By Priya Ramani
May 05 2017
This summer Babyjaan and I visited the world’s most beautiful mosques. Her favourite was the Nasir ol Molk in Shiraz, Iran. The Pink Mosque, so called because of the rose-coloured tiles that cover its interiors, also has brilliant kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows. My pick was the more than 1,000-year-old Niujie Mosque in Beijing, which combines Han Chinese and Islamic influences, a magical timber structure where Arabic script meets dragons.
The virtual tour of the mosques was part of a unique exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, a space that by itself wouldn’t make it to my New York for Children list (can anything compete with a Broadway show, rowing at Central Park, or spending the night at the American Museum of Natural History?).
But this show is a must-see. Museums across the world should innovate similarly instead of being satisfied with primping their Islamic Art collections.
The ongoing America To Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near And Far focuses on communities where Islam is the most common religion.
“As you explore...share and trade stories with your fellow travellers. We suspect that new traditions and family memories will be born on your journey,” Andrew Ackerman, the museum’s executive director, says in a note.
The exhibit attracted participation and support from several arts foundations and endowments. Its advisers are academics and historians from museums and colleges across the East coast of the US, the nicest slice of this country.
You could dismiss the show as yet another example of fetishizing Islam but in a world that is so blatantly anti-Muslim (multiple surveys have provided enough proof of the global Islamophobia epidemic and, don’t forget, the leader of the free world is fighting to ban Muslims), it’s a relief to move beyond the restrictive depictions of this religion. And what better place to look at things differently than in a children’s museum?
I recently ended my long-suffering relationship with a bunch of childhood friends after one of them posted an image of two men parked and praying outside a restaurant located on an exit of the Noida Expressway. “I sometimes feel I live in a Muslim country. Have to hear their prayers five times a day sitting in my room,” he said on a WhatsApp group. He has said plenty of offensive things in the past but it took this stealth image to finally make me realize that I didn’t have to surround myself with people like him.
These days the discussions around the religion practised by nearly a quarter of the world’s population are invariably clustered around identity/allegiance, anti-women practices such as triple Talaq/genital mutilation, and the evil that is the Islamic State/terror attacks. While these are important conversations, it’s such a relief to talk about the interesting, everyday dimension of Islam in different parts of the world.
I wish we didn’t have to go to a museum or depend upon a film to dent our prejudices, but popular culture has always shouldered its load in the battle against bigots.
So I’m all for every Marvel Muslim woman superhero and every hijabi face of resistance on a We the People poster against the Donald Trump administration. Long live Nimah and Raina Amin—the identical twins from Quantico; Muslim stand-up comics who can joke about their lives; and teenage heart-throb Zayn Malik. God bless Zari, the hijabi Afghan feminist muppet who made her debut last year. I wish we could all follow the Sesame Street model of diversity. Note: In 2017, it’s time Zari made it to the American edition of the popular television programme.
From America to Zanzibar, the exhibition focuses on the art, design, science, taste and culture of Islam. It also examines the private lives of some American Muslims with objects from their growing-up years.
Historian Precious Rasheeda Muhammad shared a photograph of herself, her siblings and friends with boxer Muhammad Ali, who was a regular at community gatherings in Chicago. “I remember him doing all kinds of magic tricks for children. From Ali I learnt, ‘No matter what your station in life, we are all equal,’” she says.
Muslim role models past and present pop up through the exhibition. Like Malaysian feminist fashion icon Yuna or explorer Ahmad ibn Majid, the Lion of the Sea, who is rumoured to have helped Vasco da Gama reach India. He came from a line of navigators and embarked on his first voyage at 17.
There are enough interactive elements to occupy a child of any age and more than enough words to add to any parent’s vocabulary (winged amphora, astrolabe, salak, oud). Sit on a life-size model of a camel. Decorate and hop on to your own Pakistani truck. Draw a building by tracing popular elements of Islamic architecture such as minarets, arches, domes and decorative tiles available on a light-board. Weigh the catch in a Zanzibari fish market. Press a button to smell colourful tropical fruits such as belimbing, kiwano and durian, all from Indonesia, home to the world’s largest population of Muslims. Stand in front of a mirror and wrap a West African fabric around yourself (tailors continue Senegalese fashion traditions at a market in the neighbourhood of Harlem). Clamber on to a traditional dhow, built without using a single nail, and sail the Mare Liberum. Read Cinderella: An Islamic Tale where devout protagonist Zahra wears a green Abaya along with her dress and glass slippers and returns home a full hour before midnight. At the ball, she’s the only one who walks with a “graceful modesty and inner light that comes from a life of Taqwa”.
Babyjaan preferred the Disney version of the fairy tale. Bored of this demure princess, she ran straight to an app that allowed her to play musical instruments from around the world. She could pick from the Ney, Oud, Rebana, Ghijak, Kora and Tabla.
“Ma, which is the Daga and which is the Tabla, tell me,” she quizzed authoritatively. Now that’s a conversation I’m happy to have.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.