A Book that Helped Me with My Anger (On Reading The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah)

 

The first time I read a novel with Muslim characters, I was 21, and the book was “Does My Head Look Big in This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The main character was sixteen years old, and even though the drama of being in high school and being the only person in a hijab was something I had experienced several years previously and had largely processed by then, it was affirming to read about a character who looked like me.

It was a lesson that women in hijab have stories worth telling.
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A Restless Journey to Naples (On Reading Elena Ferrante)

 

Mangwanani (April 2015)

Tranquility (Hartbeespoort, April 2015)

I’ve been living in 50s and 60s Naples over the past few days and my trip has left me unsettled and restless. This week I read the first two books of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (it’s a four book series) called “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Story of a New Name”. I’ve wanted to read these books for a long time. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about the series and have heard friends rave about how beautiful and unusual the books are, and so I was really looking forward experiencing them for myself.

The first book “My Brilliant Friend” is the May selection for the Seriously Planning bookclub. The books follow the lives of two friends Elena and Lila from childhood to their early twenties and chronicles their friendship, deep love, loyalty and hatred for each other. Lila is brilliant but stops her studies after elementary school because her father refuses to let her continue. She studies Latin and Greek on her own regardless and has a natural aptitude for learning and a quickness of mind that far surpasses Elena. Elena on the other hand, completes elementary school, middle school, high school and university by studying relentlessly and through feeling keenly the difference between herself and her friend. Whether it is in beauty, in intelligence, in love, in marriage, or any other sphere, to Elena it constantly feels like Lila is better and luckier than her, and the series is about their lives and how they influence one another.

My Brilliant Friend is an incredible book, and the author paints a detailed picture of Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood that makes it alive and real. She makes you feel like you can see, smell, taste Naples in the 50s and because you care about the characters, you willingly immerse yourself in their terrifying world.

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A Dose of Monthly Joy (Details On The April Bookclub)

 

(Natures Valley, South Africa, November 2015)

(Natures Valley, South Africa, November 2015)

This weekend was the February session of the Seriously Planning bookclub, and for the first time since the club started in Joburg, I didn’t finish reading the bookclub selection before we met to discuss the book. I’m still reading our February selection “On Being Muslim” and enjoying the book thoroughly so proper thoughts about the read to come later. Despite not having completed the book our discussion filled my heart with so much light. Our monthly chats are a source of joy and help me to be better at being me, something I find is true for reading in general, but something that is amplified when I’m talking about amazing books with incredible people. Yesterday our discussion was about faith, living Islam holistically, how our lives overall support or don’t support our religious lives, self – knowledge, listening and appreciating others, the importance of self esteem and what that actually looks like, having meaningful prayer in our lives, the importance of akhlaq (good character), traditional madrassa education, and the role of the Qur’an in our lives. It was wonderful, and I can’t wait till our next session.

We met at a restaurant called “My bread and butter” near Zoo Lake, and it was perfect for the bookclub. It’s a big open airy space with lots of light and beautiful wooden tables, and the food and drinks and cakes were delicious, and the staff was super friendly and polite.  And best of all, because it’s a big space it wasn’t loud at all, and we were able to talk and hear each other properly,

Our next bookclub selection is  “The Golden Son” by Shilpi Somaya Gowda.
Date: April 2nd 2016
Time: 10:00 am to 12pm
Where: Nice, 37 4th Avenue, corner 14th street, Parkhurst, 2193

To RSVP: Email seriously.planning@gmail.com

About the book: “Author of the bestselling Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Golden Son is about a young Indian doctor who leaves his village for a residency in the US. But he grapples with the expectation that as the oldest son, he is expected to inherit the mantle of arbiter for all village disputes. And he finds himself torn between a beautiful American girl and his old childhood friend..” (Via Amazon)

Wanting to catch up on old reads? Here is what we’ve read so far:

September: Journey of Discovery by Na’eem Jeenah and Shamima Shaikh
November: Ghana Must Go By Taiye Selasi
December: Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
January: If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power
February: On Being Muslim by Farid Esack

Think About Character, not about Identity (Part 2, Gems of the Jan SP Bookclub)

Blue Magnolia, Graaf -Reinet, SA (November 2015)

Blue Magnolia, Graaf-Reinet, SA (November 2015)

So much to say about this month’s bookclub read. God willing, will post proper thoughts about my own reading our bookclub discussion soon, but in the meantime, gems from the book.

When the Sheikh’s students voiced fears about Islamophobic media coverage, or Western laws that they felt discriminated against Muslims, the Sheikh would warn them to be careful not to confuse group politics with piety. “Islam is not a property,” Akram once observed during a seminar. “It’s not your identity. Don’t think that if someone laughs at you, you have to explain yourself. We are more interested in defending our belonging, our identity, than in the Prophet. Don’t think about identity! Think about good character!”

A British-Indian novelist published a story slurring the Prophet Muhammad? Ignore it. Don’t issue fatwas against him or burn books in town centers or stage protest rallies. Turn away from this world and towards God. Pray. Do dawa–call people to Islam. “If people write books against your Prophet, there are many ways to solve the problem!  The best way is to pray for these people. Write some books yourself.”  Some cartoonist in Denmark sketched some ugly little pictures insulting the Prophet? Let it go; go towards God instead. “Someone makes a cartoon, and we protest. We make protest, and we think we’re doing what we’re supposed to do!” They’re not. Where is it in the book of Allah that we ‘protest’? Is this business of ‘protest’ anywhere in the Qur’an or the Prophet’s sunna?”

Akram urged his students to look at the Prophet and his Companions. Faced with a silly sketch, or a nasty novel, would they have demonstrated? “Lets think, really.” he urged. “No matter how much the Prophet had been abused by people who opposed him, did he protest? Did he burn their houses? Did he harm them? No! He went to do dawa. When he wanted to persuade the people in Mecca to become Muslim, he would go to someone’s house seventy times! He would have patience!”

Still in class after class, students asked how Muslims can defend Islam from slurs against it,

“Musk smells sweet on its own,” Akram advised, quoting a Persian proverb. “You don’t need a perfume seller to tell you of its sweetness.” ” ~ Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink

A Cup of Tea Depends on the Entire Universe (Gems from the SP Jan BookClub)

 

Every cup of tea depends on the entire universe (Toronto 2014)

In Sumaiya and her sisters, I saw none of the vague dissatisfaction I’d seen flourish around me – indeed, in me, growing up. As a member of the American middle class, I was raised in a nation of strivers, a nation founded on the right to pursue happiness. Our discontent was productive. It got things done. The drive to do better propelled through graduate school and up career ladders. Through spin classes and salary negotiations. A world of infinite favours didn’t yield reliable results. My secularist’s  do-it-yourself existence did not get me into the habit of being grateful for date palms, fragrant herbs and seas.

The Sheikh’s sense of gratitude was altogether more muscular, perhaps because it had somewhere to go. His whole consciousness of God as a creator took gratitude to a  whole new level, cosmic in scope and near-constant in presence. Akram was a man who could find God in the act of making a cup of tea. “Everyone says, ‘Any child could make a cup of tea,'” he said. ” But every cup of tea depends on the whole universe being there. For the tea to exist it needs the sun and the moon. It needs the earth to be there. He made water, He made the container to hold it, He made the leaves to grow. When we were born, everything was there, just waiting for us. Every cup of tea depends on the whole universe.” I couldn’t decide whether this logic was oppressive or inspiring. I rather thought it was both, like the satisfying ache of stretching after a session hunched over a laptop.

Studying with a man who saw everything from tea leaves to algebra as gifts from God, I was struck by a new seam of gratitude running through me. I’d emerge from a lesson not with faith, but with what I suppose a fashionable guru would call mindfulness. On the bus ride home, particularly when the sun lit up the green hills beside the highway, I found myself, for a second, seeing them as the Sheikh might: not as something pretty,or as expensive real estate, or as the space between me and London, but as a connection to something larger. There were moments, while I was reading a sura, or carting the kids to school, or chopping an onion, that I sensed what this radical gratitude must feel like: a constant reminder that you’re alive, but just for now. ~ If the Oceans Were Ink

 

Seriously Planning Joburg BookClub (Oct 2015)

(Hotel view, Makkah, 2008)

(Hotel view, Makkah, 2008)

“If there is struggle then the results are inevitable, as with Hajar and Zam-zam by Allah’s Will. Allah will always smile on those who strive. But we should never assume that those efforts have the capacity to provide or produce anything. Zam-zam was not the direct result of Hajar’s striving. What success there is has nothing to do with us but everything to do with Allah’s Compassion and Mercy, which he dispenses according to our willingness to struggle and become the tools with which He acts.

What is noteworthy is that her struggle yields no result. She finds neither help nor any source of sustenance for her child. So why do we repeat her actions? Because it is the struggle that is important, not the result. Who are we to assume we have the capacity to ‘achieve’ anything? Our aim should be simply to strive. Thus the joy on Shamima’s face at the end of that gruelling ritual did not imply that she had found the source of life. Rather, her expression said, ‘I have struggled, I have exhausted myself because that is what I was created for, just as that is what my “Imamah” Hajar was created for. I can tell my Creator that I have striven.” ( Journey of Discovery, Na’eem Jeenah and Shamima Shaikh, p. 129)

Before moving to Jo’burg, there are two things I knew about South Africa. The first was the Houghton Masjid, and the second was a book called “Journey of Discovery: A South African Hajj” that I had read several years ago. The book follows the Hajj journey of Na’eem Jeenah and Shamima Shaikh, an extraordinary couple deeply committed to social and racial equity. When they decide to go for Hajj Shamima has already been diagnosed with cancer, and the book follows their journey of discovery together.

The book is a collection of stories and and reflections from their Hajj and addresses issues (and raises questions) about social justice and activism, love, marriage, religious rituals and symbols, spirituality and faith, gender equity, surrender, feminism, religious dogmatism and more. It is a powerful and exceptional read that challenges its reader to think about how they relate to their faith as an individual, as a family and as a community. It is an infinitely richer experience to read with others, and for this reason, the Seriously Planning bookclub met for the first time in Joburg on Sept 12th 2015 at Masjid-ul-Islam in Brixton to discuss the book and to celebrate International Literacy Day. It was a wonderful conversation and discussion circle, and re-reading the book on my own and then coming together to discuss the book with others left me with an richer and deeper understanding of the book.

Continuing the theme of South African books and authors, the next bookclub will be a discussion of “Riding the Samoosa Express by Zaheera Jina and Hasina Asvat on October 18th 2015 from 2-4pm at Industry Bakery in Greenside. To participate and confirm your attendance, please email seriously.planning@gmail.com to join the gathering. To find the book, it is available as an Amazon Kindle Book, and available at Exclusive Books and other booksellers.  Looking forward to seeing you there!

We Dismantle Stereotypes through Stories

The beauty of (local) cultural production. (The Met, NYC, Oct 2014)

The beauty of (local) cultural production. (The Met, NYC, Oct 2014)

I love discovering cities and places through stories, and I’d like to learn more about places outside North America through my film and reading choices this year. A dear friend gifted me Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck last week, yesterday I watched Riaad Moosa’s film Material (the subject of today’s audio story) set in Joburg, South Africa, and in the months to come, I’m hoping to tackle some of the books on this list by The Guardian of the Ten Best City Books of 2014.

What are your favourite books and films that have helped you discover new (or old) places? I’d love to hear your suggestions.