Growing up in the US, Tala Ali, Muslim Chaplain at the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH, experienced what many emigrants currently face in the country. She and her family, undocumented for few years, lived in fear and need, trying to survive day by day, and her mother was once arrested by an emigration raid at her work place but luckily not deported. This increased Ali’s sensitivity to the suffering of others and forged her determination to fight for eveyone’s rights.
Ali was born in the United Arab Emirates to a Jordanian father and a Palestinian mother and came to the US at the age of 2, initially to Tennessee for her father’s master’s degree, then to Cincinnati for his PhD in American Literature at UC. After her father’s graduation, the family remained in the States with no legal documents, until he was sponsored for a work visa which, eventually, led to permanent residency and naturalization.
Ali’s family was not religious. Her father almost never spoke of religion to her, but rather of political activism, especially of the Palestinian Liberation struggle in which he was involved on campus. As a kid she would accompany him to demonstrations and protests, idealized him and his friends activists, and wanted to be like them. Her mother was culturally a Muslim, but not a practicing one, and would occasionally tell her children stories about Islam.
Ali attended the Academy of World Languages, part of CPS, where she learned Arabic; then Walnut Hills High School (HS) from which she graduated in 2000. It is in HS that she became curious about Islam and started learning about its faith and its practices.
“I woud pick up books relating to it from the school’s library,” she says. “I also started visiting the Clifton Mosque and the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati in West Chester, participating in their classes and services and learning how to pray.”
Thus Ali became familiar with the bases of Islam, discovered its traditions and its feasts, and joined in its Ramadan Fasting. While growing up she had already repeatedly questioned her parents about why, as Muslims, they were celebrating Christmas and not Ramadan, and she had assumed that it was in order to blend and not feel different.
“But I was on the contrary increasingly asking myself: Who am I? What is my identity? Where do I belong?” she says.
Discovering and affirming her religious background was, in addition, an issue of identity for Ali. In HS and following the influence of her father, she also pursued her activism for the Palestinian cause, reading books and writing papers about it, attending conferences relating to it, also being active in Al Awda (i.e. The Return), the student Palestinian activist group of her school.
In the fall of 2000 Ali registered at UC to study International Relations. A couple of months later, inspired by other women on campus wearing the hijab (the head-covering scarf worn by certain Muslim women), she decided to also wear it as a sign of intimate relationship with God and of servitude to Him. She has been donning it ever since.
At UC Ali joined the Muslim Student Association but was disappointed, finding the Association mostly political and judgemental, foreign to the Islam that she got to know, the Islam that focuses on bettering oneself, on fighting one’s ego, on serving God and taking care of other people.
Less than a year later, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and due to her looks, Ali was exposed to repeated physical and verbal attacks.
“I was waiting once at a bus stop, downtown Cincinnati, and a passerby threw scalding coffee at me,” she says. “I was also verbally abused by many customers at the Goldstar Chili where I was working at the time.”
By then she had joined the UC antiwar group actively protesting Bush’s new policies regarding the War on Terrorism, also his preparation for the invasion of Iraq. In 2003 Ali’s application for a permanent visa was denied twice, for no clear reasons, and in 2004 she found a tracking device hidden in her car. She was also bullied by one of her UC Professors who repeatedly refused to acknowlede her and her questions in class and who bluntly admitted it to her when she confronted him.
By then disillusioned and disheartened Ali dropped her studies and took a few months break to visit her father’s relatives in Jordan and backpack through Syria.
Upon her return to the US, she spent more time at the mosque and decided to resume her college studies but this time at Cininnati State for an Associate degree in Liberal Arts and International Relations, then at Xavier University for a BA in Post-colonial International Studies and Political Science (2011).
Ali’s years spent at Xavier University (XU) were life changing to her. She resonated very well with the holistic spiritual approach the school espoused, its focus on the entire person, its high moral values and the support it provided its students. She also discovered right away the on-campus Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice (CFJ) which helped her grow in her faith and strengthen its link to social justice.
While in her Junior year, she served on XU Interfaith Executive Cabinet. The following year she chaired the Lecture series for the University, helping identify and invite significant individuals to come and speak on campus. She was thus able to feature Franklin McCain, the American civil rights activist and member of the Greensboro Four who staged a sit-in protest at the Woolworth lunch counters in Greesboro, NC; also to show Howard Zinn’s documentary “The People Speak” that gives voice to everyday Americans who, by insisting on equality and justice, spoke up for social change throughout US history. Ali was also all along involved with the Holy Land club facilitating films and teachings for justice in Palestine.
In 2011 and in her last student year at XU, Ali founded, along with other women and men friends converts to Islam she had met at the Mosque, Salaam (i.e. Peace) Community, a safe third space for Muslims who had felt rejected, for converts who had had a traumatic experience, a spiritually enriching space, also a cultural one.
“The Mosque was intimidating to some,” says Ali. “In many instances the leadership had kept the mentality of Islam vs the West, and for many of us who were American we did not feel at ease.”
The space, based on a model the Ta’leef Collective from the Bay area had established, is located in the Starfire locale in Oakley. It welcomes everyone and has been functioning like a support center for Muslims, also like a cultural center with monthly meetings learning from a book, a movie night, a gay night, a social meeting place.
Ali also attended and graduated from a mentorship program offered by the Ta’leef Collective in Fremont, CA, which qualified her to become a chaplain. When in 2016 XU decided to hire a Muslim chaplain to tend to its increasing number of Muslim students, also to do social justice coaching work, they invited her to join their team. She has been since affiliated to the CFJ, providing spiritual support and guidance to students, taking them on immersion and discovery trips to rough areas, such as for instance South Chicago, opening their eyes and increasing their sensitivity to various social problems. In the summer she also leads an internship program connecting the students with local, mostly non profit, Cincinnati agencies, exposing them to the social work these agencies do, teaching them how to identify systemic forms of oppression, how to become aware of privileges, how to give voices to the people without monopolizing their space…
When the Dakota Access Pipeline protests started at Standing Rock in the summer of 2016, Ali decided on the spot to go there and provide her solidarity and support. She spent there seven months on and off, a transformative experience for her, one that merged social justice with her spirituality.
“At Standing Rock, we were defending the sacred,” she says. “We were asked to leave our “isms” behind, and to not judge the Natives by our western colonial standards, rather support them in their spiritual and justice quest. This resonated very much with me as a Muslim living in the West.”
Standing Rock actually strengthened Ali’s faith, connecting her with the Great Spirit, with God, and giving a spiritual sense to her social justice activism.
Ali remains an active member of the Clifton Mosque and participates in its many services and social justice activities. She is a supporter and collaborator of Black Lives Matter and of the Palestine Solidarity Coalition that she would like see become a sustainable organization.
“I always ask God to be gentle with me,” says Ali, “to guide me, to help me do the right thing and not get short of my responsibility for others.”
Ali does not know where she will go from there, but she knows that her faith will show her the way and that her spirituality will always be an intrinsic part of her social justice work against oppression.
Quotes from the Quran and Hadith (Prophet's saying) about Peace and Justice “Allah commands justice, the doing of good, and liberality to kith and kin, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice...” (Quran 15:90) “In the wealth of a rich person, there is a portion which belongs to the poor…” (Quran 51:19) “Have you thought of him that denies the Last Judgment? It is he who turns away the orphan and has no urge to feed the destitute.” (Quran 107:1) “Worship Allah..., and be good to the parents and to the relatives, the orphans, the needy, the neighbour who is your relative, the neighbour who is not your relative, the fellow traveler, the wayfarer and the slave.” (Quran 4:36) “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness." (Quran 5:8) “On the Day of Judgment, God will ask a person, ‘Oh my servant, I was hungry but you did not give me food.’ The servant will say, ‘Oh my Lord, how can I feed You, You are the One who feeds the whole of mankind’. God will say, ‘Didn’t you know such a servant of mine in your neighborhood was hungry. If you had served him food, you would have found me there.’ Then God will ask, ‘Oh my servant, I had no clothes but you did not clothe me.’ The servant will answer, ‘Oh my Lord, how can I clothe you, you provide clothes to everyone.’ God will say, ‘Didn’t you know my such and such servant needed clothes? If you had provided his clothing you would have found me there…” (Hadith) “Whoever removes a worldly grief from a believer, God will remove from him one of the grieves on the Day of Resurrection. And whoever alleviates the need of a needy person; God will alleviate his needs in this world and the in Hereafter... And God will aid His slave so long as he aids his brother." (Hadith)