I thought I’d share some bezels of wisdom I’ve gathered from conversations with my mestre (master), a Negão (big Black man) from Bahia, a state in Brazil which boast a significant population of Black Brazilians as remnants of the Slave Trade and the birth place of Capoeira. He indeed fits the image of a Bahian capoeirista, a stout, dark man in his mid-thirties, but don’t let his girth fool you! Even though now he is a mere shadow of his younger self, he still moves with a great deal of speed, power, grace, and fluidity. Let me tell you something: seeing a big Black dude move like he does is intimidating – very intimidating – even for me, and I’m not exactly a small Black man myself. He’s seen and experienced quite a bit in his time, definitely a wise man in his own right. And like most Brazilians I’ve encountered, he’s an amiable, mellow, lax soul, one that’s at least two hours late for almost every engagement, except for class of course.
“Life is like a roda“
In my limited life experience, I’ve found the truest extent of any wisdom is in doing, in participating, in the actual practice of whatever the thing might be, even a religion, as with Islam, and in the case of Capoeira, it is found in performing the movements – or trying to perform the movements – in training, in playing the game, in dancing the dance, in fighting the fight, in being a part of the roda, the “circle.”
Unlike in many of the Eastern martial arts like karate, Taekwondo, or various schools of kung fu, we don’t incorporate forms or katas, series of choreographed movements for the sake of showcasing the implementation of techniques, into our training. We learn a technique, we drill it, and then we are thrown into the roda to learn its implementation. There’s an existentialist flavor to the whole process, the idea of being thrown into a chaotic world, of learning as you go, of somehow turning oblivion and bedlam into knowledge and order.
In the roda, everything is extemporaneous: there is no pre-planning, no choreographer looking over your shoulder, showing how exactly to move and what to do: you have a style or an idea, and you know some techniques. The rest is up to you. You get in the roda, and you do what you can do. You adapt to the rhythm of the music, the speed of the game, the flow of the game. You push yourself. You keep moving. You make the best with what you’ve got. You give it your all. You try your damnedest. “Nothing beats a failure but a try,” my mom used to say, may Allah have mercy on her. And most importantly, you learn, hopefully.
“Life is like a roda,” my mestre once said, “you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know what your opponent is going to throw at you, but you come ready to do your best. If you get taken down, if you mess up, you just get up play some more. You play tough. You gotta come with that attitude, but you gotta be nice too.” I think life for the Muslim is similar: we have a model in the form of the Prophet but it’s up to us to decipher how to implement this model; and it’s up to us to respond accordingly, based on the model, to the curve balls life throws our way. Adaptation is necessary when circumstances change. The transformation between states should ideally be seamless and fluid, like water. “Be formless like water,” said the iconic martial artist Bruce Lee, “If you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. If you put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Relax a bit, as my mestre would say. Let your body and mind flow to the rhythm of life. You can’t play in the roda if you’re all tense; you can’t react properly if you’re all tight and stiff, so loosen up. Or, as I like to say, chill out.
Volta ao Mundo
My mother used to tell me the following:
Be careful how you treat people as you make your way up the ladder of life because you never know when you’ll meet those same people again. The world is funny like that. One day, you may find yourself going down the ladder of life, and chances are, you’ll meet those same people you met on your way up. And if you treated them like shit, if you held your nose in the air to them, then they’ll do the same to you, because people don’t forget shit like that. But if you do the right thing and don’t look down on nobody, then that trip you make down won’t be as bad. You hafta be careful how you treat people because you NEVER know who you might meet in the future. And you NEVER know who you might need in the future.
The concept of volta ao mundo (around the world) is of the same vein as what my mother used to tell me about. In the roda, when there’s a break in the rhythm of the game, the two capoeiristas walk the circumference of the circle on opposite sides of one another. When the rhythm becomes re-established or a different rhythm supersedes the previous one, the two join up again and continue the game.
How often do we chance upon people from previous phases of our lives? We run into them when we least expect it. Maybe this person is an acquaintance, a dear friend, or even someone you don’t particularly care for. The threads of fate which binds us all are thicker than most would have us believe.
“When you play against someone,” says my mestre, “and he takes you down, don’t lose your cool, ya know? Just play your game and be nice, but remember what he did. Who knows? Some years down the line, you might get in the roda with him again, and he might not remember you. You will remember, and it’ll be your turn to get him.”
“Growing my dreadlocks”
My mestre is a very Christian man, and even though I’m a Muslim, I am his student all the same. At first, I didn’t think he’d approved, given the geo-political climate and the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim inquisitions, but my fears were soon laid to rest one evening when he shared some of his life story with me. I won’t go through his entire story. I will say, however, that the story of his life and my life story share very similar elements, despite coming from different countries. By the Throne of God, finding commonalities with the people from the different corners of the globe is one of life’s priceless treasures. I swear these Islamophobic, xenophobic bigots don’t know what they’re missing.
Anyway, afterward, he said to me, in the thickest Portuguese accent you can image,
You know Anthony, I used to be a lot like you in a way. I was clean cut, and I did everything the White people told me I had to do to successful, ya know? I went to college. I became a mechanic. And I even joined the navy in Brazil. Can you believe that?! I spent four years in the navy, serving my country and all that stuff. But you know, even after all of that, even though I did all those things, they still didn’t treat me any different. I was still just this – ya know? – Black guy. So you what I did Anthony? I started letting my dreadlocks grow again because I didn’t care anymore. I realized it didn’t matter what I did, ya know what I mean? They were going to judge me anyway, so I figured I may as well be honest with myself about who I am: I let my hair grow and I play my drums and my berimbau and I play Capoeira. That’s part of my culture, my heritage. That’s part of who I am. And Capoeira is a part of your heritage too, Anthony. You may not be from Brazil, but you are still Black. You have some African in you.
What he said that evening resonated, both as a racial and as a religious minority, as a Black man and as a Muslim. We as humans beings tend to seek validation from various sources: we want to be accepted, to be loved or admired, to be a apart of something. Wanting to eschew feelings of alterity is a natural inclination, one we shouldn’t ashamed of, but sometimes we lose ourselves in order to mollify this impulse: we change our names, we alter our apparel, we hide aspects of our culture, we give ourselves skin cancer from excessive tanning, we become Orange Americans with those fake tans, we bleach our skin to make ourselves appear lighter, we bleach our hair, we implant silicon in our bodies, we get Botox, we needlessly modify those things which make us who we are all for the elusive phantasm of acceptance. In words of Shakespeare (from Hamlet), we paint for ourselves another face when the one God gave us was already sufficient and beautiful to begin with.
I remember, during my freshman year of college, I was in the company of some Muslims for a small get together for an occasion which I honestly can’t recall. I had just converted a few weeks prior and, like many converts, my mind was a maelstrom of zeal, questions, and insecurities. One such question was this: how does one be a good Muslim? The inquiry seemed harmless and simple enough, so I figured I’d pose this question to them, for surely, I thought, they would know more than a newbie. The responses I received were typical answers, ones devoid of any penetrating reflection, simple regurgitations, “textbook answers” I call them: they said that to be a good Muslim meant to keep the Five Pillars. Their answers were correct yet not satisfactory. I felt there was something much deeper in the manner, so I took the streets and sidewalks of Gainesville, resumed the ritualistic peregrination of my teenage years, and meditated on it.
I found an answer one midnight stroll that slaked my propensity for depth. A friend of mine once told me the angels whisper in your ear when you’re thinking at night – perhaps he was one to something, Allahu’Alim. I came to the conclusion that being a good Muslim means – in addition to keeping the Five Pillars and following the Sunnah, of course – actualizing yourself in whatever capacities God gives you, and it meant being true to whatever God has made of you. If you have a passion for medicine or literature or writing or science or law or martial arts or gymnastics or whatever, then the best way to extol God is to be the best you can be at your passion, assuming, of course, that your passion it’s not prohibited (haram). In this way, you exalt God and you exalt yourself. And similarly, if you’re a Black or a White or a Hispanic or an Arab or a Desi or a Persian or whatever, then you should represent the positive aspect of your culture, heritage, language, etc. In this way, you honor God and you honor yourself. I’m pretty sure if Allah wanted me to be other than what I am, he would have simply made me thus. I like to think Allah fashioned me Black American for a reason, for a purpose, maybe, to teach me something about others, about the world, and about myself. Allahu’Alim
Being good Muslims and Muslimahs means, to me, being men and women approved and validated by Allah, not by others, even other Muslims. The Qur’an assures us that some folks are never going to be pleased with us anyway. So then, if that’s true, I say, sport your corn-rows, dreadlocks, and waves. Rock your du rags (urban turbans I call them) or your stocking caps. Be your inner “urban Bedouin.” Tie your hijab as you see fit, the Turkish style, the Desi style, the Black style, the Arab style, the whatever style. Wear your jilbabs, your baggy jeans, your (not urban) turbans, or your salwaars. Wear your burqa even, if you are so inclined. So long as cultural hegemony is held at bay, reprezent yo hood dawg! An’ ta Hell wit deez people ‘cauz they ain’t neva gon’ be happy wit us no way!
This is why I love Capoeira: the dance/fight/game, to some degree, mirrors life itself. Check out this You Tube video to see what I mean, to see, what I call, “philosophy in motion.” Plus, these guys are just freakin’ badass! I’m getting there, one day, insha’Allah. 😀