Finding My Truth in Fiction

By the time I reached graduate school in 2004, my love of reading was not only dead, but putrified. The weight of five to ten books a week provides enough pressure to kill that joy. But to think of it, the joy of reading fiction died a slow and painful death from 1993 to 2003 during my long years trying to finish my undergraduate degree. From 1998 to 2001, I was too preoccupied with getting out of my rut as a college drop out to think about imagining the past, present, future, or alternative worlds through someone else’s eyes. As a waitress I worked double shifts and I was lucky if I had two days a week off. As a temp and admin assistant in various companies in Silicon Valley, I was often studying non-fiction books, even some motivational and popular psychology books. As a telephone operator and retail sales associate in a computer store, I was just too saturated with techno mumbo jumbo to pick up a good piece of literature. When started school in 2001, I spent most of my time playing catch up with the privileged kids at Santa Clara. I couldn’t relax and enjoy something like a book because that was too indulgent. There were no lazy Sundays reading, just crazy weekends trying to start a project far in advance or figure out how to get to graduate school. I did read novels while in school, but those were for required reading for courses. Usually I had just a night to read them. There was never time to enjoy them when I had to plow through so much material.

Since I’ve been free from indentured servitude, I have had a chance to read for my own personal enrichment. I’ve even enjoyed reading and re-reading books I’ve assigned my students in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade literature. To balance life out, I started new hobbies and revisited old ones–such as reading. Now that I have a few week off before another summer camp, I have a few weeks to indulge. Then we have about a month break till school starts again. But it will be Ramadan and I am going to focus on Quran, seerah, and Islamic texts. Now I can take a bit of a break, close my lap top, leave Hulu or netflix to turn pages.

I began reading again last year, it was an awkward slow start with Chung Kuo. Too bad all the novel’s females were merely receptacles for sperm. I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. I read Paul of Dune, but was really irked by the trend in science fiction writers to basically annihilate all people of color. In Chung Kuo, Chinese ruled the world, and of course, a white protagonist seemed bent on bringing it down. Why should I be interested in their white washed futuristic universe where I can’t possibly exist? Of if I did, I was part of what Tolkien describes as the swarthy masses. My husband reminds me that sci-fi and fantasy books, are just that–fantasy. And many white authors’ fantasies seem to be a world where there are no brown people. Likewise, the vampire books remind us that to be tragic and sexy, you have to be really really really pale. My husband took a writing course, where his classmate described a young white woman’s breasts being dragged in the forest as white and pure like bleating sheep or some nonsense like that. My husband pointed out that if the young author ascribed a value of innocence and purity to her whiteness. He asked him how would he describe a young woman’s purity if she had been a woman of color. This is in 2010, and I’ve already had my fill of classic literature in which the beauty of a woman rests on the absolute lack of melanin in her “pure” and “fair” skin. While I have steered away from Fantasy and Sci-fi, as an English teacher I can’t steer away from the English canon. That is why I’m trying to balance out the so-called classics with authors who I share some mutual history, religious, and commonality. Maybe even some of the authors affirm who I am, reflecting some of my truths as opposed to obliterating my humanity. That’s why I’m leaning more towards African American writers like Octavia Butler and writers from Muslim societies like Orhan Pamuk.

Currently Reading

  • Their Eyes are Watching God
  • The Road to Mecca

Books I’ve enjoyed reading with my students this past year

  • Othello
  • Anthem
  • The Crucible
  • Beloved
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • The Bread Givers
  • Taming of the Shrew
  • MacBeth
  • MidSummer Night’s Dream
  • Things Fall Apart
  • Hamlet

Books I’ve recently read on my own

  • The Translator
  • The Yaqoubian Building
  • Paul of Dune
  • The Kite Runner
  • Dracula
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Road
  • Angela’s Ashes

Summer Hit Reading List by Muslim Authors

  • Bensalem Himmich. The Polymath
  • G. Willow Wilson. Butterfly Mosque
  • Ilyasah Shabazz. Growing Up X
  • Radwa Ashour. Granada
  • Alaa Al Aswani. Chicago
  • Amin Alouf. Samarkand
  • Orhan Pamuk. The Black Book
  • Orhan Pamuk. My Name is Red
  • Leila Aboulela. Minaret

I look forward to reading more fiction by Muslim writers. Note that I call it Muslim fiction, rather than Islamic. There is a growing area of Islamic literature, where the purpose is to edify religious values. But Muslim fiction, may or may not do so. Often there is a cynicism and challenge to authority (especially religious authority), as opposed to the ideals of Islamic fiction. I find both forms of fiction extremely valuable and they speak truth to the experiences of the authors. I recognize however that there is a gap in the literature. Surveying the list of American Muslim fiction, I realize that there is a dearth of material written about the experience of Black American Muslims. A lifetime ago, I was a creative writing major in community college. I wanted to tell stories that weren’t told. So I wrote stories about two graduate students in different countries uncovering a multi-generational family history in Andalusia and Morocco. I wrote about an intercultural friendship between two women that opens the door for one of the women to begin a courtship with the other’s brother. I wrote about an unrequited love. I wrote about women who were beautiful in hijab. I wrote…I wrote…. and I wrote. One day I gave up writing, because I didn’t think I’d ever make it to the places I imagined. Looking back after so many years have passed, I realize that have been to so many of those places. And the places I want to go are within reach. Perhaps I should remind myself of the parable of the sower. Some of my students are talented writers. I hope to encourage the future generation of writers, as well as inspire myself to begin weaving my own complex tapestries of thought. Maybe together, we can spin tales that reflect our world view, build on our experiences, and speak to our hopes. Maybe we can find truth in our fiction, participating in a cultural production that says “We are here and we’ve done something beautiful.” We just have to sow those seeds so that one day they can bear fruit.

Imitation of Life

If only to crystalize it,
Shattering that mustard seed
with so many promises
That leave only a bitter taste.

Dissolved in a sea of hostility
The buoyancy of being invisible
While searching for meaning
In the irrelevance of one who relinquished
This imitation of life.

Inspired by:

Rima Fakih and the Issue of Muslim Heritage

It’s taken me a while to make a statement on the issue. Out of the many reasons why, the one that stands out the most is that American Muslims tend to condemn non-practicing Muslims. Although the numbers of practicing Muslims is lower than we’d like to admit, many American Muslims are not willing to admit that a woman without hijab also has a place in our community. And often, they can represent our community in different ways, then say a practicing Muslim woman who wears full hijab and doesn’t mix with men.
From Mis-Represented to Miss USA: Muslims Applaud Rima Fakih, 2010 Pageant Winner

Muslims in America woke up to some happy news today – the new Miss USA is Muslim! Rima Fakih of Dearborn, Michigan, is a Lebanese immigrant whose family celebrates both Muslim and Christian faiths, according to the Associated Press. Last night, she made history by winning the Miss USA 2010 crown.

“What a breath of fresh air for the Arab American community, to have Rima Fakih named Miss USA 2010,” said Linda Sarsour, Director of the Arab American Association of New York, to elan. “This is only a testament that Arab and Muslim American women too are strong, intelligent, beautiful and competitive.”

“This is historic,” said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to the Detroit Free Press. “This shows the greatness of America, how everyone can have a chance to make it.”

So many people were obsessed about Rima as a new Muslim celebrity who could open up discussions about Islam. But I wonder why the Arab community never backed some prominent women in the media who also have Muslim heritage. I have some important questions: What if Rima Fikah came from an African American Muslim family in some place like Philly? Would the American public, let alone the Muslim community, have been so forgiving about the pole dance? Would altMuslimah and Muslimah Media watch feature articles saying that her victory was a sign that Muslims were part of America too or that she could open up discussions about Islam? Could these women of African descent and Muslim heritage create a chance for discussion about Islam and American Muslim’s place in this society?

Do we buy Eve’s albums and celebrate her as the first lady of Muslims in Hip Hop? Did we watch her show or bring her up in discussions with friends to show them that Muslims are just like everybody else?

Did we watch and support Fatima Siad who made it to 3rd place in cycle 10 of America’s Next Top Model? She was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. Did this start off discussions about the diversity of the immigrant Muslim community?

Or what about an even more famous Somali American? Do we consider her status as super model as a sign that Americans accept Muslims?

Do we Love that Girl! Who has Afro-Panamanian and Indo-Trinidadians descent? Does her family history spark an interest in the Indian diaspora and the role of Islam in the Caribbean, in addition to Caribbean Americans?

Do we watch and support Laila Ali, in her professional Boxing matches? Better yet, did we vote for her on Dancing with the Stars? She the daughter of one of the most iconic figures of African American Muslims, Muhammad Ali. But yet, do we see her strides in sports as reflecting a type of Muslim feminism?

I had two problems with the discourse on Rima Fakih and Miss USA: first, my Arab peers who expected me to celebrate this as a Muslim victory that demonstrates we Muslims are part of America too; and second, the Muslims who expected me to be angry because a Muslimah should not parade around in a bikini. Both stances assumes one thing, that being born into a Muslim family means that you are Muslim. And it also sends a stronger message, that all Arab issues are synonymous with Muslim issues. Often we are too broad in accepting every thing that people with Muslim heritage do as reflecting Islam in general. This is especially the case when it comes to Arab, Pakistani, or Indian Muslims. The women featured above are not seen as reflective of the state of Islam in America.