"The Tale of Sajida al-Rishawi"

I imagine many Americans, when they think about terrorism, have definitive ideas of what it means. I imagine its moral implications are clear. I have to imagine because, for me, there is no such clarity. Instead, I am haunted by the face of a small, haggard woman with a simple white hijab and the eyes of a dead woman walking.

On the night of November 9th, 2005, I was settling into bed, a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small Bedouin village in the north of Jordan. A two hour bus ride south, in the capital Amman, four Iraqis strapped with explosives walked into three hotels. Fifty-four people died, mostly Jordanian and Lebanese Muslims. One bomber lived, and a few tense days later, Sajida al-Rishawi was caught.

Very little of that is why Sajida’s small, dark-eyed face and hunched shoulders have haunted my conscience for more than a decade.
I've talked about this moment in history before. It changed the tide of Jordanian public opinion against Al Qaeda, and the woman whose bomb didn't go off haunted me for a decade.

This story is particularly dear to my heart, and I couldn't be more pleased to announce that "Terrorist or Tragedy? My Struggle with the Tale of Sajida al-Rishawi" has been published at Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, the publication of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Read it in its entirety online.

I found this publishing opportunity through the Duotrope Weekly Wire email.
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The Little NGO That Could ... And Does!

Are you, like me, wondering how you can help Syrians today?

This Upworthy list includes a lot of places to donate. After the fiasco in Haiti, I would put the International Red Cross at the bottom of your list, and elevate an organization that was just an afterthought to Upworthy. When it comes to international development, Questscope is a story of an NGO that does it right.

Back in 2008, while I was unemployed in Jordan, I wrote a grant for Questscope. They had been one of many organizations who received about a million dollars each from the United Nations to create an informal education program for Iraqi refugees and Jordanian high school dropouts. Questscope was the only organization to successfully field their project, so at the end of the grant period, the UN came back to them. "This time, do you want forty million, or a hundred million?" they asked.

For all the good it does, the UN is unfortunately an organization too often impeded by a combination of grift and lax oversight. Questscope could easily have taken advantage.

"That Other Hijab Story"

“You weren’t pressured to cover up otherwise?”

“No.” Except for that one time that I never talk about....
A year ago, in the midst of outrage about yet another hijab-related civil rights fight, there was a renewed flurry of debate over the symbolism of the hijab, its place in Islam and its place in solidarity movements. I realized that there was a story about the hijab that I had never told, and that it was time to tell that story.

Read about that experience in "That Other Hijab Story" in the 2016 edition of From Sac on the theme of Outsiders. Buy it on CreateSpace!

I found this publishing opportunity through the Duotrope Weekly Wire email.
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$$$ For My Values

We are entering a difficult period in the history of American civil rights, and people keep asking, "What can I do?" It came up over Thanksgiving in my family, and this is the first of two posts with some suggestions.

I am not in a place right now where direct action is necessarily a responsible choice for me. I am, however, a professional fundraiser who earns above the median income. By day, I raise money for Neighborhood Trust, which empowers poor New Yorkers, mostly women, mostly of color, to make some of the nation's lowest incomes stretch a little farther. And as each of my own paychecks arrives, I am now part of a story Washington Post, New York Times and The Atlantic are reporting: an unprecedented flood of money to social justice nonprofits. Many have raised more funds since the election of Donald Trump than they usually raise in a quarter, or even a year. Most of those donations have been from new first-time donors, and a quarter or more are monthly recurring donations, because we know this will be a long, sustained fight.

This is my strategy.
I decided I could give $10 a month to six organizations. I get paid twice a month, and I timed my donations to hit my account a couple days after each paycheck, so that I won't spend that money on Starbucks instead. And I looked for organizations that prioritize direct support, legal defense and legislative advocacy. This is not an un-controversial position. I am strongly persuaded by the argument that the systems we have need to be broken down and rebuilt, but the pragmatist in me says that my investment makes a greater impact in the immediate short term when I work within the system, however imperfect.

These are my choices:

I'm Afraid for My Friends

I have serious, legitimate fears for the physical safety and mental health of millions of Americans in the next administration, but I need to talk about something else right now.

This is the second time I've cast my ballot with the majority of American voters, but the bigoted isolationist won instead. Last time that happened, hundreds of thousands of people died and millions are still displaced - Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, American and European soldiers, Yemenis, UN officials, US Foreign Service Officers, New Yorkers and Washingtonians.

Could a Pres. Gore have avoided a War on Terror? Maybe not. It may have already been too late to save the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and those three planeloads of people. But it was also clear to me long before he was elected president that George W. Bush was intent on invading Iraq and finishing what his father started.

The afternoon of Election Day, a Jordanian leftist drinking buddy texted me.
"When are we going to know the result of the election? 
Everybody in Jordan is afraid that Trump could win."
I was optimistic, confident in that moment that cooler heads would prevail. As the night went on, though, I kept coming back to his words. As much as I voted with the future of minority Americans on my mind, I also voted with the futures of other countries in consideration.

"What to Do in a Terror Alert"

This morning he said, “Maybe today … don’t wear that pin with the Arabic on it.”
Because the NYPD is deploying extra officers on my commute
Because this morning in Brussels….

Get your own button here, and find the whole poem in November's Forage Poetry.

I found this publishing opportunity through the Duotrope Weekly Wire email.
Duotrope: an award-winning resource for writers

How I Got Published

This month, I'm fulfilling a lifelong dream - twice! But not at all the way I had planned.

In the fall of 1995, Jenn Crowell was a senior in high school at Dallastown Area High School and applying to the creative writing program at Goucher College. As her writing sample, she enclosed the manuscript of her novel. The head of the creative writing program, Madison Smartt Bell, liked it enough to send it to his agent. She liked it enough to send it to a publisher. They published Necessary Madness.
By the time Jenn got to freshman orientation, she had already sold the cable TV rights. Her story was told in the Baltimore Sun, the Portland Press Herald and across the country.

How do I know? Because family and family friends clipped the story out of their newspapers and mailed them to me (this was 1997 - people did that!) from across the country. And I saw myself in Jenn Crowell. Dallastown was our football arch-rival (though, to be honest, it was no contest; we were terrible). I took a boy from Dallastown to prom, and he spent half the night throwing up in the bathroom, poor guy, under the influence of my best friend and her boyfriend's teasing.

I also applied to Goucher College. Jenn Crowell was living my dream.

Buttons for Solidarity with Muslims

If you want buttons to share with your community, please contact me at maryah.converse@gmail.com or purchase them here.

There is renewed interest in Peace Be With you buttons due to the recent uptick in violence against Muslims (e.g. here, here, here and this one that was actually probably not a hate crime) and the recent bombs in New York and New Jersey. I have more informational cards and literally hundreds of buttons to give away, already paid for by the Women's Alliance of the Unitarian Church of All Souls, NYC.

I am covering postage costs. If you would like to make a donation, please go to LaunchGood.com and give to a project in a Muslim community of your choice. The team at LaunchGood, led by founder (and my friend) Chris Abdurrahman Blauvelt, work with each campaign to make sure that they are both as successful as possible, and that all donations go directly where they are needed. Your gifts there will be tax-deductible.

Recently, I gave a presentation to the Women's Alliance of All Souls Unitarian Church about some pins I made with some other New York City Unitarian Universalists made to wear in solidarity with our Muslim and Arab neighbors. These buttons are meant to say "You're safe beside me" to Muslims and other Arabs we see on the subway and elsewhere.

The Influence of Islam on my New York Unitarian Life

All Souls Women’s Alliance luncheon
I am so delighted to be speaking at the All Souls Women’s Alliance and joining a distinguished list of speakers, among them a wide range of speakers on international affairs: last month my fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Catherine with the long Nigerian last name, the month before Rev. Carol Huston on the International Women's Convocation. Last year I made extra sure to be here for Marilyn Mehr speaking about Polish Unitarians. Another memorable luncheon for me was the author of the Gaza Kitchen cookbook a couple years ago now.

So when Betty asked me to be your speaker, I was delighted. In the internationally aware tradition of both the Women’s Alliance and my own tendencies as an activist, I want to speak to you about a few ways that Islam and Arab communities have influenced me as a Unitarian Universalist and as a New Yorker.
An appreciation of Islam, oddly enough, has been part of my Mayflower-descended family since long before I was born. When my mother was a senior in high school in Massachusetts in the mid-Seventies, her family hosted an exchange student for a year: a young Afghan woman named Fakhria.

I grew up with many stories about Fakhria. One of my favorites is the first time the family took her into Boston. She looked left and right everywhere they went, and got increasingly agitated. Finally, Fakhria said, “Where are the beggars?”

She had filled her pockets with nickels and dimes, as she had always done in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. Her parents had taught her that as a Muslim, as a Pashtun and as the daughter of a family of privilege, she had an obligation to give to the less fortunate. She wanted to know where the homeless were in Boston so she could contribute.

I think of Fakhria often as I pass the homeless in the New York subway and am confronted with the question,
What am I doing with my privilege to serve others?
For me, that’s a theological question — maybe THE theological question of Unitarian Universalism.

Pets and Other Critters: Goats

Part 1: Houseguests | Part 2: Pets | Part 3: Goats and Chickens

It is a truth universally acknowledged that tourists love camels and goats. I confess, I’m no exception. Sid Muna commented once, as ustaadh Imad was driving us down to the Directorate of Education, “Every time we pass a herd of goats, you turn your head to look!”

I especially liked to watch the sheep and goats come home. Several families would send their goats with one shepherd out of town, perhaps as much as several miles, to graze on what brown remnants were left of the grasses and flowers that had blanketed the hillsides in April. About an hour before the sunset adhan, they would return with their flocks up the roads that radiated out of town.

The shepherds sauntered casually at the back. The first time I visited my PCV friend Lynn in her village, she described to me how her elderly downstairs neighbor clucked and tsked at his flock from behind, and they just knew whether to go left or right, to stop or move faster. The sheep and goats would trot single-file on the roadway. As they passed their home pens, a line of sheep and goats would peel off to the right or left, single-file to their dinners.

Everyone else chuckled at my fascination with goats, but it was what finally allowed me to have a relationship with Osama.

No thanks to his big brother, though! On the first night I ever spent in Faiha’, I was sitting in sid Muna’s dimly lit living room after dinner, tiny glasses of hot tea set out before us on her colorful Persion rug. Samira brought out apples, oranges and little cucumbers on small plates, one for every two people in the family room.

In the middle of our conversation, mostly in translation via Abu Alaa because my Arabic was still minimal, a head popped around the corner. He was tall, with thin cheeks and bright dark eyes, and he was asking his yumma (sid Muna) for something.

“Maryah!” exclaimed Alaa, a big grin on his broad face and an elder brother’s glint in his eye. “Look!” he said, pointing at the head peering ’round the corner. “The enemy, the enemy! It’s your enemy Osama, ya Maryah!”

Poor Osama flushed red and his head popped back out of sight. He mostly stayed out of my sight for months. I would see him at dinner sometimes, but he ate faster than anyone I have ever seen — his even skinnier sister Samira was almost as fast — and would go immediately back outside. We rarely spoke.

#25Jan 2011

I knew something was brewing when I returned to New York City after doing teaching fellowship interviews in Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. That day, January 25, 2011, a magnificent snowfall had blanketed New York City. I was staying with Peace Corps friends just three blocks from Central Park on 79th, and they had encouraged me to take my camera into the park in the snow.
I just wanted to quickly check my Facebook notifications before I left. That was how I learned of the protests on Tahrir Square, half a block from our classrooms and three blocks from my roommate’s balcony.

Rumors and speculation had been flying since Ben Ali had fallen in Tunisia the month before, speculation of which dictator might fall next. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was either the most or least likely candidate, depending on who you asked.

Our Interconnection with Muslim Lives

the sermon I delivered at the Midcoast Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Damariscotta, Maine
When my mother was a senior in high school in Reading, Massachusetts, in the mid-Seventies, her family hosted an exchange student for a year: a young Afghan woman named Fakhria. One day, they went into Boston. Fakhria looked left and right everywhere they went, and got increasingly agitated. Finally, she said, “Where are the beggars?”

She had filled her pockets with nickels and dimes, as she had always done in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. Her parents had taught her that as a Muslima, as the daughter of a family with privilege, she had an obligation to give to the less fortunate. She wanted to know where the homeless were in Boston so she could contribute. I think of Fakhria most days, whenever I pass a homeless person on the New York City subway.