Catalyst (My Calling)

 

Sura 1, the Holy Qu’ran:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds!
The compassionate, the merciful!
King on the day of reckoning!
Thee only do we worship, and to Thee do we cry for help.
Guide Thou us on the straight path,2
The path of those to whom Thou hast been gracious;— with whom thou art not angry, and who go not astray.3

Islam teaches that everything is written.  Even if you are not a Muslim, I’m certain you have heard this expressed before.  No, really you have…

Neo: Well, that didn’t go so well.
Morpheus: Are you Certain the Oracle didn’t say anything else?
Neo: Yes.
Trinity: Maybe we did something wrong.
Neo: Or didn’t do something.
Morpheus: No, what happened, happened and couldn’t have happened any other way.
Neo: How do you know?
Morpheus: We are still alive.

As always, I’ll try to start at the beginning…

In one regard, I was like almost any other black kid in that I wanted to be like Mike.  But on the other hand, I was different from the beginning.  I was taking notes, even at 6.  I sing in my natural tenor now, but you better believe when I was a kid it was all falsetto.  Most of these tapes are long since destroyed, but I would write songs and dance in videos with my sister and my younger cousins.  The way Mike carried himself was appealing to me for many years; soft-spoken off stage, full throttle on it.  The first time I heard the gay rumors about him, it didn’t change the way I looked at him.  Even if he was, so what?  It wasn’t until later that I was ‘educated’ into all the professional and social stigmas that came with being gay.   But for awhile, he was just a private guy.  Of course, when those ‘rumors’ turned into something WAY more criminal and sinister, like everyone else I had to pull back some.  Mike didn’t check it, which was a lesson (for me) in terms of drawing the line between being a private person, and being reclusive to the point of it being detrimental to your image.

As a teenager, my introduction to self respect and having a social agenda came through idolizing Malcolm X.  In the mid to late 90s, when Public Enemy was peaking, and everybody had their Cross Colours and at least one black X cap, it was a good time to be proud to be black.  I became the extreme of that movement. 

“We had the greatest organization in the world, and niggas ruined it.”

Malcolm spent most of his ministry pushing other people’s agendas.  Once he moved on and started pushing his own agenda though, they killed him.  They killed him in front of his pregnant wife and their children.  It was an extreme case of what can happen when people go their separate ways, but…it still happened.  Again, it was an important life lesson that I had to digest: if you spend your life as a follower, sure life is a lot easier.  But in any given situation, if you choose to disturb the status quo, well, then you better be ready to pay the price. 

It’s not a bad thing when your idealism fades away, it happens to everyone I think.  For me, I started to become disillusioned in college.  I still have a mind for what works and what won’t work, but I clearly started caring less and less about being viewed as a ‘black leader’.  Or more specifically, if there were 25 of us (arbitrary number) that had ideas about what was best for the black community, there were 25 different motives and agendas at work.  And the religious thing started to play a bigger factor, there’s no doubt about that…

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying – we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this – no one gives it to you. You have to take it.

Frank Costello, The Departed

My girlfriend at the time woke me up on 9/11.  My time as a completely self centered individual lasted all of two years.  I didn’t completely recognize it then, but my Path began on that day.  Black people have a long running joke; when we turn on the news and hear “Police are looking for a suspect,” we pray it’s not one of us.  Well, Muslims who never understood that joke understood it after 9/11.  The bullseye was firmly placed on our backs.  It was very tense for awhile, but things have returned to normal.  But what is normal?  Is that the same thing as good?  I say no.  There’s still a stigma attached to the Muslim community.

The fundamentalists on both sides (or as I like to call them, the vocal minority) would like you to believe that being American and Muslim are mutually exclusive.  Basic knowledge of law tells you this is false.  Knowing the history of this country as I do, I see a lot of similarities to, for lack of a better term, ‘pledging’.

As Jack’s quote implies, the Irish came here and were told they didn’t belong.  They maintained the ties to their own culture and through Irish-Americans eventually blended their culture into America.  The Italians went through a similar process, as did the Jews, and the Japanese.  Now of course Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans, and Asian Americans have their own stigmas to deal with but rarely (if ever) does anyone question their loyalty to this country anymore.  (I’m deliberately not including African-Americans in this analogy.  Our ‘immigration’ to this country was different, and it all starts there.)  Anyway, the blueprint for Muslim-Americans has been laid out I feel; we have to take it and run with it.

All of this brings me to the past 12 months…

To the pleasant surprise of nearly everyone I knew, a black man was elected President of the United States of America.  I don’t think there are words to describe what that meant to myself, my parents, nearly every black person I know.  Every poll and every update and every line of voters around the block indicated that it was going to happen.  But we wouldn’t accept it until CNN put “President-Elect Obama” on the screen.  We wouldn’t accept it until we saw the First Family come out to the massive ovation at Grant Park.  If I was ever asked by one of my non-black friends to describe the black experience, those final moments before it became official captured everything: we’ve been beaten, shot, stabbed, raped, disrespected, lynched, scapegoated in every way imaginable.  And yet, we still have an optimism that things will work out.  And once in a while they do work out.

Obama’s rise has inspired a new generation of young black men and women to take on an active role in their community. The honeymoon is officially over, and the attacks on the President have begun.  It’s getting pretty heated on both sides.   I still remember the days when it felt like I was the only one who really cared about the future of my race.  Now we have a black President and I’m content to watch from the sidelines how this all plays out.  How ironic is that?

After attending Michael Jackson’s memorial, I actively avoided his music for a week.  Then of course, I couldn’t avoid it; it was in my IPod, I’d get sent new links, I’d turn on the radio every day and somebody would be playing his music.  And quickly the joy came back to me.  All these years later, I still start beaming, and depending on where I’m at and who I’m with, I’ll get up and start singing and dancing.  Michael’s life (and death) gave me pause to look at my other passions.  What else still brings me joy and what doesn’t.  What have I lost my passion for, and what still gets me hyped.  Earlier this year I began to pray for peace of mind in my personal life. Little by little, my faith has tied itself now into the areas of my life where I had previously created walls…

Right before Ramadan began, I made the decision to retire from the writing and directing game.  I’ve given each craft ten years since I’ve finished school.  Of course, I’ll continue to develop the projects I’ve already committed to.  But I have not broken enough ground to build a career on.  The only passion I haven’t dedicated myself to fully yet is acting.  In that same ten year span I’ve graduated from cameos to leading parts in films; I’ve made one appearance on national television, with the second one around the corner.  I have to find out how far I can carry this when it gets my full focus and attention.  The sum of my experiences, living in the smallest cities and the big metropolis; learning all aspects of filmmaking from an artistic and business point of view, having an interest in the history of my own culture and the cultures of others, has given me a preparation more ideal than anything I could have ever planned.  Everything is written.

Moreso than in years past, Ramadan this year has been an experience that I’ll always remember.

I pulled myself out of my regular social routine.  No lunches meant I had my annual 10 pound weight loss, but it went a lot deeper this year.  I missed weddings, I missed birthday parties, I haven’t been to the movie theatre or the gym in a month, I missed the SC home opener.  In place of my usual socializing, I spent more time fellowshipping with my fellow Muslims.  They’ve had me to their homes for iftar, I’ve listened to political discussions that reflect my own concerns, I’ve listened to young brothers and sisters express their dreams for the future; with the generous help of brothers from the masjid, I’ve started studying Arabic for the first time since I learned my prayers many years ago.  I was getting ‘Soul Food’; it was a connection to my teenage lifestyle that I had lost a lot of in the years since.  And it was something I realized had been sorely missing from my routine. 

When I went in and auditioned for my professional mentor, I had to choose a monologue to perform.  I combed through decades of speeches I liked, but I chose Luke’s final speech in Cool Hand Luke; in retrospect the irony of that choice makes me laugh out loud for how close to home the lines are:

Luke: Anybody here? Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can You spare a minute. It’s about time we had a little talk. I know I’m a pretty evil fellow… killed people in the war and got drunk… and chewed up municipal property and the like. I know I got no call to ask for much… but even so, You’ve got to admit You ain’t dealt me no cards in a long time. It’s beginning to look like You got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all of them… rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in? Old Man, I gotta tell You. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginning to get to me. When does it end? What do You got in mind for me? What do I do now? Right. All right.
[Gets on knees, closes eyes and begins to pray]
Luke: . On my knees, asking.
[Peeks up with one eye, waits. Then opens eyes and crosses arms]
Luke: . Yeah, that’s what I thought. I guess I’m pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case.
[Clicks tongue]
Luke: . Yeah. I guess I gotta find my own way.
[Headlights shine through windows, backs up]
Dragline: Luke?
Luke: [Shakes head and smiles] Is that Your answer, Old Man? I guess You’re a hard case, too.

As a Muslim-American, I feel the sense of responsibility that I once felt exclusively as an African-American.  I have pledged to leave the Ummah in a better position that it was when in when I joined it.  The Muslim community is every bit as diverse as everyone else; but it’s clear to me now that we only know that from the inside.  To the mainstream, Muslims are treated right now the way that the Russians were when I was a kid: America’s quiet, faceless enemy.  A perfect example that you may not see; Every news story about a Muslim sister who feels uncomfortable wearing a hijab (headscarf) in public for fear of being threatened.  This sister could be my wife; in a few years this could be my daughter.  My life as a black man has made me well aware that the culture of prejudice will always exist; but that does not mean I have to accept it.  And it certainly doesn’t mean I plan on doing nothing about it.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m not a preacher.  I could refer you to 100 brothers and sisters who are much more qualified than me to quote Scriptures and Hadith; who could break down for you the difference between what’s in the Qu’ran and what are in fact, cultural traditions that are mistaken for Islam (sometimes purposefully, sometimes not).  When Dave Chappelle came out and said he was a Muslim but didn’t want people to use him as ‘the example’ for what a Muslim was, I completely understood how he felt.  That was essentially my own feelings for most of my life.  But I feel now, this is an essential part of my Calling.  If, through my positive attitude, through my silliness, through my karma; if through whatever light I can draw to myself, ‘Malik Aziz’ can inspire or otherwise make life more tolerable for a single Muslim in America, if I can show a single non-Muslim that we are not all terrorists, that we are not all sexist, and that, as in my case, we are as American as apple pie, then I’ve reached the point of my life where I can accept the slings and arrows, the backstabbing and the lies, and whatever other type of negativity that will be thrown at me for spreading my Message as far and as wide as I can spread it.  And if I can affect more than one person, well, the more the merrier…  

If you know me, you know I love my quotes.  Movie quotes, Batman quotes, historical quotes.  Stepping out of the background and into the spotlight, I wanted something new to define my Mission, my life’s work.  As is usually the case, my quote found me: I saw it in a comic book I was reading and instantly identified it as something that defined my own karma:

1st Book of Corinthians, 13th Chapter:

Love

 1If I speak in the tongues[a] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing.

 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

 13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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