Back.

The last 40 days held the expected and the unexpected.

I’ll admit, the first two weeks felt less like writer’s a vow of silence and more like a vacation. It just felt so good to have one less thing to do. My mind would start composing, but I would stop myself and focus on something else. Yes, there were times I gazed blankly into the distance. But maybe my mind needed those moments to detox. Maybe it’s these blank, dull moments of emptiness that I was craving.

My father recently retired from his permanent position. When it became official, he felt a strange sense of disembodiment at not having to check and respond to emails. In a similar fashion, I suppose, my writerly self felt like a phantom limb. Knowing that I could not write, even if I wanted to, I could only ignore the twitches and move on to reading, to work, to dhikr.

It was towards the end that I truly felt a sense of emptiness and began to long to come back.

I guess the muscle has weakened. As I write this, for example, the words are not flowing as they used to. But that is all right. Better to start from scratch.

In terms of lessons learned and strengths gained:

  • Not everything that can be said needs to be said. This is something I already referred to in my previous two posts, but experiencing the truth of the statement by refraining from writing took it to a new level.
  • If a thought comes to me and I have the urge to express it, I’m better off waiting to see if it recurs a couple of more times before I try developing it in written form.
  • There is so much to listen to, both in person and by reading. One of the seven effective habits is to seek first to understand, then be understood. Now that I look back at this period of silence, I can definitely see a decrease in the number of occasions where I interrupted people with my own take on a situation. So written silence did end up influencing my habits in speaking.

Man, writing that was tiring! But my system has definitely reset itself, and I’m primed for a joyous, creative 2014, InshAllah.

Wishing all of you a wonderful one, with thanks for your continued support!

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Brass Crescent Nomination!

Thanks to your support and input, I have been nominated for two categories in the Brass Crescent Awards: best blog and best writer! The polls are closing VERY SOON–just within the next couple of days in fact–so please take a moment to cast your vote and help me secure a win. Why? So I can go around saying I write an award-winning blog. So I can put that in a query letter when I’m submitting a manuscript to be published. So I can walk around in a little pink cloud of happiness that will inevitably evaporate when I start eyeing the next best thing.

But there are more reasons. Awards are important, people. Independent, self-founded awards like these are how activists, writers, and artists come into the limelight, how they get the attention they deserve. Awards are an invaluable form of exposure. They are a way to have your say on the Muslim content that matters to you. In a world where we have an established canon of “Christian” and “Jewish American” fiction but not its Muslim counterpart, where we have to explain ourselves before embarking on any narratives, where we are thought to be belligerent, misogynistic, and narrow-minded, it is so, so important to reward those who work so hard to change all that.

So be sure to vote. It doesn’t even have to be for me. Just go and vote. Let’s celebrate the Muslim blogosphere and show our support to the voices that mean the most to us, that come the closest to defining our spiritual experience in these times.

On Reading The Butterfly Mosque

Title: The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam

Author: G. Willow Wilson

Publication Date: August 2010

Genre:  Autobiography

Source: Local library

This startlingly lovely book gracefully and tentatively walks the tightrope between being a gentle narrative and a grimly realistic testimony to the growing divide between the East and West.

It’s not inaccurate to say that this book is about a woman’s conversion to Islam, her move to Egypt, her marriage to an Egyptian Muslim, and her struggle to come to terms with the American/Muslim/Egyptian dimensions of her existence. I feel, however, that even that description alone does a disservice to this story. There are so many ways Wilson could have written a book that fits this description. The precise way she wrote it and her specific treatment of her subject matter, however, are what make this book a must-read for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Here is what makes it so:

  • The Muslim and non-Muslim reader of this book is on equal footing. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I assumed that I was not the kind of reader Wilson was writing for. I thought that her treatment of Islam’s tenets and history would be very basic, and that this would be a mere readable and feel-good record of her cultural immersion. I was so glad to be proven wrong: her account and writing can be revelatory for readers of all faiths. She remarks, for example, on the fact that the Islamic calendar are not fixed, and therefore occasions like Eid can occur during any season, reflecting that God does not want us to worship nature or become to attached to the material, even if it is through associating a certain type of season with a holiday. Such a description is only one example of how she can introduce a fact about Islam while introducing a refreshing perspective for a practicing Muslim.
  • The author is very honest about her romantic relationship and her struggle with it. I loved this honesty, which is more heartfelt than raw, and I loved how she is very upfront about the realities of loving someone from a vastly different background. It isn’t for no reason that love blossoms between Wilson and the man who would become her husband: they are passionate about Islam, about Egypt, about art and spirituality, and both are anomalies in respect to their indigenous cultures. He is amazingly tender towards her (he’s so dreamy) and they have a beautiful wedding. I really, appreciated, however, how Wilson makes a point that love stories, even in memoirs, often miss out on: love is a struggle. The more disparate your backgrounds, the greater a struggle it is. She writes: “Love is not a benign thing. No corner of my life remained unaltered by the consequences of what I loved. The most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me brought me neither peace nor comfort. But it did bring me Omar. And that was more than enough.”
  •  She gives a similar treatment to the Egyptians and Iranians portrayed in the book. All too aware that she does not speak for them, she carefully presents their attitudes and norms without apology and with careful explanation from within the cultural framework. In fact, she goes even further by posing some striking perspectives when it comes to being a woman in an Egyptian society:

When people wonder why Arab women defend their culture, they focus on the way women who don’t follow the rules are punished, and fail to consider the way women who do follow the rules are rewarded. When I finished an article or essay, all I received was an e-mail from an editor saying, ‘Thanks, got it.’ When I cooked an iftar meal during Ramadan, a dozen tender voices blessed my hands.

  • Her description of Cairo is magnificent. Really, I’m at a loss to explain what made it so wonderful. I’ll only say that if I ever visit the city, I’ll make a point of re-reading the book and mapping out the monuments, buildings, and cafes she describes. I also greatly admire her for refusing to life the insulated life of an expat in the city and getting as close as she could to experiencing life as an Egyptian woman.
  • This, a passage that made me experience a deep sense of kinship that had me reeling for days:

In her book The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji smugly announces that . . . ‘it was Islam’s job’ to keep her from leaving the faith. I never thought it was Islam’s job to keep me. My faith was not a contract, not a deal; there were no clauses I expected God to abide by and which, if violated, would give me an excuse to back out. . . It was certainty that animated me; it was certainty that allowed me to watch the progress of the extremists and feel anger and disgust, but never disappointment. It was not my place to be approving or disappointed: I had submitted too completely for either. Through the bile and ignorance of the radical imams and self-righteous apostates, through the spin of the news networks and the pomposity of academics, I saw a straight, unwavering line. How could I be disappointed? I did not believe in Islam; I opened my eyes every morning and saw it.

I have often wondered how it is that I could be confronted with a stream of staunch disbelievers, radically liberal reformists, and pathological conservatives and still believe. I now understand, for Wilson articulates in this passage what I could not put words to even after years of thought.

I don’t think it’s very often that one can get the kind of nuance and beauty in nonfiction this book offers, especially in nonfiction about transnational Muslims. By sharing her story, Wilson gives sensitively and remarkably-framed insights into the struggles of Egypt, the real struggle for the soul of Islam, and the turmoil that comes with being a Muslim who is forever battling the opposing sides of her cultural and spiritual heritage.

Notes:

On Mona Eltahawy's "Painful Places" and the Power of Stories

There is something about the conversation surrounding Mona Eltahawy’s flame-stoking article “Why Do They Hate Us?” that struck a raw chord in me (besides its extremely disturbing and offensive accompanying images, mercilessly dissected by Naheed Mustafa and fittingly called “niqabface” by fellow blogger Huma Rashid).

The unwitting story caught in the storm. (Image source: openlibrary.org)

I’m writing this because Eltahawy opens her piece by recounting a work of fiction, no less. She refers to the opening of Alifa Rifaat’s Arabic short story “Distant View of a Minaret,” in which the main character, after a bout of routinely unsatisfying and mechanical sexual intercourse with her husband, washes up and “loses herself in prayer–so much more satisfying that she can’t wait until the next prayer.”

Call me a wimp, but I was too heartbroken to read on. I accepted the assumption that the Rifaat’s intention was to pit faith and female sexuality against one another and didn’t consider the possibility that this pitting happened not in the story, but in Eltahawy’s interpretation of it.

So it was to my great relief that the scholar Leila Ahmed took issue with this opening, (in her FP response here and her discussion with Eltahawy here) saying that Rifaat could not possibly share Eltahawy’s “sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion.” Rifaat herself identified as a woman who, like the character in the story, lived for prayer. Prayer, as described in the story, isn’t just a form of what Eltahawy calls “sublimation through religion.” Prayer is not just the distraction Eltahawy’s making it out to be: it’s an integral part of the author’s existence, in both good times and bad.

The reason the opening of Eltahawy’s piece broke my heart was that its use of a story to pit faith and liberation against one another. Fiction is a place to expand the imagination. Not to eschew reality altogether, but to chart paths into a different kind of reality, to suggest alternate possibilities. When fiction is applied so carelessly that it is employed in reinforcing prevailing stereotypes and attitudes, it becomes lethal to people’s mindsets. Who can argue what a character “really” feels when she can’t speak up for herself, when she is, quite literally, a figment of the imagination?

What Ahmed alerted readers to is something I want to expand on here: faith and a powerful spiritual inner existence does not feed off of systematic, entrenched injustice, whether it be in the form of misogyny, racism, or any other system of oppression. In light of prevailing stereotypes about Muslim women, it’s too easy to say “Well, of course she has to believe in God, she has to meditate and escape from her reality, look at what a sodden sex life she has!” Sodden sex life or not, the places where women are truimphant–whether it be affirming their individuality through prayer or marching in the streets against tyranny–deserve to be examined on their own terms, not some heinous, monolithic, patriarchal hell they have to escape. Mona Eltahawy keeps stressing how she wants to “shake people up” and “poke the painful places,” but it’s one thing to poke that place, and quite another to aggravate it.

All that said, I do want to thank her for introducing me to the woman who loves to pray so much that she cannot wait for the next one. Her soul-sucking marriage doesn’t make her damaged goods, and does not make her faith any less real. I very much want to long for prayer the way she does.

On Intellectual Despondency

School is starting to seep into the veins of this blog, hopefully for the better.

My neurons are stretched, worn, weary, and hating me for having to do what they did for me over the past few days. For my information systems class, we were asked for the moon and the stars.

Well, not quite, but close enough.  We were asked to design a central information system hub for intra and inter-municipality-wide transport while taking into account nuanced sociopolitical contexts and processes surrounding the issue. The assignment fused together the notions of how information gets used, how systems aren’t implemented in a vacuum, and what needs to be taken into consideration when doing something like this. Hell, there was even some philosophy guiding the information system development methodological framework.

Never have I felt such a range of conflicting sentiments about an intellectual endeavour like this. My problem with the hard sciences has always been rooted with its abstraction, with its tendency to isolate things in a lab as opposed to seeing them in context, seeing their richness. That is why the notion of this task was exhilarating. I was bowled over at the notion that there are real-life scenarios where everything gets interwoven together and the world–at least the part around you–changes. I’m still thrilled that my professors thought that my puny little mind could take all this in and produce something that even came close to measuring up to the pedagogical grandeur of this assignment.

Thinking about the technology needed for the implementation of such a hub, of the need to address issues like the history of transit authorities and the cultural issues attached to owning and driving a car, was a delightful process. As long as I thought about those things individually. When it came to actually making the connections between these factors in the form of a proposal for an information hub, I found myself in the midst of a chronic, throbbing mental agony that came from not knowing where to start, not sure whether my solution made sense in the light of my analysis, or whether my solution was even a valid one that addressed one of the needs that could be teased out from the case given to us. I suppose the strain came from knowing, fundamentally and completely, what in a general sense needed to be done, but at the same time being powerfully aware that no matter what I did, my solution would only address one dimension of the case, and that I could only engage in the loathsome process of abstraction in order to solve this problem.

That’s what comes from being in an interdisciplinary program. Interdisciplinary is short for: you have no idea what the hell you’re in for. Some philosophy will be thrown at you in one direction, some IT modelling from another, some abstract management theory from yet another. Your mind will get a workout it never did before. It will hate you for the havoc you are wreaking on it, just like your body will hate you for blasting it with a gruelling Zumba workout after months of feasting on peanut butter cups and having your sneakers gather dust at the back of your closet.

Writing this paper made me feel awful not in an emotional but in an intellectual way that went above and beyond the “so bad it’s good” way. You know that feeling of paralysis, that writer’s block when you are simply not sure what you are doing or whether you’re even on the right track? Imagine feeling that while writing every sentence. I spent the last few days looking like I’d seen some twisted academic ghost. No amount of time, consulting, reading, reflecting gave me the “aha” moment I so badly needed. And chasing that elusive moment became exhausting.  Nothing can quite describe the frustration that comes from understanding knowing exactly what needed to be built, but to open a mental toolbox to find that I don’t have what it takes.

Although some fellow students are swearing off having to do anything like this ever again, and are basking in the afterglow of putting this behind them, I’m just glum. I will most likely pass the assignment (and hence the course since half the grade for it was riding on it). But surely I should be able to do better? Am I more capable of doing better than I did here? What assurance do I have that I’ll do better next time? Am I even worthy of a next time?

At this point I am probably expected to say something redemptive, something grand about how humbling this all was. It wasn’t. There’s no redemption here. Just despondency.

There is one thing, however. I learned from David Brooks’ The Social Animal that the biological process through which we learn isn’t about using your brain as some kind of a container, but the pattern of firing synapses between its neurons. Learning something new means a new pattern of neurons lighting up, and the more familiar something becomes, the less work is involved in following the path that has been charted already. So I suppose what happened with this assignment was that a brand new path was charted out, a process that can be nothing short of painful. After all, I was being asked to do the yogic equivalent of this. But now that I’ve tried it, surely the next time will be easier. I hope to dear God it will.

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.