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 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.

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On the Dangers of Being an Expat

When you move to South Africa, it is easy to constantly compare South Africa with your old home, and to moan about being separated from North American (insert: where you used to live) comforts. Your conversations with yourself and others can easily revolve around the challenges of slow internet, your fears about crime, the stark inequality in the country, the lack of walkable neighbourhoods, the car dependency, the painful bureaucracy. If your attitude is one of continual comparing and contrasting, there is no lack of negative topics that can and will occupy your thoughts.

The danger in such a lens however, is that instead of observing and learning from the place in which you now live, you allow your comforts and discomforts to become the focus of your reflections. Instead of thinking about ways to contribute, you seek to replicate or better your life in your old home and to find spaces that make you comfortable. As a result, the beauty, character, soul, heartbreaks, and stories of your new home remain invisible to you. Your inward focus makes you a poor traveler because the history of the place and the context of the gaps and differences you notice are not as important to you than the differences you mourn.

The danger in having such singular vision is that if your time in a new place is a temporary experience, you may leave your expat experience unchanged by your travels. If your move is a more permanent one, you may never full settle into the curves of your new life.

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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!

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.

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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

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.