Sunday, March 27, 2011

Stay-at-Home Moms, Beauty Making, and More

There are no mommy wars here. In the expat community in Malaysia, all of the moms are stay-at-home (SAHM). The exceptions include those in business for themselves, but even they are not beholden to a 9 to 5.

Residence in KL gave me an opportunity to further test the waters as a stay-at-home mom. But place matters in the experience. The unique feature of my SAHM experience in KL is that I have connected with women from all over the world, literally.

Yahya's young ears have already had close encounters with several world languages--Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Mandarin, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia, Hindi/Urdu, French, Farsi, Japanese, Russian--as he plays with children whose mothers converse with me in English, interrupting to remind or guide their children in their mother tongue.  

Connecting with other SAHMs, I've also discovered one of the more glorious aspects of staying at home: cultivating one's more artistic passions and talents. Two women especially brought this home for me at the same time that their friendships have helped me move beyond the boundaries of race that color my past.

The first is KJ. She represents the way in which I have connected with women from the United States whom I ordinarily would not have in the United States.

Yes, KJ is white. We met through our husbands who have both worked in the Islamic finance sector. Our last play date, I had the opportunity to visit KJ's home.    

Her condo reminded me of one of my favorite translations of the Arabic and Qur'anic word "muhsin," or "beauty maker" as rendered by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. The muhsinun are those of beautiful character and action. Shaykh Hamza's commentary inspired me to think of the muhsinun as those who make and create beauty in every manner. It inspired me to put extra effort in adorning my home, then in Chicago. 

"Malaysian Tea Party" - Representing main three ethnic groups there: Malay, Chinese, Indian 
KJ is an artist, an illustrator of children's books. The art that she selected or crafted for her walls demonstrated her aesthetic appreciation. The impressive collection of children books, what I found at the heart of her son's play room, demonstrated her grasp that the cultivation of beauty should begin at the earliest. 

I left KJ's home inspired again to be a beauty maker. I also thought how wonderful it was that she was blessed with the time and space to blossom as an artist. Something that she could not commit to if she worked a regular 9 to 5.

As I open myself to new possibilities, reflected in my newfound friendship with KJ, I admit that I am still easily drawn to the familiar, that is, black women.

But again, in this far land, that which seems familiar isn't at all. Here's where Anjelia enters. I first encounter her walking across the street from my condo. She is tall, coffee-complexioned, poised, and wears a natural afro puff that sits on her head as if to mark a queen. She is the only woman in Malaysia wearing this crown. 

We are both delighted to encounter the other. Strength and warmth together color her voice. She introduces her daughter, almond-complexioned, long, curly hair. 

Anjelia is from Brazil. She is married to a white man from Argentina. Her struggle with English is the earliest indication that we are black women from different worlds. I admire her ability to be different in this place. Perhaps she is my reflection.

The day I visited her home, it wasn't planned. "Come," she said, as we met on an afternoon stroll. The lobby of her condo was one of the finest, most tranquil on our block.

Pillows out of their jackets lie on her sofas wide enough to hosts several guests. She asked me to excuse the place as she quickly put cases on the pillows. They were the colors of the Brazilian flag. "I made them myself." My admiration for this woman grew.

When she showed me family photos, primarily of her white family, I couldn't get past the picture of her locking arms with her four sisters-in-law. This shows how far removed I am from black-white interracial couples in the United States, or black-white interracial friendships for that matter.

Blacks and whites are not separated in the same way as in the US, Anjelia tried explaining to me in her earnest English. While racism has its mark on Brazilian society, striking features of Brazil are the number of interracial marriages and the normalcy of its category mixed race.

Reared in a society in which black women are the least likely of any group, including black men, to marry interracially, I wondered what it would be like to see the world through Anjelia's eyes, racial lines blurred a degree, or several degrees, more than through my eyes.

Sipping on tea in Anjelia's living room, I noticed lovely paintings of a beach sunset and a flower garden. When I complimented them, she responded, "They are mine," in a manner both humble and proud at once. 

"You painted them?"

"In Chile, I met with a woman who taught me."

Later in her kitchen as I snacked on a buffet of papaya, avocado, and pistachios, she told me again, "Come." I followed her to the room across from the wet kitchen, most likely designed for the live-in maid. Anjelia had reinvented it as her sewing room, a large table covered with fabrics and other supplies fit snugly in the room.  Magazine pages of models on runways, black and white, splashed the walls.

"I made this handbag just yesterday." Totally impressed, I grabbed the bag to take a closer look. "How did you learn to make this?" She just smiled. She showed me more bags, the unconventional styles and fabrics gave away that they were customized.

"I love the handbags of the Japanese women. I want one so I made it myself."

I've also looked twice at the chic fashions of the Japanese women who dominate my condo, like the one in the photo at the top of this post.

As a stay-at-home mom in KL, I've also found some time to reconnect with my passion, and that is writing the stories of American Muslims. In the case of this blog, it has been my story, but I've also rediscovered my long-time desire to write about the beginnings of Islam in America for many, and it took a woman from a very different background to help me realize that it is something I must do.

In the last two months I've begun substantial work writing a book on the Nation of Islam. In graduate school, several of my term papers related to some aspect of the Nation of Islam, but my dissertation topic took me in a different direction.

However, almost all of the talks I give on the topic of Muslim women include an account of my mother's journey to Islam via the Nation, as does one of my publications, "Through Sunni Women's Eyes."

On my way to KL last summer, I received an email from a scholar in the UK inviting me to write a book with her on the Nation, and here I am on the other side of the world doing it. Google docs has made it all possible.

Twelve years ago as a young graduate student, if you told me that I'd be writing a book on the Nation with an Irish, non-Muslim woman, I would not have believed you. Back then, I was just starting to realize that black people were not the only ones writing about the Nation, and certainly not the only ones fascinated by it.

Everything comes full circle. I never imagined that all the way in Malaysia I'd return to my roots while connecting with others beyond my roots in such vast ways. What a treasure!  I am reminded of the Alchemist.


  1. Asalam Alaikum Sis,

    Thanks for sharing such intimate and unspoken thoughts. You provide much expat comfort and truth across the cables!

    love and peace

  2. wa alaykum assalam Brooke,

    So nice to hear from you. I appreciate your feedback.

    love and light,

  3. Nice post. Waiting for more =)
    With Love,
    Lisa Hashem

  4. Alhamdulilah! I really enjoyed reading this post sis and it is one that i could really relate to. Please take a moment to visit my website and blog and share your thoughts. You can also become a member at my website and web conferencing room as well,at online community of muslim women entrepreneurs that i started about 3 months ago,Alhamdulilah) and online community conference room for "Her BIZness")