Hijabi of the Month February - Mona Haydar
Posted on February 28, 2016
This month's HOTM is Mona Haydar. She is a poet, activist practitioner of Permaculture, meditator, composting devotee, mountain girl, solar power lover and a tireless God-enthusiast. She teaches classes and retreats on mindfulness and Islamic spirituality, leads workshops on creative writing and performs her poetry. Her words have found homes in the hearts of seekers, wanderers, poets, artists, lovers and stewards of the Earth. She grew up in Flint, Michigan, graduated from the University of Michigan and has since lived in Damascus where she studied Arabic and Islamic spirituality then went on to live in the mountains of Northern New Mexico at Lama Foundation and in the Redwood forest of Northern California with her husband and son.
Mona and her husband, Sebastian set up a stand in Cambridge, Massachusetts with signs that read ‘Talk to a Muslim’ ‘free coffee and donuts’ ‘free conversation’ and ‘Ask a Muslim’ encouraging open and loving dialogue which garnered the attention of NPR, Al Jazeera, The Boston Globe among other media outlets. Currently she is working on her second collection of poems and her first work of nonfiction on Islamic Spirituality through the lens of other spiritual traditions. She is working towards her Masters in Divinity. Mona helps to grow a more universal love with her activism, writing, performing and teaching.
1) When did you start wearing hijab? Tell us a little about your journey.
The summer before 6th grade, I was riding my bike - whirring around my neighborhood feeling that very innocent fearless and abiding invincibility. I was feeling the wind on my face and through my hair and inspiration came in that very moment. I decided right then that I would start wearing hijab full time. My amazing mama threw me this awesome party and praise be to God, that hijab has never left my head. I mean, not literally because that’s disgusting! Anyways after living in New Mexico at an amazing place called Lama Foundation, I realized that hijab was this very weird thing to most people. And then in the Redwood forest, it was crazy not seeing any other Muslims for weeks at a time. I started to feel like an alien. After the San Bernardino attacks, I felt the very first wave of real fear because of being so obviously Muslim. I wear hijab as a spiritual practice and a constant reminder to myself that I am so much more than just this physical body. Wearing hijab has been an act of political and social resistance and critique of the major beauty industry and the consumerist culture we live in, too. It's this amazing magical piece of cloth and way of life and dress that contains so much blessing and benefit to my heart!
2) You are an accomplished and talented poet! Tell us how you got into it, what it means to you and what you hope to accomplish through your poetry.
First of all, aww so sweet! Thank you! I started writing poetry at the very tender age of 8. I slowly fell deeper and deeper in love with this form of artistic expression and soon I was in high school and friends who I'd shown some of my poetry to were telling my to stop being so shy and selfish. My amazing and supportive friends said that I had to stop hoarding my writing and keeping it to myself because it was a gift from God and that I didn't own it and so I didn't need to feel so sheepish about it. I started going to open mic nights and slams and soon enough I was winning. After a few wins though, I realized that I didn't like competing. It didn't feel good to me to win and to have someone else lose, especially when I saw a lot of these other poets as so brilliant and gifted. I stopped competing and that's when I started doing it as a profession born of passion. It was an awesome way for me to make money while in University and I was stunned that people wanted to pay me to hear me read my poetry. I still am! I see my poetry as a form of ministry. I try to use it as a tool to inspire love and light in those who are co-creating that space with me as my audience. I use it to connect with people and cut away the superficial and jump right into the heart of our existence. Poetry is this incredible thing because it has the capacity for such vulnerability within sweetness, rawness and simplicity. My prayer is that God keeps this alive in my heart as long as it brings benefit to me and those around me.
3) The arts have not always been supported in our community, (despite our rich history in art), do you see that starting to change? Why or why not?
To be honest, I had to step back from performing for a couple years because it was instilled in me more times than I'd like to mention, that it was just a slightly sinful youthful phase that I would grow out of. It was implied, too, that because I stood up on stage in front of mixed audiences that I was somehow improper or immodest, even when my words called for love of our Creator and his beloved messenger (saw), calling for social justice in Palestine and other places and the general grappling for cultural authority and authentic identity as a young Muslim. It was rough and I let it get to me a lot more than I should have. But luckily, I've done my due diligence and studied in Damascus at reputable schools and conferred with my teachers who fully support me in my career. It's taken a lot to get me back on stage in the Muslim community but I'm healing my broken heart and licking my wounds. I wish little 8 year old poetess Mona had someone who looked like her living her authentic calling and passion in the light of her faith and practice -- so I'm trying to be that! I'm getting a lot more invitations these days from broader American audiences so that's been really exciting, too. I do see more openness within the Muslim community. We are coming to buck the cultural and un-Islamic traditions that dictate that in order for a woman to be pious, she must be quiet and invisible and I'm proud to say that I see more people opening to a more Khadija, Aisha and Nusayba way of being-- fearless, smart, strong, self assured; this is the way of the hijabi!
4) You and your husband started the "Ask a Muslim" initiative, where you stand in a public place with coffee and donuts encouraging people to have a conversation and ask questions. What was one of the most surprising responses you received and what did you learn from the experience?
One of the greatest responses we got was actually a suggestion-- someone said to us, "You know, you should really change your signs from saying "Ask a Muslim" to "Ask a Human Being (who happens to be a Muslim)." That just so summed up what we are trying to do out there. We are NOT out there trying to educate people about Islam. We are out there being our authentic selves, as honest as we can possibly be, as full of love as we can possibly be and all the while just stopping for a moment and being neighborly and saying hello to passersby with the hopes of sharing a smile or a conversation. It's the little things. We just want to foster human connections because only when we are separated and feel like we're different can we have unjust feelings about others. We are all on the path to liberation and freedom whether we know it or not. I just want to facilitate the conversations in love that can help us to be vehicles so that we can get free together with love and compassion.
5) What is one statement or motto you live by?
One time, Daniel Ladinsky, the great translator of Rumi and Hafiz, told me, "Mona, you just need to try a little bit harder and you could be a saint." And I really believe that’s true about all of us. We can't all try a lot harder -- but we can try a little harder in every moment. Can that piece of garbage you're about to throw away be recycled? Take the extra few steps to recycle it. Start a compost pile in your yard. Grow your own food (or at least some of it). Get a couple solar panels. Speak softly to your kids and kiss them on their heads often. Try a little bit harder, Mona. Just a little bit. That's what is always in the back of my mind and on my heart and I try to operate from that place all the time. Hopefully it will create in me a grand mindfulness that will open my heart to the inner realities and truths that we are all here to engage.
6) If you could give one piece of advice to someone struggling with hijab, what would it be?
Remember that you are so much more than your hijab or your hair. Remember that whatever you decide, God is generous and loving. Remember to be kind to yourself- in this life and in the next. Sometimes kindness to ourselves means doing the harder thing now for the hope of spiritualizing our selves so that we can know our beloved in the next life. These things are easy to lose sight of when we're on our grinds --day in and day out. Think long term. Make decisions from your heart and your head. Use both to guide you into a place of harmony. Hijab is hard. I've thought about what it would be like not to wear it. I think that's so natural. I've worn hats (as a disguise...lol) in places where I didn't feel safe. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle with yourself. You are on a gorgeous journey to God -- I love you and I'm with you on it!
Is there someone you'd like to nominate for Hijabi of the Month? E-mail us at [email protected]!