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 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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We All Like Different Books (A Post about Diversity Things)

Friday stops (Port Elizabeth, South Africa, April 2016)

Friday stops (Port Elizabeth, South Africa, April 2016)

About a month ago, I discovered a magical community on YouTube called BookTube. “BookTubers” make videos where they review books they’ve read, display their latest “book hauls” of the books they’ve recently purchased or received from publishers, give tours of their personal bookshelves and and generally discuss topics that are literary related.  Not all of this appeals to me – it’s far less interesting to hear about the books you own/have recently bought than hearing what you’ve recently actually read and what you gained from the read, and a lot of existing BookTube content is YA related, which is not really my thing, but still, the premise about books on YouTube fascinates me.

When I first discovered BookTube I found a few people I really liked, and hearing enthusiastic people talking about books they’ve just read felt almost as nice as having a conversation with a wonderful friend who has read something amazing and wants to tell you about it. But at the same time, when I discovered BookTube one of the first thing I noticed is that it’s not a very racially and geographically diverse community – the vast majority of the people making videos about books are white, female and from North America or the UK. Though this surprised me I wasn’t sure if it mattered so much, after all, good books are good books no matter who you are right?

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Creativity is the Property of Everyone (On “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert)

Joburg Skyline and Flowers (happiness things)

Joburg Skyline and Flowers (Home, Sept 2015)

It isn’t always comfortable or easy – carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip, I mean – but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.
And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. I know that’s what you want for yourself because that’s what I want for myself, too.
It’s what we all want.
And you have treasures hidden within you – extraordinary treasures – and so I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small. (p.37, Big Magic)

“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at. For instance: if I had spent my twenties playing basketball every single day, or making pastry dough every single day, or studying auto mechanics every single day, I’d probably be pretty good at foul shots and croissants and transmissions by now.
Instead I learned how to write.” (p.145, Big Magic)

“Meeting Winnifred though, made me realize that your education isn’t over when they say it’s over; your education is over when you say it’s over. And Winifred-back when she was a mere girl of eighty – had firmly decided: It ain’t over yet.
So when can you start pursuing your most creative and passionate life?
You can start whenever you decide to start. ” (p.148, Big Magic)

A few months ago I spent a weekend mentoring teenagers at a camp in Brits, South Africa, and in the early hours of the morning before my cabin was awake and in moments between mealtimes and sessions, I shared stories of my first few months in South Africa with my fellow mentors and new friends. And in December, my husband and I travelled to Durban for the wedding of a dear friend, and in our post dawn walks on the beach or long chats over cups of tea, we continued telling stories of my transition to Joburg and the early days of our marriage. Throughout those conversations, the possibility and importance of chronicling some of these reflections and transition stories into a longer piece of writing was a topic of conversation – I was convinced that my story wasn’t interesting enough to be told (and that I didn’t have the ability to tell it in any case) but my husband and the friends we were speaking to felt otherwise.

For me, the word writer conjures up someone armed with an MFA, proper published writing credits to their name, a dedicated writing practice, no troubles with procrastination, natural talent, ideas that bubble forth constantly and an understanding of semi-colons.That description does not fit me, and so although the act of writing fills my heart with joy it has always seemed inaccurate to think of myself as a writer, and I’ve never felt like writing a longer piece of work is something I could do.

Despite this, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why and how we tell stories and why we write, and how to know when you should and indeed can, tell a particular story. As part of this thinking, I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear”. (I confess, part of why I read the book was that I was hoping to hear that creativity is an inherent characteristic so that I could win the internal argument I’ve been having with the words of my husband, family and friends about writing, but alas, no such luck.)

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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

Marriage is Walking Together (On Reading the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry)

Marriage is Walking Together (Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town, May 2015)

Marriage is Walking Together (Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town, May 2015)

You’d think walking should be the simplest thing,’ she said at last. ‘ Just a question of putting one foot in front of the other. But it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things that are supposed to be instinctive really are.’
She wet her lower lip with her tongue, waiting for more words.
‘Eating,’ she said at last. That’s another one. Some people have real difficulties with that one. Talking too. Even loving. They can all be difficult.’ (The Unlikely Journey of Harold Fry, p.52)

When I am upset, walking makes me feel better. During the three years I lived in Toronto I always lived downtown, and with the well-lit streets, the heavy pedestrian traffic, and the wide pavements, I always felt comfortable enough to walk. Toronto is a city meant for walking, and walking and public transit were how I moved about the city. Even in the evening when the temperatures were cold, when my thoughts felt knotted or I had had an argument, walking would help me feel sorted again. Joburg is not a very walkable city though, and while it is possible to go somewhere to walk (a field near the gym, or a specific spot to walk for instance) it is not the same as putting your shoes on and walking to where you need to go. I knew I missed it, but hadn’t realized how much until this week. I’m in the Western Cape and it has been glorious to walk for hours on the beach each morning and to be surrounded by ocean, mountains, greenery and white sand without a single soul about. Surrounded by such majesty, I have felt like a tiny speck in the universe, and the things that worry me and preoccupy my thoughts in Joburg have melted away.

Today when I got tired of walking, I sat on the beach, listened to the sound of churning, foaming waves and read a delightful book called “The  Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, about walking and marriage and heartbreak and being human. It was the perfect accompaniment to my morning of movement. The book is about a sixty-five year old man named Harold who has been married to his wife Maureen for the last forty-seven years, and begins with Harold and Maureen having breakfast and Maureen reprimanding Harold about jam. While eating his breakfast, Harold receives a letter from a woman named Queenie Hennessy who worked with Harold twenty years previously, and whom he hasn’t heard from since. She is dying from cancer and has written to say goodbye. Harold writes her a note in response, goes to the mailbox to post it, and passing the postbox, keeps on going. He doesn’t stop, and when he’s hungry he stops at a garage for a burger where he meets a girl who inspires him to walk to Queenie in Berwick – Upon – Tweed to help Queenie live. Despite the fact that that is not how cancer works, and that the distance is more than 500 miles, Harold keeps going. He isn’t fit, he doesn’t have the right shoes (he is wearing yachting shoes), or a change of clothes, or a mobile phone, or even a bag for that matter (he only has a plastic bag), but still, Harold presses on. His chances of success are unlikely and he should go home, but he doesn’t. His wife Maureen is startled, and then irritated, and then misses him dreadfully, and this book is about his journey and how it changes him, those closest to him and in turn changes the world. It is a marvellous, marvellous read, and after I was done I sat in silence, the book and characters still with me, and tried to absorb the lessons of the book into my being. Here are some of the things that I took away from the read.

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On Family, Marriage and African Reads

Durban, June 2015

Durban North Beach, June 2015

“I never understood it before, when people said love leaves one feeling vulnerable.” (Wanner, London – Cape Town – Joburg)

One of my goals after moving to South Africa has been to read more literature set on the continent, and in particular, to understand Joburg better through reading stories about and located in the city. In October I read Onion Tears by Shubnum Khan and Riding the Samoosa Express edited by Zaheera Jina and Hasina Asvat and I spoke about my experiences reading both books on the Seriously Planning audio stories series.

“They’d loiter in the hall, outside the half-open door, giggling softly, whispering loudly to attract his attention, then peer in to see if he’d look up from reading his peer-reviewed journal, which he wouldn’t to teach them. It was a logically flawed experiment. He’d have told them if they’d asked. His devotion to his profession kept a roof over their heads. It wasn’t comparative, a contest, either/or, job v. family. That was specious American logic, dramatic, “married to a job.” How? The hours he worked were an expression of his affection, in direct proportion to his commitment to keeping them well: well educated, well traveled, well regarded by other adults. Well fed. What he wanted, and what he wasn’t as a child.” (Selasi, Ghana Must Go, p.47)

The Seriously Planning bookclub pick in November was “Ghana Must Go” by Taiye Selasi.  This novel revolves around the story of the Sais, a family in which the father Kweku dies in Ghana, several years after he abruptly leaves his family. The repercussions of his actions can be felt for years, and his departure impacts each member of the family differently. The book is about how his death brings his family together once more and our bookclub conversation revolved around the book’s ideas of family and love and masculinity and marriage and commitment and failure and cowardice. Why doesn’t Kweku as a father and husband speak openly about his fears and failures? How and why do the unspoken agreements and sacrifices of a marriage chip away at its foundation? What are the stages of love in a marriage, and if love is not enough to sustain a relationship, what ensures the success and survival of a family? Kweku’s wife Folasade gave up her dreams and goals of law school so that Kweku could pursue medicine, and the exchange of her sacrifice for his success is too much weight for their marriage to handle. When his success crumbles, he takes steps that result in their marriage crumbling as well. It was a rich and vibrant conversation, and I’m so glad we were able to discuss the book in a community space. Reading transforms when it turns from a private to a public activity, and I love the bookclub because it allows me to strengthen my own understanding of what I read through hearing the insights of others.

“Sadness, tension, absence, angst, – but fine, as she birthed them, alive if not well, in the world, fish in the water, in the condition she  delivered them (breathing and struggling) and this is enough. Perhaps not for others, Fola thinks, other mothers who pray for great fortune and fame for their young, epic romance and joy (better mothers quite likely; small, bright-smiling,hard-driving, minivan mothers), but for her who would kill, maim and die for each child but who knows that the willingness to die has its limits.
That death is indifferent.
Not she (though she seems), but her age-old opponent, her enemy, theirs, the common enemy of all mothers — death, harm to the child – which will defeat her, she knows.
But not today. (Ghana Must Go, p.100)

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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.

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On Learning Through Stories and Reading “Us” by David Nicholls

V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Thinking about the distance to Canada, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Seriously Planning has always been a reflection of my life and experiences. Over the past few years the blog has helped me think through questions of identity, faith, urbanism and personal growth as I’ve lived in both Toronto and Vancouver for graduate school, work opportunities, and to be closer to my family. Recently I’ve been thinking about/have been curious about how the blog will change over the next year, because in late April 2015 I got married (and moved) to Joburg, the city of my best friend. We’re both Canadian, but my husband is South African as well, and our beautiful, multi-day wedding with family, friends, prayer, laughter, food and gratitude are days and moments of memories that I will hold in my heart for a long time to come.

As we’ve joined our lives together in the weeks and days since the wedding, I’ve been reading a book that I picked up in London on my way to Joburg called “Us” by David Nicholls. It’s a wonderful, touching, tender, moving book, with complex characters, humour, suspense and just so much heart, and it’s been the perfect backdrop to the beginning of our shared path. We’ve both been thinking a lot about what it means to partner, to move across the world to another country, city, culture and community, to transition and to blend our individual histories, backgrounds and experiences together to God willing, make a culture of our own, and reading this book has been a wonderful way for me to process my own thoughts. Continue reading

Dearest It’s Cold Outside


It was my last day at United Way Toronto this week (proper reflections coming soon, but an audio story of my reflections about building strong personal relationships above) and while my heart has felt warm and overflowing with love over all the goodbyes, it’s been cold and snowy outside. And each time I trudge through the slushy sidewalks/snow I think of people in Toronto who are homeless, and how though shelters exist, nearly 50% of homeless people who use Toronto’s shelters and meal programs have a monthly income of less than $500. On a limited income, often winter necessities are simply beyond the budget! If you are able, I highly recommend checking out the UWT Warmest Wishes gift catalogue. Through the catalogue, you can send a gift of a coat, boots, meals or more, and if you get a gift by December 24th, the P and L Odette Charitable Foundation will match your gift! Definitely something to look at and consider over the holiday season.