On reading "The Upstairs Wife"

 22238381If I were to be an official-ish, published writer, I would be a nonfiction writer. I would hope to be the kind of writer who writes a book like this. Zakaria’s book illustrates a private, painful family story in parallel to the story of Pakistan as experienced by the swollen, violent, disturbed, distorted city that is Karachi.

Nothing is perfect—in true journalistic fashion, things are simply conveyed as they are, yet artfully so. Islamization campaigns in Pakistan are shown as no worse than the corruption and hypocrisy of secular leadership. (One exception: I couldn’t help but feel that there was a bit of sympathy on her part towards the Muhajjir Qaumi Movement—MQM, but that could be just me.)

This is also the story of how Zakaria’s paternal aunt’s husband ended up taking a second wife. This is not an Orientalist horrifying tale of how Islam allows polygamy and how it is terrible. It is an examination of the social realities of arranged marriages, women’s roles in society, love, and the tightrope a middle-class Pakistani family must walk to maintain its respectability. It is also the story of human nature, how easy it is to hate for the sake of hating, and how the most negative sentiments can become lifelong companions. It is the story of how vulnerable a woman is when her sole role is to serve her husband, when her life is built around him. This is not just Aunt Amina’s story: it is the story of millions of women, married and unmarried, whose worth is measured by their marital status, whether they are mothers, whether they work or are taught to have aspirations of their own. Aunt Amina is the chronically bereaved family member you will desperately want to avoid, to avoid all that negative energy, while fully understanding that she is the way she is because that is all she knows, and that is her reality.

On a different note: I kept wondering, as I read the book, what or who emboldened Zakaria to write so many details about her aunt’s life. No one would want their life put on display this way. In the Western context of publishing and the accountability of telling stories, “consent” wouldn’t come close to describing the kind of license the subject of a story would have to provide. Nothing is more powerful than a private, true story, but shouldering the responsibility of sharing this kind of a narrative has both serious legal and (I feel) spiritual implications.

Allah knows the author’s intentions best, and is the judge in all matters.

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On Reading the Organized Mind

This book seems awfully scattered at times and I am sure it could have done its job in two-thirds the number of pages it takes 18693669up. I didn’t read all of it. But I did come across a review of it and wanted to share a key point:

Guard your mind. Yes, it’s cool to live in the dazzling array of electronics, but while it’s convenient that you can instantly find out how much the Empire State Building weighs that doesn’t mean you always should.

What could be more purely Islamic than the notion of guarding your mind?

Other things that speak to the same theme:

On Bibliotherapy and Sabr

It’s been more than a trying last term in my Master’s program. By the God’s grace, life has been well.

But the other day was a day with a resounding message, a gift of thought. It reminded me to keep check, to maintain perspective no matter where I am.

I attended a talk by Professor Keren Dali, a library science professor in my faculty with an expertise in reading behaviour and reader’s advisory in the library context. In the talk, she discussed the dangers of reading and bibliotherapy. Both, she pointed out, come with their own set of caveats. With the advent of the novel and the sudden spread of reading fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors were wary of the effect reading had on people’s–specifically women’s–physical and mental states. Reading, they said, put one in an alternate state of mind which was nothing short of pathological. It made readers oversympathize and overidentify with the characters and experience their stories viscerally, which physiologically taxed their bodies. At the same time, readers had a perpetual sense of guilt for neglecting their “real world” duties, which added to the stressors. The critic Samuel Johnson introduced a philosophical dimension to the reading obsession by saying that reading had the tendency to “produce effects almost without the intervention of the will.”

Attitudes towards reading have transformed so radically that they have veered towards the other extreme: the innate goodness of reading is now accepted without question. Professor Dali recalled attending a workshop at a librarians’ conference in which a bibliotherapy workshop was proposed for aging patrons undergoing significant life transitions. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. She, however, was stunned, and could not believe that the matter of people’s lives was being taken so lightly. She urged librarians working in readers’ advisory to be mindful of the specificity of people’s personal problems. And while librarians are nowhere close to being sources of professional help–even bibliotherapy requires certification–it is their responsibility to follow stricter rules in readers advisory when it came to matters of bibliotherapy. Only recommend a book that you have read, that you genuinely loved, and that helped you in a similar time. Keep in mind that reading is not therapy in itself: it is supportive.

This talk challenged the mindset that reading is a good unto itself. Professor Dali’s talk was met with several snickers, but the truth of the matter is, it is just as easy for reading to worsen one’s mindset as it is to improve it. Someone who has a tendency to be deluded, or to numb themselves with formulaically constructed stories, should be encouraged to indulge in escapist reading.


That same day, I finally watched Life of Pi in the theatre with my little brother. Both of us are highly sensitive and have a hard time seeing any beings–particularly animals–in difficult situations. We shrunk back in our seats during some especially tumultuous scenes, and on many occasions he simply covered his eyes.

Afterwards I tried to explain to him what I wish I was told ages ago: to not be afraid of feeling sad, to be brave about it. I recounted the Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of his son as a metaphor for how we must let go of things that we are attached to with sabr. I tried to tell him that these glimpses of sadness are hints into the greater sadnesses that lie ahead for us, and being unafraid of it makes us become aware of what may befall us at a moment’s notice.

Thus, while bibliotherapy is traditionally applied to those who are struggling with problems and are at a low point, I can’t help but think of think of the flip side of things: that “therapy” also applies to being humbled when things are going well. I was not happy at how my insides retracted while watching Life of Pi. Had I watched the movie last summer, when I was grappling with intense hopelessness and fear, I would have taken those feelings in stride, paying them no heed.

This phenomenon even applies to physical pain. I once had an accident involving a spillage of boiling water that blistered left a scar on my hand–and yet, I was so stressed and overwhelmed at that time that I paid it no heed. I am certain that if I were content and happy, that pain would have been worse.

Bibliotherapy may start with a fictional story, but then the gaze should shift to other injustices and atrocities I may not usually be equipped to think about. Now it is time to watch that footage of animal treatment in factory farms and seriously rethink my dietary choices. Now I need to revisit my phobias and expose myself to their triggers. Now I need to grow in ways I cannot when I am feeling down. And just like there is no knowing when we will die, there is no knowing how long happiness and contentment will last.

Bibliotherapy does not necessarily have to involve books. It involves appropriate usage powerful narratives that should instill us with appropriate doses of hope or fear, depending on what we need at that particular time. It means–no matter what our situation–being mindful of the extremely limited role our individual lives play in the grand scheme of things. I may not spend a lot of time in the day explicitly weighing my fear of God in respect to my love and gratitude to him for placing me where I am now, but I can remind myself of the issues that I am better equipped to face now.

I am relatively happier and more content than I have been for a long time, and I pray that Allah make me not heedless in this time, or hoplessly paralyzed when things go bad. I am at the mercy of whatever he choses to bestow on me, but a step beyond just surrendering to it is being proactive in building stores of courage and and an armor of resilience.

More On Singlehood

When I feel constricted, suffocated by notions that a married woman is the only kind of woman who is worth being respected, being heard, I think of Precious Ramotswe. I think of her father. I think of what happened when a man who later turned out to be an abusive husband asked for his permission to marry her. I think of the very clear straightforward process Obed Ramotswe undertook:

He sat on his stool and looked up at her and said to her that she would never have to marry anybody she did not want to marry. Those days were over, long ago. Nor should she feel that she had to marry at all; a woman could be by herself these days—there were more and more women like that.

I do fantasize about love and marriage. I grew up with romantic notions of fairy-tale weddings and eternal love and marital bliss. I still believe in these possibilities and want them for myself very, very much.

At the same time, I also fantasize about a wise, elder figure like Ramotswe telling me that it’s okay to not settle.

It may sound incredibly absurd. But when you are part of a culture where the spinster woman is so deeply shamed, where it’s hard to rejoice in your lifestyle when society refuses to accord you respect, you need to embrace an alternate reality. You need to build new mental models for ways of being.

So from this first book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, it is Obed Ramotswe’s words that sustain me, along with Precious’ ambition, creativity, an uncluttered, independent life, with bright yellow curtains, bush tea, and chats with dear friends. These things remind me that contentment, peace, love and mercy can exist in forms beyond the sociocultural establishment I have been born into.

It is in passages like the one above, moments like these, that I am struck by just how much literature can be such a rahma, such a mercy.

On Reading All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim

Title: All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim (I Speak For Myself, Volume II)

Editors: Wajahat M. Ali & Zahra T. Suratwala

Publication Year: 2012

Genre: Autobiography/Anthology

Source: eGalley from publisher

So far, I’ve talked about Muslim women and the female experience a great deal. Writing and meditating about stories I can identify with, however, has made me curious about the experiences that I cannot speak for. And that curiosity starts at home. What does it mean, I have wondered, to be a Muslim man?

That’s why I was very excited about reading the just-published All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim. The collection contains a vast array of essays from Muslim Americans who are poets, doctors, businessmen, fathers, religious leaders, political activists, and artists. They come from a mashup of highly varied religious and ethnic backgrounds and political allegiances. The only thing constant in throughout their narratives is their self-identification as Americans. Yet, as Wajahat Ali states in the introduction, “the American Muslim men profiled within these pages eradicate antiquated assumptions of what it means to be ‘Muslim,’ ‘American,’ and even a ‘man.’” Without a doubt, the book delivers as promised, opening the eyes of both non-Muslim and Muslim readers to how diverse and multifaceted the Muslim American male experience can be.

I now realize that as I read the collection, I was more sensitive to the “Muslim male” aspect of the essays than their “American” dimension. (It was simply a matter of personal preference, perhaps due to the fact that I didn’t grow up in North America and can’t relate to “Americanness.”) Furthermore, I feel the more effective stories were those that were focused on one topic or one incident, particularly those dealing with spirituality and the meaning of manhood. I’d like to pay homage to some of the most memorable essays in this collection by recalling what made them special to me:

  • Haroon Moghul’s essay “The Faith that Faith Produced,” the first piece in the anthology, opens with a chillingly honest admission: “I was washing dishes in the kitchen when I stopped believing in God.” He continues to recount the implications of disbelief, illustrating how it was not until he suffered from spiritual angst and self-doubt that he truly start believing.
  • In “On Baseball and Islam in America,” Shahzad Hussain Abbass makes a memorable comparison between teaching his young son to bat and to stand still in prayer.
  • Baraka Blue writes beautifully in “Manhood” about how visiting Muslim-majority countries made him reexamine his own masculinity. He was struck by the easy physical intimacy between heterosexual men as well as their lack of self-consciousness about shedding tears during heartfelt prayer, realizing that these are manifestations of the genuine love fellow Muslims have for one another and Allah.
  • “Muslim After Midnight” by Obaid H. Siddiqui was definitely one of my favorite essays in this collection. He recounts a single incident of racist tension and the interior dialogue that goes takes place in his mind during the event. I feel that the piece illustrates the confusion and self-assertion that takes place in the head of a Muslim American man when his “belongingness” is questioned.
  • Tynan Power’s “Stepping Across the Gender Divide,” is a fascinating and must-read account from a transgender Muslim who experienced what it was like to be a Muslim woman before he became a man. He recalls the ambiguity and confusion of his transition in a way I will never forget:  “At what point, exactly, was I considered a man? When was I to guard my modesty from the navel to the knee instead of by drawing my veil down over my chest?”
  • Michael Mohammad Knight’s “From Islam to Islam” was one of the few essays that managed to have considerable breadth while leaving the reader with a single, pointed message. It spans the story of his conversion and his experience with numerous Muslim sects and perspectives, concluding that for him, to be Muslim is to find peace in confusion.

These are just a few gems from an impressive collection written by even more impressive and accomplished men. One needs to only look at the biographies of the contributors to know that their stories and successes are a great source of inspiration for those of us who want to make a difference for our ummah.

One of the shortcomings of this collection, I feel, were the stories that seemed a bit vague and unfocused in their subject matter. They just seemed to skim cover personal and professional history, religious beliefs, and how those don’t conflict with their belonging to United States and being American. Although I was interested in reading such pieces at first, after a certain point, they all started to sound the same.

In this great review of the book for Altmuslimah, Abrar Qadir highlighted another important caveat about this collection: the voices in this anthology largely come from highly successful professionals. My concern with the book is an extension of that: it seems to cater not just economic privilege, but social accomplishments. Every contributor had a lengthy and impressive biography teeming with degrees, titles and awards. As happy as I am that there are so many accomplished men in the Muslim community, I feel like having one overachiever after another also contributed to the tendency for for some essays to just be lists of accomplishments, making them alienated rather than more familiar.

Abrar mentioned the missing voice of the “taxi-driver or mini-mart owner, those who bear the brunt of the ‘go back where you came from’ rhetoric this book is designed to combat.” Along with this omission, I feel is that of another kind of contributor I’d like to have heard from: the guy from I.T. who can’t wait for his World of Warcraft session and pizza at the end of the day. The one who didn’t have a chance to make a difference and be recognized for it, who just does his part by being a great son, brother, friend, and colleague.

At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there is much benefit in having such accomplished individuals tell their stories: it makes one aware of the immense amount of work being done in business, the media, and politics by such men. Were it not for this collection, I would have may not have known about Mohamed Geraldez founding the world’s first vegan necktie company, or learned about Kamran Pasha’s approach to storytelling, or explored new avenues in music from Muslims (thanks to introductions to Baraka Blue and Adisa Banjoko). This book shows that there are endless possible paths to being Muslim and living a life that upholds Islam, however we define it. If I have a teenage son, I’m going to make sure he reads this book, so that he knows that as a Muslim man in the making, American or not, there’s a legacy he can look up to and be inspired by.

This book is a much-needed and very illuminating read for both Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, American or otherwise. These stories are immensely heartfelt, humorous, and inspirational, and it made me very proud and happy to know these terrific men are a part of our ummah. It was a pleasure to hear from each and every one of them.

On Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Caged Bird" and the Power of Metaphors

I’ll start by admitting that I haven’t read any of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s works. Knowing the basis of Submission and her simplistic, insistent blaming of Islam for the world’s evils didn’t make me very eager to read her.

Thanks to Amy’s strong recommendation and her lending me her copy of Wanted Women: Faith, Lies, and the War on Terror, I learned a lot more about Ali’s life and her rise to stardom in Western intellectual circles. There were not too many surprises in this biography. If anything, I was a little taken aback at how little she has done to implement policies and practices to curtail the violence and oppression of women.

What struck me more deeply, however, was her explanation of the Muslim women who immigrate to the West and are reluctant to let go of their faith or culturally-instilled modesty as easily as she did. In Infidel, she writes:

Islam [is] like a mental cage. . . When you open the door, the caged bird stays inside: it is frightened. It has internalized its imprisonment.

As a Muslim immigrant who strives to be reasonably self-aware about being shaped by Western culture, the metaphor of this caged bird is now what appears in mind’s eye any time I sense any kind of personal inhibition. When I seriously reconsider whether the hijab is for me and decide that it is. When I refrain from a lingering one-on-one sit-down with a man. When I am invited to a bar with a new group of acquaintances and say no (not because of being in an environment with alcohol, but because of being in such a loud environment around people I don’t know and am not comfortable with). Normally, I wouldn’t have given such choices a second thought. But now, there is a voice–call it my nafs, call it my baser self, call it my enlightened self, even–that tells me: “Shame on you for holding back. You’re that caged bird. The cage is finally open, and you just sit there.” Simply having that metaphor, that idea of a bird, is powerful in itself. It has latched onto my thinking, making my self-reflection spiral out of control into the place where there are no absolutes.

The book Deborah Scroggins refers to as “a thin patchwork of heavily edited opinion pieces.” Notice how the author name is in larger text than the title? That’s done when the book is riding the author’s coattails. Image source: openlibrary.org

What I have to do is remind myself that the bird and the placement of it in the cage is a construction, an illustration done with a very specific agenda and view of a Muslim woman. It presumes a cage. It presumes that ploughing ahead and being in every situation I am not comfortable in is the only way to escape that cage.

But it’s powerful. So powerful that as much as stunned as I was by the naiveté of some of Ali’s stances and her presumption in extending her experience of Islam to all Muslim women, this metaphor managed to lodge itself into my way of thinking. I may disregard and dismiss everything else she says, but the image, the metaphor, of this caged bird triumphs where all of her other tools failed.

Reflecting on whether one is being true to themselves is never a comfortable exercise. But this metaphor is not a means of complete self-doubt: it is a tool for that critical self examination, an acknowledgement of possibilities I may be too afraid to own up to. I cannot completely disregard it. But I would like to understand where this metaphor is effective for me and where it isn’t. Maybe I am a caged bird in a way that so many women–both Muslim and non-Muslims–are caged birds due to societal expectations. I may never know whether it holds water as far as my life and my self is concerned. But I would like to know. I’d like a metaphor, a model, that gives an alternate explanation of me. It’s only fair that this caged bird be countered with something else, something equally if not more powerful, and something that is a source of inspiration and encouragement rather than debilitating, guilt-ridden self-examination.

(7/6/12 update: Here is my complete review of Wanted Women)

On Reading The Good Muslim

Source: Wikipedia

Note: A different version of this review appeared in Altmuslimah and Muslimah Media Watch

Title: The Good Muslim

Author: Tahmima Anam

Publication Date: August 2011

Genre: Literary fiction; historical fiction 

Source: eBook from library

I have made an exception to my rule for not writing reviews of books I disliked. I guess I can be flexible with books that deeply frustrated me and whose authors are already doing more than well for themselves.

The Good Muslim may have the most raving reviews and literary accolades, but it also uses the device of the educated, “modern” woman who “loses” her brother to Islamic fundamentalism. Why is it that the works that show the worst of Muslims become so esteemed?

Although I had not read Anam’s preceding book The Golden Age, I read this book because I was fascinated by its premise: a woman’s struggle to find meaning in a post-war, newly-independent Bangladesh that had emerged out of one of the darkest periods of the Indian subcontinent’s history. The title also intrigued me. As someone who reviews book from a faith-based perspective, I could not not read this book.

Alas, it didn’t deliver.

One of the reasons is its tiresome motif of a “modern” woman in a “backward” society. Maya is a doctor and fiercely independent woman who left home after her war veteran and born-again Muslim brother Sohail became so distant and religious that she knew their relationship would never be the same again.

Maya is a strong female figure continuously at odds with her environment: she writes for an underground radical publication, she is banished from a village for defending a pregnant woman, she pleads with her brother to not send his son to the madrassa. Her character is strong and admirable in theory, but for someone has never been away from Bangladesh, she persistently gives one the impression of being a foreigner in her own country, and not just in the figurative sense. In a tumultuous, confused world, she is the only one who has any sense, one of the contrasts that I found suspiciously simplistic.

What’s troublesome is that it is not just the war, but the role of Islam in Maya’s household that is used to delineate the “before” and “after” scenarios in this book. Maya’s alienation has to more do with her holding onto a very, very distant past where she, her brother, and their college friends attended his debates, musical recitals, and readings, and didn’t take religion the least bit seriously. After the war, Sohail is so haunted by the atrocities he witnessed and committed that he can only find refuge in religion, causing him to completely disavow his older self. In this “good Muslim’s” universe, it is impossible for books and faith to coexist. As Sohail burns his books, the relics of his educated past, there is a haunting echo: “There can only be One.” Apparently, tawhid—belief in the Oneness of God, that everyone and everything is connected to him—has no room for a literary inner existence.

This book isn’t meant to resonate with someone who might know something of the war or its aftermath. This novel meant to resonate with Western readers who can relate enough to Maya’s carefree pre-war life and are far enough removed from her post-war reality, making it easy for them to identify with her alienation and shake their heads over the atrocities taking place “over there.” The oft-used devices are hard to overlook. Maya elicits the help of a poor boat assistant to look for her nephew, and class boundaries are dissolved in an instant: the alienated but heroic woman is given a quaintly likable, well-meaning guide in this foreign, exotic land. There is another war-damaged character whose secularism has remained intact, and his unabiding love for Maya gives the story just the right amount of hope and romance, because who wants to read a book that’s all about death and the depressing aftermath of war?

The increasingly predictable and wearisome tricks are also employed: the overbearing religious patriarch, a child’s becoming victim to a sexual predator in a religious institution, and equating religion to disavowal of all worldly pursuits. Islam’s teachings could not be further from the condition of being “Muslim” that is depicted in this book, and as it concerns me that a book that is seen to be such a literary achievement gives such a skewed depiction of what being a Muslim looks like.

While fiction can give insights into human realities in ways that other accounts can’t, this book too carelessly lopes in religion to make the suggestion that the human condition would be so much better “only if it weren’t for religion.” I completely understand and accept that there are men like Sohail who have neglected their families and found religion to be their only refuge from their torments. I even accept that religion can become a source of harm for one who has experienced such a dark side of human existence. What I find found difficult to accept was how Sohail’s PTSD and guilt get obscured in his turning to Islam. He goes from being a disturbingly anguished and complex character to a “good Muslim” who simply reinforces existing stereotypes about Muslim men being bearded, joyless, and stubbornly willful. The implication is that he becomes a neglectful father, distant brother, and absent son because religion—rather than war—made him psychologically unfit to the point of derangement.

This is a beautifully written book, no doubt. Unfortunately, however, I understood right away why it was met with so much praise: it gives Anam the license of the “exotic” writer to write a prettily tragic but inauthentic story that panders to a curiously warm receptiveness for male Muslim villains. And frankly, the title of the book is not just a misnomer. It’s an offense to those of us who inadvertently get represented through Sohail’s character.