Finding balance in the Pocono Mountains

For the last three years every autumn, I have packed up my family and our sleeping bags and gone camping for a weekend in the Pocono Mountains. With 200 other Muslims. The first year I didn’t know what was scarier- the idea of camping in the great outdoors where the creepy crawly things live and the bathroom facilities do not in any way resemble those of my favorite JW Marriott or the 200 other Muslims also at camp.
There is little commonality among Muslims in North America. We are a diverse lot who share a faith but not an identity. After all, what could an African American Muslim whose ancestors came across the Atlantic on slave ships 300 years ago have in common with a first generation Bangladeshi immigrant? Culturally speaking, not much. Add to the mix the varied spectrum of religious observances – the vocal fanaticism of some on the practicing far-right and the mellow attitudes of those on the non-practicing left. Finally, throw in socio-economic differences and you’ve got plenty of tinder in the fire pit of potential conflict. And while normally religious differences are, to me a non-issue, a Muslim camp where there are classes, workshops, many discussions and a life lived communally for three days highlights many of these differences.

So, the sojourn into the Poconos with 200 Muslims in a contained campground brings about an uneasiness that probably would not exist with a mixed faith group. But like 8:00 am soccer games and my fourteenth “Back to School” night, I go, not because I have any desire to sleep in an unheated cabin and hike to the communal sunrise prayers, but for my children. I want them to have fun with other Muslim children. I want them to drowsily hike to sunrise prayer when it still dark outside, listening to their counselors forced cheerfulness and their bunkmates’ grumbles about the hour and the cold. I want them to pray the five daily prayers in the vast outdoors beneath the open sky and surrounded by their friends, both new and old, their counselors, imams and parents—all lined up together, all moving through the motions of prayer.

How do my children react to camping out for three days with 200 Muslims? With an eagerness that belies their usual cynicism. My three kids are children of privilege, who have traveled the world and been inundated with material goods from four besotted grandparents. They live in an affluent community where parents organize trips to sold-out Broadway plays to celebrate a child’s birthday or kids invite their buddies to enjoy court-side seats at a Knicks games. My three children happily give up these treats, along with the comforts of home, to spend the weekend at the Mizaan Camp. The camp is a “device free” zone and while the rest of the year it seems as though their phones are surgically implanted into their hands and their Kindles and laptops are necessary for their very survival these kids give up these screens without a whine or a whimper. I think for their jaded selves there is a sense of pervasive peace as they hike back to their cabins over dew-covered grass as the sun rises over the trees after morning prayer. There is a sense of community they find huddled around a campfire with friends under a blanket of twinkling stars. And they learn debating concepts with their friends in outdoor classrooms They are outdoors from sunrise to sunset traveling in packs, playing soccer, zip-lining, canoeing and laughing at skits on Talent Night.

At Mizaan Camp, the kids are separated into cabins by age and share these living quarters for three days with same-gender bunkmates. Counselors oversee the kids, while Mom and Dad cross paths with them at mealtimes or sports competitions. I’ve noticed that the parents may struggle at camp, maybe because of the communal living, the side by side prayer or differences with other campers. The children however do not fear change but embrace it. The children judge one another, but their criterion are entirely different from an adults – a kid’s skill at soccer or a bunkmate’s ability to think of a prank for another cabin group determine if you are accepted and liked . It gives me hope for the future of Muslim-Americans.

The word “mizaan” means “balance” in Arabic, and for three days Camp Mizaan allows my family to find the balance between religion and spirituality, between fun and learning and between new ideas and old thinking. And for that reason, I will pack my sleeping bag next year and head off into the mountains with hundreds of other Muslims and no room service waiter in sight.

Nausheena Ahmed was born in England, raised in Canada and is currently living in New Jersey. She is busy raising three kids who keep her busy, keep her active and have turned her hair prematurely gray.

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