Thoreau, Train Rides, and ‘Iftaars’

Thoreau, Train Rides and “Iftaars”

“To set down such choice experiences that my own writings may inspire and at last I may make whole of parts. Certainly it is a distinct profession to rescue from oblivion and fix the sentiments and thoughts which visit all men more or less general, and that the contemplation of the unfinished picture may suggest its harmonious completion. Associate reverently as much as you can with your loftiest thoughts…. My thoughts are my company. They have a certainly individuality and separate existence, aye, personality. Having by chance recorded a few disconnected thoughts and then brought them into juxtaposition, they suggest a whole new field in which it was possible to labor and think,. Thought begat thought.”

(From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau)

The dawrah (the intensive program of Islamic lessons) is over. The “invasion” is over. Nevertheless, many Brothers still remain, so they can be close to the Shaykh, acquire more knowledge, and contribute to this community, which promises so much potential. Things are kinda-sorta back to my “new normal.” It’s winter, and it would be another brutal winter—although I was 200 miles south of the Valley. “The Traveler”–another one of the Brothers of the Amherst “Valley Guy” crew had now moved to Philadelphia. He made frequent complaints about the city. Albeit, I was less than content, I had never lived in a big city before. Springfield, Massachusetts doesn’t count as a big city, and I had done a stint in Dallas, but Dallas was more of a giant suburban sprawl than a “city,” as one would think of cities on the East Coast. What I did know is that it was cold, and it was gray, and I still was homesick for rolling hills, and walks in the woods, silence, and solitude.

Amongst us, we had a running joke about “Na’im’s Window.” On the landing to our “penthouse” there was a large window looking west. Every morning Na’im, a Bedouin Brother from Jordan, would stand there and forlornly stare out the window… and when he left his perch, I was one among several who would take his spot. I could relate to how Na’im felt—i was dealing with culture shock and homesickness. And one of the challenges of big city life for me was that there were few places where I could “stretch my scope.” I was suffering from ocular claustrophobia, but at least from “Na’im’s Window” I could look out for several blocks and see West Philadelphia High School in the not too far distance.

There were probably a couple of dozen guys staying at the mosque on a regular basis. Some of them were local Brothers, who simply wanted to stay close to the knowledge, and others, like the Valley Guys, who had come from other parts of the country or Canada to seek a new direction in life. After the lessons in the evening, we would often have ping pong tournaments in the basement. This was done in part for exercise and fun, and in part to stave off the cold. Later in the evening, we would have various cleaning chores. Some of the Brothers would sit together, we were all young men at the time, and share our aspirations regarding love and marriage and having families and being involved in the da`wah (i.e., Islamic proselytizing).

I am also finding much solace in my Journals. Indeed, the Journals provided many new fields in which to labor and to think. I could see how my past influenced my present, and how the decisions (both bad and good) had led me to where I was (by the Will of God). The Journals provided me with a steady reminder of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. Much of my Journal writing and reading was taking place at the UPENN library; that era was coming to a close, but it did not end before I dove into the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Of all the writers I had read, none resonated so completely as did Thoreau. In the beginning of his magnum opus, Walden, he says: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”

I immediately connected with Thoreau’s love of the outdoors and drawing inspiration from Nature. Although, he wasn’t a Muslim, Thoreau had many Sufi sentiments regarding minimalism–living with few material things, but having a rich intellectual and inner life. This is reflected in a quote from Walden: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (it should be kept in mind that this was his criticism of mid-nineteenth century American society).

Also, Thoreau was fiercely independent and not a fan of conformity. Among his most famous quotes is: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maa-shaa’ Allah, I saw it in college: young folk eager and willing to enter into the vortex of the corporate world—selling their lives for base, worldly rubble. Thoreau also had a strong sense of social justice. He opposed slavery in America and said favorable things about black people—which was an anomaly for a white guy of that period. Thoreau even came to the defense of John Brown and his followers after the latter’s failed attempt to instigate a mass slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. The legacy of Thoreau would influence the thinking of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King and the practice of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. Also, during the 1960’s, many of the environmentalists took drew their inspiration from the writings of Thoreau. He was a man far ahead of his time… and he was from Massachusetts—the place I missed dearly.

The reason that the UPENN library days were coming to an end is that I now had a “Justice-Cipher-Born”–in other words, I had a jay-o-bee. One of the leaders in the community had a small warehouse from which he sold electronic and computer parts. This wasn’t the kind of work I had come to Philadelphia for—I was planning to be a school teacher—but it was a job. And a job meant that I didn’t have to make a choice between laundry or lentils (in-shaa’ Allah). Not only that, I could get back on a more health-conscious diet.

It was about a ten block walk from the mosque to the suburban rail line that we (another Brother and Sister and I) took to Media, PA. Although it was cold and inconvenient getting to the train station, the train ride was relaxing. And on the way out to Media, we would pass the Swarthmore College. Swarthmore College is a small, selective Liberal Arts college with a beautiful campus not unlike Amherst—a suburban version of Amherst College. Although, the campus could be viewed for not more than a minute or so from the train, memories of Amherst would come to mind—happy memories of Amherst.

The impressive stone architecture of Swarthmore College.

The impressive stone architecture of Swarthmore College.

The job was easy. We merely picked up call-in orders from the shelves. Among the perks of the job was that around back there was a stream that I believed I saw a fish or two dart through the water. I am anticipating that once the winter breaks, I will do a little fishing during my lunch breaks in the upcoming months. Also, the daily trips outside of the city were therapeutic. For one, it was much quieter in Media, and two, I could breathe clean fresh air. And it was a pleasure to work with and for learned and observant Muslim. Problems that Muslims often encounter on the job—such as, having a place and time to pray were not an issue at the warehouse. We worked together and we prayed together. The pay was modest, but I was grateful to have a job and earn some money, and I was glad to work around Brothers from whom I could learn more about Islam.

About a month into the new job, Ramadan began. Ramadan is the month of fasting—that doesn’t mean that we go without eating for an entire month, but that Muslims are required to abstain from eating, drinking, and intimate intercourse from the dawn until sunset. Muslims eagerly await the sunset and then break their fast. For us at the job, we would typically arrive at the mosque right around the time people were having iftaar, that is, the meal Muslims have after fasting. At this point I was pretty keen on my health food diet, but I would indulge occasionally indulge in the standard American cuisine. I would later learn that at many Islamic centers, down home American food wasn’t often to be had—not saying that is a good thing or a bad thing, for there is lot’s of good food from around the Muslim world, but I can also sympathize with folks who might want to have a few fried drumsticks (with the skin still on them) and some corn on the cob every now and then for iftaar.

After the iftaar, we would go upstairs to the lecture hall and take a lesson. After the lesson, there was the Night Prayer and the Taraweeh Prayer (the Taraweeh is unique to Ramadan and might take nearly an hour (or longer) to complete—and this in keeping with doing lots of extra acts of worship during that holy month). After most of the people left, the “Artist” (and Imam) would put us to task, and we would go about cleaning: vacuuming the basement, doing dishes, mopping the floors, in preparation for the next day.

Life was busy. But also, the time was rich. Religiously, I learned a lot, maa-shaa’ Allah. A brotherhood was established in those early years in Philly that has lasted for more than two decades. And I gained memories that can’t be replaced or replicated. And for all of that, to Allah I am grateful.

Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.


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