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.

Hey, the Oscars are tomorrow! A pseudo-philosophical and nonsensical reflection on pictures in motion

I’m not sure if I would ever be considered an “Artist” by most people I know. For one, my older sister is The Artist of the family (see cow header above, drawn by her) and so whatever I attempt to make will always pale in comparison. But I see writing as an art, which I’m sure others consider as well. And even though I don’t make music of my own (other than the smash hit that never was, “Chairs, chairs, wonderful chairs” written and performed by yours truly over 20 years ago), I see myself as very musical. In any case, I do possess artistic proclivities and thus feel I have a stake when art comes my way.

I suppose because I view art as more than just entertainment, I’m often found in the position of being a critic (my AIM screen name for a time was Critic Ruffs). I’m told quite frequently that I can never just enjoy a thing – I always have to dissect it down to its core. To that I say: well, perhaps I’m not as much of a pushover as people assume me to be! If I don’t like a movie or an artist, I have no qualms in admitting that. Hmmm!

But I do think that because I pseudo-philosophize EVERYTHING, I imbue more meaning to art than perhaps should be.

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Me, pretending to be Mickey The Director’s Muse in 2015

I’ve been thinking of ~art~ a lot lately. It is also coincidentally the weekend of the Academy Awards, which I am very much excited about, because my favorite late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel is hosting. More on that later.

Just this morning I posted something on Facebook, which I usually am loathe to do because my updates are always so out of tune with the rest of the world, about my surprise over not being as impressed with a movie as its original audience was. To those who read my Facebook post and didn’t see the comments section, I was referring to Beverly Hills Cop particularly. But as is my wont, I turned it into a general pseudo-philosophical reflection with a reference to The Lord of the Rings. Of course.

Okay, fine. I’ll just post what I wrote:

I realize that when you watch a film that was released over 35 years ago for the first time all these years later and you are not as impressed as its original audience, it may be because we live in a day and age where literally everything has been seen and done. Any sense of wonder we once had, I feel, is slowly eroding. Is this what kids two decades from now will think of The Lord of the Rings? It’s a sad thought

I’m sure there are people who would read this post and say, “Girl, this is what is keeping you up at night? It’s a comedy movie! There are serious things going on in the world. Get over yourself!” And you would be right in your assessment. But I would retort: “If you take yourself all that seriously, what are you doing reading a blog called Cake & Cows?”

I was quite dismayed to not find Beverly Hills Cop very funny, actually. I feel like a part of me was shattered. I’ve been wanting to get into classic cinema of late, but what if I don’t think Casablanca is all that wonderful? Oh non, quelle horreur! Okay, I’m being half-serious here. But I was really hoping for some laugh-out-loud moments and then to be able to later proclaim to all (three of) my friends, “Man, they don’t make them comedy movies like they used to!” I realize that in 1984 when movie-goers were first introduced to Eddie Murphy, his comedy was something new. I grew up in an era where Murphy was considered one of the greats. So it wasn’t new to me, watching for the first time over 30 years later. I didn’t have those laugh-out-loud moments I was hoping for.

Comedy is one thing that you can’t rationalize. It’s so visceral and unconscious, which is why some see it as threatening. I’m a very nostalgic person and I make no amends for it. But there are certain parts of my nostalgia that I just cannot control. This is one example.

And that got me thinking about the whole “uproar” about La La Land and why it should not win Best Picture, as it is expected to tomorrow. Well, I haven’t seen most of the other films, but I can say that La La Land is probably the only “light” film nominated. The others deal with very heavy subjects. And that is why some people feel that La La Land should not win. There are other reasons of course, but this post is long enough.

I finally saw La La Land a few weeks back and absolutely loved it. It’s very rare for me to see a movie or a show or eat a meal and then RAVE for days on end, but I’m still singing “City of Stars” all day. I think I might be slightly obsessed with the film. Yes, everyone is white and skinny and jazz is neutered down to being all happy-go-lucky, but I still loved it despite that. The music and dance sequences were very reminiscent of a long-gone era. It was a musical – I love musicals – with an actual story that I could resonate with: two struggling artists trying to make a living, while still being true to themselves in a world of auto-tune and gratuitousness. It was like, “Ah, I’m not the only one who gets it!”

I guess La La Land is not current; it’s not relevant in our current political climate. But then again, neither am I.

I realize I am contradicting myself in my assessment of the two films mentioned in this post: one in which I am very much a product of the times (i.e. what was funny back in the day is no longer funny today) and the other in which I wish to go back to another time (i.e. I am not upset that La La Land is fantastical; in fact, that is why I love it). Then again, I am also a contradiction, in additional to being irrelevant.

Oh, how artsy of me! ;)