English Teacher Turiya S.A. Raheem, who returned home to Atlantic City in 2008, is the author of “Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the Northside”, a look back at her life growing up in Atlantic City and the history of her family, which includes her grandparents, Clifton and Alma Washington, who owned Wash’s sandwich shop (opened in 1937) on Kentucky Avenue. It is one of the few books focusing on the city’s black community written by someone from within the community.
I thought they were perfect, these pious people, all praying five times a day, dressing modestly and reading the Holy Qur’an. They sprinkled their English sentences with Arabic words, which made it seem like they were speaking in tongues or something other-worldly. I felt like I had found home after growing up Baptist, exploring Buddhism and Hinduism, studying Rastafari and Communism. For a minute, I had actually even considered Judaism, but I didn’t think there would be many brown faces at the synagogue. I didn’t know there were black Jews, or even Black Hebrew Israelites, right here in the U.S. and I hadn’t even skimmed the Holy Qur’an my brother had given me years ago until I was a battered wife.
Jerry and I had been a couple for longer than we’d been husband and wife. “He’ll be different once we’ve taken our vows,” I told my mother adamantly when she said people don’t change that much. Then, she helped me prepare for my wedding, send out the invitations, choose colors and dresses. She didn’t want to be a meddling mother-in-law from day one.
I refused to call Mom when the fights started and when they escalated. I called a women’s shelter instead of the police. The in-take woman at the shelter informed me that I needed to make some decisions before the counselors could help me. Would I stay with Jerry? Would I leave Jerry? My answer would determine how or if they could help me. I decided to leave him.
One day after Jerry left for his 3-11 shift at work, my brother came to our apartment as planned and helped me quickly gather as many of my possessions as possible and pile them into his car. I stayed with him and his family until I found an efficiency on 16th Street, not far from my new job at the Washington Post.
When I arrived in D.C. to start my new job, I wore cute summer dresses, lightweight suits and gauzy skirts to work. Immediately, I got along well with my co-workers and proved to my supervisor that I could be an excellent copy editor, but in the quiet of my apartment with few possessions, I felt lonely and lost. I started reading the Holy Qur’an my brother had given me some time ago and in a matter of weeks, it became my constant companion. I read it in the morning when I first woke up and on the bus as I rode to work. I read it in between serving clients at work. I read it at lunchtime while sitting on my favorite bench in McPherson Park and on the bus ride home. I read it while I ate dinner and before I went to sleep.
“Is that al-Kitab?” a handsome, freckle-faced brother asked me one day as I sat in McPherson eating my lunch.
“The what?” I asked, perplexed.
“Al-Kitab. It’s Arabic for the book,” he answered smiling. “Allah’s book. You don’t know what you’re reading?”
“Yes, I know it’s the Holy Qur’an. My brother gave it to me. I just never heard it called that before.”
“You can just say the Qur’an, he advised. You’re not Muslim?” he asked, obviously trying not to stare at my halter top and tight pants. I had removed my blazer to feel the sun on my back, glad to be away from the freezing air conditioning in the Post building.
I blushed. “I guess you can tell from my clothes. Are you?”
“Awwwwwwww, Sister, you got to meet some Muslims. Yeah. I can introduce you to a whole lot of Muslims.”
“My band rehearses every Wednesday night. You want to come over sometime? The wives of the band members are always there.”
“Sure. Why not? I don’t know any Muslim women. I have a lot of questions.”
“I’m sure you do, Sister, and them sisters can tell you all ‘bout it. They know their deen.”
“Sorry,” he laughed. “I keep forgetting cause you got the Kitab in your hands. Their deen, their way of life, how we do things.”
“Mind if I take your number?”
“No. I’ll write it down.”
It took no time for me to become comfortable around the Children of Alkebulan band members and their wives, a lively bunch of striving, young Muslims who were like a family. Whenever the band rehearsed, they had dinner and prayed together before the men in the band practiced and the women turned to their duties in the kitchen. The young wives welcomed me like they had known me for years and I became one of the regulars at these band rehearsal gatherings three or four times a week, feeling a sense of belonging I had not felt since I was a child at Shiloh Baptist Sunday school classes with my siblings and cousins.
“Ash-shadu anla illaha il Allah wa ash-shadu anna Muhammadur rasullullah,” I repeated proudly one evening after several women had questioned me on the fundamentals of becoming a Muslim. “I bear witness that there is no God but the One God and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” I repeated in English, letting the little crowd of worshippers know that I knew what I was saying in Arabic.
“Allahu Akbar!” they shouted. “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Greater! God is Greater!)
One by one, the women embraced me and kissed me on both cheeks, right, left, right, three times. Some even gave me gifts, head scarves, a new prayer rug, long dresses, long skirts and books on women in Islam. Then, they told me to shower and change my clothes, because I was as new as a newborn baby and all my past sins were forgiven. It was one of the most joyous occasions of my life. Everyone celebrated like it was a wedding or anniversary party, eating, laughing, talking and rejoicing.
When I returned from my shower, all dressed in new clothes with a long, flowing headscarf, I realized that the men and women had retreated into different rooms. The front room where we had all gathered and eaten on floor mats was empty and dark, so I headed down the hallway to where I could see lights in two other rooms. As I passed the first room, I noticed most of the men had their heads bent low over tiny mounds of white powder. I knew cocaine when I saw it. No one looked up to see me standing in the doorway. They kept cutting the straws, sniffing and talking trash to one another. This was not the example I had seen at my brother’s house.
When I reached the bedroom at the end of the hallway, all the women were there passing a marijuana joint around, talking and laughing. Raheemah, the one I felt closest to by then, motioned for me to come and sit next to her on the bed, smoothing out the comforter and making space between herself and Hawa.
“Come on, Sis, ain’t no problem,” Raheemah smiled as I sat down. “We’re just having a little celebration smoke.”
“But, I thought..,” I tried to ask about Muslims using intoxicants. I knew my brother have given up drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana when he became Muslim.
“It’s natural. It’s okay. It ain’t like we’re usin’ heroin or somethin’,” Hawa answered before I could get my questions out.
“But the brothers…,” I tried to ask.
“Don’t worry about the men,” someone answered. “They’ll be fine by time we have to make Isha, you know, the night prayer?”
“Oh, okay,” I grinned, inhaled and passed the joint.
Now, I really felt like I was in my element, the perfect pious people with marijuana galore. My brother’s life had seemed almost too clean. These were my kind of Muslims, kind of hippie-like. Raheemah even made me a package to take home as a shahadah present, she laughed.
I was overjoyed with my new life. I rose before sunrise each morning and prayed, pronouncing the words in Arabic as best as I could. Sometimes I walked to work at the Washington Post so I could enjoy the early morning sights and sounds of Washington as it awakened to a new day. I thought it was hilarious how my co-workers kept congratulating me on becoming Muslim. If they thought it was so great, why weren’t they Muslim themselves? They asked about my change of dress — I was wearing layers of clothes and veiling my face to protect my spirituality — and how I would deal with the upcoming fast of Ramadan, the lunar month when Muslims fast for thirty days. As for the dress, I was willing to do almost anything that would keep men away from me. I explained that the fast was only from about sunrise to sunset. I figured I’d be fine if I stayed inside the building instead of going to McPherson in the middle of the day.
After work, when I didn’t join the gang for Children of Alkebulan dinners and rehearsals, I retired to my apartment, ate dinner and read the Qur’an until I fell asleep. I also read every book I could find about Muslim women, Muslim wives, our rights and obligations. I wanted to know everything, and I tried to learn everything in those first few months. My thirst for knowledge was unquenchable, but I was relying on translations of the Qur’an, because I didn’t know of any Arabic classes or classes for new Muslims. Everyone seemed to be self-taught. We bought, read and circulated books amongst ourselves as if our lives depended upon it.
Though my mother thought I had been brainwashed and feared for my life, I had never been happier. She said I was a walking target in all those clothes. Her comment made me paranoid and sure enough, one day I noticed snipers in position on the roof of the Mayflower Hotel across from the Washington Post building. Still, I was a Muslim and God was going to take care of me at all times, look out for me even when I didn’t look out for myself.
One night, I shared my mother’s concern with the Children of Alkebulan family and that’s when everyone began talking about my need for a husband, a protector. I knew from my books this would probably come up at some point but hadn’t expected it so soon. Everyone began soliciting prospective brothers, weeding out some and suggesting the possibility of others I’d never met. What was important, they told me, was that the brother was a good Muslim man; otherwise, there was no real reason to turn a man down. I was 25 and had been married once already to a Christian man who had abused me physically and emotionally. Was I ready to marry again, maybe start a family? How could I be sure? Could these people really decide who would be good for me? Did they know me well enough in only a few months?
Umar was 38, had been married once and had two children who were almost grown. Everyone said he was a good brother, always praying, hardworking, dependable, had his own plumbing business and a house. After one of our Children of Alkebulan dinners, Umar and I were left in an office-type room to squat or sit with the intention of getting to know one another. He asked me a lot of questions about my growing up in New Jersey. He had never been there. All I could think to ask him about was Islam. I had no real interest in him personally. People said he was knowledgeable so I asked him if he could read Arabic, how he knew whether or not English translations of the Qur’an were correct, how he learned to make salat (the formal prayer 5 times a day), what made him become Muslim in the first place, how he dealt with his family members and how they dealt with him. He seemed a bit annoyed, I guess, because I wasn’t interested in him as a man. By the end of the night, he directed me to a little mosque in northwest D.C. Basically, it was someone’s house where Muslims were allowed to gather for daily prayers, Jumah (Friday congregational) prayers and classes.
Only a few women attended this place, but I enjoyed the small group of women and the intimacy there. Most of the sisters had been Muslim for years and they could answer my questions. They really embraced me and made me love the sisterhood in Islam even to this day, one of the things I’ve loved about being separate from the men sometimes. American society teaches women to compete. Muslim etiquettes make us bind. One sister taught me the correct pronunciation of my prayers in Arabic after I memorized them in English; she said it was extremely important that I knew what I was saying. They taught me different ways to cover my hair, things about menstruation, about cleaning my genitals every time I used the bathroom (Istinja), cutting my pubic hairs once a month and other personal matters. We talked about marriage, a Muslim woman’s rights, not only her responsibilities, and they also warned me about brothers who would try to marry a new Muslim purposely for the sake of indoctrinating her into his way of thinking. They highly encouraged me to keep studying for myself, emphasizing knowledge was incumbent on all Muslims, not only the men. They gave me the name Taleebah (female student), because they had come to know how much I loved to read and study.
This is where I also learned that smoking marijuana, natural plant or not, was something I should not be doing and it wasn’t long before I stopped spending time with the Children of Akebulan group altogether. It dawned on me then; I had never seen Umar snorting cocaine or smoking joints with those other brothers. One day, I decided to call him and the next thing you know, we were married. I had been Muslim less than 8 months.
Umar and I became regulars at the house in Northwest and as Ramadan was fast- approaching, there were more classes to help everyone prepare for the fast. I had no idea why everybody was so excited about a month where they would not be eating, drinking or having sexual relations with their spouses during the daylight hours. It was July, which meant about 12 hours of daylight! Those early years were full of excitement for me though, all of us learning more and more Arabic, more and more Qur’an, more and more about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who seemed to be the kindest, most merciful person I had ever heard of in my life besides Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) when I was at Shiloh. We were young, many of us in our 20s and full of energy; we worked all day and came to the house-masjid every night to pray together and eat together.
After dinner, we walked over to the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue for Taraweeh prayers, a special prayer only performed during Ramadan. At the Islamic Center, I met sisters from all over the world, even Caucasian ones from the U.S. Up to that point, I didn’t know there was such a person. Some of them were very outspoken and assertive away from the men, and I remember wondering how Muslim women ever got this reputation for being passive, submissive people who didn’t have much to say. Some Caucasian sisters told me they had become Muslim in defiance to the West’s false respect for women. I kept my eyes and ears open. I was experiencing so much, so fast. I didn’t have time to decipher it all. Looking back, I think the excitement of my first fast drove me from one day to the next until I had almost unbelievably completed 30 days of fasting. I was so proud of myself, of the discipline I had exercised and the effort I had put forth. Then, it was time for Eidul Fitr (after-Ramadan prayer and celebration), which I learned was a big deal.
We attended the Eid prayer outside in Anacostia Park where I got to experience just how huge the D.C.-area Muslim community was. I was overwhelmed by the thousands of people from every part of the world. Many people could be identified by their traditional dress, but I noticed lots of the women from certain countries barely covered their hair and wore polish on their fingernails and toenails. Some even wore lots of make-up, all things I had been told were haram (prohibited). I didn’t ask anyone about anything. I committed to doing some serious study for myself over the next year. Umar wanted me to keep studying with him and the house-masjid group.
Thank Allah, Umar left town not long after Eidul Fitr. He left his plumbing business in the hands of his business partner while he and his best friend headed down to Texas somewhere to look into shrimp boating. I know this sounds like Forrest Gump, but I swear, I’m not making this up. They were always looking into some new scheme to make them rich.
While he was away, I tried to read every book in his collection. He had an extensive one too, but I only read up on parts that had to do with Muslim women. I stopped going to the house-masjid. I didn’t answer the phone; I knew the sisters would wonder what happened to me. I stayed up late studying, went to work, came home, studied some more; repeat. Before Umar returned, I had moved back to the efficiency where I had lived as a single woman, because my rental agreement was still in effect.
One day, I went to the Islamic Center to speak with a scholar or Imam about how to get out of a short-lived marriage as a new convert. I thought maybe Islam had something like an American annulment. The man in the office looked at me like I was speaking Russian. I spouted all I had learned from reading Umar’s books and had somehow concluded that I could get out of the marriage. When I told the man who I was married to, he said the Islamic Center would have nothing to do with Umar. They had had too many complaints of abuse from his previous wives. What? Previous wives with an “s”? Abuse? Who knew? Nobody had shared any such information with me? Okay, so since you know he has abused previous women, why don’t you help me get out of the marriage? I thought. I told him there were no civil papers. We just sat down with two of the brothers, read some verses from the Qur’an and left as husband and wife. Make some type of pronouncement and give me some type of paper saying you did. The man looked at me again and excused himself to go give a tour to Senator Shriver who was visiting the Islamic Center for the first time. I felt horrible to say the least, almost invisible. The world of the perfect pious people was steadily falling apart.
I was terrified of what might happen when Umar returned. I went to the house-masjid and told some of the brothers there, but they said there was nothing they could do for me. I swear, but for my trust in Allah and those Muslim sisters, I was having serious second thoughts about being a Muslim. The sisters’ husbands were telling them to stay out of Umar’s business too, but behind closed doors, they were telling me if I needed anything or if he put his hands on me for leaving, I should call them right away. How could this be happening? Muslim women had rights in marriage and divorce. He had left me alone and unprotected after only a few weeks of marriage. There had to be something I could do. I was praying hard, asking Allah to give me an answer. I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do but pray. I began wondering if I should ask my mom if I could come home to New Jersey. Allah is the Best of Planners.
My job ended due to lay-offs, my rental agreement ended and Mom said I could come home if I signed a contract. I think she still thought I had been brainwashed. Who could blame her? Her contract stipulated that I had to stay for at least one year, go to therapy, find a job and/or go back to college, change my dress and contribute to the household bills. I signed it and happily, if shamefully, went to live with her again; I was 27 and hadn’t lived with her since I was 18. It was years before I ever saw Umar again.
None of the perfect, pious people knew where I had gone. I felt lost and alone again but glad I had family to turn to. What happened to the young Muslim women who didn’t have family? It didn’t take long for me to find a job as a youth counselor, and honestly, I think my involvement with those kids helped save my life. Also, I began sorting out other issues once my therapist told me, “Being Muslim is probably the least of your problems.” I don’t think Mom knew she was a devout Christian. Once I explained my religious beliefs to her, we moved on to my growing up with a young, single mother who was always busy with work and her own schooling during my developmental years and a father who lived nearby but still with his own parents at 40 years old. Dr. Jacobs made me explore my drug experimentation and free love years. Yes, that’s a good way to describe those years. It didn’t seem like a big deal back then; all the young women I knew were using birth control pills, which had become easily available. In some ways, we’d convinced ourselves that we could be like the young men we knew, love ‘em and leave ‘em. We didn’t risk getting pregnant outside of marriage or before we felt ready to become mothers like so many of our mothers had.
Once I became Muslim, birth control resurfaced as a new issue all over again. Some people said it was not allowed; we should let nature take its course. Others said it was only allowed if there was a legitimate reason for the health of the mother or child. People interpreted the verses in the Qur’an, …don’t kill your children for fear of poverty. Allah provides for you and for them, as outlawing birth control and abortions under any circumstances. During all my self-study, I could not find a definitive answer for the life of me. Other than withdrawal during the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), I could not find anything in the Hadith about birth control. Rules and laws were different in every book I read depending on the nationality, education and Mathhab (School of Thought) of the author.
To satisfy the normal sexual desires of our twenty-something bodies, I’m sure that’s why many of us were getting married so soon after becoming Muslim. In an effort to change our free love behavior, which we now considered sinful, upon conversion, we didn’t want to fornicate. Boyfriends were okay in American society, even if they were back-to-back, but not in Islamic society. We had to get married and have a husband. Some sisters were having babies almost every year but with different husbands, and it was impossible for the men to financially support all of the children they were fathering, let alone socially, emotionally or psychologically. Couples would try to make things work but divorce was inevitable for many of them. Years later, a non-Muslim social worker told me some of her co-workers referred to the Muslim mothers on welfare as holy whores. How sad, I thought. Allah knows we were only trying to practice Islam as best as we knew how given our backgrounds. Many of us had grown up in dysfunctional households, but of course, we didn’t realize it until later in life.
Discussing all of this with Dr. Jacobs for more than one year really helped me sort out my life before and after becoming Muslim. I realized how much baggage all the young Muslims I knew had probably brought into Islam with them. We were all trying so hard to find our way in the world, a better way. Some sisters began returning to Christianity, saying Islam was too hard to practice in the West, even if they still believed it was a perfect way of life. I’m sure some of the brothers actually lost their minds too, trying to be righteous men in a crazy world where they were constantly feared, denigrated and discriminated against simply for being black men in America. Someone told me a close friend, who was one of the most devout Muslim women I’d met early on, eventually became a stripper. Many people were saying the black church needed to admit its shortcomings, because it supported white supremacy and self-hatred by saying Jesus, the man (peace be upon him) was God while leading the Civil Rights Movement. They felt Afrocentric churches were the way to go, easier than trying to be Muslim in America but culturally and socially supportive. For me, there was no turning back. Every time I read my Qur’an, I felt Islam in my heart too strongly.
Almost one year to the day of signing Mom’s contract, I moved into my own place. Ramadan was approaching again. I was getting excited. I felt like I could start all over with new insights and new understanding. I would be a new Muslim again with my eyes wide open. I would not expect perfect, pious people; I’d only expect people who were trying to submit to Allah’s will. I would not judge them or myself harshly. We all believed in Allah, His Oneness, His prophets, His books, His angels, His divine decree and the Day of Judgment. We were doing the best we could to practice Islam in a majority-Christian society where all kinds of un-Islamic behaviors were allowed. I’d show empathy to everyone.
Eventually, thank Allah, I found what I considered a balanced community. I attended prayers and classes regularly but didn’t allow myself to get too friendly with people. I was taking things as slowly as possible, but I did meet and marry a man through mutual friends. We raised three, wonderful sons in that community but remained a pretty private family. It’s hard to believe we’re now considered the elders. I share my knowledge and experiences with the young sisters, and we share ours with young couples but only when asked to do so. We feel strongly that each person has to travel his or her own road in this life and we always pray for the young people to carry this Deen forward. Our country and the world need the Muslims and with all the diversity in the U.S., this is the perfect place to show how Islam brings all of humanity together.
We made our Hajj (pilgrimage to the Kaaba) twenty years ago after our sons were all grown and gone. We realized from Hajj, even more than from the Eid prayers, how Islam truly equalizes the male and the female, the rich and the poor, professional and peasant, educated and illiterate, people of all colors from all the nations of the world. With everybody in Ihram (pilgrims’ garb) on Hajj, there are no visible distinctions. Even those staying at the Mecca Hilton with the best accommodations available had to perform the same rites in the same way and on the same days as the rest of us.
For me, each step of the Hajj journey felt like Allah was breaking me down to my most basic nature, reminding me Who is Lord, Cherisher and Evolver of all the worlds. We went to Medina, the Prophet’s city, first and had four or five-star suites there, complete with full bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms and dining room areas. By the time we reached Mecca, we had dorm-type rooms for 6-8 sisters with one shower and only lukewarm or cool water most of the time. By the time the actual Hajj began, we had our backpacks on our backs with one change of clothes. We slept on our prayer rugs or small blankets in tents, some of which had oriental rugs covering the desert floor. At Arafat, a plain where you spend the day in prayer, most of us sat directly on the sand. At Muzdalifa, we slept on something like blacktop or a huge concrete parking lot. Thank Allah, I am glad He only asks us to make Hajj once in a lifetime if we can afford it. I had not considered how many millions of Muslims would be there from countries whose cultures had very different everyday manners from ours. Something as simple as using a tissue when blowing your nose became a major annoyance until I reminded myself of all our paper luxuries in the West, like paper napkins, paper towels, paper toilet paper, paper and plastic bags for throwing away other paper and plastic things. Millions of people on Hajj had left their home countries for the very first time and were afraid of the technology and conveniences in Saudi Arabia, something as simple as an elevator or an escalator. We had to admit the Saudi government’s efforts to accommodate such masses were commendable. I still don’t know how they do it, only with Allah’s help, I suppose.
Once we returned to the States, we recommitted ourselves to working to establish this Deen. Many more Muslims live here than when we first became Muslims. There are many more schools, stores, associations, conferences, conventions, inter-faith groups, even a college. Classes are taught by legitimate scholars. Young Muslims really don’t have to go overseas anymore unless they happen to want that experience. In many ways, they have it so much easier than we did, but in other ways, they have it much harder.
Since 9-11, young people are always telling us stories about how they are discriminated against because of their names. People won’t even take the time to get to know them. Our sons have had it easier, I think, because my husband kept his family’s last name and because we are African-American. Their Asian- and Arab-American friends have it extremely hard, they tell us, at airports, when applying for jobs, trying to rent apartments, everything. The way this generation of Muslims is growing up, we’re waiting to see who our sons bring home as potential wives. We are prepared for anything, but honestly, we’re hoping for African-American daughters-in-law. I can say that, right? I look forward to including them in my sisterhood.