Some people think that I’ve had a fascinating life. I can see why someone might say that. My life story involves a rural South upbringing, international travel and politics, and a whole lot of geography.
I was once married to a Nobel Peace prize co-laureate. I’ve lived and traveled abroad as a diplomat’s wife. I’ve exchange greetings with queens, first ladies of foreign countries, and foreign ministers. In Nairobi, I dined with a world famous economist. Before 9/11, I interviewed and, on one occasion, dined with individuals associated with the Taleban.
More recently, I explored the ghost frontier. Again, geography is key in this particular part of my journey. I wrote a book about that spirited landscape, and I hung out with some cast members from paranormal reality TV during the writing process.
It is true, I suppose, to propose that I’ve had an interesting life. What may be more accurate is to suggest that I have interesting stories to tell.
What may be the most captivating part of my story — anyone’s story — is the journey. Our first geography lesson is in North Florida, right on the Florida/Georgia/Alabama state lines. I was born and raised in the rural South in a place that, even today, has no coffee shops or gyms, and is located a good hour off an interstate highway. Like most good Southerners, I spent my youth in the Southern Baptist church. One summer, I briefly served as a door-knocker for Jesus.
Needless to say, that didn’t really work out well.
In fact, one could say it didn’t work out at all since I’m now a Muslim, and I have been for the the past twenty years.
I did not marry into the faith. Yet, once I did marry, I married into a big package that included a more conservative approach to Islam than the one I internalized. (You can read about my courtship and marriage in Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women). In addition, my ex-husband had five children from a previous marriage and I agreed to raise them all, often in varying combinations, and in multiple places around the world. Blended families come with their own challenges, but add five kids to the mix and frequent international relocation, and the challenges become earth-sized. Of course, the marriage produced my son, Ibrahim. Then, there were six.
Six kids and a twelve year marriage. During that time, I lived and/or traveled through Azerbaijan, where I gave birth to my son, Afghanistan, Kenya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Dubai, and Switzerland. I relocated to and from the United States twice. The last time I moved back to the US, I was alone with six kids in tow, four of whom were in high school and no one but me knew how to drive. For almost four years, I single-parented a varying number of children while my then-spouse remained abroad.
Four long years.
That marriage is now over. Most of my former step-kids are in college. I’m with my son in our own place. I’m almost (almost!) a year out of that marriage and I’m recalibrating my own internal geographies.
During a personal rebooting is a good time to remember where you’ve been. I have a tendency to forget all of my stops along the way — there have been so many. For example, a recent internet search reminded me that I conducted a series of writing workshops in the Kingdom of Bahrain. During my time there, I also helped establish Elham, a grassroots creative arts group. (TimeoutBahrain has some great photos from their 2009 Arts Festival, which took place a year after I left the island.) But even before my marriage — even before I became a Muslim — I embodied so many different selves and geographical outposts that I’ve lost track of people and places.
You know where I’ve been internationally. Now, let us talk domestically: I’ve lived in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, New York, Maryland, and North Carolina.
I’ve been around, one could say. I’ve done a lot. I can’t even remember all of my life details. In Florida, I dropped out of high school early despite being good student, entered community college, and spent my free time involved with the Palestinian cause. This is an important development for it introduced me to the work of Dr. Edward Said. I am not the first person to say that his work profoundly impacted the way I view my place in the world.
His theory of imagined geographies is a particularly apt metaphor for my life, but probably not in the way he intended.
In Ohio, I hung out with anarchists and people who joined and shopped at co-ops. I worked at a health food store and, later, a coffee house. I had roommate who is one of the few people to have remained my friend throughout my life. (She has lived with me in two different cities and at two different times in my life.)
In New York City, I had no American friends except one. And that one American friend was a fellow geographer, Jewish, who gave me shelter that first month or so in the city. I spent my time working at the Methodist Church (Christians!) headquarters by day, then hanging out at night with my Muslim girlfriends in the East Village smoking shisha while debating large issues like Islamic identity and the search to find love. As I worked across from Columbia University, I often ran into to Dr. Said on my lunch break. In an unrelated series of events, I also had the pleasure of getting to know Zaineb Istrabadi, who was his assistant at the time.
Life is synchronous, indeed.
I’ve been in many places and I’ve assumed many identities. Yet, the biggest source of my identity for the past twelve years has been that of a wife and mother.
Last night, I pulled out an old family portrait — one taken in Islamabad, Pakistan — and showed a friend.
“Can you believe this was me?” I said, “And that this was my life? I helped raise all of those kids.”
She shook her head. “No, I can’t believe that is you. This isn’t who you are now. I mean, you are beautiful in this picture, but this isn’t you.”
She took a long look at it, sighed, and handed the picture back. “You really have lived this interesting, exotic life. You got what you needed from this relationship, then you moved on. And you are still traveling,” she reminded me.
I pondered her words for a moment before responding. “I know this was my life, and one that wasn’t even too long ago. I know I’ve lived this interesting, amazing, global existence, but you know what? I feel that I haven’t internalized it.”
I haven’t yet processed all of these very large, very unusual events. I’m scared of the process, but I’m also excited to enter a completely new personal frontier.
I am quite complex. I am white American woman, a Muslim, a girl who is into weird, woo-woo stuff, and I am someone who enjoys deeply intellectual and esoteric thought. I am a handful of things, I tell you. Yet, here I am, once again exploring new terrains of the self, and embarking on a journey towards a completely new imagined geography.