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.

The Richard Simmons Saga – A True Story

I am an obsessive person. And I can be an elitist about the things I love.

Only very recently have I been able to publicly admit that I like the movies better than the books.

You know what I’m talking about.

Okay, fine. It’s been a while.

The real reason I read The Lord of the Rings in high school was to prove to myself and other Tolkienites that I was indeed a true fan and not some peon of a moviegoer who will like any commercial success just because it is a commercial success. Remember that part about being an elitist? I’m not proud of it; but we all have our vices. This one doesn’t hurt anyone, so it’s okay.

Well, another one of my ~*retro*~ loves is Richard Simmons. Richard has been in the news of late. Even the Indy Star reported on him 6 hours ago – this is a big deal, folks! We can thank the new viral podcast, Missing Richard Simmons, for this sudden interest. To see Richard’s face in the news again is a sheer delight. But the fact that Richard has not made a public appearance in over 2 years is not a new discovery for Richard Simmons enthusiasts, such as myself.

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I chose this picture, because he’s wearing purple and also, he’s the closest thing to an angel we in the 21st century will ever know.

If you suspect that I am trying to cash in on Richard’s sudden popularity because I’ve never made reference to him in my blog before… well, I’ll have you know that I did have a category titled “The Female Richard Simmons.” It didn’t last for long because sadly I could never be.

But I have pretended to be the Female Richard Simmons for some time now, even if it was a running joke between me and myself. Like my love for cows, I can’t really pinpoint an exact time when this love blossomed, but also like my love for cows, it became more pronounced after my weight loss. Actually, my cow and Richard Simmons obsession might go hand-in-hand.

I’ve always admired Richard’s exuberance in public appearances. I never watched Whose Line is it Anyway, but you best believe I’ve watched this clip multiple times.

In my generation, there was only one man… no, human being like Richard. Cher? Madonna? Oprah? No. For me, it remains Richard. He’s all of them and more – and boy can he work those dolphin shorts! He was always his unabashed crazy-self in a world where being prim and proper was the way we were taught to be. He inspired me to be my crazy self. In fact, whenever I do outlandish things, I think of Richard.

In a way, it’s good that a new generation will get to know and love this beautiful human being. Love trumps hate, y’all.

But more than Richard’s fabulousness, it was our similar stories that solidified my love.

Richard and I both were severely overweight when we were younger –  and we both lost that weight as adults. Going through such dramatic weight transformations like that instantly bonds you to another human being, whether you’ve met that person or not. My LOVE for cake and the GUILT I feel for eating it, only “former fatties” (you, my friend, are not allowed to use this term – unless of course, you too are a former fatty. Then in that case, email me! Let’s be friends, okay?) can truly understand the masochism of it all. But unlike Oprah or Ricki Lake, Richard was just a ball of fun. It was infectious. You could tell he genuinely cared about helping people, too. He has given hope and inspiration to countless individuals like myself who had convinced themselves that “fat” was all they were ever going to be.

Since I believe in doing good with one’s blessings, I decided that as a gesture of gratitude for being able to successfully lose weight, I would be the Female Version of Richard in my own very limited way. I even thought about getting a Master’s degree in Nutrition. I am not kidding! But then again, I also considered getting a Master’s degree in Teaching and Writing at one point, so I guess that doesn’t mean anything.

But back to the facts. Do I think his housekeeper is holding him hostage? No, but it sure does make the ordeal all the more interesting. I’m thinking that Richard may have gained a few pounds. I am not trying to be mean-spirited here, but hear me out. For someone who’s been as big as he was, I know it’s a struggle to maintain. You don’t all of a sudden get a new metabolism or disinterest in food with a new, smaller body. You carry all the vestiges of your past, even if the world thinks you’re past it all. You can’t erase your history! Those who claim otherwise are either a) lying or b) robots. The scrutiny we get from the world for not being Kate Moss is bad enough, but to have been overweight and then be seen as a weight-loss success story? It puts on a kind of pressure that no one can ever truly understand, unless they’re walking in those same running shoes. It’s what I think of every time I look in the mirror, anyway. Each pound I’ve put on since my lowest weight has a voice of its own that likes to taunt me.

And although I do think Richard is ~timeless,~ let’s face it: he’s not as young as he once was… although, always young-at-heart :)

If my theory is correct, Richard honey, let me say this to you: take all the time you need, baby. I will always love you, no matter what!