she took the measurement of my back profile to measure the amount of hair I have.

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Faten Ramadan, Founder of Fetoun. Photo by Janan Zaitoun.

Ramadan stepped out and came back a few moments later with a dark blue Hijat. She put it on my head and asked me how it felt. I usually need to use a pin to adjust the size of the under-scarf I wear, but the Hijat she put on felt like it was custom made for my head. After that, she gave me a tutorial on different ways to wrap a colorful shawl around the Hijat, by simply pushing the piece of fabric twice through a sewed in loop and securing it with an attached clip. When she was done, I hardly felt like I had anything on my head, and my hair was free from a tight ponytail or bun.

The only concern I had was its cost. Thirty eight dollars is certainly not within my budget. I’m used to buying an under scarf for three dollars. I will at least need four different colored Hijats to go with all my shawls. That’s $140 more than if I were to buy four regular under scarves.

“The only way to drop the price on all styles permanently is to manufacture it in low cost (slave) labor countries,” said Ramadan.  But that is against her principles. Selling it in large volumes is another way to reduce consumer prices, Ramadan suggests. Let’s not forget, sponsoring Ramadan’s initiative to revolutionize the headscarf will not only help make Hijats more affordable, but will also encourage Ramadan to continue finding cheaper innovative ways to design her product.

Put price tags on the side, the Islamic fashion market is in need for more daring designers to take up the challenge of envisioning creativity within modesty. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, encourages Muslims to take care of their outer appearance as well as their inner selves. As a Muslim woman living in America, I am constantly playing the role of an ambassador for Islam. Looking the part is as important as playing it. Leaving a beautiful impression through a fashionable and respectable wardrobe is a vital first step to diminishing the false stereotypes the media has spread about Islam.

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NuDay Syria

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Nadia Alawa, founder of NuDay Syria. Photo by Janan Zaitoun

Danish Syrian, Nadia Alawa, is founder of NuDay Syria–a non-profit organization which helps alleviate the humanitarian suffering that has been taking place in Syria since March 2011.

In this slideshow, Alawa explains what NuDay Syria does, and promotes the products it was selling at the Islamic Circle of North America’s regional convention in Hartford, Connecticut on the 22 March 2014.

NuDay Syria Slideshow

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