On Starting Again and Reading “After You” by Jojo Moyes

“Only one person can give you a purpose” ~ (After You, Jojo Moyes, p.300)

 

Witpoortjie waterfall , Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens (Joburg, Sept 2015)

Witpoortjie Waterfall, Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens (Joburg, Sept 2015)

On a long distance flight a few years ago, I started and finished “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes, a story about Louisa Clark, age 26, who takes a job as a carer for Will Traynor, age 35, who is a quadriplegic. Louisa has lived in the same town her whole life, has few friends, and she has done and experienced very little. Before his accident, Will lived a full life with work and friends and adventure and passion, and when Louisa meets him, he is an angry and difficult patient. They come from different worlds, but they help each other discover life. In particular, Will helps expand Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to new experiences, widens her ambitions, and helps her to heal after traumatic events in her past. He teaches her to expect more of herself and of her life.

Continue reading

On Reading “Instant City” By Steve Inskeep

Missisauga Art Gallery, 2014.

Mississauga Art Gallery, 2014.

The viceroy was splitting the subcontinent among men who had all supported some version of a united India in the past. But at key moments, every effort fell apart. Jinnah insisted that his people could not even discuss a united India until after Muslims were granted parity, with power equal to the far more numerous Hindus. Faced with this demand, the Indian National Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and aided by Mountbatten, finally preferred to shove Jinnah to the margins, giving Muslims a separate state and keeping it as small as possible. Jinnah didn’t even know how small it would be on that evening in Karachi; the viceroy had delayed revealing the final boundary lines. Later that night, at an event with over a thousand guests, the Great Leader looked ‘frail, tired and pre-occupied,” according to Shahid Hamid but had to remain at the event as long as the viceroy did. Hamid carried a message across the room from Jinnah to Mountbatten, asking the last representative of British rule in India to hurry up and leave.” (Steve Inskeep, Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, p.58)

It’s taken me more than three years to read Steve Inskeep’s book Instant City. Every time I’ve started to read it, I’ve stopped before finishing in an attempt to savour the reading experience for as long as possible. That changed a few days ago though, and like other books I love dearly, it is an unforgettable read.

The book is an exploration of instant cities, (defined as “a metropolitan area that’s grown since 1945 at a substantially higher rate than the population of the country to which it belongs”) by taking an in-depth look at Karachi and examining a bombing of a religious procession of Shia Muslims that occurred on Dec 28th 2009.  Today Karachi is more than thirty times its size in 1945, and Inskeep goes back to the beginning to understand what happened in 2009 and the forces that shape instant cities (and cities in general) today.

I loved the read despite – or perhaps because, Karachi is a place I do not understand well. I last visited the city 18 years ago, and though lazy stereotypes about Karachi and Pakistan make my skin prickle and my temper rise,  when family and friends travel, I am tense and keenly scanning headlines until they return. As with courses about Pakistani politics I took in undergrad, I’ve shared my learnings from Instant City with friends and family, and we’ve discussed urban geography, significant places, events and people of Karachi throughout the read. The book and these conversations have expanded my understanding of Karachi and I’m grateful to Inskeep for opening up the city in such a thoughtful and nuanced way. In particular, here are two things I loved about the book.

Continue reading

On Mosquing (Day 2 Ramadan 2015)

Wedding Day, Houghton Masjid (April 2015)

Wedding Day, Houghton Masjid (April 2015) Photo Credit: SP from SA

Yesterday was the second fast of the month and so far I’ve been praying at home. Partly because my local mosque didn’t have a women’s section when I was growing up and partly because I’m not very good with crowds and heat, it’s always just felt more familiar and comfortable to pray at home. And so although there are facilities at the local mosque, the past two nights I’ve waved goodbye to my husband and family as they leave for tarawih (nightly Ramadan prayers), before praying on my own while they are away.

But it’s winter in South Africa so heat isn’t an issue, and I was up early and ready to go, so when everyone headed to the masjid for Fajr (the dawn prayer), I jumped in the car.  Including myself, my mother in law and another woman there were three of us in the female section of the masjid at Fajr, and it was a beautiful, beautiful experience. The imam recited Surah Yaseen, my favourite chapter from the Qur’an, and it felt so comfortable to be starting the day praying and hearing a beloved and familiar Surah. It made me want to be more familiar with the Qur’an as a whole and to read and listen to it more often so that more chapters and verses become beloved friends, and to make dua this Ramadan that this takes place.

My mind was on duas because along with the heart softening experience of beautiful recitation, being in the mosque was a tangible, physical reminder that Ramadan is a time of supplication. It is a time of raising your expectations and knowing and trusting and believing God is Capable of all things. Our local masjid in Joburg is the Houghton West Street Masjid, and last year in Ramadan, before I had ever met my husband, I discovered the masjid when a teacher in Toronto tweeted a link to a recitation of the 99 Names from the Houghton Masjid Soundcloud page.  A couple of weeks later the same teacher posted their recitation of Surah Rahman (another chapter of the Qu’ran) and through Ramadan and afterwards as well, the same recitation of Surah Rahman, the 99 Names, and prayers on the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him posted on their Soundcloud page became things I would turn to time and time again for solace and comfort and reflection.

Many months later when I met my husband (a story for another time!) and learnt he is from South Africa, I admitted that I didn’t know very much about the country, but there was a masjid that I loved from afar. There are many, many, many masjids in South Africa, and so I didn’t think this particular one would be familiar to him, but to my great surprise, he shared that in fact, that very same masjid was his neighbourhood mosque, and that he loved their recitation of Surah Rahman too. A few months later, we were married in that very same masjid, and though wedding events and receptions can seem a bit of a blur, our nikkah (wedding ceremony) is very clear. Each time we drive past, or the few times I’ve been to the masjid to pray since then, our wedding day comes to mind, and yesterday’s Fajr prayer was no different. It brought forth memories of arriving at the masjid with my family beforehand, of navigating my long dress and train up the masjid stairs in heels (a new experience) to the female section upstairs, sitting as close as possible to the partition to see down into the mens section and hear the beautiful words and reflections of the ceremony, hugging friends and family and new faces afterwards, praying Dhuhr (the midday prayer) and praying and sitting on layers upon layers of material, making my way down the steps carefully after others left, and praying supplications in the moments before seeing my husband for the first time. Every time we visit the masjid, the anticipation and joy and gratitude of that day comes to life.

Continue reading

Reading is a Community Building Exercise

Almost a year ago, I visited Toronto to see if the city and I were still in love, and whether it was time to live here again. Seriously Planning had its first in person events at that time. A few months later, I moved from the West Coast, and the months since then have been unexpected, challenging, full, educational and beautiful.

Above all, the most important “settlement agency” that has helped me with the (still ongoing!) transition has been the *very small* (but very exciting!) Seriously Planning bookclub that has met regularly over the past several months to discuss different books. Though the books have been very different from one another, at each session we’ve shared our feelings about what we’ve read, the lessons we’ve learnt from our reading, the questions each book has raised for us, and the way reading each book has altered/impacted the way we are in the world. We’ve tried to pick books that help us reflect and grow, and the experience of actively reflecting both individually and collectively on each book has been transformational. Even more importantly than the amazing books though, the people that have come to each session have become very important people in my life – this is the circle I come to when things seem confusing to me, when I feel homesick, when I’m upset that I’m not doing the transition with as much grace and tranquility as I would hope.  Whatever the challenge, the bookclub circle has been generous, wise and patient and I’m very, very grateful for its presence in my life! Would you like to join? We’re holding two events this December (details below), but if there are any additional events, the details will be posted on the Facebook page first.

For readers who aren’t in Toronto/aren’t able to meet in person, please do share! What are the books you’ve read this year that left an imprint on your heart? It’s cold and snowy in Toronto, and I’d love to make a winter reading list.

Dec 15th:Seriously Planning Book Club (December Edition)

Dec 29th: Idea Steep (Celebrating our Favourite Reads of 2014

A Fair Witnessing (Gems from Scott Korb’s Light Without Fire)

 

Sweetness for the mind and  heart.

Sweetness for the mind and heart. (Soma Chocolate, Toronto)

Some books call out to you to share them with others. Recently I read Scott Korb’s book Light Without Fire about the first year at Zaytuna College, America’s first Muslim liberal arts college, and ever since I finished it, I can’t stop talking about it with others.

There are so many things to appreciate and admire about this book. To begin, it is rare to encounter an author who is able to talk about Islam/Muslims with honesty and sensitivity. In Light without Fire, the author’s admiration, warmth and connection with the people he meets shines from every page, and you get the sense that he is not a journalist simply watching Zaytuna from the sidelines, but someone who participates in the life of the community. When he visits the Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland for Friday prayers for instance, he lines up shoulder to shoulder with others in prayer. When he attends the mawlids (a celebration of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him), at Zaytuna or in the broader community, over time he becomes familiar with the poetry and sacred music that is recited.

His curiosity and engagement makes the book a very readable, thoughtful, interesting, important read, and one that rewards its reader generously for their time and attention. It makes the book a light, a book of beautiful writing, subtle humour, and humanity, that helps the reader see and understand Zaytuna College more clearly.

“Always carry a little notebook around with you. Whatever inspires you, or rings true for you, was meant for you. So make sure you write it down.” Faced with what Faatimah called “the obvious way” that the Zaytuna classroom – or really any classroom – was not like the rest of the world, and vice versa, every moment deserved the attention of a notetaker. Though the Zaytuna classroom might be structured with the books and schedules and tests that are the trappings of any classroom, what’s “out here” is no less important, structured as it is, she said “so much more by the divine.” The whole world is the classroom. She saw in it signs and proofs of Allah.” ~ (Light without Fire, p.110)

In the spirit of this advice to be a notetaker (given by Shaykh Yahya Rhodus), below are a few thoughts from my read.

Continue reading

Look Big Picture (Life Advice from Chris Hadfield)

Reaching for the horizon, Porteau Cove, BC.

Reaching for the horizon, Porteau Cove, BC.

I recently saw a fantastic interview between Cmdr Chris Hadfield and Jian Ghomeshi that I highly recommend watching in its entirety.  In case this advice is helpful to others too, below are a few gems from their conversation.

Q: What is the most important lesson you think you’ve taken away from the space program?

C.H: If you look big picture, I think the important thing is to give yourself something in life that you really want to do. What is exciting? What is the thing in the distance that if things worked out, you just see yourself doing ten years from now. Or 20 years from now… And then figure out how you can just start nudging yourself along one decision at a time. And you can change directions. I’ve just changed direction. I’ve just retired after a long career. I’m picking those things now and trying to decide what skills I will need in order to head that direction with my life.

Important to remember two things:

1) Don’t have to go straight there.
2) Don’t make that thing be the measure of your self worth. Try and celebrate every little victory, every day. Come out of every day saying today was a good day. I got to do this and this and this. I liked all the stages in my career along the way. Don’t want to get my self worth wrapped up in things in the future that may never happen.

  • I feel a compulsion to make the most of myself. It’s kind of like a way of dealing with life. I sort of look at these are the various skills I’ve been given, these are the things I can do, and if I am not trying to make the most of all the various talents and capabilities I have and opportunities I have, then I am wasting my own time and wasting other people’s time to some degree. It drives me to try and not let things slip away. I really feel an urge to do something useful, to make the most of what I have.  So that drives me, that compels me, it makes me continue to work. It gives me reasons and I like it.
  • I think the real key to social media is to be honest. To tell people what it is that you saw, and what it meant to you, and why. It’s social media, it’s not marketing media. It’s not “I’m trying to sell you dishsoap”. It’s I saw this incredible thing, or this incredible thing meant this to me and here is why. And this is what it looked like.
  • I didn’t do this to become a rockstar. I did this because I found it fundamentally interesting and worthwhile and I thought everybody should be interested in it. So I pursued it doggedly for a long time. And most of the the work I’ve done has been completely uncelebrated like anyone’s work…Anyone who shines for a moment, it’s the result of all those unheralded things that it happens. It wasn’t like it was a springboard so that finally I could be famous. That wasn’t the intent. It was more the opposite.  I’m not trying to sell people something, I’m trying to share the wonder of the experience with them and I’m delighted so many people share back.
  • [story about replacing his cupboards when his house got flooded and really enjoying the experience] I feel exactly the same way about my career. It’s not like I go around now that I don’t live in that house anymore missing that set of cupboards. I did that. And it took a lot of work. And I’m really happy about how it made me feel and with the result that it left, but I don’t spend my life wishing that I was still building those cupboards. That’s not how I view life. There’s a lot more cupboards to build.  You can take great delight in learning any new thing. I have 30 or 40 years I hope of cupboards to build,things to think about and new stuff to learn and stuff to try and accomplish.”

Chris Hadfield, Q with Jian Ghomeshi

Falling in Love with Food in Indonesia (Day 8)

I’ve been a residence don (otherwise known as a residence advisor) for the past year at one of the colleges at U of T, and as part of that experience, we had access to a college cafeteria for all our meals. It was known for being one of the better cafeterias on campus, but still, so many of the meals tasted the same, and when it came to ‘Asian cuisine”, all I remember are endless variations of dishes with brown sauces and vegetables. And so after that year of often uninteresting, non spicy food, being in Indonesia and Singapore has been an awakening. Everything is new and unfamiliar, and yet so so delicious! I have a small appetite and I’m not an adventurous eater, so I tend to have small dishes when I eat out (which is rarely) and my own cooking adventures mostly involve trying to recreate the flavour of my Mum’s amazing cooking, which has always been my favourite cuisine. I’ve never been curious to try out new cookbooks.

That has changed because the meals I’ve had on this trip have been incredible. Every morsel explodes with flavour, you can taste the quality and freshness of the ingredients, and the juices are refreshing and delicious drinks that combine new fruits and old in unexpected and wonderful ways. I never recognise the dishes when we’re ordering, but with each day my excitement and willingness to try new things expands, and I am genuinely excited to try cooking new things when we get back. And speaking of fruit, though I haven’t tried local Indonesian fruits yet from the market, in Singapore whether it was a new fruit like rambutans or something I had tried before like papaya, the flavour and deliciousness of the fruit was heightened.  Being here has made me realise how much flavour we lose when fruit travels thousands of miles to get to Canada. I had no idea food could be such a pleasurable happy experience, particularly when you don’t have to worry about whether you’re ordering something Halal off the menu. You can share with friends and try different things, and its all good.

The other thing that is so unusual about Indonesia is the style of the restaurants. We’ve been staying away from roadside stalls and have been eating at reasonable local restaurants, but everywhere we’ve gone has had a beautiful decor, with care given to the details of the restaurant. Today (May 22) a group of us went out for dinner to a local restaurant called the Hummingbird, and it was as if we had been transported to a hip trendy Toronto cafe. Everything from the light fixtures to the wall decorations to the outside decorations was stunning (I actually can’t think of a Toronto equiv) and the beauty of the surroundings and the quality of the food made it a memorable meal. We were so happy eating we barely spoke.

Culinary adventures aside, we had an excellent day in Bandung. We had a beautiful breakfast at our hotel, and then left in the morning to visit the offices of the city planning board. While we were there one of the planners in the office gave us a presentation about the local issues in Bandung, and then we had an open discussion afterwards where we asked questions about Bandung to our heart’s content. It was an amazing discussion, and our host was one of the most charismatic, charming people we’ve met so far, and made really funny jokes that had us laughing throughout the session (Who is this Richard Florida person? All I know is Beyonce and Lady Gaga). One of the things that struck me from the session (out of many) was that one of the goals of the Mayor’s office is to have a city where people believe in God. Though 90% of Indonesia is Muslim, this goal does not necessarily relate to Islam, but simply having a faith based city in general. We asked more about this, and were told that “Indonesia is not a secular country, but it’s not a religious country either. It is in the middle. What is that middle space? That is Indonesia” which is was interesting to think about, and something I want to investigate further.

Indonesia is also teaching me that Islam changes according to cultural context. I generally don’t shake hands with men I’m not related to for example, and in Toronto, often when I meet a man who is Muslim,  he greets me by nodding in my direction and placing his hand over his heart. It’s a gesture I really like, and I often do the hand over heart thing myself without realizing it. In Indonesia, I instinctively started greeting people the same way, and realised quickly that it’s not an Indonesian gesture, and the cultural context I’m in has changed. I’ve also noticed most people here do shake hands so I may be offending the people that we’re meeting and I need to re-evaluate how I handle introductions here.

We also learnt about how transportation is a major issue in Bandung, and that it is anticipated that the city should have a cable car within the next year that is funded by the private sector. In addition, there are plans for buses and a subway, in addition to other forms of transportation. Buses are difficult because the roads here are short and narrow with many junctions, and so the Ankut (parashuttles) are used most frequently here, since walking is not really a feasible transportation option. What is interesting is that Bandung changed with each colonial presence, and so it’s only in the seventies that they were able to start their own planning process.

There was a lot mentioned during the visit, but all in all, it was an informative and useful time. Afterwards we walked in the heat (I though I would collapse but we made it!) to lunch at a Sundanese restaurant, and then walked back (again such intense heat) to the hotel, and thought about our research and got to know each better till our nighttime dinner adventure. Looking forward to what the next day brings!