Polka-dots and Stripes
Mahmoud Andrade Ibrahim
I remember as a child growing up in a predominantly Irish and Italian neighborhood just above Hell’s Kitchen in New York city in the 1950’s and 60’s and watching the relatives of many of my friends who just came over from the old country, that’s what they called Ireland or Italy, walking through our neighborhood. My friends who were all born here or for the most part, raised here, would cringe at the advances of these relations from across the Atlantic. The reason was because, invariably these newcomers all looked like immigrants. The men wore polka-dot shirts with striped ties. The jackets were similar but the colors never matched. The women’s dresses would have prints of with very large flowers and small jackets with small animals on it. They looked out of place.
What these new soon-to-be Americans were missing were the cultural / social cues that allow the members of a particular culture to innately know what is appropriate and acceptable in the sense of ‘normalized style’. In other words, how to blend into a different culture being sensitive to the nuances of that given society.
I’m reminded of this because I distinctly remember being in a masjid for a lecture and my wife leaning over to me and asking why was the imam, addressing a formal gathering and giving his speech in his pajamas. I looked at the imam and then proceeded to explain to my wife that the garment in question was indeed a jalabeeyah, the outer garment, and the imam was simply dressed in the sunnah which is very common, almost the rule in most blackamerican communities. She, being more patient than I could ever be, waited until I finished my explanation and said, “well, back home (Egypt) where that garment was made, our men sleep in that garment and it would be considered rude to appear in public much less address a gathering of men and women in your pajamas’.
In our attempt to follow the sunnah, the way it has been presented to us in America, we began to imitate those whom we have witnessed from other parts of the Muslim world. The result is much like the immigrant relations of my childhood friends, we are missing the social / cultural cues and therefore appear ‘out of place'. We will wear Pakistani pantaloons with an Arab shirt, a kiffayyah from Palestine and an African kufi. The end result is that we look like clowns ! Not to us but to them and they are too unfamiliar with us to tell us. Now I know that I’ve touched on a sensitive topic and right about now the little hairs on the back of your neck are beginning to stiffen, but this is what I do, I want you to think about what we do and how we can become better by being ourselves.
What we have been doing is wearing the national dress of Muslims from around the world in a very dyslectic kind of way. We call it the sunnah however I have it on very good authority that our Beloved Prophet Muhammad (pboh) never wore Pakistani pantaloons, moroccan kufis and I think you get the idea. What is sunnah is that one is modestly dressed and for men, covered from at least the navel to the knees. I’m not trying to imply that I don’t have a thobe and a few kufis that I wear from time to time but I also have my national dress. Can you imagine a man from Saudi Arabia that doesn’t own a white thobe ? NO YOU CAN’T ! However, there are many blackamerian Muslim men that don’t own a suit or even a sports jacket, not to mention a shirt and tie and for many of the younger brothers, a real pair of leather shoes.
I think the word I’m looking for is balance. We are here, in America, its ok to look like we are from here. I mention in my book, The Dar ul Islam Movement: An American Odyssey Revisited, a story about my father who refused to have me accompany him to a Parents-Teacher's meeting because he didn't want to walk in with a kid of seventeen years old looking like Moses complete with turban and a staff ! Ok, maybe the staff was a little over the top, but what I thought was the sunnah was in fact an obstacle in getting my father to understand the validity of, and see the beauty in Islam.
It is the most natural thing, to look like you come from somewhere. Think of it like this….a man came in from the desert and saw three men standing with their backs to him about 10 yards in front of him, one was Abu Bakr, one was U’mar and the other was Abu Lahab ( the enemy of Islam and a chief pagan of Mecca). By their dress, this man could not tell that two were Muslim and the other a pagan. Why ? Because they all looked like they were from the same place.