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.
Here are a few shots from my recent short but fulfilling visit to Istanbul.
Whenever I'm going to visit somewhere new, I like to try and learn about the culture, history and language of the place beforehand. This way, I can better understand the significance of the places I visit in their cultural and historical context and connect a little with the local people by trying to use their language (even if it's just a couple of words). Not to mention one of my pet peeves is tourists who go to a place without making any effort to learn basic phrases and expect the locals to speak English. 😒 To this end, I look for books (fiction and non-fiction) based in the country/city and documentaries and fit in as many as possible before travelling.
What do you do to prepare for a trip to a new place? Do you like to learn about it before you go?
My recent visit to Istanbul was quite last minute so I didn't get much opportunity to learn beforehand. Here is what I managed:
1) The Caliph (documentary by Al Jazeera English), from which I got an overview of the Ottoman Empire,
2) WWI Throught Arab Eyes (documentary by Al Jazeera English), which covered (amongst other things) the relationships between Turkey and the Arab and Western worlds in the pivotal decisions made in WWI,
3) The Birds Have Also Gone by Yashar Kemal (novella), based in Istanbul with a strong sense of place - to find out more, listen to my (spoiler-free) mini-episode about this book here,
4) The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1600 by Halil İnalcık, a detailed account of social, economic and political aspects of the Ottoman Empire during its growth and peak.
On Saturday, I attended the Literature Must Fall day of talks and performances at Impact Hub in Birmingham. The overarching theme was described as "decolonising literature" and the speakers came from a range of backgrounds. It was quite an intense and thought-provoking day and I'm glad I decided to attend, alhamdu Lillah. However, this post is not really about the day as much as it is about the feelings and decision it brought to the surface for me and, in particular, with regard to Book Nomad podcast.
Allah is the best of planners and the timing for this event in the context of my intellectual and emotional state was impactful, to say the least. I had just finished reading The Good Immigrant the day before and I had been discussing ideas of identity and the discourse around it in the UK with a few people on Instagram for a while. There was starting to emerge a feeling that there was something about it all that didn't quite feel right. On the day, I heard and saw discussions on the various topics around culture, belonging, nation, race and the like, all interesting in one way or another. I took a few notes, I asked myself some questions, I tried to consider the various perspectives put before me. It was all in a literature festival day's work.
Then it came to the session entitled "Muslims, Resistance, Writing". To be honest, I hadn't put any particular focus on this event and went into it with same expectations as the previous talks. The only factor that differentiated it from the others was that I knew Asim Qureshi (@thebookslamist) was one of the panelists - I believe he is how I came across this event in the first place - and I enjoy his reviews here on Instagram so I was curious to see what he would have to say.
I was not ready. I was not ready for the realisations that would hit me one after another as I sat there listening to a panel of Muslims speaking about literature, identity, belonging, purpose and more and putting Islam at the centre. This may or may not seem like an obvious occurrence to you on a panel full of Muslims (and let me know in the comments whether it is - I'd really like to know), but in those moments, before that mixed audience, when one panelist told an audience member that one of the ways to solve a societal problem facing Muslims is to live Islam completely (I'm paraphrasing - I was too involved to take notes) and another used hadiths and ayahs confidently and naturally as motivators for speaking truth and establishing justice (paraphrasing again), I realised what I had been missing.
I also realised what I had subconsciously been holding back. When I started this podcast, my intention was to be that voice. I wanted to vocalise what I was sure other Muslim readers and listeners thought when they read a novel, but didn't hear expressed confidently and publicly. I wanted to be that space that allowed them to explore their reading and world through the lens of their faith, that validated their perspective, and that then encouraged us all to ask new questions and challenge the internalised beliefs and ideologies that might be holding us back. Watching that panel discussion, I realised that fear and an unfounded need to appeal to a wider audience meant I haven't been achieving that goal as well as I could. I realised that there are already other people out there who can talk specifically about these topics from a different perspective, but it is the Islam-centred approach that I am interested in and that I don't see very often around me, so that is what I should be focusing on.
As I write this, I realise it may sound like there are huge changes coming. I don't think that will be the case. Most of my reading and study of literature has taken place in a very secular setting and the discussions on the topic that I absorb today are generally very secular; that's a hard habit to kick. Also, an Islam-centred approach doesn't mean quoting hadiths every five minutes; it just means that the discussion is founded on the values that Islam lays out and the way they impact my view of the world and life. My hope is mainly that I can reduce the self-censorship that I have been imposing from time to time for fear of contradicting mainstream views and allow myself to be my everyday Allah-worshipping, question-asking, fiction-loving self, perhaps with a little less self-doubt.
If you have any suggestions for the podcast or comments on improvements you think I could make to the podcast, whether to achieve the above goal or in general, I'd really appreciate them. As you can see, this is an ongoing learning journey for me and I hope it can only get better, in sha Allah.
As I mentioned in my review post about ظهور الصغير جن, I had some trouble finishing it, for reasons you can find in that post. However, I think one of the reasons I couldn't give up on it is because it was the first full-length fiction book I had attempted to read in Arabic and if I didn't finish this I didn't want to know what my self-doubt would have to say!
I left this book for a while after buying it because I was scared. The thought that kept tickling the back of my mind was fear that I would start it and find it so difficult to understand that I wouldn't be able to finish it AND I'd be put off attempting any other Arabic fiction book for the foreseeable future. What a dramatic corner of my brain that is!
As it turned out, once I sidestepped that doubt monster and opened the book I found myself at ease within a few pages, alhamdu Lillah! That's not to say that there wasn't the odd word I didn't understand, but I was able to use the old guess-from-context trick to get by and very quickly found myself reading the book almost as though it was in English.
Now, I'm not saying that every book we attempt to read in a second language, or one we are still learning, will be this easy. I'm certain it won't (and the fear of my next Arabic book is looming in that corner of my mind already). But it showed me that unless I try I won't know what I can achieve. And the more I do it, the more I will be able to read more challenging books next time!
I also learned that manga or graphic novels are definitely a good first step for reading in a language we are not entirely comfortable with.
Do you struggle with reading in some languages more than others? Are you learning a language and hesitating to dive into using it with fiction? Tell me in the comments which language and what you're scared of. Maybe we can work through it together!
It's been at the back of my mind that the first anniversary of my starting Book Nomad must be round about now. I remember starting it, then very quickly finding myself having to record in Ramadan and thinking, "hmm, maybe this wasn't the best timing". Alhamdu Lillah, the timing was perfect because it got me here.
It turns out it was 13th May 2018. One year (and a day) later, I'm still a bit bewildered by the fact that I run a podcast: I offer my thoughts, about complex issues, IN PUBLIC! And on top of that, I ask other people if they would join me to do it!
This is a good opportunity to stop and take a step back, so I thought I'd share a few reflections on my journey so far. I hope they might help you to think about your own journeys.
What I'm learning (it's a learn-forget-relearn process):
What I'd like to work on:
I also want to thank my guests so far who were generous with their time and enthusiasm, added so much value to the discussions and gave me a major boost of confidence in this project: Assia, Houda, Zakia and Sina.
Finally, I want to thank all of you who are so open in sharing ideas, kind when disagreeing and generally supportive. It's a pleasure to share this space with you all. Please forgive me for anything I have or will say that is inaccurate or insensitively worded. I hope you will hold me accountable, in a kind and constructive manner, when this happens, .
I look forward to continuing to grow and learn for another year, or as long as it is beneficial, in sha Allah.
The responsibility of talking about someone else's work and giving our own opinions on it is often on my mind when working on this podcast. It is also a topic that has come up in several conversations I've had recently on Instagram and even in my guest appearance on @sharediversity podcast. It's a challenge and something that we have to consistently keep in mind to strike a balance. Personally, sometimes, I do it well; other times, I'm not satisfied. That's the way it goes! We can only keep trying and be kind to ourselves and others as we do.
There are a few ideas that I try to keep in mind in this regard. I have bookended them with the two I feel are most important and affect all the others in between:
I also start each episode by reciting the prayer of Musa (Moses), which helps me to remember my intention:
رَبِّ اشْرَحْ لِي صَدْرِي وَيَسِّرْ لِي أَمْرِي وَاحْلُلْ عُقْدَةً مِّن لِّسَانِي يَفْقَهُوا قَوْلِي
Lord, uplift my heart, ease my task and untie my tongue so that they may understand my words;
رَّبِّ زِدْنِي عِلْمًا
Lord, increase me in knowledge.
We also touched upon this topic in episode 28 of the podcast, so do listen in on our discussion there.
Do you think about why you comment on books publicly? What techniques do you use to try and give dignity to the book and writer, particularly if you don't necessarily agree with what you've read? Share your ideas in the comments.
Let's try to maintain a reflective, open-hearted and beneficial discussion in the reading community!
I’ve been travelling recently and just got back. One of the benefits for me of travelling is that it disrupts my routine. There are downsides to this, of course; the upside is that it gives me emotional distance which naturally causes me to evaluate habits I’ve got into without realising and become aware of “stuff” I’ve been accumulating.
So I’m currently going through everything I own and deciding what I do and don’t need. It’s such a refreshing, albeit challenging and sometimes slightly painful, experience! I have been doing this for a few years now but I still find things building up anyway.
My process for sorting
1. Have I used this item recently?
2. If I have, is it beneficial?
3. If I haven’t, is it for specific purposes, not everyday use (e.g. occasionwear, certain documents, reference books in a field I will definitely be working with)?
4. If not, is it of significant (< keyword) sentimental value?
5. If not, get rid of it.
6. As I put what I’ve kept away, I ask myself these questions again and get rid of items that fail (there are always a few that trigger the “want want want” response in the first round).
To help myself be ruthless, I remind myself that
1. If I don’t get rid of useless items now, I will have to deal with even more of them later.
2. If I die before sorting it, someone else will have to deal with all this stuff (I’ve seen this happen more than once and it’s brutal for those involved).
3. If I’m not using it, why should I deprive someone else of it when they would benefit from it more? Why am I wasting valuable resources for selfish reasons? (This is the one that works best on me.)
Do you have any other tips?
I recently watched a couple of Japanese and Chinese series because, after reading books from these two countries, I was curious to see what their other media was like. Immediately, I picked up on something that made me smile. It wasn't a heartwarming reunion or a delightful plot twist; it was the sight of a woman entering her house, looking down and removing her shoes.
Some of you may already have realised why this made me smile. For the same reason reading that description probably made you smile too. Because in it you recognise a practice from your own home. This is even more powerful when you so often don't see it. I can't be the only person who has cringed at the sight of someone jumping into bed with their boots on (seriously, how can they do that?)!
Representation takes many forms, but I think these little, almost invisible, actions that we take for granted in our daily lives are my favourite. They may seem like insignificant details, but they add up and stand up against those forces that would erase us.
What little details have you noticed in books or other media that have created that warm feeling of recognition in you?
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.