Thursday, October 18, 2007

Reminiscing the old days: 2003

Latino Muslim

zaytuna institute

"....Gather around the saturday afternoon barbecue pit at the zaytuna institute, an islamic study center in downtown Hayward, and you’ll find students taking a break from their beginning Arabic class to share a Mexican asada and converse in their native tongue, Spanish. The meal’s two cooks, Daniel Denton and Walter Gomez, emigrated from Mexico and El Salvador, and then converted from Catholicism to Islam....."

Daniel Denton and Adalberto Madrigal sat on the floor of the Hayward mosque, legs tucked under them, shoulders almost touching. As their teacher, Imam Zaid Shakir, silently paced the front of the classroom, the two young men bowed their heads and narrowed their eyes, concentrating intensely on the day’s Arabic grammar lesson.

A mahogany screen divided the classroom into equal halves, separating men from women. At the front, the imam glanced from side to side to take in a full view of his students. All the women wore head scarves, many covered their faces with veils. Two entirely concealed their bodies under black, featureless burkas. The male students resembled Daniel and Adalberto: serious men in their twenties and thirties assembled in orderly rows on floor pillows, balancing notebooks on their crossed legs. Every man wore a beard, and each covered his head with a white muslin skullcap, turban, or fez.

The imam hummed a sinuous, nasal melody, and the men and women gazed up from their notebooks. “We will sing this song of devotion in each class,” announced Imam Zaid, “and soon, God be willing, we will sound like—I shouldn’t say it—the Muslim Tabernacle Choir.”

Daniel laughed, turned to Adalberto—a fellow Mexican immigrant who had recently converted to Islam—and cried out in Spanish, “Orale!” The two men exchanged high-fives, then Adalberto attempted to calm Daniel, whispering, “Cállate, hermano.” They looked with concern at Imam Zaid. His head was bent forward over his book, but he was smiling. Then the imam’s voice rose in song, and Daniel and Adalberto switched from Spanish to Arabic to sing Allah’s praises.

Daniel had strayed from Catholicism long before arriving in California. “As a kid in Mexico,” he recalled, “I could never figure out that three-in-one thing, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. When I saw God in my mind, I wasn’t seeing Jesus.”

The church’s seeming indifference to pervasive suffering in Mexico troubled Daniel. “There were beggars on the steps of the cathedral,” he said, “with no shoes, torn up pants, greeting you with their hands out. But the church had new stained glass windows and fresh paint on the wall. That never made sense to me.”

Shaykh Salek bin Siddina, from Mauritania, at the Hayward mosque

Daniel gave up on the Catholic church while still living in Mexico. He found Islam after he came to California.

On the other side of the room, Daniel’s wife, Roxanne, peered through slots in the partition, catching a glimpse of her husband’s dark hair spilling out from under his skullcap. Since their first meeting, arranged through Muslim friends, Roxanne had been impressed by Daniel’s seriousness. She took note of his devotion and respect for his six siblings and his mother, as befits a good Muslim man. That devotion was now focused on Roxanne, the mother of his two daughters. And it was the couple’s dedication to Islam that would soon carry their family from Hayward to the deserts of Sudan.

Imam Zaid Shakir

Daniel and Roxanne had chosen to resettle in Sudan—a country ruled by sharia, the laws of Islam. Daniel had selected a village from an Internet search for “Islamic centers of learning.” The town proved so small he couldn’t find it on a map. “We’ll be able to study the Koran in the traditional way,” he told Roxanne, “one-on-one with the imam, squatting on the floor, writing with ink made from coal, a twig for our pens—the authentic, uncontaminated way of learning.”

The young couple barely discussed the civil war in Sudan—the most longstanding armed conflict in Africa, two million dead, the country incapacitated for decades. It was a war of Muslims against Christians.

When Imam Zaid chanted Allahu Akbar—God is Great—Roxanne glanced again at Daniel, then turned toward Mecca and lowered her forehead to the ground in prayer.

At the end of the two-hour class, the students filed to the patio in front of the mosque. The women set out an urn of tea and platters of dates. But Daniel, Adalberto, and the other Mexicans and Central Americans who had converted to Islam soon after coming to the United States ignored the refreshments and walked to an adjacent dirt field.

"Assalam alaikoom!” Daniel tapped his hand over his heart as he greeted Walter Gómez, a Salvadoran immigrant who was blowing on hot coals arrayed in a portable barbecue. “Alaikoom assalam,” replied Walter. He cut beef and chicken into strips, then called out in Spanish for Adalberto to bring more tortillas.

Adalberto strolled over in his loose-fitting Moroccan djellaba, bearing fresh tortillas. He had arrived in Hayward from Chicago only a week before, aiming to advance his Islamic studies.

Hayward is a working class town south of Oakland with a large Spanish-speaking population and a recent inflow of Asian and Indian immigrants. Along Mission Boulevard, the city’s main drag, taquerías and Peruvian seafood restaurants alternate with halal meat markets and sushi bars. The mosque was cloistered behind divisions of postwar stucco tract homes, its yard bordered by concrete pillars elevating the BART trains. Thousands of commuters sped by each day over tracks skirting the mosque, never dreaming it was there.

Daniel, Adalberto, and Walter tucked back the loose sleeves of their djellabas to avoid grease spatter from the barbecue, then tossed tortillas, chicken, and beef on the grill for a traditional Mexican asada. As they prepared taquitos for two dozen hungry Muslims, they switched from English and Arabic to their native Spanish. They joked with Adalberto about his fiancée, whom he had first set eyes on onlydays before, matchmaking being one of the benefits of community life. They bantered in Spanglish about their favorite Arabic foods: “Tan picante, man, so spicy que puede knock you out!” They talked abouttheir Muslim hermanos y hermanas in their expanding Islamic familia, which included Yemeni men who had married mujeres de México. “The Yemenis are attracted to las mujeres Mexicanas more than to white women,” said Daniel, “because Mexican women are more modest and proper.”

Finally, speaking of the hardships and uncertainties Daniel and his family would face in their imminent move to the Sudan, Adalberto’s Spanish failed him. “Insha’Allah,” he said solemnly in Arabic. God be willing.

Adalberto prepares carne asada and tortillas

While grilling the last batch of pollo asada, Daniel and Adalberto drifted into reminiscences about their childhoods in Mexico, insisting that their conversions to Islam had been a homecoming for them. Islam evoked the spirit of a Mexico of families bound together by religion. A Mexico of La Virgen and El Padre, of strong, loving mothers and stern fathers. A Mexico of tradition, rules and morals, where religious ritual and faith permeated every aspect of life. But although they would not admit it, they were speaking of a Mexico not of their memories, but their dreams—an idealization of family and tradition largely unfulfilled for them in Mexico, yet sorely missed in the United States.

Adalberto spoke of his family’s weekly asadas—his father, mother, eleven sisters, two brothers, cousins, aunts, and uncles gathered about a barbecue pit at their Jalisco home. “We fought and argued, too,” he acknowledged, “but we were there with the whole family. That was the important part.”

At seventeen, Adalberto joined his sister in Chicago, and immediately descended into a life of drugs, gangs, and promiscuity. When Spanish-speaking Anglo Mormons befriended him, he proved ripe for conversion. For two years, he threw himself into the life of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Then he discovered Islam. In a Chicago neighborhood filled with Palestinian and Jordanian immigrants, an imam gave Adalberto a Spanish translation of the Koran. He devoured the book in a week. Then the Jordanians invited him to eat in their homes and discuss the teachings of Muhammad.

Adalberto was struck by the courtesy of his new Muslim friends, their offerings of food, their kindness toward him, a stranger. “Muslims are family oriented, very similar to Mexicans,” he recalled later. “Their family gatherings were like my family gatherings. The Muslims felt very familiar, like I knew them for a long, long time.” His conversion to Islam made life in the United States less stressful and lonely, more warm and intimate.

“Here in the U.S. you don’t even say hello to your neighbor,” he said. “But the Muslims are different. They see me on the street and say, ‘Assalam alaikoom,’ and I say, ‘Alaikoom assalam.’ It’s like buenosdías. It’s like Mexico.”
* * *
When Daniel was a student at San Joaquin Delta College, in the Central Valley, his history professor assigned the class an essay: “Who was the most important individual in shaping the world?” Daniel chose Alexander the Great; the Muslims in the class selected Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

“I looked at Islam with more interest,” recalled Daniel. “Here’s this great leader. I gotta check him out.”

During Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, Daniel persuaded his Mexican friends to support their Islamic cohorts by joining their fast. By the second day, all of Daniel’s Latino friends were devouring midday hamburgers. But Daniel held the fast. “It humbled me,” he said. “I went through such dramatic changes, they amazed me.”

Daniel besieged his Muslim friends with scores of questions about their culture. The Islamic emphasis on charity, hospitality, and family impressed him deeply.

He also discovered—and embraced—the Islamic prohibition against alcohol.
Heavy drinking had long been a tradition in Daniel’s family. “My grandfather had an alcohol problem and he committed suicide,” he said. “My uncle used to send me to get him rubbing alcohol, he was thatdesperate to drink. And when I lived with my mom in Tijuana, I’d be out partying every night.”

Soon after his Ramadan fast, Daniel quit drinking. His family viewed his sobriety with suspicion. “I was living with my aunt,” he said. “She got worried because I wasn’t eating and I started losing weight. My beard was kind of long and I was reading books about Islam. So my aunt called my mom and said I was doing drugs and had become a terrorist.”

Daniel finished the semester, then went to see his mother. “I told her about Islam,” he said, “and she just stayed quiet. But my sisters said that after I left, my mom cried all night. I told them I’d been kneeling and putting my face in the dirt to pray to God, so I’m not thinking about booze or partying anymore.”

Soon Daniel was unfurling his prayer rug five times a day. But when a Muslim friend invited him to pray at the local mosque, he hesitated. “I didn’t think I had the right to pray at a mosque,” he said, “because I wasn’t really a Muslim.”

Finally, he accompanied his friend into a large apartment, the floors covered by rugs, the rooms painted white but otherwise unadorned. There were no chairs, pews, paintings, or statues. The makeshift mosque bore little resemblance to the churches where Daniel had worshipped as a child.

An imam conducted the service in Arabic. “I just sat there, observing,” said Daniel, “soaking it in. There were black people, white people, a lot of Arabs. No Mexicans.”

By the end of the evening, Daniel was sitting on the floor next to an elderly Muslim man. “He was telling me all about the beliefs of Islam,” said Daniel. “And I was saying, yes, yes, I believe in that.”
“There is one God.”“Yes, yes.”

“The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was God’s final messenger. Jesus, peace be upon him, was also a prophet. But he is not God.”


“God, who we call Allah, knows what is in our hearts.”


“Muslims must seek knowledge, since this is the best way to know Allah.”


“The word Islam means peace, and submission to God.”


On the spot, the man invited Daniel to become a Muslim.“My family flashed before my eyes,” remembered Daniel, “and I thought, ‘They’re going to disown me! My mom’s going to be heartbroken.’ But I was stuck, because I believed in what that man was telling me. And on the day of judgment it’s going to be just me and God.

I held the old man’s hand and he said, ‘Repeat after me. La ilaha ila Allah; Muhammadur-rasul Allah.’”

Dniel asked the man to say it again in English.“There is no God apart from God, and Muhammad is God’s messenger.”
“I repeated the words,” recalled Daniel, “and the man said, ‘That’s it. You’re a Muslim.’“

For Daniel and Adalberto, Islam provided clear moral ground in which to spread their roots—precisely at a time when their young lives had seemed most out of control. Yet they discarded the notion that they’d been merely seeking a return to traditions, or fleeing alcohol or their isolation as immigrants.

Daniel and Adalberto believed their embrace of Islam represented a historical validation of their true Spanish heritage. The Islamic Moors, they reasoned, had conquered Spain in the eighth century and maintained a presence until their final rout by the Christians in 1492—the same year that Columbus set out on a journey that initiated the Christian conquest of the New World. Daniel and Adalberto’s conversionfrom Mexican to Muhammadan, they said, was a throwing off of two conquests—a journey back to their Moorish roots in Spain.

For Daniel, the link of Moorish to Mexican culture confirmed the rightness of his conversion, and strengthened his resolve to move his family to Sudan. Daniel and Roxanne pushed pitchforks into the earth of the vegetable garden behind the Hayward mosque. As the sun reached its zenith, the chant of the call to prayer interrupted their work.Allahu Akbar. The voice of the muezzin surged from the loudspeaker, each repetition more drawn out, radiating from the mosque as if carried on a desert wind.

They dropped their pitchforks to the earth and entered the ritual washing rooms to prepare for the noon prayer. Adalberto joined Daniel on the men’s side. The two squatted below a water tap protrudingfrom a white tiled wall to perform the wuduu, the traditional ablution that precedes Islamic prayer.

Shaykh Salek bin Siddina, from Mauritania, at the noon prayer with (from right) Adalberto and Daniel

Adalberto poured water from his left hand to his right and washed up to his wrist three times. “My father washed in this exact way,” he told Daniel. “My uncles did, too. And all of us kids, we never askedwhy, we just did it.”

The two men brought their hands to their mouths and sniffed water into their nostrils, then blew it out, three times.

“Where’d your father learn it?” asked Daniel.

Adalberto’s great-great-grandfather, he told Daniel, had come to Mexico from the south of Spain, Andalusia, the land of the Moors. His family, generation after generation of Mexican Catholics, had continuedperforming the ritual Islamic washing.

A week later, Daniel and Roxanne stood on the sidewalk in front of their single-story gray stucco home, airplane tickets and passports in hand. They chatted calmly with friends about their family’s upcoming flight—San Francisco to Frankfurt to Bahrain, then finally Khartoum, Sudan.

The U.S. State Department had announced that week the barest glimmer of hope for peace in Sudan—a glimmer that would soon be extinguished.Daniel stood in front of his house alongside fifteen three-foot-square sealed cardboard boxes, struggling to reach Sudan on his cell phone. He listened to the silence, then slipped the phone back into his pocket and smiled sheepishly. “It’s futile,” said Daniel, and he went back to writing his address on the air-freight cartons.

In preparation for their new life in Sudan, Daniel had packed some modern, Western conveniences: a fax machine; books for his daughters (along with packages of macaroni and cheese); pamphlets on canning fruits and vegetables, purifying water, and building super-adobe heat-resistant houses in the desert.
As a young American father about to deliver his family into the uncertainties of Muslim life in Sudan, Daniel had chosen carefully among tools, materials, and mementos that might unite his Mexican heritage with his new Islamic life, and an unpredictable future.

VISIT: Original Post


Zaytuna Institute

Brother Adelberto Madrigal

Imam Zaid Shakir

1 comment:

El fiqh said...

Muchas gracias