The Colour of God – Book Review and Reflections

I love memoirs. There was a time though, when it was hard to find good memoirs by Muslim women. More than ten years ago, the memoirs I read would disappoint me because they would leave their storytelling project to defend Islam.  Long paragraphs and pages of exposition would begin with the words “Islam has five pillars”, or “Islam is about peace”, or “my hijab is about being judged for what is inside my heart” and as a reader, this got old fast. It felt like even by Muslim writers, I wasn’t being centered, I wasn’t seen. I wasn’t their imagined reader. 

Now, there is more choice, but my reading preferences are the same. I like books that are not striving to explain Islam, to justify it. I avoid books that are about escaping conservative Islam, about domestic violence, or that include strident paragraphs about how Islam isn’t a violent religion. I rejoice when I come across well written books where I can delight in the prose, be surprised by the reflections, and learn how other Muslims are living their lives. I want Islam to be there in the background, quietly. When I read the novel “A Place for Us’ it felt like home for that reason.  

So many years later, while there is still lots of work to do in publishing, there are so many more books and memoirs by Muslim women and it is possible to gravitate to stories that call out to you. I am glad for this. Ibtihaj Muhammed’s book “Proud” for example, made me more motivated to move my body and revel in its gifts. Zarqa Nawaz’ book “Laughing all the Way to the Mosque” made me think about the grit and determination required to create television. While before the publication of any book by any Muslim female in the Global North felt like it warranted purchase because we were in a desert of representation, now I don’t feel compelled to like or read every book.  I say all this to say that when I read Professor Ayesha Chaudhry’s memoir “The Colour of God” I entered my reading reminding myself that this is one book, one story. It didn’t have to be all things and it was okay to not like it. I am glad to report though, that this book is a gift, and I am glad I took the effort to read it. I read it slowly over the course of a week, savouring it in early mornings and lunchtime reads and reflecting over its contents.

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A Permission Slip to Go and Do Things – “Our Turn” by Kirstine Stewart & “The Hustle Economy”

I have a lot of take-aways from this book – “Our Turn by Kirstine Stewart

I’ve been thinking a lot about work and careers recently. After living in Johannesburg, South Africa for almost two years, I started a new job in an unfamiliar field in 2017. That job involved a country change as well, and because of my new role and new home, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my identity as a female, visibly Muslim, person of colour shows up at work, how to do well at work, how to find energy for projects that I want to pursue, and how to balance and manage the projects I want to do with family life and relationships given that “making things” often requires solitary focus and lots of time. It’s hard to find one book that addresses all those questions, so I’ve been reading different books for different purposes.

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Two Books 2017 Needs You to Read (On Reading “The Good Immigrant” and “The Sun is Also a Star”

The Good Immigrant, 2016

The Good Immigrant, 2016

“For most immigrants, moving to a new country is an act of faith. Even if you’ve heard stories of safety, opportunity and prosperity, it’s still a leap to move yourself from your own language, people and country. Your own history. What if the stories weren’t true? What if you couldn’t adapt? What if you weren’t wanted in the new country.” (Nicola Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star, 2016, p.34)

Is there a word for reverse migration? If so, I want to know it. We moved from South Africa to Canada a little over a month ago, and leaving home to settle back home has been challenging in ways that have taken me by surprise. Not that I’m not glad to be back – it’s wonderful to take transit and walk and visit the library again, but in my time away, I got used to not being a minority all the time. I got accustomed to being asked where I was from because of my Canadian accent instead of being asked where I’m from and where I was born because I wear a headscarf. I got used to not having to think about where I was going to pray, and instead devoting that brain space to move beyond accommodation to think about the kind of Muslim I want to be. For so many reasons, the first few weeks back were very challenging, but we’re slowly making Canada home again and figuring out who we are individually and who we are as a family in what feels like a new place.

If  2017 is any indication so far, this is the year where we all need to be reading diverse stories and doing as much as possible. And towards that end, in the past few weeks I read two books about immigration that I very much want to share and discuss with you.

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Zadie Smith You Write Well (On Reading Swing Time)

Plane reading joys (Dec 2016)

Plane reading joys (Dec 2016)

In a way, I met my husband because of Zadie Smith. I used to run a bookclub in Toronto, and 2 years ago, our December book of choice was Zadie Smith’s novel “White Teeth”. Close friends had raved about Smith and talked about “White Teeth” as one of their favourite books, but I had never read any of her work before. Despite my excitement to read her for the first time though, I hated the book and gave up after 100 pages. So the first time I didn’t finish our book club selection was the first time my now husband attended the Seriously Planning bookclub.

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Seriously Planning Has a BookTube Show!

Greetings Seriously Planning friends! I have exciting news to share. Seriously Planning has a new BookTube channel (a YouTube channel that talks about books) and the first episode is finally out!  I’ve been watching Booktube for a couple of months now and have been desperately trying to find other booktubers who are people of colour (especially other Muslim women) as well as other people who are broadcasting from South Africa but haven’t been able to find other voices. So I thought it was time for Seriously Planning to have a YouTube channel! We’re just starting out, but I’m excited for this to grow and become a community of sharing. Please do watch, like, subscribe, and share with friends! Till next time.

Delving into the Life of Abdul Sattar Edhi

It started with watching the trailer for an upcoming documentary for a film called “These Birds Walk” about the work of the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s largest social welfare organisation.

These Birds Walk – Teaser from Omar & Bassam on Vimeo.

I had heard much about the work of the Edhi organisation before. I knew about the cradles across Pakistan for women to anonymously give their babies up instead of abandoning them, the burials through the organisation for people who wouldn’t receive a proper burial otherwise, and their care for the mentally ill in addition to their many other services. I’ve always had a strong respect of their work. And so when I learnt that a book existed about Edhi in his own words (as narrated by Tehmina Durrani) called Edhi: A Mirror to the Blind  I tried to find a copy so I could learn more. Today, after a long week reading the book in spare moments, I finally finished.

First, the not so positive parts of the book. Perhaps because it’s translated from Urdu it’s a choppy read, and the book drags and lengthens at parts unnecessarily. There are times when Edhi is talking about a certain event in very vague terms, and it is difficult to know what exactly he is referring to. The book uses big words when shorter words would perhaps be more suitable, and the book often feels like a long sermon.

Having said that, this is a worthwhile read because it is about an amazing individual and his journey to build an incredible organization. The book begins with the death of his four year old grandson Bilal who is burnt by a mentally ill patient in one of their centres, and goes back in time to start Edhi’s story from its beginning, with Edhi’s mother deep emphasis on charity for her children. From there the book spans decades – from Edhi’s early childhood to his first dispensary, to his marriage, the birth of his four children, the growth of his family and his organisation, and finally ends in the mid nineties.

Reading about Edhi and his wife’s simple 2-room apartment, his insistence of minimal personal expenditure, their use of every moment, their simple food (Edhi speaks about eating stale bread for decades) and little sleep (Edhi sleeps on a bench outside for a few hours nightly) is a powerful reminder that life is not meant to be a self-centered exercise. It’s not meant to be about collecting and broadcasting ‘neat experiences’, it’s about helping others, and being of use. It’s about privileging others needs over your own and not indulging in extravagance when so many others in the world/your own community are in desperate need. This book really drives home the point that charity is not a ‘good action’ you are doing, it is a component of being a dignified human being. Reading this book has been a reminder to strive to be a bit less selfish, a bit less concerned about the opinions of others, and a bit more conscious in how I use my money and time.

In no particular order, here are some of Edhi’s lessons I took away from the book and favourite quotes.

  1.  Religion is about more than praying in a room to God. Islam in particular is about social action, personal transformation, and alleviating the pain of others. If your religious practice is not benefiting anyone, than there is something deficient in what you are doing. Edhi heavily critiques being ritualistic about religion by frantically ‘chanting prayers’ daily and ignoring the needs of people at the same time.
  2. The way charity is given matters. Edhi speaks many times in the book that many people give charity seeking prestige and not because it is the right thing to do. They want to be thanked, and the presence of ego makes this an impoverished action.
  3. Because burial is a huge part of what the Edhi Foundation does, death is a major theme of the book. The imminence of death and how it should shape one’s life (Edhi asks why people pursue luxuries instead of helping the poor and oppressed) is something that people rarely think about, but should.
  4. “The human body needs rest according to the degree of perseverance it injects into commitments. Those who pursue nothing need the most rest. By this rule all people are inflicted with varying degrees of lethargy. I am convinced that the foremost evil is laziness, it is the source of all addiction, and gradually encompasses all forms of decadence. It kills your abilities so casually that you think yourself hale and hearty, whereas you have become an invalid.” (p.132)
  5. Love deepens when you work to build more than simply a life together. Edhi’s description of his wife Bilqees, and his honesty in describing both how much he loves her, is beautiful. In his own words, he cannot do the work he does without her, and her happy personality transforms his life. She is a tremendous person in her own right, and the story of their relationship is a lesson in how powerful the right partnership can be.
  6. The lessons from our families run deep. Edhi talks tenderly about his parents and in particular his mother, and also reflects on the good within his mother in law’s life.  Remembering them both he says, “We led our lives by the values set by our mothers. They touched our souls and all we have to do and will do.” (360)