Caliph

September 8, 2016

Caliph Muab’El is a well-built man, muscular and fit. He has a friendly face, and a ready smile. When I met Caliph, he was wearing a black shirt, and his locks hung down to his shoulders. He wore a large ring designed to look like a crescent moon and a star. He also wore a chain around his neck that held a pendant shaped to look like the Arabic word for God (Allah).

I said to him, “Assalam wa’laikum.” (“Peace be with you” in Arabic).

He replied, “Wa’alaikum assalam.” (And peace be with you also”).

Caliph was a bit surprised by my greeting, and asked me, “Are you Muslim?”

“No, but some of my friends are.”

We sat down and I asked Caliph to tell me about himself.

He started off by saying that most people call him Minister Caliph Muab. He defines himself as a minister, as somebody who serves others both spiritually and physically.

I asked him, “Are you an imam?”

He replied, “I’m an imam… a sheikh…a minister. I am a Sufi (Muslim mystic).” Caliph went on to describe his spiritual journey, and how his mother was Christian while his father was Muslim. Caliph finds truth in all religious traditions. He has spent years, especially while in prison, seeking to understand God and to understand himself. Self-awareness and an awareness of God’s presence go hand in hand.

Caliph told me about his prison experience. He was a pioneer in a way. Caliph was the first juvenile to be sent into the adult portion of the Wisconsin penal system. At age fifteen, Caliph had shot a man. He hadn’t killed him, but that had been his intention, and Caliph had gone to prison for fifteen years. He didn’t get released until he was thirty.

I had to pause and think about all that. I view things through the lens of my own experience. Perhaps all people do. When Caliph spoke about shooting a man, I had to think about my eldest son, Hans. Hans shot and killed a man, but that was while he was a soldier deployed in Iraq. Hans didn’t go to prison. He might have even received a medal for what he did. I don’t know. I do know that killing another person changed my son. I wondered to myself how shooting a man had changed Caliph.

While in prison in Green Bay, Caliph had often responded to threats in a violent manner. Caliph had always survived by resorting to violence. This behavior eventually got him transferred to the supermax in Boscobel. It was there that Caliph spent ten years in solitary confinement. It was there that he learned through a mentor that violence solves nothing. It was there that Caliph became a jailhouse lawyer, a litigant. It was there that Caliph found God.

I asked Caliph about his time in solitary. He said that the system was designed to torture people, to break them. He described it as evil, and he gave me examples of how the guards and the administrators did their best to break his mind and his spirit. Once again, Caliph’s words made me think of my own experiences. Many years ago, I went through a version of Army basic training during which the people in charge relentlessly messed with my mind. However, there were basic differences between what I endured and what Caliph experienced. I volunteered to have somebody screw with my head. Caliph didn’t. I knew that somehow, some way, my pain would end. Caliph never knew when his suffering would end, or even if it would ever end. I had people tear at the core of my very being for two months. Caliph had ten years of that sort of abuse. After only two months of madness, I became a very different person. How does ten years of that change a person?

Caliph told me that years of abuse in solitary confinement destroys most people. If they had no mental illness problems before they went into solitary, they have them when they get out. Solitary confinement eventually makes a person incapable of functioning in society. Solitary confinement sets up a person for failure once they leave the prison system and return to the outside world.

I found all this to be irrational. Why would the Department of Corrections operate a system that all but ensures that inmates will fail when they get paroled? It makes absolutely no sense if the goal is for convicted felons to eventually re-integrate into society and become useful members of the larger community. Caliph pointed out that maybe that really isn’t the goal. Maybe the goal of the prison-industrial complex is for inmates to come right back into the system. Maybe the goal is to have a revolving door at the prisons, and to keep the cells full. Maybe this makes a profit for someone. Maybe it’s all about the money. If that is true, then the use of solitary confinement to break people makes all sorts of sense.

Caliph survived. He endured solitary confinement, and he made it out again. How? If the system is set up to destroy inmates, how did Caliph come out of prison intact?

Caliph credits his faith in God and his faith in himself for his survival. He also said that it was crucial for him that he was helping other inmates while he was serving in prison. While Caliph was in solitary, it made a huge difference to him that other people were depending on him. He kept going through a sense of obligation to others.

Humans have an overwhelming need to be needed. We are social creatures, and we wither and die if we only live for ourselves. We derive our sense of purpose from how important we are to the welfare of others. We can endure many things if we believe that we are somehow helping another person. We can keep going, despite all obstacles, if we know that somebody else is depending on us.

Caliph is still needed. He uses his own suffering to serve others who are hurting. He is an example that others can follow. He makes a difference.

 

 

Tea With Mohamed

August 14th, 2016

I went to Mohamed’s house on Monday evening. He had invited me over to look at his garden. I had feebly attempted to help Mohamed with the planting several weeks ago, just before Mohamed went overseas to be with his family in Tunisia. Now he and his wife and children were all back home. Mohamed called me when he got home from work, and then I drove over to his house. It was already a little after 7:00 PM, and the sun was starting to set.

 

I rang the doorbell, and Mohamed answered. He was carrying Zaynab in his arms. Zaynab is the nine-month-old daughter of Mohamed and Soumaya. The little girl was dressed in pink. She looked at me curiously with her deep, dark brown eyes. Zaynab has dark hair that is already beginning to curl. She didn’t smile at me (most people don’t), but she didn’t seem afraid either.

 

We went inside, and there was Soumaya standing on a towel in the dining room, trying to soak up the water that Zaynab had spilled on the floor just seconds ago. Ah, the joys of having small children; always only a moment away from utter chaos.

 

“Assalam alaikum”, I said to Soumaya. She smiled and replied, “Wa alaikum assalam.”

 

Soumaya looked frazzled. She was wearing her white hijab and a long black dress. She had that look on her face that every young mother has. Even though she was smiling, I could tell that all she wanted in the world was five minutes of quiet.

 

Mohamed and I went into the living room. There was a large blanket spead on the floor for Zaynab. Yahya was also in the living room. He is their three-and-a-half-year-old boy. Yahya also has dark eyes and dark hair. He doesn’t say much, but his eyes are clever and bright. He has an impish smile. Yahya obviously enjoys being with his father, but he is willful young man. Yahya is always testing his boundaries; always testing, testing, testing…

 

I spoke with Mohamed, and really didn’t notice Soumaya’s absence. She was in the kitchen making tea. She brought out the hot tea on the platter, with a dish of Tunisian sweets, but only two glasses for the tea. Mohamed came over to where I was sitting, and he served me tea. The teapot had a long, slender spout, and Mohamed raised the pot up high to pour a stream of tea into my glass. Then he poured his own.

 

I asked him, “So, are you just showing off?”

 

He replied, “No, Frank. Pouring a thin stream of tea through the open air helps to cool it before it reaches your glass.”

 

I learned something new.

 

Soumaya laid Zaynab on to the blanket. She sat on the couch opposite me and asked, “So how are your children?” Then she laughed, saying, “They aren’t really children any more, are they?”

 

No, they aren’t. It felt strange for me to sit in the living room with this family, and vicariously relive that time when Karin and I had little kids. It’s weird to look back at those days from this end of the wormhole. There was so much about the future of our kids that we didn’t know then. I thank God for that ignorance. How would we have kept going if we had known then about a son going to war, or about a daughter lying in a bed in an emergency room, or about late night calls from the police, or about the news of a motorcycle accident?

 

I kept thinking of the words of Khalil Gibran:

 

 

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

I thought about Yahya and Zaynab, and what they might be like in fifteen years or so. What would they think of their immigrant parents? What would they think of their traditional ways? Would the children embrace their heritage, or would they reject it? Our own children are comfortable with the German background that they have from Karin. Our kids are American, but they also accept the German part of their identity. What will the children of Mohamed and Soumaya do?

 

It was getting dark when Mohamed suggested that we go out to the garden. Yahya followed us to the backyard. The sun was down, and the sky was a dull red in the west. It was still light enough to see. Mohamed showed me his tomato plants that were bursting with fruit. He also showed the places where we had planted lettuce, but now none remained. Mohamed had placed a wire fence all around the garden, but somehow the rabbits had made it inside the perimeter. Mohamed seemed non-plussed that the rabbits had eaten his lettuce. “How did the bunnies get in?”

 

 

We got a hose to water the garden. As I sprayed the tomato plants, the water suddenly stopped. Yahya was standing behind us. He had crimped the rubber hose to stop the flow of water. He was grinning. Mohamed said something to his son in a dialect of Arabic that I couldn’t understand. Yahya quit fooling around. We finished watering, and went back into the house.

 

Mohamed and I drank the rest of our tea. As I was leaving, we talked about the similarities between gardening and parenting. In both cases, we are dealing with living things, be they plants or children. Each of these living things is unique in the world, and each of them will grow in its own way. We can nurture and care for these growing, living beings, but we can’t control them. We can’t keep the bunnies away from them. We can’t know what or who they really are until they are fully grown. We can only marvel at their beauty.

 

 

Last night I dreamt of our son, Stefan. In my dream, Stefan was once again a little boy, perhaps Yahya’s age. Stefan was tired, and he crawled up on to my lap, and rested his head on my shoulder. In the dream I could feel the warmth of his small body, and hear the gentle rhythm of his breathing as he fell asleep.

 

I miss that.

 

 

 

Palestinian Poetry

October 24, 2014

I went to the Islamic Resource Center last night (10/23/2014). The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition sponsored a “poetry slam down” to promote peace in Gaza. That’s what the advertisement said anyway. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I wanted to check it out. I needed to experience something new.

 

I got there a little late, but the program hadn’t started yet. A young woman, probably college age, was running the show. Except for the hijab (or perhaps even because of the hijab), she looked chic and confident. People were sitting and chatting in a small classroom/auditorium where the IRC often hosts lectures and meetings. I knew the place well. I had been there before, when I was taking a refresher course in Arabic. Most of the people there were quite young, some still looked like they were high school. I was by far the oldest person there. There were two young man sitting nearby, their hair gelled and appearing to be Muslim hipsters. I sat toward the back and watched.

 

After welcoming the attendees (the young woman made some remark about everyone there being Muslim; well, not quite everyone), she showed a video of a Palestinian woman, Rafeef Ziadah, speaking at a gathering in London, reciting her poem, “Shades of Anger”. It was a very moving poem, heartfelt and emotional. It was definitely angry. That set the tone for the evening.

 

A number of young people got up to recite poetry about the suffering in Gaza. Their voices were very honest and very moving. The poems were about injustice and violence, and they cast the Israelis in the role of oppressors. The Palestinians were described purely as victims. There was quite a bit of talk concerning the anguish of the Arabs in Gaza, but nothing at all was mentioned about rockets being launched into Israel. The poets talked about their desire for peace, but mostly in terms of achieving justice. Justice meant, as far as I could see, ending Israeli domination. Peace appeared to be something that would automatically come into existence once the Israelis were no longer an issue.

 

Another young lady gave a presentation about her college group, Students for Justice in Palestine. There is a chapter of this group on the UWM campus, and the young woman talked about their protests and political activities. Once again, the Palestinians were shown as victims of fate. The Israelis were clearly the problem, according to the speaker. The conflict in Israel/Palestine was presented in stark terms, black and white. There was no nuance, there were no shades of grey.

 

At that point, the poetry readings stalled out. Nobody really had anything ready. A young man, who was now acting as host, asked people in the room to come up and speak. I raised my hand and asked if the speaker needed to use poetry. The young man said no. Then I asked if the subject needed to be specifically about Gaza, or could it relate in some other way to war and peace. The man told me that was fine, and I told him that I could tell a story, if he liked. He was good with that, so I went up to the stage.

 

I sat down in a chair and faced the group. I started telling the story of our son, Hans, and how he went to war in Iraq. I told about how, after the war, he didn’t come home at first, and we didn’t understand why that was. I told them about the phone call from Hans in January of 2012, when he told me about shooting an Iraqi in a fire fight. I told them about how I asked Hans if the other man died, and Hans said, “Yeah, I guess so…I must have pumped thirty rounds into him.” I told them that I know nothing about the man that our son killed, except that somewhere somebody grieves for him.

 

I did not often look at the crowd as I spoke. When I did, I saw them all staring at me, in dead silence. I don’t know what they heard or saw, but they listened.

 

I finished talking about Hans. I said, “Well, that’s my story.” I got up and left.

 

But It Makes No Sense

November 11th, 2015

Lately, especially since the terror attacks in Paris, I have read articles by atheists that not only condemn the violence of radical Islam, but also accuse religion per se as being the source of all the world’s problems. The essence of these essays is that all religions are based on absurd fairy tales and fuzzy thinking. The goal of the authors seems to be to drive out the darkness of superstition from human thought, and replace it with the light of reason. The idea is that, if only people saw things clearly (and in purely material way), all this violence and hate would disappear. There would be a godless form of the Rapture.

 

I suspect that this is wishful thinking. Humans are not rational beings. The universe is not a rational place. Reason and logic are of great value, but they can only take us so far. There is great suffering in this world, and every person, at some point, throws up their hands and cries out, “Why?”. Science cannot give satisfying answers that explain the death of a small child or the anguish of a person sick with cancer. Reason and logic can give answers that tell us how something happened, but they seldom can tell us why something happened. As humans, we are usually more interested in the “why”. Science cannot explain why I exist, or what my purpose is her on earth, or why life often sucks so hard. One possible answer could be: “We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter.” That answer isn’t good enough for me or for billions of other people.

 

One of the reasons for existence of religion is to make sense of a universe that clearly does not make sense. Let me refer to the words of Carl Jung:

 

“There is, however, a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never be proved. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe. He can stand the most incredible hardships when he is convinced that they make sense; he is crushed when, on top of his misfortunes, he has to admit that he is taking part in a ‘tale told by an idiot’.”.

 

We need a story. We need a narrative. We need a myth. We need it to be human.

 

Religion often helps a person find his or her place in the universe. Religion provides a scaffolding for understanding life. In this sense, I would suggest that atheism is another form of religion, godless to be sure, but atheism (or humanism) also involves “thoughts that can never be proved”. There are assumptions in every tradition that can never be proven. Being an atheist requires an act of faith as much as it is needed to be a Catholic or a Jew. A system of belief, in whatever form, makes human life meaningful. It gives a person a reason to to persevere.

 

Are there things in religion that are absurd? Absolutely. I will not attempt to discuss other traditions that I have tried, but I can certainly speak for Catholicism, my spiritual home. Catholics believe in magic, pure and simple. We believe that a man rose from the dead, we believe in a virgin birth, we believe that bread and wine become God’s body and blood. These are pretty wild concepts, and we can’t prove any of them. However, although these beliefs may not make sense in the physical world, they speak to our hearts. They make total sense in a non-verbal, intuitive way. These beliefs make our lives livable. They become the truth that we need to become who we are meant to be.

 

“What is truth?” That was Pilate’s question to Christ, and it is a damn good one. To me, truth is a multi-faceted jewel, of which I can only perceive a small part. Others, be they Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists, see other parts of the truth. These are parts that are hidden from my view. This probably sounds like relativism, but I think of it as humility. I don’t know all the answers, nor does my faith tradition. The truth is there, but it comes in all different sorts of images and words and symbols.

 

There is a litmus test for truth.  Edith Stein hit upon in it when she said that truth and love must always go together. Truth is never accompanied by violence or hate. The sectarian violence in our world is often based on the perception that one person or one group has a monopoly on the truth. Anybody who kills for the “truth”, does not have it. Truth is found when people are gentle and compassionate and tolerant. Look for it in those times and those places. Love and truth are two aspects of the same reality.

 

Humans will never be free of religion. It is part of our make up. I daresay that we are hardwired for it. Religion is often glorious, irrational, uplifting, infuriating, and silly; all at the same time. People are just like that.

Cops and Sikhs

March 9th, 2016

Yesterday, the Oak Creek police decided that they needed to talk to me about my book signing. (I published a book about our son and his experiences in Iraq). We had an interesting discussion.

 

It is as follows:

 

 

I came home from church this morning, and there was an orange sticker on our front door. I figured it was something from UPS or Fedex. I read the sticker and it’s from the Oak Creek Police Dept. In particular, it’s from an Oak Creek detective who wanted me to call him. So I did.

 

The detective wanted to know about the book signing that I am doing at the Islamic Resource Center on Wednesday evening. He asked if he could come over to the house to talk to me about it. Sure…why not?

 

The detective and his sidekick show up a little while later. We sat around the kitchen table and he started asking me questions. He asked me about going to the Sikh temple. I told him that I have been going there for the past several years, and that a week or two ago I asked the people there if they would be interested in attending my book talk. The detective showed me a copy of the hand-written note that I had given the president of the Sikh temple explaining the book talk. Apparently, the president of the temple, who doesn’t really know me, forwarded the note to the Oak Creek cops so they could investigate me.

 

Now, I can understand the Sikhs being a little paranoid. If somebody shot up my church, I would be that way too. I go to the temple a lot, but I don’t schmooze with anybody. I go there to pray and meditate, and then I leave. There are a couple priests there who know me by sight, but we don’t talk much.

 

The cop wanted to know if I cause trouble at the temple.

 

C’mon, really?

 

I mentioned to the detective that I had written a letter to the Milwaukee Journal after the shooting at the temple.

 

He asked, “Did you write defending the actions of the white guy (the shooter)?”

 

“Say what? Uhhhh, no. Actually, I wrote about how the killings harmed our entire community.”

 

“Oh, good.”

 

After half an hour of explaining the contents of the book and Hans’ PTSD and how the attitudes of returning vets affect the Muslim and Sikh communities, the detective concluded that the book talk was a good thing. He no longer thinks I am a white supremacist, or whatever. Actually, the detective was a pretty decent guy. He was just doing his job. But it felt surreal.

 

I couldn’t make up this shit.

 

 

Gallup

May 28th, 2017

“In my little town, I never meant nothin’

I was just my father’s son.

Savin’ my money, dreamin’ of glory…

Twitchin’ like a finger on a trigger of a gun!”

Paul Simon, My Little Town

 

Karin and I stopped for gas and food in Gallup, New Mexico. Gallup is the biggest (actually, the only) town between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, along I-40. We pulled off the interstate, stopped at a filling station, and we found a Denny’s. There was a hotel nearby. Next to the Denny’s was a store selling “Native American art! Turquoise! Blankets! Leather goods!”  Karin wanted to know if it was a rip off. I told her that I had no idea, as I pumped fuel into the car.

Gallup is in the desert, and it is surrounded by Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni Indian reservations. The land is desolate. You can’t even grow weeds out here. Gallup is one of those places that is neither here nor there. It’s a wayside. It’s a town where people pause briefly in their hurry to get to somewhere else. That’s why Karin and I were there.

It was immediately obvious to me, once we sidled into our booth at Denny’s, that everybody there, besides us, was Native American. Karin and I were the only white people in the restaurant. It wasn’t a problem. People were friendly and the service was excellent. It was just an anomaly.

Karin and I finished our lunch, and then I went up to the register to pay for the meal. A young Indian took my credit card and rang up the bill. The man was probably just out of high school.

He asked me, ”Was everything good?”

“Yeah, the food was great.”

I asked him, “You live around here?“

The Indian replied, “Yeah.“

“Is it nice?”

The young man stared into the distance, and then he said, “Well, there isn’t much to do around here.” There was a wistfulness in his voice.

Then he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Thanks for coming in!”

Karin and I hit the road. I drove for a while. I had time to think as we crossed over from New Mexico to Arizona.  I thought and I remembered. The Indian’s response to my question was spot on. Forty-one years ago, I would have said the exact same thing.

When I was eighteen, I was looking for a way out of West Allis, a grimy industrial town located next to Milwaukee. There wasn’t much to do in West Allis either. It was a place where dreams went to die. There were plenty of factories, all of them unware that they would be bought out or closed down within a decade. There was a white, eastern European population that was terrified of blacks and browns and anything new. There were innumerable working class taverns, places where men could drink just enough to make them forget about the dead end in their futures.

Gallup is very different from West Allis. But maybe they are also the same, at least for a young man with dreams and ambition. For me and for the young Navajo at Denny’s, these towns are suffocating. Life might not be any better in another city, or in another state, or even in another country. However, life could be different. That’s all that really matters.

It’s a bitch leaving home. This young guy at Denny’s would have to leave his tribe. I left my tribe. White guys have tribes too. A person leaves home forever. It is never the same when the person comes back, if they come back. Once a person leaves, they change, and the people left behind change.

Will the young man in Gallup leave home? I have no idea. I hope he does. I could see in his face and hear in his voice that longing, that pain. He needs to go out and see the world. He might get his ass kicked. I did. It doesn’t matter. It is better to try something new and fail, than it is to never try at all.  It is easier to deal with mistakes and failures than it is to wonder about “what might have been”. Life is about living, not succeeding.

I pray for this young man. I am sure that he has forgotten me. I won’t forget about him.

 

 

 

Shul

August 7th, 2016 (a letter to my rabbi)

Rabbi,

Yesterday, at the end of the Shacharit service, a friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen for a long time, asked me if I was planning to convert. My answer to that was “no”. Immediately thereafter, I asked myself internally, “So, why am I here?”

 

I ask that question from time to time, because in some ways it doesn’t seem to make sense for me to be at Lake Park Synagogue. I suspect that sometimes others also wonder why I am there. It’s a legitimate question.

 

The answer is that I belong at LPS. Mostly this is due to the fact the members of the shul have been remarkably welcoming to me. They have accepted me as I am. Even after all these years, I am amazed by that. Most groups, religious or otherwise, are not nearly that open or tolerant. The people at LPS have a gift for embracing outsiders. What a joy it would be if more people knew that.

 

There is another reason that I feel like I belong at LPS. This one is harder to explain. When I sit in the synagogue, and I listen to the cadence and rhythm of the prayers, I get lost in the ritual. I mean that in a good way. I only understand enough Hebrew to follow along with the English translation of the service. Honestly, I don’t think I will get any better than that. However, even with only a slight understanding of the process, I can still flow with it. Somehow, some way, it feels right. It feels like I belong there.

 

Religion is a heart thing. It defies logic. It demands intuition. My presence at the shul is a matter of the heart.

 

I find it interesting that my experiences in the synagogue affect my life in my Catholic community. I serve as a lector at my church. I’m not sure if there is a Jewish equivalent to my ministry in the Catholic Church, but my job is to read from the Scriptures in front of the entire congregation during our liturgy. In particular, I read aloud (in English) from the Hebrew Scriptures. Before I stand up at the lectern, I pray that G-d will speak through me, and that I will simply be His voice. When I read from the Bible, my goal is that nobody sees or hears Frank. They should only hear Jeremiah, or Isaiah, or Amos. The people in the pews should hear the words of the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were there when these words were first spoken. It should touch their hearts.

 

Sometimes this happens. When it does, it totally freaks me out. I walk back to my seat afterward shaking, and maybe in tears. What I experience at LPS during the Shabbat service helps me to channel the original speaker when I read during our Catholic service. Even listening to the Torah in a foreign tongue helps me to connect with G-d when I need to do so. I know this all sounds delusional, but people in my Catholic congregation often tell me how much my spoken words affected them. That’s not my doing. That is the action of G-d.

I don’t know if this made any sense. If it did, go ahead and share it with the other members of the shul. I am grateful to them.