The Companion

I am stashed
with lip balm, a comb,
a small mirror, rarely pulled out
I am carried everywhere
for I am weightless
I am made to collect dust so you do not have to
when you kneel
on both hard and yielding surfaces.
My back protects you
from impurities
I create for you a space
A space that is folded, that is carried
so the prayer stays with you
wherever you may be
as long as you are alone.
I am not beautiful
Others like me have been meticulously woven
hung up, rarely used
but I am made to last your journey
to withstand wear and tear
so that I am always here
when you are distracted, anxious
or joyously calm
that is when your embrace is the sweetest.

All things are made to worship Him,
but I was made for worshipping Him.

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All I Know About Blogging I Learned From Here

Several friends ask me what got me to start blogging, and some who have been considering starting one themselves have asked me for advice. This post is a consolidated response to both queries.

Until very recently  I was anti-blogging for several reasons:

  • I didn’t think I had enough to talk about.
  • Even if I did, blogging seemed to require a considerable degree of self-absorption, and the thought of being a person capable of that has always been repulsive to me.
  • I’ll admit it: I was vain enough to worry about other people stealing my content and putting it out as their own.
  • I was wary of criticism, especially criticism founded on some assumption on what I am.

Nonetheless, I tried my hand at blogging a few times, but it didn’t seemed right. Every time I hit ‘Publish,’ I had this feeling that the world was doing me a favor by letting me have my say. Blogging is the thing that all aspiring writers seemed to do, were supposed to do, yet although I was going through the motions, I had no desire to share my work with others. I then stopped and paid it no more heed.

But then a series of things happened that completely transformed my approach to blogging. These things were:

1. Reviving the Islamic Spirit

When some of the most outstanding scholars and speakers are pleading with you to take charge of the ummahs future, it’s difficult not to take that to heart. I attended the RIS convention in Toronto the first and so far only time last winter, which was December 2010.

I went in a feeling a little lost, plagued by the feeling of purposelessness that pins one down when life isn’t dealing them any card of any kind. I didn’t have any grand aspirations. I went because I had never been. I went because it had been a long, long time since I had felt like I was part of a greater community of faith.

But everything those world-renowned scholars said struck a deep chord in me. That 9/11, tragic as it was, gave us an opportunity to show the world what we were really about. That it’s a time for change. That we need to garner courage and define a new, vibrant identity for ourselves.

A lot of people tell me that this enormous uplifting sense of inspiration goes away within days of attending a RIS. For me, by the grace of Allah, that inspiration stayed. It nestled and planted a seed in my brain that shone and started to grow. I knew I had to do something with my weird, idiosyncratic Muslim self. It was just a matter of finding out what that something should be.

2. Gary Vaynerchuck’s Crush It!

As that seed grew, something else happened. Having just found out that I was to be kick starting the ebook program at the small press I was interning in, I looked for ways to learn about digital promotion of the authors we represented. And so I came across and started reading Crush It!

Just a few chapters in, I had forgotten whom I was reading for. The book wasn’t speaking to me as a digital product marketer. The book was speaking to me.

This book lays out the steps to identifying your passion and building a platform based on your contribution to the conversation about it. It’s a guide to utilizing what the digital world has to offer.

I’ve always known the importance of going digital generally. What I realized upon reading this book was that I owed it to myself and the world to start blogging. And, more importantly, my blog couldn’t be arbitrary. I had to find something I was passionate about, something I could spend eons writing and conversing and reading about.

Not too soon after, I realized what it was I wanted to focus on. I had to write about books and faith. Religion and the writerly mode of being. Reading this book made me realize that I owed it to myself to make the most of this passion, and I finally set up my blog and started to publish all the drafts I had been writing. I could no longer be the quiet hijabi who happens to be a publishing intern, or a publishing intern who is a quirky and intriguing supplement to a book-lined office. I was tired of being an exception, of straddling two worlds I loved. I had to make them fuse, even if it was only through my thoughts.

The confidence that stemmed from this realization was staggering, and I was no longer afraid of sharing what I wrote in the vein of this passion. That, and realizing that sharing was just as important as creating, led me to finally set up my blog and publicize it through social media. Am I, as Vaynerchuck would put it, crushing it? Perhaps not. But I now am understanding what it takes.

If you don’t get around to reading this book, know its most important lessons are that you need to:

  • Find something you are very, very passionate about
  • Figure out what you can bring to the table in terms of current conversation regarding that passion
  • Find your form (blog, podcast, and/or video) and start churning out your content
  • Reach out. Join every conversation out there about your subject of passion.

3. Steve Pavlina’s post, How to Build a High-Traffic Web Site (or Blog)

My father forwarded this post to me not long after I started blogging, and I devoured it. Although Crush It! was an excellent guide in its own way, it keeps purporting the idea that the blog should be a means to an end, an end where some publisher comes knocking at your door, where you are called for speaking engagements, where you are officiated as a product reviewer for whatever it is that you love. Much as I respect the entrepreneurial spirit and the ethic of hard work, I’m not the sort of person who is driven by those kind of goals. I needed to be driven by something grander, especially since my area of interest was not quite monetarily lucrative.

Personal development guru Pavlina, like Vaynerchuck, also became successful by virtue of having highly lucrative online content. The meaning he gives to how this process happened, however, is something that greatly resonated with me. I needed to be told that the length of my posts, their frequency, this whole keyword and SEO nonsense, makes no difference in the long run. If content is good enough, if you are passionate, if you have something startlingly unique and timeless to offer, the word of mouth is more than enough.

And a genuine desire to help, to be a source of inspiration and insight, is what really makes one’s authenticity shine through. So does engaging with those who enjoy your content. I love pointing Muslims in new directions and making them think in different ways, but I’m too wary of the messiah complex to think that it all ends there. I have to keep seeking to learn from others. Conversation and meaningful engagement–including highly critical responses to my pieces–add to the process, not take away from it.

Plus, a genuine desire to help is not something that Muslims should have to learn. It’s something that should be driving them anyway. It’s not terribly hard, therefore, to do an Islamic reading of Pavlina’s post and apply it to help beget a spirit of generous honesty and bounty by means of collaboration.

4. Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on Nurturing Creativity

Every sentence Gilbert enunciates in this marvelous talk is a polished gem of wisdom. I’m not a big fan of Eat, Pray, Love, but after watching Gilbert speak about the writing process and the terrifyingly high bar she allegedly has set for herself, I found myself gaining a respectful reverence towards her humility, honesty, and sense of humor about her writerly self. I also loved the way she talks about her acceptance of the fact that she may never write anything as good. But most of all, I was struck by the beauty and incredible relevance of her proposal: that we look at the pitifully rare but much-needed depth of creative insight as a kind of miracle, a blessing from some grand, external dispenser of all creativity.

For me, the insights from this talk have become the antidote to the powerlessness I feel when the words don’t come. If they don’t, it’s up to Allah to do what He wills and I strive wait patiently, just as a person of taqwa is to endure with patience any kind of trial from Him.

I may not be a blazing genius or a writer with enough stamina to sustain a novel, but that could not matter less when the writing process is an end in itself. That such a thing was possible has in itself become a source of contentment. Just like one should be humble and simple in the clothes they wear and the food they eat, it really shouldn’t take much for a writerly Muslimah to find her grounding and to savour this process for what it is.

That’s why it’s more than enough to be living in a time where I have an unprecedented ability to be heard, to have even a handful of people read something I have written and have it resonate with them. I have a long way to go, and there are, I admit, things I want with this. But blogging is very much of a process as opposed to a means to a destination. It is a matter of finding bliss in the moment as well as the drive to excel further.

On Writerly Courage: Rhino Skin and God Consciousness

My post on singlehood was recently published in AltMuslimah, and, for the first time, I experienced what it is like to have my thoughts disseminated to a much larger Muslim community.

Before I started blogging, I was warned to be ready for the inevitable: not all readers, I was told, will be happy about what I’ve written. So I braced myself. It wasn’t easy, but I dealt with it a lot better than I would have had I not been aware of the need for rhino skin and God consciousness.

I’m luckier than the many, many people whose lives are under threat because of the things they write. I am far more blessed than those who live under siege, who make sacrifices to say what needs to be said for the betterment of their political and social conditions. I’ve got nothing over these people. But I will whine. I will indulge. So bear with me.

See, the irksome paradox is that in order to be a writer who has to be heard, you have to say something original, and in order to glean insight for that originality, you have to be sensitive. So when you have to write the damn thing, you employ all the hypersensitivity you are blessed or cursed with. But when it’s time for the readerly public to deliver their verdict, it’s time to don the cloak of rhino skin: supremely thick skin. The sensitivity that was such an asset in the writerly process becomes a liability, so you just have to suck it up, maintain some semblance of dignity, and stand firmly by what you say.

Tom Petty’s Rhino Skin got me through a lot of rough times because it’s such a tender, honest testament to the stark reality of being in this world. The name of the song has entrenched itself in the part of me that tends to take things too seriously. “Deep breaths. Rhino skin. Rhino skin.”

It took a very thick skin–rhino skin–to read comments from people who disagreed with the piece and took out their metaphorical label makers to make all-encompassing generalizations about Muslim women generally and myself specifically. My friends plead with me to not take it to heart, to not even read such feedback, for that matter. But I can’t do that. Readers who have issues with what I’ve read glanced into my mind, and they didn’t like what they saw. Again, that’s inevitable. Some will love what they see, some will hate it, some will think it’s just meh. But I can’t just surround myself with praise and flowers and sunshine and pretend everything’s fine. There is no right and wrong way of reading anything. Who am I to say that a commentator with the finesse of an oaf and the empathy of a dull three-year-old is completely and utterly off the mark? Maybe that dullness, that oafness, allowed him to see something that would have been completely missed by the rest of us.

So I can’t filter out that kind of feedback. I need rhino skin and God consciousness to handle it. Rhino skin dealt with actually fielding the arrows shot my way. But I realized that I wasn’t alone in doing so. I had a source of strength, the strength that comes from this comes from turning to Allah, doing a writerly duaa, and in it acknowledging that He alone knows what my intention in writing that piece was. He alone knows what a struggle it was to be able to think the thoughts needed to write that piece.

Am I a fitna-mongerer? Am I pushing pushing singles over the brink into a zina-infested existence? I pray that that it not be so. I’m not one to rule out that possibility. But Allah is.

The assumptions of people thinking I am glorifying something illicit hurts, and the thought that there is any sliver of truth in what they say is what haunts me. What it does in the long run, however, is make me turn to Allah and pray that the things I say only be a source of good, and that I keep being blessed with the courage to write, and that I do so in a way that brings others closer to His light, not away from it.

On Writerly Duaas

A few years ago I made a writerly discovery that to me has been the most immense source of spiritual bliss, the place where writing and faith began to merge for me.
Before going for hajj in 2002, I attended a talk in which the speaker encouraged us to make a list for things to pray for. That’s when I first planned my duaas in the form of a list. Studies. Health. My family’s well being. Success in my academic and professional pursuits. A decent husband. Kids who are not emo. (Yes, at sixteen I was already worried about that.) Forgiveness for my past sins. Death in the best state of iman. All that jazz.

But lists are boring. Lists are bland. You make a list to shop for groceries. But when it comes to making duaas: a list? Does that really suffice? When one looks down at each entry, can they call upon the emotions associated with each item as they pray for it?

A duaa is not just a tangible thought. It is also made up of the emotions associated with that thought.

During a dark time when I was writing out my thoughts to try and understand my situation, I suddenly pressed indent and typed:

Ya Allah.

An unbridled narrative unfolded. I laid an exposition. Took on the responsibility for all the things I knew I was accountable for. Tried to understand the sources of anxiety, all the while stressing that, like Yusuf’s father, I wanted to complain to no one else. Once I finally had the calm that begins to settle after a cathartic release, I built up to a plea, based on everything I had laid out. I mapped out the ways in which the thing I was requesting could make me a better servant, daughter, sister, friend. I continuously injected the understanding that I cannot know what is best for me, but that I ask only what I think is best for me, given what I know.

All of this while asking for just one thing, and one thing alone.

It’s not like lists aren’t important, and a comprehensive list of things to pray for can be invaluable. But a list is nothing more than a collection of reminders. There is more to duaas than just acknowledging them. To me, the perfect duaa is the one that is fashioned from emotion. And emotions often visit with no more than a moment’s notice.

Writers are told that when something hits them, they must drop everything and write. Same goes for duaas. One might be sitting on a bus. In the middle of a social gathering. In the middle of an enormous project, even. But can he afford to not give in to the sudden well of emotion, the need to address what makes his heart heavy, to the divine?

It’s one thing to pray for my parents’ physical and spiritual well being. It’s another thing to revive memories of crisp autumn evenings in Pakistan that my father spent teaching me how to ride a bike. When one remembers something like that, the duaas grow in themselves. With those memories, the yearning to take care of him and be good to him and never cause him any pain is so overpowering that there is no need to look for the words to ask for them.
Perhaps duaas don’t even have to put in words. Perhaps they’re just memories and feelings and images. Memories of the past, feelings of hope, and images of an ideal future that optimizes the best of deen and duniya.
Ramadan is drawing to a close, and very soon I will no longer be in a position to ask for something in the same way I am at the iftar table or during Laylat Al-Qadr. When the emotion is there, I draw it in and fashion it into an original duaa with as much ardor as I can. When it isn’t, or when I am pulled away by other things like serving iftar and bonding with my family, I say: “Dear God. I’m not really feeling it right now. But remember that whole spiel I gave You about my parents and how amazing they are and how I never want to upset them? Please accept that, emotions and all, as if I am asking for it in this blessed moment.”
May Allah make us more ardent and eloquent in our asking Him. And may we never tire of asking Him.

More Musings on Food and Ramadan: A Post in Beyond Halal

I’ve reached a kind of milestone in this blessed month: by the grace of Allah, I have been published in Beyond Halal. My piece is titled “Food Consciousness in Ramadan”, and in it I try to trace the spirituality in every stage of preparing, serving, and sharing food–specifically, an iftar meal. Do give it a read.

I’ve sung praises for the thinking behind Beyond Halal in a previous post, so I won’t reiterate them here. I do want to add, however, that there couldn’t have been a better place to have my first gig, and I’m deeply grateful for people like Krystina Friedlander (who also blogs here) who are as enthusiastic about my content as I am about theirs. There’s nothing like collaboration with folks who are doing such incredible, important work, and I hope to have more opportunities with them and others like them, Inshallah.

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 Publishing: 3 Reasons Why None of it Matters

This post is for writers for whom getting published is a critical way to validate their existence, and, really, anyone who thinks that getting published is the grandest of all achievements.

It’s not. At least, not anymore.

Literary ambition is a wonderful and remarkable thing, for were it not for that ambition, we would not see a lot of works that are out there in existence today (a lot of them are good, too!). I have a view of the existence of books in the same way medieval philosophers viewed the matter of the existence of God: existence in itself is a better thing, so it should be.

That goes for crappy books, too, for if there weren’t any crappy books, however would we know which ones are worthy? My philosophy on good and bad books is like the take on a good and bad day: you never know what a good day is until you’ve had a crummy one.

Sorry. I’m going overboard with the philosophizing today.

This post is in response to the depression aspiring writers get into when they get rejection slip after rejection slip. Don’t do that to yourself. Getting published is not all it’s made out to be, and here is why:

1. You can only be so happy before you go back to being your crummy self. The Intern does an incredible job of describing this. She actually managed to get her book picked up, and in the stressful midst of the pre-publishing activities, she found herself realizing that while her situation had changed and she had been ecstatic to find out her book was taken up, she was not really any happier than she had been before. She linked this realization with the concept of the hedonic treadmill. Published or not, in the long run you will only as happy as you’ll ever be. Deal with it.

2. If the public chooses to ignore or reject your book, that fate could be worse than not getting published at all. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather suffer from a dozen rejections than get published and have a very lukewarm response to my book, or no response at all, or be one of the mediocre books that become the scum below the bar defining good books are. I wouldn’t want that for myself. I would want my book–the book I had spent ages molding and perfecting so that it is the most unique and original and incredible work that I could produce–to be met with some response. It doesn’t even have to be positive (we all know what the fatwa on Rushdie did to Satanic Verses sales). It just has to be acknowledged. To be responded to.

One could take a different view that failing in publishing is like failing in love: that it’s better to have gone out there, published, and sold very few copies than not published at all. Nope. That sounds way nicer in theory than in practice. In the real world, editors will be kicking themselves for taking you on and your future prospects of getting published will be even more dismal.

If chances of getting published are a hundred to one, then think of your book actually gaining significant popularity as a one to a thousand. Publishers try their best to gauge the marketplace, but ultimately a lot of book projects, especially fictional books, are a gamble.

3. We’re living in the information age–on speed. No one’s telling you your content can’t be made available to millions. Hello. Internet?

Are you seriously going to mope about the fact that the gatekeepers of the publishing industry are keeping the world from seeing a glimpse of your genius? Grow up. We now have all the tools to be seen and heard. With the right platform and outreach via social media, you have no reason not to get your content out there.

And here’s the real kicker: by publishing online, you’ll be reaching out to people who simply can’t be bothered to set foot in a bookstore. Someone stumbles across your blog and says “Hey, usually these things don’t do it for me, but this one’s onto something here.” Bam. That’s success. That’s all a genuine writer really wants. They want their work to matter, even if it’s for one person.

You might raise the very valid point, dear Muslim reader, that I must think traditional publishing matters, for I after all work in the industry. Much as I love being part of the process, seeing some of the content that comes out and the fact that not everybody is a reader does make me question some things. This is an issue I will explore further later.

But the message you should take away, aspiring writer, is this: do everything you can to get published. But don’t disillusion yourself too much about the merits of getting published, and don’t subject yourself to agony over thinking you are worthless. Tie your camel, and then trust Allah. Know that there is something better for you, and it may come in a form that you couldn’t have conceived of.