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.

Stop Asking “Why”

One of my friends was right to point out that for someone who is otherwise very open about her life, I can be quite puzzling at times when I blog. Be forewarned: this is going to be another one of those posts.

God, I can be so bi-polar at times, ranging from the highest of highs (in the midst of eating cake) to the lowest of lows (when I inevitably realize I’ve eaten all of the said cake), all in a matter of minutes.

This week(ish) started off with some highs. Suma Fiore and I have signed a writing pact – legalese and all – and I’ve commenced work on my memoir… which I am doubting will ever be published. But that’s OK. The point is: I have started writing “The Girl Who Never Went to Disneyland (Or World).”

But there have been some lows, as well. Just yesterday, I spent pretty much the entire day crying, feeling useless, and incapable of doing anything I’m proud of. Who knew I was such a reservoir of tears?

We all have those moments of “WHY?” I don’t think we’ll ever truly know. I like to think I’ve made peace with all most of the whys of my past. But there are some whys that I find to be quite the little pests. For example “Why did you do your Master’s in Religious Studies and then just stop there?” is one that likes to pay me visits from time to time.

Asking “why” doesn’t really add much to your peace of mind, I don’t think. As someone who believes in God, I know that God is not beholden to provide me ANY answers. That theology might not be palatable to a lot of people, but I’ve never been one to ascribe to the idea that faith can be broken down into little bits that satiate us and make us feel good. That’s not what faith is about. I’m not saying that I should become a defeatist and sit around in my PJs all day. But “why” is not the response. Instead, what we (I) should be doing is asking ourselves (myself): “What can I do about that thing that’s making me go ‘Why?’ Have I learned any lessons from this ordeal? Can I help others who might be going through similar struggles?”

Hey, I know I’ll never be Oprah. But I do know that the only way I can make peace with the less than ideal parts of my life is if I do something positive about it. It’s like my cousin Asiya (of Chocolate & Chillies‘ fame) used to say to me, “Turn that frown upside down.” That’s a pithy of way of saying, “Take that sucky part of your life and do something positive with it.” The results might not be what you had envisioned, but life is so much more interesting at least when things don’t go according to (your) plan. I, for one, thought I would be fat for the rest of my life, be married off to some guy my parents chose for me, and never go to Disney World.

Okay, the last one is still true. But instead of asking “Why,” I have taken this fact to serve as fodder (hehe) for my writing.

Finding your personal truth amidst the fray

What do you do when so many things you once believed are questioned and put in doubt? Do you continue to hold on because people from your past insist that is the way to do things? Or do you embrace this new space given to you and just run with it, while keeping in the back of your mind that you may be in the wrong?

I’m merging two separate issues right now and so the above stream-of-conscious self-questioning probably won’t make sense to anyone but myself, but I’ve come across a few notions in the past few days that have gotten my head spinning in many different directions.

But whatever people may say – and I won’t be able to please them all, I have to accept MY reality. I can’t look to others to tell me what to do, even though I’ve gotten almost comfortable with living my life that way. I didn’t even realize that I was doing this until I got married actually. The change in environment was a rude awakening for me, but perhaps one that I needed. For the first time in my life, questioning was not only allowed, it was encouraged. In fact, I had to do it.

I’m not really sure where I am going with this post, but I just had to let it out. I decided against making a Facebook update (since I am now Twitter-less) because the site is too public and not really the appropriate medium for my ramblings. I like the obscurity of the blogosphere. It suits me. Especially for posts that are incoherent and impromptu like this one.

If you’re reading this and feel comfortable commenting, I have a question for you: How do you find your personal truth amidst the different competing positions when “right” and “wrong” are no longer as clear as you once thought?

Swept from Indy to Jersey and who knows where else

As I mentioned in my last post, I attended the 3rd Annual Muslim-Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference hosted by the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom this past weekend in New Jersey.

Since it was my first time in the tri-state area, I had to make a short detour to New York City (my brother being in the area facilitated this). Everything takes FOREVER in New York though, as you can imagine, so I didn’t get to do much. But I did eat some NY-style pizza in the middle of Times Square – and honestly, I feel fulfilled.

There was a dessert social the night before the actual conference; and though I was nervous, it ended up going pretty well. Since I naturally gravitate toward the food table(s) at social gatherings (it may or may not be conscious on my part), I was spared the nightmare of having to go up to people; they came to me! I exchanged contact information and ate way too much sugar. I certainly lived up to the name “dessert social.”

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The conference started bright and early on Sunday morning. After eating two breakfasts (one at the hotel and one in the gymnasium of Drew University where the conference was being held), we heard some pretty good speeches from the likes of NJ Senator Cory Booker (the ladies at my table were fawning over him. I liked what he had to say – he reminded me of an early Barack Obama -but I’m always skeptical of politicians’ speeches), the girl from the AT&T commercials who started her own non-profit, and others.

The highlight of the conference for me was my morning workshop on “Storytelling” presented by writer and blogger (you can guess why) Salma Hasan Ali. Since I’m now a full-fledged writer (my definition of a writer is simply a person who writes), my next goal is to take my writing to another level: story-telling.

I’ve been thinking of submitting my story to The Moth podcast. I’ve always loved watching interviews and as a child I’d sometimes pretend to give myself one. You know how journalists say they’ve always loved asking questions? Well, I’ve always loved answering them! Writing will always be my safe space, if you will. There’s a level of anonymity that comes with the act, even if your writing is public, because the sad truth is: the majority of people DO NOT READ. That can be a good thing sometimes. But being the closet drama queen that I am, sometimes it’s not.

Salma shared her story of how one simple act of wanting to record her family history eventually led her to becoming a professional storyteller, which has got to be the coolest title ever. I was inspired by her story, because I was reminded of my own trajectory since writing that little piece for The Tempest. At the end of her talk, she opened the floor to us, the attendees. While normally I’d shy away from speaking, I was in carpe diem mode this weekend and shared my story of my life-long struggles with weight. It was cathartic and I came away from the session feeling renewed.

Of course, I can’t forget all the amazing women I met and got a chance to talk to. By happenstance, I made some new friendships because I needed a ride back to the hotel. I ended up going to a dinner later that evening with these new friends and was reminded by one woman who shall remain unnamed that we weren’t invited, so that was fun. I think my favorite post-conference moment however was when one of my new friends, an older Jewish lady from Pittsburgh, who also happens to be anti-Zionist, shared with me that we have to be willing to call out our own, after she put that lady from the night before in her place.

I think that’s an unintended consequence, but still an important one, of doing interfaith work: you not only deepen your understanding of people who have different faith systems than you, you also end up shattering your own assumptions that your coreligionists believe and act exactly as you do. In my experience, I’ve found that I have more in common with some Modern Orthodox Jewish women than I do with some Muslims!

I also conquered my fear of traveling alone, although I must say the fear of Uber still remains. All in all, a wonderful weekend and I’m in an even better state to launch the Muslim Jewish Women’s Alliance, a joint-partnership between the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council and the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, whose application went live just as I returned from my trip. Perfect timing, eh?

As I told Mr. Rafia on our way back home from the airport, I kinda feel like Bilbo Baggins. He didn’t want to go on an adventure at first, but as he tells Frodo later, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

For me, it all started when I approached the Spiritual Life table at UChicago three years ago, and I’m still walking.

A pseudo-philosopher’s thoughtsy thoughts on Difference

Why does difference bother some more than others?

Is it a manifestation of their upbringing?

Is it because they lacked something necessary when they were young?

Some, despite their circumstances, are able to rise above it.

Others live their entire lives accepting only one way – their way.

How do you change how another views the world when that other sees no reason to change?

Is it even your problem to fix?

Maybe, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the matter.

Maybe, you’re just as caught up in your own self-righteousness.

These ruminations are not directly related to the result of the elections, but if you find them relevant, then I do hope they provide some food for thought.

But I suppose the problem of difference is at the heart of the matter. It’s not that difference in and of itself is problematic; it’s that we don’t allow for it. This is not limited to political views; it seems to colour every aspect of our human lives. Size, intellect, race, ethnicity, religion, ability.

For those of us who seek to eradicate systemic injustice or discrimination, do we ever take the time to reflect on whether or not we implicitly accept the current terms and definitions? Perhaps you do. But I know, and I hope it’s unconscious, that sometimes I don’t. The fact that I attempted to calculate how many calories I’ve just consumed at breakfast shows me that I do accept one way of being or doing – in some aspects.

As a believer in God, I do believe there is such a thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ But there are limits to this. Rightness and wrongness in certain personal matters does not mean I am then to be judge, jury, and executioner to those who don’t do or believe exactly as I do. I don’t know what’s in their hearts.

But more importantly, do I always know what’s in mine?