On the importance of memoirs

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.

It has begun… or will begin very soon! i.e. some pre-Ramadan thoughts.

Ramadan Moobarak small
Ramadan Moo-barak from me, Mr. Rafia and our little baby, Mufia! :)

Ramadan will begin this evening and thus, tomorrow will be the first fast of this lunar year for many Muslims living in North America. I now live in the land of calculations (i.e. ISNA), so I know for a fact my first fast will be tomorrow. But whether one follows the moon- sighting or not, Ramadan begins this weekend for Muslims all over the world.

For the past couple of days, a lot of what I’ve been seeing in my inbox and Facebook feed are “How to prepare for Ramadan” articles. I’ve seen a few on how people who are fasting 17-hour days can still manage to fit in exercise. Normally I’d be like, “You people just need to SHUT.” But I kinda want to continue my yoga routine. I don’t want to lose all the momentum I’ve gained in the past month or so since I started doing yoga. But who knows?

(Yes, I started doing yoga, albeit at home in a relatively judgement-free zone… although sometimes Mr. Rafia will come home earlier than usual and I’ll have to hear him fake-mock me. No, I have not seen the benefits either in flexibility, balance, strength, mental stillness, not to mention my perennial goal of losing those “stubborn few pounds,” but I know I must continue to plow on).

Am I physically and mentally prepared for Ramadan? I guess – it’s inevitable.

Did I prepare? Do I ever?

I know it’s not the “right” thing to say, but I ain’t gonna lie. I had a conversation with a friend recently about our approach to food and as I was reminded again, my entire day is structured around meal time. Up until not too long ago – and I am not exaggerating – I used to go to bed with the thought of breakfast the next day… thus explaining why I was 100+ pounds overweight as a teenager.

Though I am no longer technically even overweight, food still dominates my life and so fasting is difficult for me. I think it’s safe to say that it is difficult for most people. But in addition to the void in rewards I receive in the form of food, Ramadan forces me to change the way I structure my day. And as my life is a testament to, physical changes are much easier to make than mental ones.

Sure, I intend to read more Qur’an, cut down on all forms of entertainment (pictures of cows are not entertainment, BTW, they are like breathing for me), read books that are Islamic in nature… I know there will be an element that is missing this year, like last year. Despite the difficulty in abstaining from food and drink from dawn to sunset, what Muslims look forward to is the communal spirit of this month. I’m going to miss my family even more than I normally do.

No more of trying multiple times to wake up my lion of a father to get him to eat the pre-dawn meal. No more thinking I’ve awaken earlier than others to only find my mother already in the kitchen going on with her day. No more of later reading Qur’an with her until mid-morning. No more of hearing my brother asking “Is it time? Is it time?” right before we break our fast. No more of praying all our salat together as a family. No more of being forced encouraged to attend taraweeh prayers in the mosque with the family.

I mean, I didn’t love it then. But nostalgia, you know?

I am not sure what Ramadan will look like this year for me or for Mr. Rafia. It’s only our second Ramadan together, but I hope it’s one in which our faith in God becomes stronger, that we both worry less (me, especially), and put all our hopes in God alone.

For all of you who are fasting this Ramadan – and even those who aren’t – I pray and hope for the same for you all.

You know what? I think I am ready.

Waiting for my muse

I’m relatively new to the world of writing. Though I’ve been blogging since 2003 and have always felt an affinity for writing over, say, public speaking, I only started feeling like a writer last year.

I no longer introduce myself as an aspiring writer. But I do hesitate to tell people that I even do write. I know the first thing they’ll ask is: “Oh yeah? So, what have you written?” I could point to the numerous articles I’ve written for various online publications and even my short story. But until I’ve written a book that’s on its way to be published, the term “writer” feels hollow, fraudulent even.

For one, I don’t make a living off of my writing – although funnily enough for work today, I did write a letter of recommendation on behalf of someone.

I “know” that one doesn’t have to be a prolific novelist to be considered a writer; but in the world that we live in, it’s the only example we see.

That, or being a journalist.

I do not want to be a journalist (I know that now)

What I want to do is write my own stories.

But I’m having difficulty actually writing them.

I thought I would do what I do best – or, naturally, rather – and write a memoir. Luckily, as I’ve learned, you don’t have to be a celebrity to write one. I received encouragement from a couple of writing instructors that neither my age (I just turned 30 in February) nor a lack of truly shocking experiences (I have not fought in any wars nor am I a poverty-stricken cancer survivor) should serve as a deterrent. I still have a story tell: my story that no one else can tell.

For one, I spent most of my childhood and adolescence being the “fat kid” and then lost over 100 pounds when I was 22. I’ve more or less maintained this weight loss since then, which, believe me, is NOT easy.

I am the daughter of immigrants and a Muslim woman living in a post-9/11 America.

I come from a traditional family where I assumed the only way I would get married was if it was an arranged marriage. But I ended up marrying a man I met on the internet — and my family was totally okay with it.

I know that any story can be an interesting story, as long as it is written well.

But there are darker moments in my life I just cannot share. It wasn’t until I started writing my memoir – I’m about 7,000 or so words in – that I realized this. To write an honest and genuine memoir, I would have to share stories that I know loved ones won’t appreciate being shared with potentially the rest of the world.

Feeling stuck and mulling over what to do, I decided that I would give fiction another attempt. I guess you can say finally having my short story published has given me the courage to do something I told myself I do not have a mind for. But given the writing I do most naturally, I know I can’t create a world that is completely alien to me. I still want to weave my life into this book – I want it to be a fictional tale inspired by my life.

But where do I begin?

Just this week, I’ve started jotting down thoughts that could potentially turn into something. But every idea I have thus far come up with just plain sucks. It’s too cliche. It’s not literary enough. It’s too YA.

I’ve started following writer websites left and right and have even turned to watching vlogs! I’ve never done this before.

Still. Nothing.

Is this common? Is this a rite of passage I must endure? Or is the lack of any real ideas a sign that I should just continue with this blog and be happy with what I have? Am I being too ambitious? Am I being too hard on myself?

Oh, future Muse, wherever you are (if you do exist), please make yourself known soon. Please and thank you!

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.

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!


The War On Our Bodies

Once “fat” becomes your marker for self-identification, obsession with weight and body image perhaps never leave you.

Sometimes, I desperately wish I was more like Alison Sweeney.

Alison Sweeney, for those unfamiliar, is the former host of The Biggest Loser and soap-opera actress who (relatively) famously struggled with her weight in her youth. She later lost this weight and has since become an ambassador for “healthy living.”

My sister used to watch Days of Our Lives, the show Alison was on, in high school. Sweeney’s character “Sammy,” like the actress who played her, also struggled with her weight. I, being my sister’s shadow, would often glance upon the television screen in the background while I (not-so-)quietly sang to myself and played with my Barbie dolls. I remember one time, Sammy hid a box of donuts in her closet or under her bed and when no one was watching, lunged for the box and proceeded to stuff her face.

I thought it was the coolest thing ever – and wished I could pull off something like that.

Me, while the chubbiness was still (arguably) cute. It wouldn’t remain that way after puberty.

Today, Alison writes a monthly health column for Redbook magazine, which I read each month.

Please allow me to explain: Eons ago, I joined some freebies website. I still get offers for free 1-year magazine subscriptions. A couple of months ago, I got one for Redbook. Being a newlywed, I figured I might be able to make use of some of their articles – recipes, relationship advice, home tips, etc.

Anyway, Alison often gives advice on how to fit health and fitness into our busy schedules. Such gems as: “When you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, don’t forget to get in those lunges! No one will give you weird looks. In fact, they’ll admire you for making fitness a priority!” and my favorite, “Always keep a healthy and delicious snack like baby carrots (which BTW are disgusting) with you when you travel. That packet of 10 peanuts (though it will do nothing to allay your hunger) is LOADED with fat and calories.”

I obviously made those examples up. But you get what I mean. “Practical” tips that are anything but practical.

I must have had a momentary lapse of judgement when I signed up, because “women’s” magazines are worse than late-night infomercials, people. They’re loaded with craptastical platitudes that offer very little of any substance. But each month, I find myself allured by the cover and headlines and fool myself into thinking, “it won’t hurt if I just skim through.”

Except it does. It hurts a lot.

I can’t blame Redbook entirely. We live in a world saturated with unhealthy body expectations. Those little “helpful” tips and nonchalant comments whirling around in the atmosphere? They all add up.

My husband keeps saying he needs to lose weight, because according to him, he’s not the weight he used to be when he was in college. I just listen – I can never tell ANYONE they need to lose weight. I know first-hand that it does more harm than good. Besides, I like my husband just the way he is. He’s cuddly like a teddy bear.

But I can’t help but transfer his thoughts on to myself. “Does he think I need to lose weight, too?” This compounds onto the already tumultuous battle I’ve been fighting with myself for the past seven years.

7 years ago, as you may or may not know, I lost over 100 pounds. Alhamdullilah, I am grateful for being able to lose this weight, as I was pre-diabetic and nearing morbid obesity, but adjusting to my new body has been anything but easy.

I’ll spare you the 7-year history for now, but I’ve gained about 10 pounds since I’ve gotten married. 10 pounds in 9 months! That’s a lot. I’m thinking this might be due to the fact that we eat out at least once a week – I’m new to cooking and look forward to the weekend breaks… and trips to Cake Bake. And also, my meds. You know, I’m just gonna blame it ALL on the meds!

I’m not overweight by any means, but I am not happy about this weight gain. I see those 10 pounds as a failure – and a gateway to even more weight gain.

But I do not want to go on another diet. I refuse to. 

I’ve discovered enough about myself to know that the often-touted “lifestyle change” is just another diet in disguise for me. I’ve lived over a year of creating rigid, arbitrary rules, like not eating any foods with added sugar, for example. And I can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it.

Even though I’m done with dieting, I’m obviously not over the dieting mentality. Every comment I hear, even if it’s not directed toward me, I take as an indirect reproach for being unable to maintain my former, short-lived though it was, skinny self.

I don’t know how Alison does it.

But I am not Alison – and never will be. This reminds me of something that my sister once said: “It’s all about acceptance.” But self-acceptance is hardest of all.