A Guide to Ramadan for Myself

This Ramadan’s going to be a slow one. A lull. My internship will be over by that time. I will be spending a lot of long summer days in the house, working a bit from home. It will be the drawing in of the breath, the calm before the storm that will be graduate school. And I hope, InshAllah, to take full advantage of this lull by doing all the things, in high concentrations, that are usually difficult to do with work and school.

  • Read. (Duh.)
  • Write. (DUH.) Writers are woefully neglectful of their eating and sleeping, so this can be a time when that neglect works well with fasting. On the other hand, they need their caffeine too. (And their booze, but that doesn’t apply to Muslim writers. Right? RIGHT?) Caffeine withdrawal can be a pain, so if your loved one is an artist who goes into long periods of work they hate–HATE–to have interrupted, factor caffeine withdrawal into the situation and increase their irritability by tenfold.
  • Reflect on where my food comes from and work on my emotional attachment to it.
  • Get back into doing yoga, which I find is a terrific way to stay fit in Ramadan. It’s the only form of exercise that doesn’t make one too thirsty and is actually more beneficial if one does it while they are fasting.
  • Extra worship in the form of salah, dhikr, and duaa. As wonderful as extra worship in Ramadan is, however, I like to draw analogy between dieting and doing extra worship in Ramadan. Dieting–especially fad dieting–doesn’t work because its effect on the body is so transient. To really make a difference with one’s eating, they can’t just diet: they have to embrace a whole new lifestyle. So dhikr in Ramadan isn’t just about getting all those bonus points. It’s about creating a frame of mind so that one can ease into a dhikr-oriented lifestyle. So I hope and pray that the habits we form during Ramadan are at least partially sustained for the rest of the year.

What are your Ramadan goals?


On Changing Gears: A Farewell to Publishing?

Publishing has been awesome. But it’s like it was too awesome to be true. It was like a love affair that, incredible as it was, simply wasn’t meant to last forever.

Something had to change, and my quarter-life crisis (Yes, I was having a crisis. I hid it so cleverly, didn’t I?) was about what that something had to be. Based on the paths I was considering and praying on, I was getting myself ready to write a post entitled either “On Changing Gears” or “On Selling Out.”  The latter post would have been if I became a slightly well-paid editor for the communications department of some big auditing or IT firm. Thankfully, I haven’t sold my soul just yet. So “Changing Gears” it shall be.

What on earth am I on about? I’m going back to school. This fall, I’ll be starting my graduate studies for a Masters in Information Studies from the University of Toronto.The reasons are several:

1. The need to broaden my horizons, career-wise. It’s really hard to find full-time work in book publishing. Internships are great, but after a point it’s hard not to start resenting oneself for being yet another overprivileged twentysomething working full time for a pittance.

2. My parents were hatin’ on me for being such a smart aleck and not having a Masters degree. That’s how awesome they are. That’s how blessed I am.

3. I do believe publishing is important, and books are too, and I don’t regret a single moment of the time I spent studying publishing and working in it. But let’s face it: the industry keeps failing the noble ideal of putting out authentic, original, quality content. Publishing is not dying, but it’s definitely flailing. There’s not only the transition to eBooks–there’s considerably shorter attention spans that cannot withstand the length of a book. Hence, there’s the decline of an audience of book readers as people turn online to be informed, inspired, and most of all, entertained. (I’ve talked about the irrelevance of traditional publishing from a writerly perspective here.)

As good as it feels to bash book publishing for not always being a good content filter and pruner, I don’t mean to pose my course of study in opposition to it. It’s about a blurring of boundaries, not a stricter delineation of those boundaries. Which leads to my next point:

4. Publishing is just one form of information dissemination. This reason was a huge factor in my personal statement for my application to the program. Nowadays it is much harder to be somebody because of writing something; one must be someone before they are published. Plus, forward-thinking people recognize that content-sharing is far more important.  And to be enrolled in a course of learning focusing on the classification of information has a thrill for me. I feel like it’s more relevant to the challenges we face today.

Also, although I love books and have a genuine passion for the role of publishing, I sometimes feel like a fraud. I don’t nearly read as much as any publishing professional should. My tastes aren’t nearly as eclectic as a book nerd’s should be. This is an issue I have beat myself up about, but rather than continuing to do so I can extend my love for the books I do read to love for the process of curating information in general.

So. How will that change affect this blog, my online presence, in all its glory and tweetiness?

Some things won’t change. I’ll still do book reviews about Islam and do the Islamic slants on books not directly related to Islam. I’ll also keep talk about the writing and creative process, and strive to cover pretty much anything that has to do with Muslims and publishing. If my course of study lends itself to the nature of this blog, great. If not, no problem. I’ll simply be an information scientist by day, the ghost of my former bookish, writerly self by night. And if the impulse to go on a whole different tangent altogether is strong enough, I’ll simply start another blog, assuming of course that I decide that sleep and a social life is something I can do without. (Joking, of course.)

I may no longer be able to stay as current with publishing trends as I would like, but my foray into the industry has been more than worth it. I’m going to explore options in freelance manuscript evaluation and eBook creation, and I’m I am still very open to discussions and questions regarding publishing, especially when they relate to the word in a larger sense and not just its literal papered, inked, and bound definition.  What I wanted to make clear in this post, however, is from here forward I will no longer be talking about publishing as one who is currently in the field. I’ll simply be someone who has studied it and has had enough experience to have a good idea of where books come from.

Time to get back into a student frame of mind: assignments, readings, projects, late nights. I’m both nervous and excited.

Let’s see how it goes. May Allah pave the path for better things for all of us.

On Children's Books: The Victory Boys

Ah, children’s books. What is the publishing story with these books?Reading Jamal Orme’s The Victory Boys has made me ponder the question and what it means in terms of publishing for Muslim children. I reviewed the book here and was lucky to get follow-up comments from the author himself.

I haven’t had a lot of training specifically for children’s literature, but I recall the following highlights regarding such books from my substantive editing class:

  • Children’s books are the way we are initiated into the reading world. When one writes a book that resonates with a child, she has not only succeeded in telling a compelling story: she’s also played a part in making this child a potential lifelong reader.
  • The protagonist of a children’s book should be at least two years older than the targeted age group for the book. Kids are big on ages and are more likely to look up to figures who are older than them.   
  • Having kids or being around kids a lot doesn’t necessarily make a good writer or editor of children’s literature. And because an adult can never completely themselves in a child’s shoes, there will always be a shortcoming with her readerly take on the book.  

While I see the validity of the last point, I would like to think that as an older sibling of a 16-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy, I’m a better judge of what makes a good child’s book. It is from the firsthand knowledge of seeing what these two like that I understand why it is more important than ever for books to have an arresting, addictive quality, content that is relevant to their times, and at the same important lessons and experiences that are best learned through stories as opposed to painful personal experiences. For example, my earliest memory of understanding the realities of heroin addiction came from the novel consists of reading Burgess’s harrowing novel Smack when I was twelve.

There are other things that should be important in the writing and creation of a children’s book. Because the writer and publisher are working together to turn children into lifelong readers, children must become judges of what it is that makes a good book. And the way they become good judges is, quite simply, by reading good books. It is very important, therefore, that children’s books are competent in terms of structure and literary devices like themes, symbols, and motifs.

I think the challenge when it comes to writing for Muslim children is establishing that fine mixture of:

  • Literary richness
  • Relevance to the realities children are facing today
  • The ability to serve as a moral compass and a means to spiritual engagement

Along the same lines, Jamal Orme, the author of the Victory boys, held a poll that posed the very interesting question of what makes the most important ingredient in a novel for young Muslims:

  • Remembrance of God
  • Entertainment
  • Language quality (which translates into literary richness)
  • Morals/good role models
  • Relevance to one’s life

While relevance seemed to be perceived as the key ingredient by most voters, one can perhaps divide the ingredients a book for Muslim children should have and those that they need to have in order to be successful. Relevance and entertainment can be characteristics that are needed, whereas moral teachings, remembrance of God, and literary richness are what should be in the book as well. It’s the “should” ingredients that really are what make reading worthwhile.

When I look at The Victory Boys in this light, I realize that in terms of what a book for Muslim children should do, this book is stellar. As I discuss in my review, it could use a bit of work in the literary richness department, but its important teachings should be celebrated and applied to books written for Muslim children.

Those were my two cents on faith and children’s publishing. I’d love to hear Brother Jamal’s thoughts as well as the thoughts of those who do Muslim book reviews or book reviews for Muslim children.

On Reading Zeitoun

Title: Zeitoun

Author: Dave Eggers

Publication Year: 2010 (Paperback ediion)

Pages: 368

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Personal copy

I was slow in picking up this book, and I admit that is because of my own cowardice. Katrina itself was too much to comprehend. The notion of secret prisons and completely sidestepping human rights is not something I have the stomach to think about for too long. To think I was going to read a book that took on both subjects was almost too much to bear. But I had to read it. The book has made too much of an impact and I could no longer avoid reading it.

The job it does in bringing this story to light is absolutely remarkable. It has been praised in far more eloquent ways than I can ever hope to. So instead of describing/praising the story I’ll simply relate to my experience in reading it.

Strangely enough, the book had an addictive, engrossing, unputdownable quality. As another Goodreads reader has also remarked, even one who isn’t given to reading for lengthy amounts of time finds themselves finishing this in a day.

So during the exposition, the laying out of the playing ground, I hung back and took the story in the way I usually read books–little by little everyday. I knew it was building up to something big. I was about to see a dark side of the world and of America that was terrifying. So I wanted the initial part to last. And I made it last. Right until the point of Zeitoun putting down the phone and going outside to find himself surrounded by soldiers.

From that point onwards, I read the rest of the book straight through, without putting it down. It was difficult to read, but it seemed just as difficult and unjust to just put the book down and pick it up again, to turn off and turn on at will the narration of a such a story, a hell someone had actually lived through. The situation the Zeitoun family finds themselves truly pushes the boundaries of personal endurance and reveals how a the American legal system, supposedly designed to protect human rights and dignity, gets suspended in extraordinary circumstances.

As I was reading the book, I was also amazed the simple quality of its narration. Too many nonfiction accounts try to spice themselves up with statements like “He had no idea what he was in for,” breaking the readerly fourth wall by revealing that the narrator knows what happens later on. I loved the construction of the book, the focusing on Kathy’s suffering before switching over to Zeitoun’s side of the story. I loved the interludes where there were personal anecdotes about the family and its history, as they provided temporary relief to story being told.

The story manages to bring out the good side of humanity as embodied by the Zeitouns, but not in a way that is too cloying. Zeitoun’s adamant desire to help others is good to a fault, and is shown to be that way. He is romantic, but not too naive. I felt that the moments of peace and positivity and justification the Zeitoun couple do experience during their ordeal are as much a grand ability to look on the positive side of things, as a human mechanism to help them cope with an extremely difficult situation. They’re not saints. They continue to live New Orleans and they take part in rebuilding it and are working in fostering interfaith understanding. That doesn’t mean that they are not angry or disillusioned with the system or infuriated the havoc the war on terror has wreaked on their lives. They work on doing good in their home city, the place they have always known, because it’s the only way for something good to come out of that anger, and it’s the only way they can live with what happened.

Last but not least, God is called upon, His force shown, His presence celebrated and imminent, throughout the book. Beautifully and amazingly enough, it is not shown as separate from the narrative, something confined to Zeitoun’s beliefs. It forms the current and the colour of the story. And perhaps what I love most of all about this book is the fact that Allah is given a deep, enduring presence in a nonfiction account. Nonfiction books even dealing with religious matter–the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, for example–don’t resonate as beautifully with divine presence as this book does.

An absolutely wonderful read and testament to both the dark and compassionate sides of humanity.

On Singlehood

“Half our deen” is the chanted mantra when it comes to attitudes towards marriage. I like it, I respect it, and I have no doubt about the fact that the institution of marriage is intrinsically beautiful. It’s a form of companionship that is the foundation of a family and is, without question, one of Allah’s infinite mercies upon humanity.

But because I’m all about acknowledging realities, here’s another set of realities that  we need to work with. Divorce rates are climbing. People are waiting longer to settle down. Well-intentioned relationships are failing. So a great majority of Muslims are voluntary or involuntarily single. It might be simply because the right person hasn’t come along yet. Or it might be because they’ve been through failed relationships/marriages and don’t believe being that being in such a situation is for them.

The reasons don’t matter, as they for the most part can’t be helped. For now, we need to put aside the cause and look at the symptom, the state of the younger Muslim generations. We are single. And there’s too many of us who are miserable because we are single.

This makes me wonder whether in there’s a place for elongated singlehood in Islam. Singlehood that is not just as a transient state, but a valid life choice that one deeply, genuinely enjoys. If we can’t seem to settle down with someone, can we afford to keep being marriage-centric? I don’t think so.

I think singlehood shouldn’t just be a limbo one is passing through until they get married (a life that, by the way, has its own set of complications that for some reason are highly understated by parents and married friends). Singlehood has a tendency to be stigmatized across all kinds of cultures and communities, but I think it should be a way of being that needs to stop being looked down upon. And I think the process starts with accepting one’s singlehood and perhaps even rejoicing in it.

In my search for the “single yet happy” equation I ended up reading a book called Living Alone and Loving It by former television actress Barbara Feldon. The great thing about the book is that she doesn’t delve as much into the reasons for being single (or whether one chooses to be single or just happens to be one) but how to make the most of it and rejoice in it. Some of the lessons and wisdoms from the book that made a huge impact in my perception of my singlehood include

  • The realization that it’s better to be single and open and available than to be in an unhappy marriage. Not all marriages are unhappy, granted, but I trust that–for now– if the only alternative to being single is being married and unhappy, then I’m in the best of all possible worlds.
  • The ability to open myself and seek comfort from the world at large rather than one person in particular. This keeps me from putting all my eggs in one basket and makes me independent and self-secure.
  • The importance of forging bonds with friends–especially other friends who are single, and rejoicing in the ability to have the independence and freedom to be there for and have a good time with such friends.
  • The importance of having a life and passions that provide food for the soul. Things like reading, praying, being in activity groups, or even watching sports can provide nourishment that makes one feel less lonely and more connected with the world as a whole.
  • The most important realization of all: when the right person does come along: he or she should be a delightful addition to your life, not the focus of it. We all have friends who disappeared  after getting married and no longer kept in touch or made themselves available to meet up. While I understand that marriage comes with a new set of responsibilities, I don’t understand why people–especially women–are expected to leave their old lives and friends behind and orient their new existence around their spouses. Being married without having one’s own social resources and activities results in a very single-tracked existence that’s draining and even detrimental to a marriage.
The general idea posited in the book is that we can’t stop searching for that significant other, and that we as humans are made to want and need such a connection. But we also owe it to ourselves and our future partner to be independent and happy and with our own set of goals, dreams, hobbies, and social networks.

It doesn’t end there. Here’s something else that I think we as Muslims need to think about when it comes to being single. Being one.

God is One.

Some of us might be yearning to find that significant other and be done with it already, but shouldn’t we take a moment and ponder the fact that, for however a short period of time, He has given us independence, self-subsistence, and the possibility of being happy while being alone?

The spinster stigma’s gotta go. Being single doesn’t have to mean being miserable. For it also means having even more time for seeking knowledge, being an active member of the community, being a good role model as an older sibling or aunt or uncle, or being able to be there and spend quality time with one’s parents.

I won’t pretend that I’m joyfully single all the time. But I am grateful to have had eye-opening realizations thanks to having read and pondered about the virtues and vices of being alone. I’m also lucky to have strong, content, independent single female mentors who demonstrate to me that there is a life outside of being married. As a result, I’d like to think I am beginning to understand how I can make the most of the gift of singlehood. And it is my deepest hope and fervent prayer that other single Muslims make the most of this gift as well.

Going “Beyond Halal”

First of all, I want to make one thing very clear: that this post is not much more than a big, sprawling, writerly ad for Beyond Halal, a wonderful initiative that I came across recently.

In order to explain why this movement warrants an ad in the form of a blog post (an ad that was 100% my idea and no one else’s, for the record), let me tell you a story.

As those of you who read my post on food and Ramadan may recall, I said that Ramadan should be an opportunity to examine our relationship to food in two ways:

1. Not just the killing hunger for food while fasting, but killing the need for good food in large volumes all the time
2. Developing a further awareness of and respect for where food comes from

My last post was about #1, but I was struggling with how to write on #2, which is just as important but I did not have the knowledge or experience to substantiate. For I feel that there’s two sides of the coin when it comes to food and deen. As I outline above: one side, the one I focused on in the Ramadan-related post, is not wanting so much food of so-and-so quality all the time. It’s definitely a bit of a monastic perspective. But it is by no means a comprehensive approach.

Monasticism is not the answer when it comes to our deen. We can’t lose ourselves in spiritual bliss and neglect the fact that we have responsibilities in the world and that the earth and its resources are entrusted to us. We’re supposed to understand that food and other temporal pleasures don’t mean much, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t partake of and enjoy what is lawful for us. Food is a necessary part of our being, and we need to know and be conscientous about how our partaking of food affects the environment. We need to know how to be responsible when it comes to the food we do eat to sustain ourselves and strengthen social bonds.

And this responsibility is something I feel haunted and overwhelmed by. A few years ago I read Eating, a book that truly made me understand what veganism was about. The book delved not only into environmental reasons for disavowing meat, dairy, and eggs, but ethical reasons as to why eating animals, thanks to our means of producing food, has become inherently wrong in itself.

Then a short while ago I watched Food, Inc. It was not as revelatory to me as I had already read Eating and Fast Food Nation, but it was still a scary reminder about what food has become today and a wake-up call to do something about it as both consumers and producers.

Because I found myself throwing faith into the equation, or wanting to incorporate faith into the equation, I’ve been wondering about whether the halal meat we eat is from animals that are treated humanely, and whether simply invoking God’s name upon slaughtering them, regardless of the conditions they are grown and fed in, should be sufficient for us. I thought eating less meat would be the answer–I can’t completely disavow what is halal for me, but at least I can decrease my consumption of something that’s not good for the environment and that I don’t need that much of.

But I was still flailing. I understood that Muslims need to be part of this change–at the forefront of this change, even–but I’m not a grower or food activist. When it comes to food, I’m not a leader, I’m a follower. I’m not a farmer, I’m a consumer. What do I turn to? Whom do I turn to? I was tracing the faint boundaries of my thoughts without knowing what I was drawing, and not knowing how to complete the picture.

And then that thought process suddenly exploded in a brilliant burst of colour, when I completely by chance discovered Beyond Halal.

The title itself sold me. That’s exactly what I was driving at. It was beautifully reinforced by the following words from the site’s About page:

In a world where we are increasingly disconnected from the ways in which our food comes to us, Beyond Halal asks, “Is halal good enough?” . . . Just because meat is halal doesn’t mean it is good, but by relying solely on the legal term, we risk losing the ethical values that lie beneath and beyond it.

And I’ll be honest: I’m not only sold because they’re not only doing amazing work. It’s the way they share their message. In a post titled “Tawhid on the Farm,” Krystina writes beautifully on importance of faith and reconnecting to nature:

As Muslims, I believe that we should think carefully about what we put into our bodies, because our food becomes us. We can choose to nourish ourselves and our families intentionally guided by principles of mercy and dignity, or we can ignore where our food comes from and say “alhamdulillah, at least it’s halal,” if that. Insh’Allah, I hope to see Muslims becoming more engaged with food movements, and to really connect with what nourishes us by visiting the farms where fruits, vegetables, and meats come from, getting to know the farmers, and especially by getting involved with growing and raising our own food. Even better, I hope that Muslim children are able to witness the constant miracles of Allah’s mercy through creation.

Needless to say, there’s nothing they say that I can say better, so I leave you with the site itself. And I pray that they be granted much, much success in raising awareness amongst Muslims that halal, in today’s day and age, is not good enough.