On Being a Nomad

It’s tough to come up with catchy blog titles these days. I’ll admit that “Nomads of North Carolina” is a bit Orientalist sounding. Yes it alliterates, but a part of me is still a bit uncomfortable calling ourselves nomads just because we’re a group of Muslims traveling around. (Maybe next time we can try “Terrorists of the Triangle”?). So forgive us if you can for the title.

So what’s a nomad anyway? Well, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary:

a member of a people having no permanent abode, and who travel from place to place to find fresh pasture for their livestock.

• a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.

So no, we are not literally a pastoral wandering tribe. But I think there’s something about my experience that makes me feel like a nomad regardless of whether or not I’m exploring the lives of Muslims south of the Mason-Dixon. And it has something to do with a feeling of displacement. It reminds me of a famous hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad)

Be in this world like a stranger or a wayfarer.

It’s not that hard for Muslims to be strangers here. Regardless of their race, nationality, gender, sexuality, etc. Being Muslim is often enough to be a stranger.

And there are plenty of Muslims who feel even more like strangers when they’re among Muslims or at a mosque. I hope we hear those stories as well.

I’ve had plenty opportunity to reflect on displacement as an immigrant of Palestinian descent (and as a nerd who likes reading post-colonial literature). For me, a lot of spirituality is finding a sense of belonging. The spiritual journey is the constant interplay between getting lost and finding a home.

So right now, I’m a nomad. My sense of belonging comes not from any particular place, but from the constant search. From settling and resettling because where I presently am can only sustain me for so long. Plenty of things can displace someone, both physically and spiritually. Military occupation. Ethnic cleansing– as in the case of the Bosnian refugees we met at the Community Mosque in Winston-Salem. It’s the feeling you must get when the “justice” system of the country you live in falsely imprisons you for 19 years (as in the case of Darryl Hunt, whom we also met in Winston-Salem).

Sometimes it’s enough to just exist. I think of it as related to what Buddhists call sankhara dukkha, i.e. “pain of formation” or an all-pervasive existential suffering. Displacement, after all, is a kind of suffering. And what bigger displacement is there than separation from the Divine. Not because we’re sinful or wicked, but because we’re human.

I don’t think the 8 of us are the only nomads in North Carolina.