On the importance of memoirs

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Photo Credit: Amazon

I just finished reading Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage last night.

For those of you familiar with Leila Ahmed, you’re probably thinking “Oh no!” or “Right on!” For those unfamiliar, Leila Ahmed is a controversial figure within Islamic Studies scholarship. Or maybe just with Muslims. I don’t know. I honestly haven’t really read too much of her work. Maybe I should. I feel her views may have evolved.

In any case, I first encountered her work as a freshman in the midst of writing my very first research paper (we didn’t do that in high school – have things changed since then?). At the time, I didn’t wear the headscarf, but was still interested in the topic of Women in Islam. Leila Ahmed came up as THE scholar in this field and I basically used her arguments to justify my feelings on hijab at the time (i.e. it is not required).

Things obviously have changed since then.

Fast forward almost five years later, I felt regret and almost disgust for having taken the self-righteous and arrogant position I once had (I don’t blame Leila for this, this was all on me). For now, I had begun to don the headscarf.

So, when I came across Leila Ahmed’s memoir at Half Price Books a few months ago, I was at once intrigued and a bit hesitant. Did I want to subject myself to more orientalist drivel (I just love that phrase, btw)? But the synopsis (can it even be called a synopsis if it’s a memoir?) mentioned things like Arab nationalism and identity that I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s only $3.50.” I don’t have to buy into everything she says. So I bought the book.

And then read it (well, I read two books in between, because like I said, I was hesitant). But I have to say: since perhaps A Suitable Boy, I haven’t read a book that has caused me to ponder on so many topics on such a visceral level: manufactured nationalism (because it always is), women, feeling “home,” the “liberating” West, interfaith relations in a more pristine time, etc. I didn’t agree with everything Leila wrote, but I do appreciate her telling of history.

Whatever you think of Nasser (he’s the most prominent political figure in this memoir, Leila having grown up in Egypt in the middle of the 20th century – but you can substitute him for almost anyone), depending on what side you are on, the history book you are reading only tells you one side. We like to think of history as objective, factual, empirical in a way. But Leila’s recalling reminded me that there are many more perspectives than we are privy to. I particularly appreciated how Leila herself added many times throughout that her own memory might not have captured all that was going on. And that too reminded me of the importance of memoirs.

As someone who writes about her life with one-time plans to write a memoir, I realized that even if I don’t live an extraordinary life in the sense that I will never be recorded in “history,” that does not mean that my personal experiences don’t have something unique and needed to offer to those interested in the entirety of the human experience. As my last post almost abruptly touched on: What is it like to be a young woman who loses all that weight after the “entire world”* essentially made her feel that her weight was all that mattered? That story, as I’ve lived with for the past 8 years, does not come with a nicely packaged conclusion after that “after” shot.

But that’s not all. What is it like to be a young woman observing hijab in a world (or country) where some people feel that shariah law is going to take over the entire world? What is it like to be a Muslim from India and to be proud of this fact and yet also be concerned about what the right-wing hateful political establishment is doing to your Muslim brothers and sisters still living in the desh?

These are but some of the narratives constantly playing in my mind — and only I can weave them together in the way that I would.

In a world where individuals increasingly feel that there’s nothing we can do, that there are forces more powerful (and sinister, in many cases!) than we moving and shaping the trajectory of our lives, memoirs reminds us that our thoughts and our feelings are still within our control, and that they still matter… to at least someone.

*Remember that my telling will be subjective. But that’s fine.

I’m finally the girl I used to wish I could be

It’s been a rainy weekend.

Rain, I know, is essential for living. Not just for you and for me, but for the cows… and I guess, for all the other non-cow beings in the world. But without rain, there would be no cows! And without cows, well, this blog would not exist and neither would a part of me.

But perhaps because of the rain, what otherwise would have no effect on me compelled me to seek a change in scenery.

And where did I go? The library.

Ah, the library. The one place in the world I wish I felt at home at – but never did. Until now, that is.

In the past, the library was simply the place I went to to study until my next class started or bide my time because I didn’t have any friends. It was a place of refuge, but I did not seek it for all the hidden treasures it contained.

I never was a “book nerd” in the typical sense. My sister was and still remains The Reader in the family. It would be a miracle if I could find a novel I liked and actually get around to finish it. The perennial “What’s your favorite book?” used to make me sweat bucket fulls. I never had a ready answer. But I also wasn’t comfortable with admitting that I don’t read. I’d say something like, “I’m so busy with school, all I read are textbooks! Grrr!” when in reality, school was just a convenient excuse.

As an nonathletic, chubby nerd(ish) girl, reading should have been my favorite past-time. But it wasn’t. Why wasn’t it? It was a fact about myself that I was deeply ashamed of. So ashamed, I haven’t been able to admit it until now.

Over the past few months though I’ve discovered that it was not reading fiction that I disliked, I just hadn’t discovered the genre I like. Eureka!

When I was younger, I felt that I had to read literature that was tortuous – the classics – you know, because that’s what smart people do. It sounds silly now. I’m not proud of this fact. But today, I’m okay with admitting I’d much rather watch the musical Man of La Mancha then read Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. There! I said it!

These past few months living in a new city, so far away from what I’ve known as home, have given me an incredible opportunity to discover who I really am, deep down inside, at this particular stage in my life. I began to blog again. And that sparked an interest to write more widely. At the same time, I began to search for ideas in other writers – in books. Sometimes, it’s reading a fictional account of a life so different from your own that gives you the directive for an area in your life you had been neglecting. How does that work? I don’t know. I love it. I’m hooked.

Now I know why having fun isn’t hard when you got a library card! And when I tell everyone my favourite Disney Princess is Belle, I don’t have to attempt to justify my response.

I LOVE TO READ! I can finally say it with pride.