Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Jane Digby el Mezrab, Umm el-Laban (Mother of Milk)

Jane Digby el Mezrab, Umm el-Laban

article with portrait of Jane Digby: http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=12041

The story of Jane Digby (1807–1881) is presented among other historical biographies of white women who escaped the confines of 19th Century Europe by going to live among the Muslims in “The Wilder Shores of Love” by Lesley Blanch. Digby, born an aristocrat in Norfolk England, was known in Europe as Lady Ellenborough, Baroness Vennigan, and later as Countess Theotoky. She had married and divorced four times and was 48 years old when she met her fifth and last husband, her true love, a dark-skinned Syrian warlord Sheik Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab, who was fifteen years her junior. She died in his arms after nearly thirty years of marriage.

Jane Digby’s life was such a fabulous scandal that I am surprised that I had never heard of her before. During her youth, she was the mistress of many princes and kings, including Napoleon before he was famous. In old age, she slept in a Bedouin tent and rode side by side with her husband on horseback to battle, also granting protection to desert travelers in exchange for a large fee. She received adventurous royalty and traveling dignitaries from all over Europe in her husband’s luxurious Damascus home, including Richard Burton, the famed “Lawrence of Arabia.” His wife, Isabel Burton, knew Jane Digby since youth and regarded her as a peer. Blanch writes: “Everyone who knew her in Syria, from the local missionaries to Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, was enchanted with the timeless charm and simplicity of the real woman.”

While other women of that era were fighting for the right to vote, Digby never doubted her equality with men. Clearly, she loved men. She had no sense of being bound by the social conventions of her time. Her freedom was of course enhanced by the regular income she received by right of her noble status, yet she was not a manipulative person, nor was she seeking political influence. There was just something about her that instantly attracted men of high caliber. She was very well-read, which made her an exceedingly pleasant conversational partner. Traveling scholars would seek her to learn of the latest news in archeology, for she was considered to be very knowledgeable on that topic. Yet she was no academic. She was a Romantic. She was athletic, wild and adventurous, and she possessed some kind of eternal idealism free of cynicism. She was 74 years old when she finally accepted the role of a wife who stays home while her husband goes out, and this pained her as greatly as her death which soon followed.

Her passionate love of horses no doubt contributed to her mystique and led her to her fate. She went to Syria to purchase an Arabian stallion. There she met a desert nomad who told her, “This horse is untameable, but I love it more than I love my three wives.” It is said that this Lady had made slaves of kings just by making eye contact and this horse was no different. The animal submitted to her, seemingly without any effort on her part. The Sheik told her, “I see you have tamed my wild horse, but still I will not sell it to you for any price, except one.” It was in this fashion that he proposed marriage. She considered it on condition that he dismiss his other wives and live with her as man and wife in the European sense. He protested, “But I am not a poor man. It would be embarrassing for someone of my stature to only have one wife.” So, she went on with her travels, marrying another Muslim man, who took her on pilgrimage to Iraq. Upon hearing news of her return and learning that the relationship with this other man did not work out, the Sheik sent someone to meet her en route with a gift of his best horse. This time she agreed to marry him.

Her marriage with the Sheik is an interesting lesson in both interfaith and intercultural relations. First off, they agreed to a marital compromise that for three years, he would be her monogamous husband. After that, he was free to reinstate his harem. He lived with her for life as a devoted husband, though in later years he quietly married his son’s step-daughter. Half the year, they camped in a tent and half the year they lived in the house.

Jane Digby never converted to Islam. Given her British noble ancestry, this made political sense. She served as a cultural bridge between the Christian and Muslim worlds. She didn’t want to live as a secluded Arab wife. She insisted on being her noble husband’s equal. She threw herself into her husband’s culture with pleasure, for she spoke Arabic fluently in many dialects, and she was having a great time, dressing in the Muslim gear, smoking from the nargila and sleeping on the ground. By remaining a Christian, she was able to continue to define herself by her own rules, never to conform, except as she chose.

Digby insisted upon being buried in a Protestant Christian cemetery when she died. However, she gave up her British citizenship and became a Turkish citizen upon marriage. This became a problem in 1871, for the British embassy could be of no assistance when Kurds and Druze reportedly raped, massacred and mutilated all the Christians in Damascus. It is said that corpses were piled high and the stench and noise of the tortured and dying filled the air. Digby’s house on the outskirts of town remained unharmed, for she was protected by her husband. However, upon hearing of the carnage, Jane left her home to go see what was going on in the city. There was not much of anything she could do, and she returned home soon. But her action embarrassed the Sheik, for it seemed that she was taking sides with the Christians, and his interest in her cooled. True to fashion, she used this opportunity to kindle a brief flame with a rival Arabian warlord Sheik Fares. She made her husband jealous and won him back into her spell. Digby’s life was never boring. She was not a saint, but she was a genius.

During her very solemn funeral procession, her husband caused a scene by jumping out of his carriage and running away. His action surely caused a lot of whispers. However, just as she was about to be put in the ground, he returned, galloping on his wife’s favorite black steed. He knew that she would want her horse to be in attendance at her burial. The Sheik truly understood that beloved woman, even if no one else ever will. Like Cleopatra, Umm el-Laban was a remarkable woman who never lost her beauty. Her life makes clear that through Allah, all things are possible.

Friday, September 14, 2012

What is Love?

One of the most controversial issues about Islam is the topic of Marriage and Divorce. Even though Christianity demands the same thing, most Westerners recoil at the idea of a wife being obligated to “obey” her husband. In real life, what does this look like? Maybe a man might say to his wife, “Honey, could you bake some of your awesome lasagna for my parents when they visit?” and the woman might say, “Sure, sweetie, no problem. Just give me the money to buy the ingredients and I’ll be on it today.”

In most cases, especially when she is sure that she is loved, a woman will not hesitate to do whatever her husband asked her to do. Hopefully, if she asked her husband to pick up some postage stamps on the way home from work he would do it too.

Legally the issue regarding “obedience” is most likely to arise when it comes to physical relations. Legal systems vary widely when it comes to whether a woman has the right to insist on engaging in or refusing intercourse of her own free will and the extent to which her husband has the right to demand this of her. In Islam, a man has the right to expect to be loved, however, it is usually unclear how far he can go to force love to happen. Women of course also have the right to expect to be loved, however, it is nearly impossible to force her husband to please her if he cannot, for biological reasons.

The other biological issue is of course, children. When a woman has young children or is pregnant, it is very difficult to achieve financial independence without the assistance of the children’s father. Under normal circumstances, children cling to their mother. She cannot come and go as she pleases, unless someone else would help her with the children. She cannot study in college or work a job unless someone, normally her spouse, would help her. She cannot even run to the grocery store alone unless her husband decides that he is willing to allow her to get some air. Most women who succeed in their careers either have no children, or else have extremely helpful husbands.

Sadly, in today’s world, there are few men who possess the emotional maturity to be worthy to tell another human soul to obey him. Islam of course commands kindness to women, but in reality this means a man must care about someone else as much as he cares about himself. Girls are usually trained from birth to try to be pleasing and avoid displeasing others. They try to predict the needs of others in order to be helpful. This puts them at a disadvantage in a relationship where this level of attentiveness is not reciprocated. When girls and women are deprived of affection, their normal response is to try harder to be pleasing. Men however tend to withhold affection when they feel that they are being deprived of affection. This often creates a vicious cycle that could result in divorce. When it comes to divorce, the Quran states:
“…And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable, but men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And Allah is exalted in Power, Wise.” (2:28)

Aminah Wadud-Muhsin writes that this “degree of advantage” is in the man’s power to pronounce divorce by themselves, whereas women who seek divorce generally need some outside assistance. Yusuf Ali suggests that economic differences are what largely disadvantages adult females. Islam allows women to divorce a man without contest in the cases of mental illness, impotence, or not supporting the family, but as always, it’s his word against hers and in most cases, she is the primary caretaker of the children.

In many countries, including the US, women are often threatened with loss of custody of their children if they try to divorce their husbands. Islamic law also grants custody of the children to their father as a general rule. Originally, this law was perhaps intended to help divorced women remarry more quickly but nowadays, most men are not equipped to assume full time ownership of any youngsters by themselves. We don’t live in a time where people are surrounded by extended family, with someone guaranteed to be home at all times. Divorce is so complicated that it is often wise to consider reconciliation.

“…live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them it may be that you dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good.” (4:19)

In my middle age, I have discovered that the qualities that others find most controversial are my best qualities. If I obey those who dislike me, I am doomed to defeat. It is only when you embrace your true self that you can succeed in life, married or not.

This brings us back to the Golden Rule. Jesus (sa) said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” while Prophet (s) said, “Do not do to someone else what you would not like done to you.” Empathy is key. When a man and woman marry, they have no idea what they are getting into. The person you are today is not the same person you will be in ten or twenty years. Sometimes people put out a lot of mixed messages about what they want from the other. To make things work, you have to care about the other person as much as you care about yourself. If he cannot sleep, she cannot sleep. If she has a splinter in her thumb, he will remove it for her. If your spouse displeases you, ask him or her, “Why did you do that?” That is love.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Opium Market Closed to Americans

The other day while waiting in line at CVS, I overheard an elderly man arguing about the cost of his prescription medication, which was well over $100. “Won’t my insurance cover it?” he protested. The pharmacist explained to him that the actual price of the drug was over $300 so yes, the insurance company was covering it, after the cost of the deductible. The old man did not have the money and walked away muttering under his breath. Access to medicine becomes a real problem when the supply is restricted and you are in immediate need.

I had my own CVS drama not that long ago myself. After a certain medical procedure, I was given a prescription for Oxycodine; however I was in so much pain that I could hardly stand up. Naturally, there were about eight people ahead of me in line. Luckily there was a folding chair nearby, so I grabbed it to stop from collapsing as I shook uncontrollably with waterfalls of sweat pouring down my face despite the chilly air conditioning. Finally I got to the head of the line. I sat on the folding chair and gasped out my prescription request. As soon as they gave me the pills I ripped open the package and swallowed one without even moving out of line. No one seemed at all shocked or even disturbed by my behavior – which makes me have to assume that they see this kind of thing a lot. When you are in pain, you can’t think about anything else except getting that pain to stop!

As our population ages, these types of problems will increase. Angela, a retired secretary in Boston admitted to me that she became addicted to Oxycontin, the painkiller her doctor gave her after hip replacement surgery. She also suffers residual pain from a neck fracture. If she cannot get her pain pills in time she becomes terribly sick, which has resulted in late night visits from a shady drug dealer. For as long as I’ve known her she’s been trying to wean herself off the pills, and earlier this year she actually became clean. However, this experience reminded her why she was taking the pills in the first place. She was in pain. She could not function! So, she started to take the pills again. The next problem that arose was that her doctor informed her that the continued use of her pain medication, especially coupled with her moderate but regular drinking habits, was destroying her liver. The doctor warned her that she might end up in the hospital soon from liver poisoning.

It makes me so sad that someone should have to choose between dying of liver disease and living with intense pain. It makes me so sad, and indeed outraged, that Americans like Angela and that old man at CVS are being put in desperate situations in want of pain medicine more than twenty years after the United States invaded Afghanistan to corner the market on narcotic poppy flowers. Why aren’t the marines bringing back that sweet sticky sap for their elders to mix with their tobacco? During the Reagan era, white and purple opium resin sold on the streets alongside hashish and marijuana. Opium, a traditional favorite of poets and artists, would make a smoker feel way too happy for his own good, but it was unlikely to cause sudden death. Heroin, a powdered derivative of opium, can easily kill a person overnight. It’s a similar situation with cocaine. South American villagers can chew coca leaves all day while they work the fields, and it gives them some kind of lift like we get from drinking coffee. But when you turn the coca leaves into cocaine, that’s when you have pharmaceutical grade drugs that could kill you overnight, especially if it’s injected or smoked as crack.

Why is it that Americans are suffering from a lack of medicine? How can this be possible, after we have invaded country after country, directly and indirectly, for control over their drugs? The rich have their pills while the poor have their heroin and crack, but why is it that in the United States of America my friend Angela, who is already a cigarette smoker, has never been given the opportunity to see if smoking opium might control her pain in a way that is less poisonous than pills and alcohol? Why are Angela’s friends calling her on the phone crying and begging her to share her painkillers? There are so many people living in pain. Why is pure opium not available to the American public?

Eric Margolis reported in his book, “War at the Top of the World” that during the Reagan administration, opium was transported to Pakistan for processing into heroin, and then was brought through Kosova into Europe for distribution. He mentions shootouts between the FBI and CIA since the FBI was over there to combat drugs while the CIA was there to make money to fund their wars. Then the Taliban took over, outlawing the growing of poppies. It was a huge change. They ran their politics by the force of faith. The Afghan farmers were so convinced that Mullah Omar was their Amir by the will of Allah that they pledged to obey his leadership even if their own children starved to death. According to UN reports, under Taliban rule, the growth of opium poppies was largely reduced. This made America angry. As soon as the US invaded Afghanistan under Clinton, the first thing we did was build local heroin processing plants. So now, once again, we have Afghan farmers growing opium for the world heroin supply, but for some reason the raw opium is only locally available. If an Afghan woman who doesn’t even have food has access to opium to help her baby sleep, why can’t my friend who is going to die if she doesn’t stop taking painkiller pills have some of it? There are people in our neighborhood injecting heroin and leaving needles in the alleyways, exposing people to AIDS, but Angela can’t kill her pain by smoking opium. Why are some drugs legal and some illegal? Why are some drugs available and others unavailable?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Lobsters Flourish as Fish Dwindle

“We have made of water everything living. Will they not then believe?” (Quran 21:30)

In recent times, over-fishing has resulted in common foods such as tuna, cod and haddock being listed along with zebras and elephants as endangered species! The popularity of Japanese sushi in the West has to a large extent been held responsible for the world shortage of tuna. Efforts have been made to establish fish farms, but these have often been reported to be watery breeding houses of disease.

Yet even as fish supply dwindles, large ships are decimating whales and other large marine life. Not only are these amazing animals being diced by propellers, but their very mode of communication, essential to group survival, is being interrupted by military radar used by ships and submarines.

Some scientists believe that dolphins and whales could be as intelligent, or perhaps more intelligent than humans, based on their brain size and ability to engage in empathy. A few years back, we even heard news reports about a Cuban child victim of a shipwreck who was saved by dolphins, and eventually landed in Florida, forcing the US to actually engage in diplomacy with Cuba in order to return the boy to his father. Using their radar-like signals, ocean mammals like dolphins and whales can communicate to each other through hundreds, even thousands of miles of water. However, due to human-caused electronic interference, their entire way of life has been cut off. It’s the kind of thing that might even make a person feel ashamed of being human.

So with all this bad news, I was pleasantly surprised to read in the Boston Globe that due to the warm temperatures this past summer, the state of Maine has been experiencing much higher than normal sizes of lobster catches. Naturally, humans are ungrateful. The abundance of lobster has inspired Canadian lobstermen in New Brunswick to engage in protests for several days, blocking a highway to prevent US lobsters from being delivered to processing plants, out of fear that the surplus of lobster would drive the price down so low that it would destroy their livelihoods. A Canadian court ruled that this obstruction of capitalism was unlawful, so the Maine lobsters are now being successfully sold on the free market at the going price. If the Canadians continue to try to prevent US lobsters from being processed in Canada, it won’t be long before the US opens up more food processing plants.

While I understand that many Muslims don’t eat shellfish, and in my personal opinion, a lobster looks very much like a large, creepy insect; nevertheless lobster is a very healthy source of protein and fatty acids essential to hormone stability in humans. Lobster is considered a delicacy in most of the United States, with a lobster roll sandwich selling for as much as $21 in Boston. So I’m guessing that among lobster lovers, any price reduction would actually be quite welcome. According to the Boston Globe:

“If the catch turns out to be an aberration, memories of this year’s crisis will quickly fade. But there is fear in Maine that with climate change, the warmer waters that triggered the bumper crop could become a more regular occurrence. If that happens, lobstermen are going to have to adjust to fundamental changes in the fishery… Lobstermen in both countries need to recognize they are fishing from the same ocean and work toward a common solution.”

As the human population is running out of fish protein, God provided us with too much lobster. Sadly, the increase in lobster also correlates with decreasing numbers of lobsters’ natural enemies like sharks, stingrays, groupers, sea turtles and seals. Yet the whole situation made me think about how when God takes something away, He replaces it with something else. Sometimes, the replacement can be pricier than the original loss! Perhaps the increase in lobster meat will give humans some more time before we all starve, to figure out how to save the ocean’s larger sea animals.

As smart as they are, they don’t seem to have picked up on human speech yet, and do not know how to advertise themselves in order to promote their own self-interest, but the haunting sounds of ocean mammals have been recorded by humans. Captive dolphins and whales have gone way beyond their comfort zones to learn how to communicate with humans using sign language and have even learned how to follow instructions in exchange for food. Because dolphins in particular are so emotionally sensitive, child psychologists have been using them to reach out to those with special needs, including autistic children, who are so internally withdrawn that they do not talk. In many cases, scientists have found that befriending a marine animal is so delightful that it stimulates emotional reactions that can lead to amazing progress in otherwise uncommunicative individuals.
We live in a time when Allah allowed human beings to talk to the creatures of the sea. It is truly an electrifying time to be alive, but with this increased knowledge comes a heavy responsibility. If we don’t take care of the oceans, nobody else will. And that’s a fact that we have to really think about, because our fate is permanently linked with the fate of the earth’s creatures as well as the environment of our planet.