Thursday, November 29, 2007

Midday Late-Night Eating

Little did I know, as I entered Tiffany’s Original Diner, passing the jukebox and the pinball machine huddled at the front like they were trying to leave, disappointment awaited me at the counter.

I’m not referring to Janet B. Women with stenciled eyebrows are sometimes hard to read, but Janet was straightforward with her “I value you no more and no less than the thousands upon thousands of customers that I’ve served” attitude, which is really quite a high level of value.

I was dropping in on Tiffany’s during off-hours—that being twelve-thirty in the afternoon. A man named Greg, who seemed to be the owner and was working with Doug to repair the flattop grill, said that the first rush comes as the local bars close, followed by a second rush of bar employees.

Maybe I came at a bad time. Greg was digging years-old grill grime out of the diner’s primary appliance with a butter knife. Janet was waiting for “the new kid” to show up and send her home.

“He’s got one minute,” she said. “Who shows up only one minute before work?”

“I always get to work an hour early,” a customer said.

“He does,” the guy beside him said.

Including me, only two of the seven people engaged with their various tasks (service, repair, patronage and crossword puzzle solving) weren’t smoking. John threw open the door and took a deep breath like he’d just run several blocks.

Variations on “Just made it!” and “Close call!” arose from all sides of the rectangular box of a restaurant.

“I heard you guys put grits in your pancakes,” I said to Janet.

“No, we don’t,” she said.

Disappointment can be crushing. I had believed that my information was reliable. With my only reason for visiting this appetite-smothering eatery flipped like gristle into the void, I was suddenly disoriented. The yellowed menu board offered little direction.

“What’s the Tibey?” I asked.

“It’s gravy all over your breakfast,” Janet said.

“What’s the Slinger?”

“It’s chili all over your breakfast.”

Like so many heroes, I was faced with a choice between greatness and survival.

“I’ll just have the biscuits and gravy,” I said.

“Is that all?” Janet asked.

“And a coffee,” I said.

“Don’t make me beg for a refill,” the crossword lady said.

“No woman begs to me with clothes on,” Greg said.

“Is that it?” Janet asked me.

“And a egg,” I said.

“Biscuits and gravy, John!” she yelled.

John, who was still sweating and could not access the temporary grill station due to the repair work, thrust himself against the laminate.

“I don’t know if my ass is supposed to be on the counter,” he said.

“It’s not like you’re going to shit on it,” Doug said.

John’s legs managed to clear the condiments and napkin dispensers, and he even made a show of spritzing some sanitizer for my benefit.

“This gravy is a little watery,” he said, looking into a bucket.

“It don’t make any difference,” Janet said.

“Zap it,” Greg said.

“Pitch it?” John asked.

“No!” Janet said.

“I could combine it with this fresh one,” John said.

“Don’t mix ‘em together!” Greg said.

A knowing look circulated the room like, “The new guy.”

“How long have you worked here?” I asked John.

“Four months,” he said.

“What about Janet?”

“Decades, man,” he said. “Her whole freakin’ life. I couldn’t do it. I want out already.”

Having topped off everyone’s coffee, Janet put on her coat and found her duffle bag-sized purse. On her way to the door, she leaned across the counter and kissed Greg on the lips. It was a sweet, mother-son kind of kiss.

“What, no French?” Doug asked.

“Not today, ma chérie,” Greg said, with a seemingly accurate French accent.

“See you guys tomorrow,” Janet said.

“Bye, Janet,” I said, feeling like a member of the family.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Muslim St. Louis

Since setting up a phone line in my apartment, I have received several calls, but none of them for me. A woman named “Betty” is slightly more popular than a man named “Jeffrey.” Some callers are more voice-perceptive than others, contributing just half an explicative to our conversations.

On Saturday morning, the phone rang when I was still in bed. I made a barefoot dash, trusting that the first call that I didn’t answer would be for me.

“As-salamu alaykum,” a woman said.

“I think you have the wrong number,” I said.

“Oh.” Click.

Before listening to St. Louis on the Air (90.7 KWMU) on September 26th, I hadn’t thought about Muslims in St. Louis. I knew about the large number of Bosnian-Americans living in the city, but I hadn’t met anyone from that community or considered their religious background.

Don Marsh’s program that day was called “Islamic Religion,” suggesting a religious genre rather than a singular faith.

“What’s the Islamic equivalent of a Catholic?” I wondered. “Or a Quaker?”

Marsh introduced the program with statistical data released on September 25th by The Pew Research Center. The results indicated that fifty-eight percent of Americans (actually, fifty-eight percent of the 3,002 individuals who participated in the poll) know little or nothing about the practices of Islam, a percentage that has changed very little since 2001.

A few weeks later, when I met with Melissa Matos, director of the St. Louis chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights advocacy group for Muslims in North America, I started the conversation with questions that I hoped were basic, but not misguided.

“Can you clarify the terms ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim?’” I asked.

“Islam—that’s the religion,” she said. “A Muslim is the believer, equivalent to a Christian or a Jew. Islamic is what you would probably call an object or an action, but Muslim is just a person.”

“What’s your ethnicity?” I asked.

Melissa is Dominican-American. She was born in New York City and grew up in what she described as a “pretty religious” Protestant family, “which is unusual in itself for being Hispanic.”

“When I say ‘religious family,’ people might get the idea that my parents drove me out of Christianity or something,” she said, “but I was happy growing up in the Church.”

Melissa attended a private Christian high school, where she assumed leadership roles as class chaplain and student body president.

“When I got to college, though, I studied history and there were just some things that made me question [certain aspects of] Christianity and I became an atheist. I just felt like maybe everything was sort of made up and we’re here on this big blue ball and nothing really matters.”

“I started to study the Qur’an because I was interested in what other people believed. You grow up in a world, or at least I did, where you’re in your little ethnic enclave and you don’t really know anything outside of that.”

“When reading the Qur’an, I just didn’t think it could’ve been written by a person. And it made me believe that, ‘Wow, there’s a higher power, and I believe that this higher power chose to explain itself to us through several different prophets.’ I believed that and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a Muslim.’”

I asked Melissa how her parents felt about her conversion.

“It was difficult for them,” she said. “I think a lot of their understanding of Islam was nine eleven. That’s it. But over the past three and a half years, my parents have been extremely resilient. I have a very close relationship with them. I talk with them almost every day.”

Again, I needed clarification. Over four years into the United States military occupation of Iraq, I’m still struggling to grasp the superficial differences between the Sunni and Shia denominations of Islam.

Ziauddin Sardar’s new book, What Do Muslims Believe?, explains that the schism occurred in 632 AD as the result of a succession conflict after the death of the prophet, Muhammad. Shia Muslims (or Shiites) believe in hereditary spiritual leadership, adhering to a lineage drawn from Prophet Muhammad’s extended family, and acknowledge the supreme authority of individual leaders, whereas Sunni communities are more autonomous in recognizing their own religious leadership.

A crude map illustrates the simple point that the majority of Muslims (eighty-five percent) are Sunni. Iran is unique for being overwhelmingly Shia (ninety percent) and having a theocratically Shia constitution. Iraq also has a Shia majority of about sixty-five percent, which suffered under the persecution of Saddam Hussein. The current government in Iraq is Shia-dominated and when the U.S. government and media talk about “insurgents,” they are referring to Sunni-Arabs, though the military focus appears to have shifted to Shia militias, such as the Mahdi Army under Muqtada al-Sadr, and their connections to Iran.

See Mother Jones for “Iraq 101.”

“I don’t identify with one [denomination],” Melissa said. “I do recognize that there are people who classify themselves as a Sunni or Shia or Sufi or something like this. The differences that they have are usually based on legal interpretation or who should be a leader, but the basics of the religion are all sort of the same.”

“I wouldn’t identify myself as any particular thing, and a lot of Muslims feel that way. You ask them, ‘Are you Shia or Sunni?’ They say, ‘I’m Muslim,’ but in other places it’s different.”

Sitting across from Melissa at a small Starbucks table, I realized that I had never spoken at any length with a Muslim woman. Feeling more comfortable after our introduction, I asked Melissa about her headscarf and she taught me the correct pronunciation of the term hijab. Basically, it’s he-jab, except that the j sounds like the s in confusion.

Melissa has, as she says, “covered” since converting to Islam three and a half years ago.

“The majority of Muslim women do not wear the head cover,” she said. “The idea in general is modesty for both men and women. So you have some women who don’t cover but dress modestly, and then some women who cover like I do. It’s a personal choice for every woman.”

Randa Kuziez, who had been a guest on St. Louis on the Air and is the treasurer of the national Muslim Student’s Association, started wearing the hijab outside of her mosque on her first day of high school. She said many people would approach her with questions, particularly when she joined the track team.

At one meet, a coach from a different high school approached her and said, “Hey, it looks like you’re wearing a big Band-Aid on your head. Did you just get out of the hospital?”

“It is frustrating sometimes,” Randa said. “Some friends I know that used to cover their hair took off their scarf because they felt like they were not being looked at as regular people. They felt they were just being looked at for the scarf, as Muslims.”

“With the increasing sentiments against Islam, it was difficult for them to know that everyone was staring at them, using their actions as an example for Islam, and this pressure unfortunately led some women to take off their hijab.”

“I often remind myself that this is our role in life—to please God, to practice our religion freely and it is nice to prove that just because I wear hijab doesn’t mean I don't have a personality. If someone thinks that, so what?”

Melissa, who describes the hijab as a “conversation starter,” is also familiar with the questions and occasional stares. Broadening non-Muslims’ understanding of Islam is part of her job. With thirty-three offices in the U.S. and one in Canada, CAIR promotes a balanced image of Muslims and their religion through inter-faith programs and supports victims of civil rights abuse, more often employing intervention and education strategies than legal action.

“[Our mission], first, is to educate Muslims about their rights—that they are here, that they have just as much right as anyone else to fair and equal treatment, to not feeling afraid, being able to do what they want, say what they want to say, just like anyone else has the right.”

“On the other side of that, we work with the St. Louis community at large to demonstrate that Muslims are part and parcel of this state, of this city, of this country, and are hardworking Americans that love America just like everyone else.”

According to Sardar’s book, there are an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, approximately seven million of who live in this country.

“It’s funny,” Melissa said. “When people hear the statistics of Muslims in the U.S., they are usually really surprised.”

Melissa told me about an incident that occurred in Florida when she was working for the Miami chapter of CAIR, in which a Muslim family’s home was vandalized and set on fire. When the family surveyed the damage, they were perplexed to find anti-Arab epithets spray-painted on their walls, despite the fact that they were Bosnian.

“The majority of Muslims living in the United States are not Arab,” Melissa said. “The majority of Arabs in the United States are not Muslim. More than sixty percent are Christian.”

The Muslim population of St. Louis is composed of Bosnians, African-Americans, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Afghanis, Arabs, recent refugees from Somalia and people of various ethnic backgrounds who have converted to Islam.

Until I met Dr. Mark Chmiel, professor of Social Justice at St. Louis University, I was using the phrase, “the Muslim community,” to describe this population.

“Communities,” he said. “It’s really the Muslim communities.”

Melissa invited me to attend the Friday service with her the following day at the Daar-Ul Islam mosque on Weidman Road, across from Queeny Park. Located in St. Louis County, this is the area’s largest mosque, serving a predominately Indian sub-continental population of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi-Americans. Depending on the time of year, the services begin at around one or one-thirty in the afternoon and constitute the week’s most formal gathering for worship.

I arrived at one-fifteen and took my time crossing the parking lot. Daar-Ul Islam is an off-white building with a bronze dome and a tall minaret, traditionally providing a high platform for the call to prayer. I sat on a small bench next to a fountain near the entrance. Many people, people that I had never imagined lived in St. Louis, walked past me looking more diverse in their dress and appearance than the members of my parents’ church. Some men had beards, others were clean-shaven. Many women wore head covers, others did not. I saw robes and business suits, kids in school uniforms and one teenager in a t-shirt.

“Would you like to come inside?” a man asked me.

“Oh, I’m waiting for a friend,” I said. “Thanks.”

Melissa arrived and introduced me to Aftab Ahmad, who teaches tenth-grade Sunday school at the Islamic center within the mosque and conducts trainings for local law enforcement on Islam and Muslim communities. Aftab would be directing me into the sanctuary, as women congregate on an upstairs balcony, separate from the men.

“Not because they are less than us,” Aftab later explained. “Of course not. In the eyes of religion, in the eyes of God, men and women are equal. But, even in the house of God, there is an uninvited guest, which is Satan. If there was a woman praying in front of me, then she would be uncomfortable. If there was a woman praying behind me, then I would be uncomfortable. So it’s best to keep us separate when we are here to worship.”

Aftab estimated that a thousand people were in attendance that day, which I could believe, standing before the expanse of footwear in the lobby. Having removed our shoes, Aftab and I entered the carpeted sanctuary. There were a few supporting columns throughout the room and the walls were bare, except for the Arabic script ringing the inside of the dome.

Hafiz Majid conducted the service from a simple podium. Hafiz is a title given to someone who has memorized the Qur’an. Every mosque community designates its own religious leader, or Imam, considered the most learned in regard to the laws and teachings of Islam, but anyone with sufficient knowledge and experience can deliver the sermon, which shifts fluidly between Arabic and English.

The congregation sat on the floor, except for a few elderly men who were provided chairs. At the back of the room, I was surrounded by a group of boys, probably between ages five and eleven, who restlessly poked and nudged each other in silence throughout the service.

After the sermon, the congregation stood in line formation, facing the pulpit, which is oriented to the Ka’bah, the holy site in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca. Verses of the Qur’an were recited and the congregation knelt.

“The Qur’an is the absolute word of God,” Aftab would tell me, “from His lips to mankind. From His lips to Gabriel to Prophet Mohammad and then to mankind. So much so that not even a period, a verse, a chapter has changed from the day it was delivered to the end of time, because God says in the Qur’an, ‘I myself will protect this book.’”

“How he chose to protect it is not in the physical books, but in the hearts and minds of millions of people, generation after generation, that memorized this book from cover to cover, 114 chapters, over 6,000 verses.”

As Aftab later explained, the Qur’an instructs Muslims to pray, but it is in the Hadith, the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, a document of his words and deeds, that practices such as the five daily prayers are explicated.

Although I was in the last line, near the exit, I felt like an eyesore as everyone prostrated their heads to the floor and I was left standing. The experience was similar to Christmas services in my grandparents’ Catholic church, as the congregation made the Sign of the Cross and the desire to seek inclusion through mimicry tingled in my hand.

Another finding in The Pew Research Center’s poll was that seventy percent of non-Muslim Americans believe that their own religions are “very different” from Islam.

“From the Muslim perspective,” Aftab said as we sat together, away from the post-service mingling and the putting on of shoes, “we will say that Islam really comes from the time of Adam because the word ‘Islam’ means, ‘submission of your will to that of God’s through peace.’”

“So, from that perspective, all of the prophets submitted to the will of God through peace and are therefore, by definition, Muslim. Except that, of course, the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Mohammad, being the last of the messengers of God in a line of 124,000 prophets, Adam being the first and then you know the names—Moses, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, David, Jesus, and so on.”

“Jesus is a prophet of God, not a son of God. We believe that he was born to Mary without any human intervention and that he did all of the miracles that the Qur’an says and similar things are mentioned in the Bible as well, but we don’t believe he was crucified and we don’t believe that he died on the cross. We believe that at the time when they came in search of him, God lifted him to himself. So he is alive in heaven and he will return towards the end of time and he will fulfill his mission then and he will die a natural death.”

“From the Muslim perspective, if we don’t believe in Jesus, then we’re not Muslim.”

Walking across the emptied parking lot to my car, I wanted to identify the elements that felt familiar in my experience at the mosque—a message of tolerance in the sermon or the atmosphere of excitement and, possibly, relief following the service as people greeted their relatives and friends, though I didn’t see donuts.

For Dr. Khaled Hamid, who had also been interviewed on St. Louis on the Air, the perception of difference expressed in the Pew Poll and the American public’s misconceptions of Islam are the result of willful deception.

“Do you think there are any terms or vocabulary that are essentially misunderstood?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah. A lot,” he said and laughed. “There is tremendous ignorance here, and you add to the ignorance all of the very heated and emotional issues of wars and terrorism, and all the weird exotic things that non-Muslims in the United States think they know about us that we actually don’t know about ourselves.”

“It’s very difficult to have a comprehensive discussion about this. It would take forever.”

Khaled did address the vocabulary that many Americans associate with Islam.

“The phrase ‘holy war’ has no root in Islamic culture,” he said. “The word ‘infidels’ has no root in Islamic culture. These two terms actually evolved and appeared for the first time as Christian terminology during the time of the Crusades and even later amongst fighting factions within Christianity itself.”

“The Qur’an uses a term for Christians and Jews collectively and it’s not ‘the infidels’ or anything that would translate close to that. It’s ‘the people of the book,’ referring to people who believe in divine revelation that came before the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him.”

Beyond language, I know from watching CNN and Fox News that images of violence have been linked with images of Muslims engaged in prayer, through visual montage.

“All the evils that we either know for a fact or are sometimes led to believe is done by Muslims, is it done because of the way they fulfill the religion or is it done because of something else?” Khaled asked.

“It’s not the religion issue. Whether it’s, ‘We want the Americans out of Iraq because they are occupiers,’ or, ‘We don’t like Israelis because we’ve been living in refugee camps forever,’ it is something else that’s motivating them.”

“I’m not condoning these things,” he said. “Civilians are definitely protected in the Qur’an and should not be a part of any war. Actually, even fighters at war, once they drop their weapon, you are obliged as a Muslim to protect them. Somebody can do very evil things against you and yet you cannot reply in kind. That is part of the commitment of any truly religious person.”

“That’s the part that is very mysterious for most people in the Western world.”

Less than a week after the June 30th bombing at Glasgow International Airport, reportedly perpetrated by medical professionals, Khaled participated in a panel discussion featuring local physicians in order to address the concerns of non-Muslim communities. Journalists from The New York Times, Public Radio International, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other local media outlets covered the event.

“One of the people there, a reporter, kept saying, ‘Muslims are not speaking up. Why aren’t you talking? Where are the moderates?’ and this is something echoed everywhere,” Khaled said.

The Muslim visibility campaign continued with a demonstration at the Daar-Ul Islam mosque a few weeks later, clarifying the stance of the Muslim community and its religious leadership on issues of terrorism. Though the press had been notified, the only journalist in attendance was Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who Khaled described as a friend.

“This is a fight that we unfortunately cannot win as a Muslim community or, for that purpose, any community that ends up in our situation,” Khaled said. “If there isn’t a hot issue, nobody wants to listen.”

Having met with four people who attend the same West County mosque, I wanted to speak with individuals from other Muslim communities.

Imam Muhamed Hasic moved to St. Louis from Canada in 1997, at the invitation of the Islamic Foundation, to help create a cultural and linguistic bridge between the established Muslim community and the newly arrived Bosnian refugees. Hasic had originally traveled to Canada for a three-month vacation, but had been unable to return to his country due to the outbreak of the Bosnian War. In 2001 he and a group of volunteers opened the Medina Masjid (or mosque) on the south side of St. Louis City.

“We didn’t get any grants,” Hasic said. “It was basically the local community—those people who work very hard, like jobs with seven or eight bucks an hour, and some of them were giving ten bucks, others two hundred. So we collected, at that time, around two hundred thousand for this place.”

When I arrived on a weekday afternoon, Imam Hasic welcomed me into an empty mosque. His desk and the shelves behind him were overwhelmed with books and paperwork.

“We don’t have many employees,” he said. “We don’t have many volunteers. We’re just struggling to keep the basic things.”

“How many employees do you have?” I asked.

“It’s only me,” he said. “I do the religious services. I do the administration. I do the social services.”

Citing education and employment opportunities as the main issues of concern for the community that he serves, Hasic explained that he hopes to provide more than just a setting for religious observance.

“They get the comfort,” he said, “the feeling like at home, but at the same time, they learn the [English] language and how the society around them works. They don’t lose their identity. You can learn and understand as a Bosnian or a Bosnian Muslim, but you can also be a decent and good American. Nothing is contradictory between these two. If you are a good Muslim, you are definitely a good American.”

Just before the entrance to the unmarked, single-story building, three men were in the process of constructing a massive minaret. The structure will become a prominent landmark along South Kingshighway Boulevard.

“It’s very exciting,” Hasic said. “It’s kind of symbolizing the freedom of religious expression in America, which is very important for the refugees. At the same time, giving people the pride for what they are. They’re building this identity and they feel they are part of the society.”

For the last stop on this many-week journey, I drove north on Kingshighway, past Forest Park and the Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, past the affluent neighborhoods of the Central West End, to an area in North St. Louis that I had never visited before. I noticed that the pedestrians and the drivers around me were mostly African-American. I parked in front of Better Bakery and met Imam Samuel Ansari just inside the door.

Imam Ansari serves a predominately African-American Muslim community that congregates at the Masjid Al-Mu-Minun Islamic Center on Grand Avenue. This community was originally established in the mid-1950’s as part of the Nation of Islam, but has functioned autonomously since the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, when his son, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, shifted the organization into alignment with mainstream Islam.

“Certainly we recognize the good that Elijah Muhammad did as a social reformer, trying to look at the conditions that African-Americans were subjected to,” Ansari said. “He used more of a reverse psychology to address that situation. I feel that it was very effective. It was not something that was designed to be continued on, in terms of the rhetoric of the Nation of Islam, in terms of the white man being the devil and that kind of thing.”

“The majority of the community there, on Grand, stayed and accepted the leadership of the son. The criteria is the Qur’an and the thing to be emulated is the example of Prophet Muhammad.”

As it was past five o’clock, the Better Bakery had already closed and I sat with Imam Ansari in the dining area as the sun set, dimming the room. He was still wearing his apron and explained that the bakery has been in business and associated with the Muslim community for over thirty years.

We talked about the divisions within the larger St. Louis Muslim community.

“You’ll find that there’s an agreement in language and principles,” he said, “but I think each community has their own unique situation and concerns.”

“The main thing that brings the community together across ethnic lines and language barriers would be the two Eids. Eid ul-Fitr, which is the celebration of the ending of Ramadan and Eid ul-Adha, which is connected with the Hajj [the annual pilgrimage to Mecca].”

“Other than that, the communities pretty much work on whatever their goals and objectives are. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that. That’s the way life is.”

“As a country, we still haven’t been able to break down barriers that allow people to respectfully and genuinely mix. You find areas that have a diversity of people, but I don’t think there’s a real mixing of people, where they really feel that they’re interacting as people.”

In light of the ideological divisions that distinguish the major religions, Ansari sympathizes with individuals who may be more concerned with their financial stability than religious maxims. He believes that recognizing common principles and experiences is essential for any kind of social progress.

“My understanding is that all of the religious scriptures say that God rewards any good that people do. Any good. I mean, if you don’t even believe in God and you do good, you treat people respectfully and you try to help them to the best of your ability, God is going to reward that.”

“To me, Islam says that there is one humanity, and if what I believe does not recognize your freedom to believe what you choose, then I need to question my belief. God gives us this freedom.”

“I think we just have to come to grips with the reality that whatever we want to believe in or practice should enhance the decency and the integrity of every human being.”

Before leaving Better Bakery, I purchased two pies—sweet potato and bean. The bean pie consists of a sweet custard made from navy beans, sugar, butter and milk, and is associated with the Nation of Islam as Elijah Muhammad encouraged its consumption in lieu of richer foods. I drove home with the pair sitting heavy in my passenger seat and sampled both in my kitchen, struggling to remember what life had been like before tasting bean pie and meeting all of these people.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

These Middling Masses – Nato Caliph

This is / Nato Caliph and I still love hip-hop

Shedrick Kelley created Nato Caliph for seven dollars. He registered the fictitious name at the office of the Missouri Secretary of State, enabling Nato to apply for credit cards, open a bank account, sign a contract with a record label and release his first album,
Cipher Inside.

“Nato Caliph is just me. I didn’t want to come out with my real name and then have a record company own the rights to it. There’s no difference. The way I think is the way Nato thinks."
I met Nato at his apartment where he lives with his wife, Dana, their two year-old daughter, Ayana, and their five month-old son, Hasani. The name Ayana is Ethiopian for “beautiful flower.” Hasani, also East African, means “handsome.”

They live on the east side of University City, on a one-way street that doesn’t see much traffic. Removing my shoes just inside their door, I could smell incense and hear Hasani responding to Dana in the kitchen. Ayana peaked around a corner with a hand puppet.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“My fingers,” she said.

Nato and I had been introduced at the KDHX studio a few weeks before, when he was interviewed on The Remedy. We had spoken briefly, but I had been struck by the sincerity with which he addressed me and the calm that he carried into an environment frenetic with discussion.

We sat down in his living room in front of a television turned to Nickelodeon with the volume low.

“Yana,” Nato said, “could you get Daddy the cocoa butter out of the bathroom on the sink?”

“On the sink?” she asked.

“Yes, the cocoa butter on the sink in the bathroom,” he said and she ran out of the room.

“I try to give her things to do that challenge her to think,” he said. “I know she’s only two.”
This is the story of a lesser man turned equal

“Where were you born?” I asked.

“Right here,” he said. “St. Louis, Missouri.”

Nato’s mother was seventeen and attending University City High School when she had him. I asked about his father.

“I know he exists,” Nato said, “but do we have a relationship? No. The last time I saw him I was eleven.”

“That was his choice to get out of the picture. I know he lives in St. Louis or at least he used to. It’s like one of those things.”

For the first few months of his life, Nato and his mother lived with his grandparents before his mother found an apartment and married a man with whom she would have two more children, though they soon divorced.

“I won’t lie,” Nato said. “It was some hardships. We had times where it was just enough for one meal. Like I remember coming home from school, and for some kind of afternoon snack, we would open up a jar of peanut butter and sit together eating peanut butter off the butter knife.”

“My mom was a single parent and here she is, by the age of twenty-one, with three children, doing what she could. Of course there were occasions when the lights would get turned off here and there. They wouldn’t stay off, but that kind of stuff.”

“I’m not trying to give you the impression that I grew up in the hood or the ghetto, but at the same time, it wasn’t easy living.”

Nato encountered hip-hop at a young age.

“My mom wasn’t one of those people that liked to shelter us from everything,” he said. “I mean, we went to rated R movies. She just told us right from wrong. This is something you do. This is something you don’t do. And we learned. Period.”

“She didn’t turn off the radio when hip-hop came on. She would listen to it and we listened to it. We knew what to say and what not to say.”

Nato first heard Rakim, an influential MC from New York, in 1987, and believes that the artist’s style and the sound of his voice over the beat affected him profoundly.

“When [Ronald] Reagan spoke on TV,” Nato said, “I would listen to it. I was always into politics, the economy, money, stuff like that. My mom has a picture of me reading the business section of the [St. Louis Post-Dispatch] when I was four.”

“I remember looking at Reagan and he was just talking and I was like, ‘This is whack.’ But when I heard Rakim, it was cool. It was something I wanted to hear, something that kept me in tune.”

“I was seven years old and I was like, ‘That’s something I want to do in my life. I want to be an orator of sorts. Something with words that has people come together and listen and have time a good time and learn some things.'”

Much like hearing LL Cool J’s single, “I’m Bad,” listening to Rakim was more than an aural experience for Nato. He believes it awakened something encoded in his physical make up.

“A lot of people want to debate this and argue that it’s not true,” Nato said, “but being a black person, we inherit what they call the Boom Bap, which is the African drum, the rhythm, the beat that’s in you.”

“When you hear a nice beat, you can’t help but move. You get addicted, but then of course you start to listen to the words and start to realize that they’re saying something. Not only does it sound good, but it means something.”

This is for aunts, mothers and sisters that’s out there hoing / and uncles, fathers and brothers that’s love not knowing

Nato was recorded freestyling at a family reunion when he was nine. He started writing poetry in school and would read his work over his mother’s old Anita Baker and Gladys Knight tapes. When record companies started releasing instrumental tracks along with popular singles, Nato began noticing the beat measures and composing his rhymes to fit. By age fifteen, he was writing complete songs, but another passion had monopolized his time and efforts.

“Football for me then is what hip-hop is to me now,” he said “It was all about football. I played seven years straight of football. That’s all I thought about. It was everything.”

By his senior year, Nato was the captain of University City High School’s varsity squad. Describing this experience in the armchair across from me reminded Nato that he needed to switch channels from Nickelodeon to the Sunday NFL game. Nato’s talents on the field earned him scholarship offers from several universities, but the $19,000 a year that he finally accepted from Bradley University in Illinois was strictly academic.

“Somebody told me, ‘You have a better chance of being a brain surgeon than being in the NFL.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I need to go ahead and focus on academics and music and that’s that.’ That’s what I did. I made those choices.”

Nato’s roommate during his freshman year at Bradley was a young man named Stewart, who produced fake IDs for thousands of minors with his computer. At two o’clock one morning, when Nato was studying for finals, the FBI broke down their door and confiscated Stewart’s computer. The files they found included a headshot of Nato that Stewart had cut from an old identification card. Nato, who has abstained from drinking alcohol since he was seventeen, was questioned by the authorities and subsequently stripped of his scholarship for refusing to detail Stewart’s activities.

Stewart’s family hired a lawyer who won him a reduced sentence, enabling Stewart to complete his education at Bradley, while Nato was forced to return home, later enrolling at the University of Missouri St. Louis, where he was unable to pursue his intended major in civil engineering.

“I was already a loner anyway,” Nato said. “I didn’t have too many friends just because you can’t trust a lot of people, but that really put me in a tight circle.”

I keep building / and hate love that loves hate

During his second year at UMSL, Nato met Dana Williams.

“I told her then that we were going to be together,” he said. “She didn’t believe me of course.”

He also created the name by which I and most people outside of his family address him.

“When I was little,” he said, “I’d always hear about a NATO air strike here, a NATO air strike there. I thought, ‘Man, NATO is always blowing stuff up.’ I found out that it was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, so this was a group of people coming together to blow things up. That was at a time in hip-hop when it was popular to say, ‘I drop bombs on the mic.’”

He discovered Caliph through a Western Philosophy class at UMSL where he learned that the word is Arabic for “successor,” referring to the figure intended to succeed the Iman, or high priest.

“A successful bombing mission is kind of how I put those two together,” Nato said. “That’s why I rap about knowledge and revolution and the greater good.”

Nato now works for Express Scripts, one of the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit managers, as a national scheduling business analyst in resource management. He helps create schedules for thousands people working at call centers located throughout the country. This requires an understanding of what Nato describes as, “call center math,” dealing with intervals down to the half hour. This type of logistical analysis seems to appeal to Nato, who applies a similar process to his writing.

“I love information,” he said. “I’m an information geek.”

“I take my rhymes from things I see. I watch a lot of news. I watch a lot of financial reports. I look at CSPAN. I look at the quote unquote boring stuff. I consider myself a translator for the people that do not understand or watch that. Basically, I try to decipher.”

Nato told me about the discovery, announced that morning, that Indian manufacturers had been employing a system of child slavery to produce clothing for The Gap.

“Something similar to that will pop up in a rhyme later,” he said. “Not necessarily that particular instance, but just about, once again, the clothes we wear on our backs. And it’s funny, I had already put on this little Gap jacket and I read that and I was like, ‘Man, that’s messed up.’ It’s always way worse than what they’re telling you.”

For several years, Nato was a member of Soul Tyde, a collective of emcees and singers once dubbed the “the Wu-Tang of the Midwest.” In 2004, Nato, another MC named Lyfestile and DJ Fly D-Ex formed Plan B, in collaboration with DJ Crucial, who would later produce the majority of Cipher Inside. Nato has created his own record label, Cipher Music Group, but is now affiliated with F5 Records.

“F5 is a real wholesome label in the sense that there’s no paperwork. It’s an agreement. It’s artists working with artists. They’ve been in St. Louis on the hip-hop scene and they’ve been doing it right—really working and doing the vinyl, and doing shows.”

Since the October 9th release of Cipher Inside, Nato has reinvested all of his personal sale earnings into promotion.

A bunch of words to a beat mean nothin’ if they’re only helping you / What about the homeless community, shelter and food?

I could see the connections between the perspective that Nato was expressing and the lyrics that I had heard on his album, but another element remained unaccounted for.

“Are you religious?” I asked.

“No, not religious,” he said. “Religion comes from a Greek word, ‘religio,’ which means to split, conquer and divide. There’s been more bloodshed in the name of God than any other thing on the planet. It’s caused the most destruction, the most heartache, the most pain.”

Nato has received and practices the teachings of the Five Percent through the Nation of Gods and Earths, founded in Harlem in 1964 by Father Allah, a former member of the Nation of Islam.

“Some people who don’t understand it try to see it as a black supremacy group or whatever you want to say, but one of the founding principles is peace.”

The Nation’s membership has included such hip-hop heavyweights as Rakim, the Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, Gang Starr and Digable Planets. Men within the organization are referred to as “gods,” women as “earths.”

“We’re not atheists in the sense that we don’t think that God does not exist,” Nato said. “We believe in God. We know that God is in us. I see God in more than one person. When I see a man that knows who he is and he uses that to his advantage to help his people, to me, that’s an attribute of God.”

The Nation has schools in ten cities, running programs focused on youth education.

“It’s not just teaching them that the black man is the original man,” Nato said. “We teach them how to look past the initial message that people put out there.”

“The best way to lie to somebody is not to just tell them a lie. It’s to give them the truth and then tell them it’s not real. We question everything.”

The Nation of Gods and Earths claims math and science as a foundation for its teachings and its members communicate through a series of signifying letters and numbers.

“If you understood what we call ‘God knowledge,’” Nato said, “you could go back and listen to my album. It’s a whole other album inside of what people hear.”

I write for my threes / and I love my twos / and I’ll die for my four, God, how ‘bout you?

“I write for my children,” Nato explained, “and I love my women. Four is freedom. I said, ‘I’ll die for my freedom, God, how ‘bout you?’ I’m talking to other black men that consider themselves knowledgeable of who they are.”

How could you…

I attempted to stage a family portrait in the backyard, with Nato and Dana balancing their bundled children on their laps, having just wiped lunch from Hasani’s face and a smear of makeup from Ayana’s. I asked Nato how much babysitting help they receive from relatives, to which he replied, “I like to be around my children. When I’m not at work or doing music, I like to be around.”

He also likes playing video games with DJ Crucial, himself a father of twins, listening to Coldplay, responding to emails through his cell phone and moving crowds.

I’m the guy atop the Himalayas with the morning yell / and I’m the supervisor / at opening bell / and I’m the best thing that happened to anything good / and I say and feel / what the whole world should

Cipher Inside can be purchased on iTunes, emusic, locally at Vintage Vinyl or directly off the F5 website.

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Mr. Smith For President

In the year 2000, then-governor Mel Carnahan posthumously defeated John Ashcroft in his bid for reelection to the United States Senate. It was the first time that a deceased person had ever claimed victory in a Senatorial race. A month later, Ashcroft was nominated as U.S. Attorney General by president-elect George W. Bush and Missouri Governor Roger Wilson appointed Jean Carnahan, Mel Carnahan’s widow, to serve in her husband’s place.

Four years later, Congressman Dick Gephardt retired from the U.S. House of Representatives after two unsuccessful runs at a Democratic presidential nomination. A leading contender for the seat arose in the person of Russ Carnahan, a member of the Missouri State Legislature and the son of Mel and Jean.

“The Carnahan name in Missouri is like the Kennedy name in Massachusetts,” political analyst Kenneth F. Warren said.

Despite his family’s reputation, Russ Carnahan was considered a weak candidate due to his flat-footed delivery during speeches and debates and the fact that he had missed fifty-six votes on the Missouri House floor in 2004, ranking 132nd out of 150 state representatives in vote attendance. Nonetheless, there was an overwhelming public consensus that he would win.

Nine other candidates entered the Democratic primary, including Jeff Smith, a twenty-nine year-old adjunct political science professor at Washington University and founder of the Confluence Academies, a group of charter schools in North St. Louis focused on science and math.

“He’s short, looks like he’s twelve and sounds like he’s castrated,” Jeff’s campaign communications director, Artie Harris, said.

“You’re not running for anything,” Jeff’s mother told him. “You’re just running away from a stable job.”

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? tells the story of an impossibly determined individual, attempting to disprove fundamental assumptions about the system of electoral politics in the United States. Jeff is about five-five but dribbles a basketball like a Globetrotter. He believes in universal healthcare and that the recovery of urban areas begins with schools.

“No child’s future should be determined by something as arbitrary as the neighborhood in which he or she was born,” he said in a speech before an African-American congregation.

Although Jeff promises to revitalize the core values of the progressive movement, his politics seem secondary to the demonstration of pure idealism and personal will. This labor of love has Jeff juggling cell phones, knocking on hundreds of doors, delivering heart-wrenching pep talks to his campaign staff and changing his pants in the middle of a parking lot.

Frank Popper’s film, made on a budget smaller than that of Jeff’s bare bones campaign, is a compelling study for anyone interested in the day-in, day-out struggle of a hopeless grass roots movement that threatens to actually succeed. It’s also funny.

Upon meeting Jeff Smith for the first time and observing all of his disqualifying faults, Artie Harris talked to Jeff for ten minutes and arrived at a conclusion.

“This motherfucker just might do it.”

Friday, November 2, 2007

Candy For Lunch

Crown Candy Kitchen does not believe that a human being should be able to consume five malts in less than thirty minutes. That’s why the freaks that can get their names on a plaque and their malts for free. Five malts finished in thirty minutes and one second cost nineteen dollars and fifty cents. Extras include malt, nuts, topping, whipped cream and “thick.”

If your name isn’t Doug “The Dude” Rowley or Joey Chestnut, you’ll probably seize up before the end of the second round. Migraine-caliber brain freeze may or may not subside.

I ordered a marshmallow malt because, I was informed, seemingly gross can be surprisingly good. It was good—not too goopy or arrestingly sweet. Although my soda fountain glass stood nearly as tall as the metal cup that my malt arrived in, that single serving filled the glass three times.

To be honest, I couldn’t finish it. I pulled up short of organ failure and worked on my Reuben.

My dad said that I should’ve ordered the BLT because the bacon is thicker than the bread. My theory is that savory items should only refresh the palate, enabling more intake of sweet, though that Siren on the menu board (see item five) certainly seduces.

This one-stop sucrose shop was opened by Harry Karandzie and his best friend, Pete Jugaloff, in 1913. Crown Candy Kitchen is the anchor attached to a sunken ship ready to slip off the continental shelf. The pedestrian mall across the street looks like an abandoned studio lot that has been attacked by elephants.

Though Headhunters Unisex (that’s a beauty salon) may lament bygone days of customers and structural integrity, the corner confectioner is thriving. If this family-owned operation is the life support machine that has been sustaining Old North St. Louis in its vegetable state, a few developers may be the defibrillator pads that force a pulse.

I’m not sure who the other customers were or where they came from. Almost all of them were white, which contradicted my unsubstantiated assumptions about the area. There were some cops, families and a few guys in suits pounding malted butterscotch and Lovers’ Delight sundaes in their rush back to work. My friend, Shannon, and I appeared to be the only novelty seekers.

We said, “Maybe next time,” to the candy as I focused on placing one foot in front of the other. I think that if you mixed some malt powder in water and spread that on your hand and placed your hand on a wall, you’d probably be screwed.