Community, by slave alia


a speech by Alia Al’Barakah*

 Keynote from NW Master/slave Conference 2007

When i was a little girl, i lived with my grandmother in a small village in the high desert of Syria, about 30 miles from the nearest marked highway, about 100 miles from the bustling city of Damascus, about 150 miles from the border with Iraq, literally in the middle of nowhere.  The village was located at the top of a huge mesa with a view of the surrounding desert for miles and miles around in every direction.  It was a stop on one of the oldest caravan routes in history, dating back farther than any recorded history of the village – to a time before Muhammad, before Jesus Christ, before the Romans, before the Greeks, long before the Persians who ruled there until Alexander the Great made them part of his vast empire.  my grandfather Hammad Said used to tell me that the village was founded by Abraham himself.  Caravans still pass through the village, only today they consist of lines of Mercedes trucks and Jeeps instead of camels and donkeys.  We could see their dust trails coming for miles away.

Life in my village was simple.  We were all farmers or craftspeople, tending to the vast date palm orchards that sustained our little economy, or tending to the animals and crops that fed us.  We had no plumbing or electricity in the modern sense.  “Running water” came in the form of a centuries-old cistern and aqueduct system, built in the time of the Romans.  my grandfather’s home and the mosque were the only two structures in the village that had electricity, powered by an old Russian diesel generator.  Today i hear that we have the Internet and DISH satellite cable, still powered by that generator.

For me, the village was my entire universe, the center of all that was familiar and safe and secure.  The village had a very predictable and comforting rhythm to life – from the call to prayer just as the sun was breaking over the horizon, to the dying embers of the cooking fires that quietly signaled bedtime and the close of yet another day.  It seemed to me that the entire village community lived as one huge family – we prayed together, worked together, celebrated together.  Life events were community events – the birth of children, rituals for boys and girls as they came of age, marriages, and deaths.  

i learned most of the values i hold today in that village.  i learned what it means to be a good Muslim.  i learned the life of a Muslim woman – how to pray, how to honor and care for a husband and children, the importance of honoring and celebrating our elders, of caring for our sick and comforting the dying.  i learned of the sacredness of work, the importance each member of the community has in the work they perform and the importance of community working together.  i learned the necessity of obedience and great respect for our village leader, my grandfather, or Sidi, as we affectionately called him.  i learned the sanctity of family privacy – privacy without doors or windows, but a strict privacy nonetheless.

As most childhoods go, mine was idyllic.  And terribly, terribly lonely.

i believe that not only was i born to this lifestyle, but i believe that i was destined to be a member of the leather community.  i have always been on the fringe of what was “normal,” and for much of my childhood i was an outright outcast.  i was the only white child in my entire village.  i was a veritable bastard child, a girl at that, with a non-Arab, non-Muslim father.  my mother was an outcast, and had decided to leave me with her mother to go and marry an American airman stationed in Turkey.  The other children of the village used to call me “Bint Al’Barakah,” or “white girl.”  Other women in the village, including my own aunts and cousins, would hiss at me and say that i was cursed.  They would avert their eyes, as though simply looking at me would curse them with the “evil eye.”  They whispered that my mother should have made me “wahif walad,” a “Red Child,” the term used to refer to a child that should have been left out in the desert to die – an ancient, if barbaric, custom.

my grandmother, Sanam, sheltered me from much of this.  She doted on me and lavished me with affection, as grandmothers are wont to do.  But she was a no-nonsense, and almost-painfully practical woman.  She raised me to have the clear understanding that i was different, separate, from the rest of my family and community.  She taught me to be very quiet and unobtrusive, to not bring attention to myself.  She taught me that “my place” was near the very bottom of our society, and that i should not ever hope for what other women have in the village – a good marriage as a first or even second or third wife, children, a home to tend to…………Strangely, she taught me not to look at my diminished role in the community as a curse, but as God’s will for me.  She used to tell me how “special” i was, and that God had an extra special plan for me.  Little did she know…. or maybe she knew more than i give her credit for.  She believed that everyone in the community was valuable and had a purpose vital to the community.  Even me.

So i kept to myself.  i kept quiet.  i didn’t play with other children and i learned to occupy myself.  i learned to be very, very observant, to listen, to watch.  Another outcast in the village sort of befriended me, a very poor old man named Osman.  Osman’s mother was Jewish, which made him Jewish.  His Muslim father had lived in the village, but died when Osman was just a boy.  Osman became a jeweler, and was somewhat educated.  i would sit hours with him, sorting or stringing beads (hence my obsession with “bling”), and learning my own little craft of beadwork.  It was Osman, and not school, who taught me English.  He taught me how to count and how to read.  He sat and talked to me for hours everyday, as though i were a peer and he was my friend instead of my impromptu babysitter.  In our way, we forged our own family.  What struck me was how the community cared for this man, and for me, despite our “outcast” status.  The village made sure that we were fed and clothed and sheltered, and even the Imam of the mosque would check in on me every now and then to see how well (or poorly) my Muslim education was coming along.  Even outcasts have needs…..

[The following two paragraphs were omitted from delivery of speech at NWMs]

[OMITTED] A little sidetrack:  i found out years later that in addition to being an outcast within my community, that my entire community was on the fringes of the greater Muslim community worldwide.  You see, my village practiced Shi’a Islam.  Only 10% of the 1.8 billion Muslims on the planet are Shi’ites.  Of that 10%, 90% live in what is today Iraq and Iran.  Thanks to the British and the American’s not-so-great understanding of tribal traditions and clan borders, our little village managed to end up cut off from that small, but tightly knit Shi’ite community when the Allied forces were carving up the Middle East and Europe among themselves.  Kurds got lumped in with Arabs, Arabs got mashed together with Persians, some little Kingdom called the TransJordan was created, Jews were thrown into this hot pot of chaos with the new state of Israel, and oh yes, absolutely no consideration was given to the distinction between Shi’ites and Sunnis.  To the British and the Americans, we were all Muslims, so what’s the problem?  Hmmm….

[OMITTED] So there we were – a few thousand Shi’ites surrounded by millions of Sunni’s, in a country that wanted to forget we existed, and indeed pretended that we didn’t exist for decades (to date there is still no modern infrastructure within or surrounding my village that has been planned or paid for by the Syrian Assad government – the village takes care of all of its own needs and urban projects).

i had no desire to venture out beyond the cliff borders of the village, to go down to the valley floor.  Although i did take many trips with my father (who would come to visit about twice per year), and with my grandfather from time to time, i always fussed at the prospect of leaving home, and was always antsy to return.

Until one day in August of 1976, my father came for a visit.  He had been coming to see me about twice per year since i had turned the age of three or so and had taken me out of the village for our visits, to Damascus, to Amman, to Cairo, to Jerusalem.  This time, after saying good-bye to my grandmother and my beloved Sidi, and my mother who happened to be there, i set off with my father on what i thought was yet another trip.  This time we went to Haifa and we went into this big – bigger than big – building with rows and rows of tall seats in it.  It was called an airplane and it was going to carry us across the ocean to America.  i’d heard of America.  It was where some lady was made to stand half naked in the water holding a torch, and where people rode horses everywhere shooting guns at each other.  America was where all the money was in the world, and where music played all the time.

After what seemed an eternity to me, we landed in New York City.  my life changed in an instant.  In the bathroom, actually.  As soon as we got off the plane, my father wanted to clean me up and change my clothes before going through customs, so took me to the bathroom and took off my little caftan and sandals and made me put on what he called “panties” and “shorts” and a tee-shirt and these bulky hot tight things called “socks.”  Then he put my feet into these big clunky white shoes with long stringy ties on them.  Somewhat sniveling and now walking like one of those cowboys i would see on television from time to time, i walked out of the Men’s room with my father.  Not five steps out, i tripped on the rubber-soled shoes and fell flat on my face, cracking my head.  Not the most auspicious debut into life in America.  Already i wanted to go back home.

my father’s goal was to put me in school.  A Catholic boarding school in North Carolina.  Although i personally think this was the best decision for many reasons too numerous to articulate here, the sensory memory that stays with me to this day is the feeling of being adrift and rootless and alone.  i had family and community, but i might as well have been an orphan for all that mattered with me standing there in the driveway watching my father drive off.  i have been watching everyone come and go in my life with that same sense of loss almost ever since.

i didn’t feel that sense of family or community again until nearly 25 years later (i was nine when i last visited my village in Syria), when i met my late husband, Sir Robin Niven.  Robin introduced me to a whole bunch of people that dressed really, really weird and liked to hit people and be hit and liked to pervert common everyday household items into implements of torment and bliss.  They referred to themselves as Leatherfolk.

Now, i’ve belonged to other communities in those 25 years.  i was a member of the drama club (all slaves have membership cards for the drama club), the debate team, Brownies and Girl Scouts, and even the Roman Catholic Church.  But what the leather community provides that these other communities could not for me, is FAMILY.

Although i’m sure other examples exist for others, i must say that i have never experienced the closeness and sense of acceptance as i have within the leather community since leaving my village for good 25 years ago.  After 25 years of conditioning myself to exist as independently as i could – not getting too close to people, not allowing people to stay in my life for very long – i find that the community, and more specifically my leather family or “family of choice,” is what sustains me, nourishes me, fulfills me, and has given me such a deep and abiding joy that truly has no words and can only be experienced.  i believe that i have come to know what true love really is through my relationships within my leather family.

Community can exist in any form.  Community is really the framework in which we support each other, teach and learn our values, practice our faith, celebrate our traditions, and share of ourselves.  Depending on how integrated and purposeful a community is, FAMILY can be formed.  Whether we choose to admit it or not, i believe that everyone needs community.  Everyone wishes to feel a part of a greater whole, to have a sense of purpose and contribution.  i believe that, deep down, we all wish to share of ourselves in community.  To be accepted.  To belong.  To know that we matter.

A community’s strength and influence is not defined by numbers or geography.  In the long run, it does not matter if one club or another has more members or has been in existence longer than any other or raises more money than any other organization.  It does not matter from what cities we hail or what state or what region, or even what country.  In my immediate leather family, headed by Master Skip (whom i also call “Sidi”), and in my extended family through Butchmanns and Master Steve and Master Z and Master Bert and Master Jim and SlaveMaster, we’re like a mini-United Nations.  Between us, we speak 17 languages, hail from i-don’t-know-how-many countries – three? four? five?– and come from all over the United States, all sorts of leather clubs and titles, and spiritual practices – including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Science of Mind, Judaism, Islam, Druid, Shamanic traditions, and i can’t think of what else.  What binds us together is so much deeper than all of that, though.  We are bound in community through the recognition of something altogether divine and unnamable.

A community’s strength is defined by what we hold as sacred – what are our values, our traditions? Do we support one another, help one another in joyful times and sad?

In truth, a community is actually quite fragile. A seemingly simple, yet unresolved conflict can undermine a community and cause fracture, splintering and even disintegration.  An single overarching ego can bring down an entire society.  History has shown us that.  Nevertheless, it amazes me how difficult it is for us in the leather community to learn from history.  Often we think that the lessons of history do not apply to us, or that these things can’t happen to us.  my friends, we are not immune and we must be purposeful and vigilant.

So how do we forge community?

1. Let go of stereotypes of what community has to look like.  Learn acceptance and compassion.  If a person’s fetish is basting themselves with honey and covering themselves in feathers, so be it.  If a new transgender FTM / MTF couple is exploring Mastery and slavery, so be it.  If you had asked me six years ago that i would be in service to a gay leatherman and find unspeakable joy and fulfillment in that relationship, i may have slapped you for having such delusions (i was mean back then).  But by allowing myself to realize just what IS, i found love and acceptance and joy without measure.  Community will form where people share a similar vision, similar values.  Trust that – and don’t force what may be your own twist on those values onto the rest of the community.  Instead, share them.  Your particular twist might speak to more people.  If so, great.  And if not, great.

2. Create ritual and tradition within your community.  Rituals often form strong community bonds, and traditions encourage continuity.  Call forth the shamans and holy people in our community.  If you are called to lead such rituals, stand up!  Be moved by the Spirit!  A community that celebrates and grieves together in ritual, anoints and marks individuals’ growth experiences in ritual, and honors traditions in ritual is strengthened and united.

How can we strengthen the community we’ve built?

3. Develop strong and trustworthy leather leadersi realize that much of this is up to individuals themselves, but we can certainly do our part in recognizing the difference between good leadership and a really big ego.  A good leader doesn’t have to know how to do everything themselves – in fact, a leader that needs to do everything themselves is a BAD leader – rather, a good leader will find ways to develop talents in others and to make use of the talents and skills and personalities that make up this community.

Expand your horizons in the search for a good leather leader.  There is no need to limit ourselves to a particular location or club or spiritual practice.  Your community vision can be limitless.  For example, for Southwest Leather Conference, we have chosen to recruit most of our volunteers from outside of Phoenix, Arizona.  75% of our 80+ volunteers come from other states.  The most current example of this is Master Alan, slave Jackie, and slave Trudy – all part of the Butchmanns Family, and part of this geographic leather community up here.  Master Alan was approached by the Executive Committee in January of this year and was asked to be the new Executive Director of the Southwest Leather Conference.  His beautiful and faithful slave Jackie is our Executive Administrator, a new post this year, and slave Trudy is our Programming Team Lead.  In our leather family, we have no desire to limit ourselves to geographical boundaries.  We want leaders with courage, and heart, and spirit, and a willingness to jump off the cliff with us time and time and time again.  Alan and Jackie and Trudy are three such people.

4. Respect your leaders.  We are a people that eat our leaders, and some of our leaders are incompetent tyrants, or so we tell ourselves.  We are a highly demanding and sometimes unforgiving lot that asks a lot of those who step up to the plate to lead.  Burnout is rampant.  First and foremost, we should select our leaders carefully.  In Arab culture, it is custom that the entire community selects their leaders based on who is the most qualified to lead.  Who commands respect? – not by force or coercion or because they have a charming personality, but because they have proven that they are capable, trustworthy, dependable, and reasonable.  Just because someone volunteers to be the leader should not make them one simply because they volunteered.  FIND candidates.  SEEK OUT skill sets that your community needs.  ASK QUESTIONS.  DON’T SETTLE.  A bad leader has the potential to do a great more damage to our leather communities than simply drifting for a while and maintaining status quo until a good leader is found.

5. We can learn how to follow.  In a democracy, it is customary to conduct polls and solicit opinions and input and feedback.  To VOTE on something.  But this process can also undermine both the leadership and fabric of a community.  It, in and of itself, can cause fracture and dissent.  Discussion is useful and necessary to solve problems and foster new ideas.  But we should entrust our leaders more to make decisions and to implement those decisions.  Find or develop qualified leaders and give our leaders the respect and confidence they need from us to serve our communities.  Refrain from putting every decision to a consensus or committee.  We may not like every decision a good leader makes, but we should support them nonetheless.

6. Bury the hatchet, or in my culture we would say “Sheath your dagger.”  Whatever is festering in your community family, heal it.  Forgive.  If we as a leather community are to grow and fulfill our prophetic destiny, then we must learn to forgive.  It is not possible to move forward and outward if we are still tied to wounds of the past.

7. Honor our eldersEncourage them to teach, to write, to share their stories and experience.  Nelson Mandela was quoted as saying that when an elder in our community dies, an entire library of knowledge goes with them.  If you have something to share – share it!  It is a spiritual duty as a member of this community to pass on what you have learned and to guide new followers into our traditions and values (which they may change to whatever their time calls them to do, but it is so much harder to establish a tradition without understanding the old ones on which new ones are built).

8. Embrace each member of our community, for each person plays a vital role in the composition of the community, and how the community is sustained or maintained.

9. KNOW what your contribution is to this communityWhat is your calling?  What is your purpose?  If that is too big a question to answer right now, then i ask, what can you do this afternoon or tomorrow to demonstrate your contribution, your willingness to be an active, supportive member of this community?  What can you do to demonstrate appreciation and encouragement to another member of this community who you know is hard at the work of maintaining and nurturing it?  It doesn’t have to be showy or dramatic or touchy-feely.  It can be something that only you know about.

10. Lastly, take care of our own.  One of my most treasured experiences of leather community was just a few months ago at the funeral of my husband, Sir Robin Niven.  Robin died suddenly in late March and my entire leather family and community rallied around me and around his spirit and celebrated his life.  i was absolutely touched that people came from as far away as Australia and New York and Florida and Texas and New Mexico.  It was a poignant reminder to me of what it is for the entire village to gather to celebrate a life event.

As a community, we are made up of individuals with needs and wants and desires.  As a community, we bond through our service to our community members.  We are strengthened as a community when we tend to our sick, keep vigil with our dying, dance at our weddings, witness our collarings, lend a hand on moving day (yes, i know, that’s an unpleasant one….but still….), or telephone a community member we may not have seen in a while.  A community takes care of its own, ministering to each other, lending support where needed.

In closing, i’d like us to tend to a few of our own today.  Several members of our community are in need of our help, our support, our healing prayers, our compassion.

First, is our beloved Master Jim, slave marsha, and Cougar.  Please hold them close in thought and prayer as they navigate through a very dark and anxious time for them.  Show them your support and encouragement – send emails, leave a voice message, let them know that we are with them no matter what comes.

Next is our treasured slaveMistress Bonnie, a long-time member of the Phoenix and Southwest communities, our earth mother.  Bonnie is facing major surgery on August 24th to address acute ovarian issues that hopefully will not prove to be any more problematic than the surgery itself.  Please send her healing energy and encouragement as she faces the surgery and her recovery.

i would like us to tend to our own Master Alan, who is in the process of closing a 30-year chapter in his life as he sets out to establish a new career.  The company that Master Alan sold to a new owner six years ago is failing financially.  Although he still works for that company as its Chief Operations Officer, he is now faced with losing his job and having to start a new career after 30 years.  It is a daunting, yet exciting time, full of possibility.  Keep Master Alan and his slave / wife Jackie in your thoughts today, sending them acceptance and serenity in the face of the unknown.

Next, i would like us to tend to my beloved Teacher, Master Skip.  It has been a difficult and challenging year for Master Skip, and for His leather family who love and care for Him, with the loss of His father, the responsibilities He has regarding His mother’s care in an Alzheimer’s care facility, and in contending with all the legal and financial aspects of these situations.  Hold Master Skip close in our prayers as He sets out to face yet another legal challenge in this complicated journey.

And finally, i’d like us to hold especially close our very own slave Trudy.  Trudy is facing two surgeries tomorrow – one to remove a non-malignant lump in her breast, and a second to remove a mass in her lymph nodes.  Let us pray for her – that she may heal quickly, that her suffering be minimal, that she may find strength in us, her leather family, and that this experience may be transformative for her.

In the name of Allâh, the most Great, the most Merciful,

In the name of God and Jesus Christ,

In the name of all that we know to be sacred and holy:

We ask You to send down Your healing touch to our friends in need.

Hold them close to You, let them know Your compassionate Presence, to know that You are as close to them as their next breath.

Bring them comfort and healing, and watch over them, helping them to be rightly guided, to hear with their hearts the One Voice that is You, the Beloved.


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