I don't often accept advance reading copies of books because I already have so many books I haven't read and I don't like to take a book if I'm not fully committed to reading it, especially for free. However, when I was offered I Refuse to Condemn, I had to think twice. I Refuse to Condemn is a collection of chapters by writers from a range of disciplines and experiences centred around the racialisation of national security discourse and practice.
This is a topic that I am deeply concerned about at a theoretical and macro level. As a Muslim living in the UK, I have inevitably been affected by some of the problems and situations explored in this book. I have only read the editor Asim Qureshi's introduction so far; yet, in those few pages, I have already found familiarity in the scenes described. However, in terms of personal experience, I think it's something I try not to think about. My general approach is to focus on my own actions, on trying to be a positive member of society and not dwelling on how the antagonism of state policies and attitudes might be trying to pull me back.
When I read the description of this book, though, I decided maybe it was time for me to open that box of avoided feelings and look directly at the psychological and emotional effects of this antagonism. It was my hope that by exploring the thoughts of those who have taken a different approach to this experience, I can understand myself, the experiences of others and the construction of such systems better. I was surprised to read in the introduction that I was not alone in this aspiration, as Asim Qureshi echoes it in his introduction: "Perhaps one of the most surprising things about this volume is the way in which the contributors helped to complicate my own understanding of this deeply difficult subject".
I hope that by reading this book, I will be able to understand my own psychological and emotional responses better, so that I can be more empathetic, constructive and nuanced in the way I deal with this subtle (for me) yet unavoidable aspect of my and many others' present lives.
I Refuse to Condemn is available to purchase in the UK from today, 15th November 2020, and is set to be released on 12th January 2021 in the US, in sha Allah.
Book Thoughts: Are we Getting Caught in Our Own Net(Work)s? (Focus: China: Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan)
Reading time: about 7 minutes.
Waste Tide (荒潮) by Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆), a Chinese sci-fi novel, led me into a genre and a world region that I am not very familiar with in literary terms, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had already read a short story by Chen Qiufan and really enjoyed it: The Year of the Rat in the contemporary Chinese sci-fi anthology, Invisible Planets, edited and translated by Ken Liu (who also translated Waste Tide). I thought that story had strong characters and took the reader on an emotional journey while critiquing the role of the state and media in dehumanising individuals in war situations. In Waste Tide, Chen Qiufan again explores social issues and power dynamics and, although I didn’t feel such a strong connection to the characters, I thought he raised some interesting questions. Chen Qiufan, also known as Stanley Chen, is a writer from SE China who has also worked in tech and maintains relationships with both worlds. He has published a number of novels and short stories, several of which have been translated into multiple languages.
Waste Tide takes place almost entirely on Silicon Isle, a fictional island off China’s south east coast, where electronic waste from around the world is sent to be sorted and recycled. The Mandarin name for Silicon Isle, Gui Yu (硅屿), is a quasi-homophone of the name of a real town near Chen Qiufan’s hometown (贵屿) that was once known as the biggest e-waste site in the world and suffered from extreme pollution and environmental damage. The story follows three main characters: Scott, an American recycling company representative with motives that turn out to be more about American politics and economics; Silicon Isle-born emigrant Chen Kaizong whose emigrant saviour complex transforms into a deeper understanding and sympathy with the people he meets; and Mimi, one of the “waste people”, migrant workers from other parts of China who manually sort through toxic electronic waste every day, hoping to save enough money to go back home and set their families up comfortably.
Chen explores a range of themes in this novel, some more familiar to me than others: social inequality, language as a soclal identifier, emigrant experiences, spirituality, traditions and customs, corruption in government and others. Given my limited understanding of the social and historical context, I know that there were elements of this novel that I didn’t fully grasp. This is not a review, therefore, but an exploration of some of the themes that caught my attention, namely globalisation and consumerism and the human impacts of technological developments.
I am sort of thinking of this as a new year reflections post. It's not really the new year anymore since we're already halfway through Safar, but since I didn't write one at the beginning of the year, I thought I would call it that anyway. This post is more directly the result of a combination of a question asked by Assia (@shereadsox on Instagram) - "what is Bookstagram* to you?" - and a lot of thinking I've been doing recently about Instagram and the way social media influences the conversations I have with people and the podcast itself.
What is Bookstagram to you? This is a question that is a recurring part of my "social media thought cycle", but I have been asking it increasingly frequently recently. I joined Instagram with my podcast account primarily to have somewhere to share new episodes and perhaps have a few interesting discussions. At the time, I had not long started my 2018 Reading the World project and it occurred to me that Instagram might be a great place to find book recommendations by people in different parts of the world that are not limited to the promotions of mainstream UK publishers, bookshops and reviewers.
I have indeed discovered some great books. I have also come across many sincere, passionate, intelligent people on this platform who have shared their thoughts and experiences of reading in many ways and in open, thoughtful discussions. Some of them have also become the most common guests on the podcast and have helped to transform this podcast into an ongoing learning experience for me as well as the listeners, I hope.
On this journey, I’m joined by Safiya as we discuss
Safiya on Instagram: @safiyareads
Safiya's blog: www.safiyareads.wordpress.com
Other books mentioned
Blog posts mentioned
PODCAST: EP. 44. When the Reading Gets Tough, Should the Tough Keep Reading? (Theme: Upsetting Reads)
On this journey, I’m joined by Leïla, Noor and Assia as we discuss
Guests on Instagram
سوار الذهب (or “Gold Ring” in English) is an Emirati manga written by Qais Sedki. It follows Sultan, a 15-year-old boy who lives with his mother in the old town (of Dubai, I assume, but the book doesn’t specify). Although his father passed away a few years earlier, he is a constant presence in Sultan’s decisions and everyday life and leads him to discover his passion and talent. The story starts with the finals of an international falconry tournament, Gold Ring, where Sultan and his friend Ziyad are attempting to sneak in to watch the competition without getting caught, despite the pangs of Sultan’s conscience. This sets off a sequence of events that see Sultan befriend a wild falcon, meet a mysterious and legendary desert-dwelling friend of his father’s and learn to train his new falcon friend, Majd, so he can take part in the next season of Gold Ring. The author’s intentions with this book are made very clear both in his introduction and in the story itself. He wants to use his books to encourage reading among Arab children and impart good morals and character in an "inspiring and stimulating” story. I think this down-to-earth, straightforward intention and execution is part of the appeal for me. His choice of manga to achieve this is significant in the Emirati context where anime, and Japanese culture in general, has been a staple of childhood for several decades, much like many other countries in the Arab world.
In imparting moral messages I think the book is overall successful. There are a couple of places where it is quite explicit, such as when Sultan tells his friend “الخطأ خطأ… و لو لم يُكتشف" (“wrong is wrong, even if you’re not caught”), but I don’t think this is a disadvantage and a child wouldn’t find this distracting. Aside from integrity, the story encourages respect for parents, upholding family ties, hard work and persistence, trustworthiness and the good treatment of animals. This is intimately intertwined with a strong sense of faith and trust in Allah, which is visible in the book and in Sedki’s interviews. I would have enjoyed finding out more about the women and girls in Sultan’s life, as his mother was the only significant female character, but I appreciate that a lot of the story took place in contexts where there would likely be more men and there aren’t many characters in the story anyway. Along with the moral messages, I also sensed a strong nostalgia for the traditional Emirati life, which I was happy to indulge in, in the choice of the old town for Sultan’s home, the pull of the desert and the man-of-few-words character of the desert-dwelling Suroor. The newer developments of the country are only present in passing reference to “the city centre”, which Sultan and his mother have no interest in being part of, and are never seen on the page, except in the modern falconry stadium. This is not to say that this is a story stuck in the past; it is still very much rooted in the present with mobile phones, dune buggies and the stadium, but these are just a small part of an active, organic and meaningful lifestyle. Perhaps in doing this Sedki also hoped to tempt his young readers away from their phones and shopping malls to explore the natural world around them.
A major contributor to creating this atmosphere in a manga is of course the illustrations. Drawn by the well-established Japanese illustrating duo, Akira Himekawa, the Emirati character of the book is taken to new heights and I loved every page of it! Although I haven’t given manga or graphic novels much attention until recently, I could immediately see the enrichment these illustrations brought to the book. Through Akira Himekawa’s drawings we could experience the beautiful simplicity of Sultan’s traditional home and neighbourhood, the majesty of the desert and the impressive Gold Ring stadium, all while maintaining their distinct Japanese manga style. A personal favourite in these drawings has to be the clothes: the Emirati men’s dishdash and ghotra in various styles, the women’s burqa’ and even an Afghani competitor wearing a Pakol hat, which was a lovely surprise! Sultan’s outfit was not always entirely accurate, in my experience (I’ve never seen a ghotra tied like a bandana), but it still somehow portrayed the essence of how a boy playing in the streets dresses. A frame that sticks in my memory most, though, is the simple scene of Sultan greeting his uncle with the Emirati touch of the nose, which is the type of evocative detail that creates truly authentic stories its readers can relate to.
All in all, I think this book would be a valuable addition to a child’s library, whether Emirati or otherwise. It portrays strong examples of characters with integrity, dignity and compassion and encourages a passion for learning and persistence in achieving a goal. Although I felt the end was a little rushed, the story was engaging and otherwise well-paced. While the UAE, and Dubai in particular, is quite popular with Muslim tourists, I felt that this book provided an authentic view of a traditional Emirati lifestyle that most tourists would not be exposed to. It also gives children insight into the traditions and way of life in another Muslim-majority country, which I feel is hugely valuable in inspiring in Muslim children a sense of unity in the Ummah that goes beyond borders and nationality. My dream Muslim child’s library consists of books from across the world portraying the real, everyday lives of children and adults in all its complexity, not just the pretty and not just the struggles, but always with faith and integrity!
Unfortunately, after all that, I have to add that this book is very difficult to find in its original Arabic and so far impossible to find in the English translation. There have been two books written (in Arabic) in this series, but after that it seems to have come to a halt.
Muhammad: Character and Conduct aims, as the title suggests, to explore the personality, attributes and behaviour of the last Messenger and Prophet of Allah, Muhammad, peace be upon him. In his introduction, Salahi adds that he will also address some of the criticisms that have been levelled against the Prophet, although he is quick to note that this is not out of any need to defend the him as he needs no defence. Adil Salahi has written a number of other books, including an 850-page book on the life of the Prophet, Muhammad: Man and Prophet, and a translation of the Qur’an entitled The Qur’an: A Translation for the 21st Century, which aims to offer a clear, accessible text for the English speaker. In this article, I will not be addressing the factual content of the book as, in my ignorance, I have no way of assessing it, but will instead explore my reading experience.
Knowing about his other works when I started reading the present book made clear to me Salahi’s style, which focuses on accessibility of language, and this is evident throughout the 300-page book. The language he uses is very simple and his sentences are generally quite simple too. He even goes to the extent of explaining the meaning of words that most people familiar with the story of early Islam would already understand, such as “hypocrites”. I found that some of the language was a little too casual at times and that there was also some repetition of descriptions of events that could probably be eliminated with a little reorganisation; in a word, Salahi’s work would be done great justice with another check by a proofreader. This didn’t take away from my overall pleasure in reading the book, however, and I think one of the reasons for this was Salahi’s tone.
The introduction establishes an open and honest relationship between reader and writer and the book doesn’t betray that relationship at any point. In his almost conversational tone, he takes us through a summary of the life of the Prophet, then proceeds to focus on the different roles the Prophet played in his life before and after revelation, shedding particular light on the way his character ennobled these roles and his relationships with the many different people and communities he interacted with. He provides footnotes with his sources and occasional extra notes at the end of each chapter and when he presents an idea that is different to the dominant interpretation, he humbly and methodically explains his reasoning. This not only serves to provide the reader with the sources they would need to investigate the matter themselves, but also instills in the reader a respect for critical thinking and logical argument for the sake of upholding the truth of the Prophet’s honourable character and ensuring that we are able to apply justice and good conduct in our own lives. A particularly honest footnote that struck me was one in which he pointed out an argument he had made in his previous book that he had later discovered was incorrect and this only led me to a greater respect for him as a researcher and sincere seeker of truth. The final element of Salahi’s tone that, I feel, makes all the difference in this book is his clear reverence and love for the Prophet, which is apparent on every page.
Before picking this book up, it had been quite a long time since I had read a book on the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him. In the past few years, I have been more inclined towards taking courses or seminars or listening to podcasts on subjects related to Islamic Sciences, which are beneficial in themselves. I also realise that I have been a little distracted by books that explore the way people have applied Islam, whether correctly or incorrectly, in specific contexts (and particularly more recently), and therefore not given due attention to books on more fundamental fields that I need to understand in order to be able look at its application with a more discerning eye. While I read this, I was also reading books exploring oppression and suffering and striving for justice, which only served to further highlight the need for me to return to the basics. Reading this book reminded me of the great value of dedicating ourselves to just sitting down and reading about the Prophet. In the way he lived his life we can find so many of the answers we are seeking today for our own selves, for our families and societies and for the world. May Allah reward the writer, Adil Salahi, and his family for his hard work and the Kube Publishing team for their contribution to English-language Islamic and Muslim literature. May Allah send his peace and blessings on the mercy for all the worlds, the Prophet Muhammad, and his family, companions and followers.
Podcast: Ep. 43. What Does Memory Have to do with Justice? (Focus: Palestine: A Map of Absence, Ed. By Atef AlShaer)
On this journey, I’m joined by Alia and Safiya as we discuss
Book in focus: A Map of Absence: An Anthology of Palestinian Writing on the Nakba, ed. by Atef Alshaer (Palestine)
Find Safiya on Instagram @safiyareads
Contact Alia by email at elbak002 [at] gmail.com
Special thanks to Saqi Books for providing a digital copy of this book.
Palestinian book suggestions
Other episodes mentioned
Other books mentioned
Related resources (not endorsements)
Assalamu alaykum all of you, so generous with your thoughts, sincere with your feedback, kind with your support!
It has been two Gregorian years since I started this podcast (and two Hijri years as of the end of Sha'ban). Alhamdu Lillah for the opportunity to have thought-provoking, constructive, enjoyable discussions on the podcast with some wonderful readers and to share them with you all and continue them online.
Thinking about the point I've reached now in my reading and learning, I can only say that I feel possibly more ignorant than when I started (an ignorance that sometimes leads to a sneaky ego boost, may Allah protect us from ourselves and the devil)! But that is the blessing-in-disguise of learning, isn't it? As they say, the more you know the more you realise you don't know. Perhaps this is a mechanism Allah built into the nature of this world to allow us to stay humble and remember our ultimate fallibility. We will never even approach knowing everything, even if we live for a thousand years. Learning (and by extension reading), then, is an act that requires intentionality like any other. What is our purpose in wanting to learn about the world, about ourselves? Similarly, what is our purpose in reading? With such limited time and mental capacity, what do we want these acts to add to our lives and afterlives?
May Allah guide us all, accept our sincere intentions, forgive our shortcomings and mistakes and bless us with humility and ambition for His sake. May He accept all our fasts and good deeds in this most blessed of months.
I appreciate every thoughtful comment and respectful debate. I hope you will continue to push me in my thinking and tell me when I make mistakes and I hope I can do the same for you, in sha Allah. Thank you all.
I just came across the story of a Uyghur teacher of Islam, writer and translator, Abdulahad Mahsum, who died in a Chinese internment camp after a life of teaching Islam and undergoing serial imprisonment by the authorities. Recently, I've also been reading about the Algerian war of independence (discussed in this episode) and Palestine's history and continued resistance movement. Many of us have also had our attention drawn to the patient perseverance and dedication of doctors in vulnerable situations across the world (not a new phenomenon). Of course, in the month of Ramadan we all have our minds on the greatest role model and hero of all time, the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, along with his family, companions and the many other great prophets and people we are told about in the Qur'an.
All of this has got me thinking about the ideas that so many of us are constantly exposed to about ourselves and the standards we should hold ourselves to:
I'm not looking to make anyone feel bad about the fact that we don't live in a war zone or that we have enough food to eat. All our rizq is written by Allah. Nor am I suggesting that because a lot of us have relatively comfortable lives we shouldn't acknowledge when we feel pain and hurt. But we need to remember that Allah tests us both with hardship and ease. We need to think about how we respond to our situations.
From this perspective, we can see one of the great values of stories: stories of courage; integrity; justice; sacrifice for goodness; sincere love; compassion; dignity; self-reflection; sins, regret and repentance; honour; humility; and more. We can also see the way stories that glorify less aspirational qualities can be disempowering and lead us to hopelessness and lethargy. Stories and history are weapons that can be used for or against us. We need to take hold of them and use them for good.
A question I regularly mull over is the one of Muslim representation in literature (and media more broadly) and particularly the exploration of the imperfect nature of human beings. We are seeing in some parts of the world a rise in stories that revolve around the Muslim who has inherited Islam but does not necessarily aspire to implement Islamic principles or a deep awareness of Allah in their everyday life (and in other contexts this has been a theme for a little longer). As a trend and at a wider level, this is something that raises concerns for me about how it plays into a broader framing of Islam as a cultural identity rather than a comprehensive way of life. However, I can't deny the reality of these people's experiences nor do I want to strip Muslim stories of fallible, imperfect Muslim characters. Perfection is, after all, for Allah. Perhaps the way forward is two-fold. On the one hand, we need to amplify the stories of great Muslims from our past and present - people who through acts of courage and sincerity brought themselves and others closer to Allah (while continuously battling their flaws). At the same time, we should continue to tell the stories of struggle with living our faith while considering the lessons we can learn from them. Let us learn about how to face our own weaknesses, about the factors at play that can lead people to disconnect from the essence of Islam and with a sense of optimism and self-critique that can lead us all to aim higher, to improve ourselves and our communities and to keep the stage set for the continued rise of true Muslim heroes who live their lives in the service of Allah in the way He has taught us.
May Allah accept the heroes, past and present, prominent and less visible, into the highest ranks of Paradise and give us the sincerity, wisdom and courage to aspire to be bearers of light and justice for His sake.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.
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