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.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”

I am lovingly drinking my morning tea as I type this post… because I finally can! (ETA: I was when I first started writing this post, anyway)

I haven’t been able to do this for a month (well… there was a week in between where I did, but that’s a minor detail we don’t need to get into now).

Yesterday, was the first day of Eid-al-Fitr, one of two major Muslim holidays; this one commemorating the end of the month of fasting in Ramadan. Eid is technically a three-day holiday, but since Muslims living in the West typically don’t take three days off, we fit in three days’ worth of eating into one! What a way to celebrate a month of fasting, eh? ;)

As much as eating is a reality, Eid is also a time where everyone from the community comes together for a special prayer. After prayer, as part of the Prophetic Tradition, there is always a speech, or khutbah, that usually ties up the month together. Yesterday’s was probably one of the best Eid khutbahs I have heard in my life. I haven’t felt chills like that since my time at UChicago. It was delivered by Hazem Bata, who’s a pretty awesome dude in his own right. As socially relevant as the speech was, it also touched on Islamic history and lessons, as well. Perfecto! That’s the kind of khutbah that speaks to my soul. But what really struck a chord with me was its very timely personal resonance: that some times things don’t work out as planned, but, as is a common Islamic teaching, God is the best of planners. Using the examples of Salman Al-Farisi and Muhammad Ali (yes, the boxer) to illustrate this beautiful lesson, I was reminded that I was a recipient of the Ramadan Miracle I was hoping and praying for – just not in the way I had originally envisioned it.

Yet again I was reminded that setbacks can be openings to beautiful things. Of course, my struggles pale in comparison to the struggles of these two men. But the stories of those who came before us are meant to serve as examples for us living now, regardless of the age or time we live in.

For the past two years especially, I’ve been racking my head trying to make sense of the apparently ill-thought decisions I have made. I do not and have never regretted these particular decisions, but I couldn’t help but feel they weren’t in line with the societal expectations of what I ought to do to live a successful life. I mean, who in their right mind gets a Master’s in Religious Studies and decides to not (immediately ;) continue with a PhD? (FYI: Thoughts of a PhD will never truly die).

I pined and hoped that things would somehow all come together. And though I am still young and hope to have many years ahead of me, this past week I have begun to see my own opening from the many setbacks I’ve experienced this past year. Thinking of Salman Al-Farisi’s and Muhammad Ali’s legacy gives me hope that the best is yet to come, God willing. It’s not foolish to think this way, I might add. It’s a part of having faith. Being a believer means knowing that God is Good and wants good for us all.

P.S. WRT to my title, I am pleased to share this quote is not originally from the ’90s one-hit wonder band, Semisonic, but the Roman philosopher, Seneca. How apropos however that “Closing Time,” the song that features this quote was played on the radio yesterday! OMG! OMG! OMG!

My first iftar!

Okay, so obviously I did not have my first iftar last night. I’ve been fasting for close to two decades – and I have attended plenty of iftars in my lifetime.

FYI: For my non-Muslim readers, “iftar” is the name of the meal Muslims eat after breaking their fast.

But last night was the first iftar I attended where my sole priority was not to just eat all the delicious food prepared by someone else and make sure I keep my wudu throughout the evening (mah Muslim peeps know what I’m talkin’ aboot ;)

For last night, I organized my very first iftar – and it just so happened to be for my interfaith group, the Muslim Jewish Women’s Alliance.

To be fair, I didn’t do it all on my own. It was wisely suggested to me to form a sub-committee to help organize it. And boy, if I did not have their help, I don’t think I’d be in a state to write this post. So thank you, all, if you’re reading!

I was nervous for plenty of reasons.

Nervous for my planned 20-30 minute “monologue” about Ramadan. This was an interfaith iftar, so there was bound to be a speech or two. Regular iftars need no introduction: we all know what to do – wait until it’s time, eat, eat, eat, pray, regret all that eating, pray, and start dreaming of food again. Results not typical.

But for interfaith iftars, someone has to speak and explain why all us Muslims who are fasting aren’t eating until after 9 PM this year. As the Muslim Co-Chair of MJWA, the task naturally went to me. There’s a reason why I love to write, but I realize with the kind of professional goals I have, I will have to take on more and more public speaking “opportunities.” I took on this role and many others with the knowledge that I would be expected to speak in front of crowds not entirely consisting of my stuffed Mickey Mouse and cow, Mufia. Still, it’s always a bit nerve-wrecking a few days weeks before.

In the end, I spoke for about 10 minutes. Ramadan cannot be condensed into 10 minutes, but hopefully everyone got the gist. We got a chance to hear from a couple of the Muslim members, so the conversation was organic – and perhaps even better than planned.

But I was nervous also because I started freaking out a week before that the catered food would not be enough (In retrospect, it was – this ALWAYS happens). I decided last-minute that I should prepare something for iftar. Cooking is still a work in progress for me, and to have to cook for over 20 women who may not be inclined to pour hot sauce over everything they’re eating, and I’m fasting, and can’t taste whatever it is I’m making – YIKES!

Good thing that half of the women were fasting and would have eaten anything given to them at that point. To my pleasant surprise, however, I ended up getting some good (unprompted!) comments, which for a self-described “fusion” cholay, I’ll take as a success!

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That’s my “fusion” cholay on the right! Looks edible, eh?

In the end, although there were a few hitches that are inevitable when planning any event (Note to future self: When you’re working with fellow Desis and you *think* you’ll have plenty of time, factor in an additional 2 hours), I think it went well.

The staff at the mosque we held it at, Masjid Al-Mumineen, was incredibly supportive and helpful, staying close to midnight to help clean-up after. I was, to put it simply, amazed. This mosque also operates one of two Muslim-operated food pantries in Indianapolis, offering temporary food assistance to Muslim and non-Muslim families. I mean, this is what Islam is all about and this mosque is totally doing it. You can learn more about and support Lut’s Pantry here. Ramadan is meant to be a month of giving and with all the amazing work this mosque does for the community, I don’t think there was a better place we we could have held yesterday’s iftar. Thank you, Al-Mumineen!

I also must say that I’m quite proud of the decor and the colour-coordinating. We took a modest space and turned it into a really nice set-up. Never doubt the power of colour coordination, folks! It’s one skill-set I’ve absorbed from my artist sister and it served us well last night, I think.

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It may take talent to draw (i.e. my sister), but it takes REAL talent to colour in the lines (i.e. me) ;)

If all else fails, make goodie bags for your guests and fill them up with chocolate. Can’t go wrong there ;) Happy Friday, everyone!

Photos courtesy of Nayab Ahmed and Lauren Morgan