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.

“Why her?” A pseudo-philosophical ontology

Two days ago, a young student at the school I work at was fatally struck by a school bus. She was someone from the Muslim community, though I didn’t know her and had never seen her before. But I know people who knew the girl and her family.

The fact that it happened right in front of the building I work at and that she was a hijabi made me think about her death more than any other everyday death would have. I couldn’t help but think, “what if that were me?”

First of all, I don’t at all think this poor young lady was targeted because of her faith. I think the driver was just distracted. But I am a bit shocked, because bus drivers are supposed to be safe drivers. From preliminary reports, it seems the girl had the right of way when the bus driver hit her while she was crossing the street.

I don’t know the full details, but whatever facts do eventually surface, it doesn’t change the fact that a young girl died.

One of my friends texted me asking if I had heard what happened. I hadn’t until I came home later that day. She later told me that she went to visit the girl’s family to give condolences and mentioned that the look on the mother’s face seemed unbearable.

I can’t imagine the pain her family is going through. I am not a parent, but I would assume that no parent wishes to see the day where they outlive their child. It seems to go against the natural order of things. It’s tough when you lose someone you love, no matter how old they are. I still to this day think of my maternal grandmother and my uncle Baba from time to time, even though they were in their 70s and were suffering from illness when they died. I have such vivid memories of both. With the former, I still feel so much guilt for not having had the kind of relationship a granddaughter ought to have had with her grandmother and with the latter, gratefulness to have had the love of a “second father” in a world where blood is thicker than water.

This young girl however was so young (18 or 19 years old), presumably healthy. It’s particularly sad to hear about someone this age dying and so unexpectedly at that. She’d been on this earth long enough to have affected people, made experiences, but not quite long enough to experience the full life cycle. She won’t get to graduate from college, get married, or have kids one day. For some of us, that will never be our reality. But this girl won’t even have that opportunity.

As a Muslim, death is not something to fear or avoid talking about. Actually, our scholars tell us to think of it often. YOLO is not an acronym any practicing Muslim should live by (although when it comes to cake, it seems that I subconsciously do). Death should be a reminder for us all that the life we live in this world, our actions, our intentions, do matter.

In some ways, this girl is being saved from the ugliness of this world. She was young and more pure than many of us still living. That’s what a eulogy written by a friend of hers on Facebook seemed to suggest. And while I do believe it’s true… I think it’s also natural to want to have a good long life in this world, too.

Why did God decide to take her and leave me and the rest of us still living on this planet? We won’t ever know. And if you don’t believe in God, I don’t think your answers are any more rational than mine. In fact, I find the very fact of death to be faith-affirming. I’m sure there are some that would argue that believers cling to God in the uncertainties of life because it makes us feel better, but I say to them…. *Googles for 10 minutes* Man, I remember reading a great defense of this failed logic for a class! I did, I know I did! Was it Descartes’s ontological argument? I can’t remember! DARN IT! I know it wasn’t Anselm’s. UGH. THIS IS VERY FRUSTRATING.

Okay, I’m alright.

What was I saying?

If anything, death reminds me to be grateful for all the things I do have, two loving parents and siblings, a husband whom I love even if he is messier than I would have preferred, my friends, even if I met most of them within the past 5 years, etc. I have a lot to be grateful for. We all do.

I can spend hours ruminating over why God chose to keep me and everyone else still alive. Maybe it’s because we all have more things to achieve in this world. Maybe it’s because God wants to give us more time to come back to Him. Maybe it’s both… I don’t know. But in the midst of trying to rationalize the why, I’m reaffirming my faith in God and that there are some things we human beings can never know. That doesn’t mean we stop asking, just that we learn to accept our limitations and the limitlessness of God when we find no answers.

What’s in a name? I don’t know, Shakespeare, you tell me!

 

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An early morning contemplative cow

Sometimes I wonder whether Cake & Cows is too limiting of a blog name for me and my writing.

I’ve created – albeit a very minuscule one – a brand for my online “presence.” Most days, I like it. I am just as crazy and whimsical as the name would suggest. That dressing up as a cow two weeks ago was not merely for the hits (if I really cared about that, why would I dress up as a cow?). But I won’t lie and write that it wasn’t the PERFECT fodder for this blog, either :)

I have come across blogs that are super serious and deeply personal and I applaud these writers for their bravery. Perhaps I’m just too wary of being that open with potentially the rest of the world. It’s not a bad thing to be cautious, it’s actually very wise at times, but I wonder if my Desiness has anything to do with it ;) Log Kya Kahenge?

But sometimes, I do wish that I could write as openly as these writers. There’s just something about publishing (whether through a third-party or self-publishing) that makes one’s thoughts and struggles seem more valid. I am not saying they are – we all got our struggles and if you are not aware of this, then your humanity is severely deficient. It’s just that human beings want to be acknowledged. Finding a community outside of one’s physical one, which is not always so accepting, is one of the great joys of living in the digital age.

I am blessed to have people in my life that I can speak to about these personal matters, but I do not feel “complete” unless I have written. I don’t mean complete as in “whole,” more like “done,” if that makes sense. Is this the performer in me seeking self-aggrandizement? Does this idea resonate with anyone? Perhaps other writers?

I don’t know.

I guess, cows don’t always have to be silly. You know, cows are actually really intelligent, contemplative animals. Have you ever been to a dairy farm? A very deep experience!

LOL at myself.

I am not changing the name of this blog, alright? I like the alliterative feel of it way too much. Also, my love for cows has just skyrocketed in the past year or so, I don’t think I could find a replacement.

Still, sometimes Rafia is not just a silly little cow. Sometimes, she is a very deep and serious cow. That is all I wanted to say. And it only took me 400 words to say it! :)

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