Literary Reflections @ReadingMuslims on Instagram

The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan

I honestly don’t remember when I purchased this book, or how it ended on my shelf. However, I have a feeling it has to do with the notion, that in fact, my late father did plant a lemon tree in our garden in Palestine and I was drawn to the book. 

I was a bit skeptical when I began reading, not really sure what kind of view I would get on the Palestine/Israel scenario, but I must say the book is a beautifully written nonfiction narrative, and it is very well-sourced. The notes on the book and its bibliography are about a quarter of its pages.

Tolan does a phenomenal job of telling the story of the Khairi family, who were expelled from their home in the Ramla during 1948. The family were exiled into Ramallah, a town 47 km away from their home. The Khairi narrative is juxtaposed against the story of the Ashkenazi family, a Bulgarian Jewish family who made their way to historic Palestine in 1948 and ended up living in the Khairi home. It’s a narrative of a Palestinian family devastated by dispossession and on the flip side a European Jewish family excited at the prospect at starting over in a new place. 

The narrative documents the relationship built when Bashir Khairi goes back to this home shortly after 1967 war and asks to see the home of his birth, and Dalia, the daughter of the Jewish family allows him and his cousins, to do so.   

The narrative unravels the continued developments between Palestinians and Israelis, 1948, 1967 and so on, the development of the Palestinian Authority, Oslo and the second Intifada. 

All the while the decision of what to do with the Khairi home lost in 1948 and gained by the Ashkenazis is at the background of the narrative. 

This is book is a byproduct of a radio documentary

The Beauty of Your Face, Sahar Mustafah

It took me longer than anticipated to get through this book. 

It’s back to school, and the exhaustion of teaching and mothering in this new, COVID virtual reality is in a new realm.

Beyond that, there were several concepts in the book that were triggering, as a first generation Palestinian-American, educator with several years of service in the Muslim community. 

Here are some of the concepts explored in Mustafah’s book which resonated.

Sisterhood. Afaf was lost until she found a group of friends through her Muslim community that helped her navigate her conflicting identity. I think so many of us find power in our chosen sisterhood. 

*This is a vital concept to engage in as our communities think on creating the needed spaces in our mosques.*  

Complexities of Motherhood. Afaf’s mother experiences trauma that is never resolved and seeps into the family’s lives until the very last page. It allows us to engage in the residual effects of emotional and mental health of a parent, particularly of a generation that tried so hard to blend into a society that was constantly rejecting that attempt. 

It’s hard. It’s hard leaving a homeland, with anticipation of all these wonderful things only to be rejected, and battle poverty at the same time. These struggles turn into a aching yearning for home, which every first generation child has witnessed in their own parents (or adult figure).

Islamophobia. There were moments in the book were I could relate so deeply, because my adult life was shaped in a 9/11 world, and the proclaimed War on Terror. The taunts, the “say hi to Bin Laden” comments, the passive aggressive nature of random interactions. They were all too palpable and heartbreaking. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a resurgence of this anti-Muslim rhetoric globally. 

Writing that has the power to make you think, feel and experience the characters – and continue to think about them days after you’ve finished reading is definitely a read worth considering. 

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones

Letters 

I don’t think there is anything more beautiful or intimate than a handwritten note. Words express themselves in a manner so magical that no electronic screen can convey. 

This is what occurs in An American Marriage. An exchange of letters, within those letters an exchange of hearts in a way that binds souls and peaks minds. I am saddened for the generations that will come who will not know the magic of a handwritten note.

Women

A lingering theme throughout the book. The burden women carry is tremendous, physical, emotional and mental – it falls on our shoulders, and has for multiple generations, and this truth carries through race and nationalities. 

“But more women should be selfish…or else the world will trample you”.  

…I think of another quote that jumped from the pages: 

“THE VAST GENEROSITY OF WOMEN IS A MYSTERIOUS TUNNEL, AND NOBODY KNOWS WHERE IT LEADS.”

There it is – our very existence depends on this vast ability of women to love, give, and heal. The depth of this leads me back to a basic truth in islam, heaven lays beneath the feet of the mother. 

Broken Systems 

Another fundamental concept explored in the novel is the price paid by a broken system, which moves beyond the individual to touch every person in the “bubble”. We’ve been talking about bubbles in this COVID reality in thinking about reach – well, the truth of the matter is, a broken system impacts the individual and  those they love, often in a manner beyond repair. 

This was a beautiful read.  

Helping Children Succeed, Paul Strong

 Book Gems 

From the cover: “…Tough takes on a new set of pressing questions: What does growing up in poverty do to children’s mental health and physical development? How does adversity at home affect their success in the classroom, from preschool to high school? And what practical steps can the adults who are responsible for them take to improve their chances for a positive future?” 

**The economic disparities in US students is growing, more than 51% of American children fall below the federal government’s “low-income” threshold. 

**Increased poverty will continue to escalate the educational disparities between the haves and have-nots. 

**Toxic and continuous stress hinders development, which is quite detrimental to brain development, particularly in early years; this hinders not only academic achievement but a child’s ability to self-regulate both emotionally and cognitively. 

**Warm and responsive parenting and vice versa has the power to alter DNA. 

**”When children are neglected, especially in infancy, their nervous systems experience it as a serious threat to their well-being…researchers have found that neglect can do more long-term harm to a child than physical abuse.”

**Improving a child’s environment will be the most EFFECTIVE tool in early childhood for improving a child’s future. 

**Teaching methods in the United States vs. countries such as Japan. Japan is centered on a problem-solving approach, collaborative work, whereas in the US it is often teacher centered as opposed to student centered. 

**School districts in the US that have adopted student-center approaches that cater to the ever changing markets tend to be in wealthier socio-economic areas. These districts prepare students to go on to the managerial class, whereas higher poverty areas will often have highly teacher centered instruction, rule-following tasks that cater to working class output. 

If you read Robert Reeve’s “Dream Hoarders”, you will want to read this as a companion text. 

The author has a link to the PDF on his website. This is an essential read for all educators and parents. 

Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison

Playing in The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination 

“Nothing highlighted freedom – if it did not in fact create it – like slavery.”

This short and mighty book left my mind reeling in a fantastic way.

In her journey of reading as a writer, Morrison examines classic American writers like Hemmingway and Poe in their creation of what she terms as “American-Africanism”. It is the notion that Blacks are this lingering idea in classic American literature that perpetuates servitude. This fictional creation led to a much larger impact on society, as she so eloquently explains: 

“…cultural identities are formed and informed by a nation’s literature, and that what seemed to be on the “mind” of the literature of the United States was the self-conscious but highly problematic construction of the American as a new white man.” 

Among the linguistic strategies used by these writers to create an omnipresent shadowy Black figure include stereotypes and fetishization. It was the creation of characters which appealed to the negative aspects of humanity as opposed to the positive, but could also serve as a the support for the white character.  

This book will help you reevaluate how you read texts, particularly classical American literature, in its formation of identity in relation to the Black persona or as Morrison frames it, “American-Africanism”. 

If you are interested in becoming a more critical reader, and especially if you would like to become a brave writer, this book is for you. 

Salt Houses, Hala Alyan

“It fascinates Manar – not just history in general, with  its empires, collapses, and revivals, but also the faint, persistent echoes that seem to travel through the millennia. land eaten and reshuffled, homes taken – daughters and sons speaking enemy languages, forgetting their own – the belief that we are owed something by the cosmos.”  

Salt Houses captures the essence of fragmentation of what it means to be Palestinian. An intergenerational story weaving through the Nakba of 48’, an exile of a young couple from the mountains of Nablus in 67’ to the oppressive heat of the Gulf, only to flee yet again from war, this time back to Kuwait…and eventually Beirut, with grandchildren in the US. 

The mental and emotional code-switching that encapsulates such exile is taxing, as this reading hung with a constant sense of not-knowing. We don’t know the full story of any one character in the novel. It feels as though it breaks up and moves on to the next character without fulfilling a promise. 

And yet again, is that what it means to be Palestinian? In constant yearning to belong, only to find the land and feel shallow? As Manar, one of the grandchildren does as she finds her way back to her ancestral homeland, Yaffa, unknowingly.  

It’s difficult to perceive. We have a Alia who is the mother found in exile in Kuwait, then again in Amman, becomes a stern figure in the narrative. The question was once posed in a discussion, are Palestinian mothers actually this stern? In a spite of defensiveness I brushed it off – and obviously the we can not generalize at a 100% capacity, what I will say is that settler colonial trauma is real. Losing a homeland, unresolved grief, and the necessity to move on with the mundane routine of life can be exasperating. Palestinian mothers carry that and it’s hard to carry. 

I will say this was a hard read. There is only a glimmer of happiness, overshadowed by severe longing, displacement and emotional detachment. I would read this during the summer, not the short days of fall that are upon us. 

Hood Feminism, Mikki Kendall

I would like to preface this post by saying: from an Islamic perspective, Western feminism has always seemed hollow to me. 

Ok, carry on. 

Kendell solidifies the chasms that exist in Western feminism, White feminism specifically. Why is it that education, hunger, housing, language, and poverty – the elementals of a system that continuously keeps Black and marginalized communities oppressed not at the forefront of the White feminist agenda? 

How can women “lean in” when they do not have the systems in place to get them into the door to begin with? While White feminism is centered on White women reaching professional heights of white men, it does little in elevating the plight of other groups of women, according to Hood Feminism. 

Some highlighted words/phrases to explore: 

  • Adultification
  • Benevolent sexism
  • Colonial patriarchy
  • Misogynoir 
  • Respectability Politics 
  • Code-switch 
  • Corporate feminism 
  • Survival parenting 
  • Accomplice feminist 

Favorite quote from “It’’s Raining Patriarchy” chapter: 

“Despite white feminist narratives to the contrary, there is no absence of feminism inside Islam, the Black church, or any other community. The women inside those communities are doing the hard and necessary work; they don’t need white saviors, and they don’t need to structure their feminism to look like anyone else’s. They just need to not have to constantly combat the white supremacist patriarchy from the outside while they work inside their communities.”

Also listened to her conversation with Marc Hill on Coffee and Books, and this was a snippet that really stood out to me: 

When asked about white liberal feminism, and possible “blind spots” – Kendall mentions this idea of choice. For instance, keeping family in tact was a feminist action in the Black community because her great grandparents were born into slavery and wouldn’t be able to stay together. The mere act of maintaining familial ties could be interpreted in the Black sense as a feminist notion.  [Whereas marriage in the White feminist paradigm might seem to be giving up some sort of freedom, the choices presented to both groups differ, spelling out varying degrees of feminist implications].

A Place of Refuge, Asmaa Hussein

@Readingmuslims on Instagram

Vulnerability is that scab you are so tempted to peel but you know your wound has not healed. If you peel back that thin layer of skin covering the wound, you don’t know who will scold you for being so impatient, who will look away in disgust and who will try to help you heal?

Asmaa Hussein does a phenomenal job in peeling away the layers of vulnerability that makes it ok for us to just have our feelings. It’s ok to acknowledge trauma in your life, it’s ok to be angry, sad or Hod forbid imperfect in this mirage of social media perfection; but the most important point is not getting stuck in those emotions. The vehicle of motion throughout it all is Allah (swt). 

Asmaa Hussein brings you back to Allah (swt) even if you’ve been shying away because of whatever baggage of shame, guilt or hurt you are carrying. She grounds her gems in the words of Allah (swt) and the ahadith. She makes it click.

There is something about exposing your vulnerabilities to Allah (swt) that give you strength in surrender. And once you surrender to God, the layers of fear of human judgement seem so trivial and are removed as an impending burden. She makes the reader feel as though you are standing somewhere between heaven and earth.

A Place of Refuge was my Eid day read, it is a book I see myself coming back to again. 

Mornings in Jenin, Susan Abulhawa

Susan Abulhawa 

I am a firm believer of placing yourself in spaces that elevate your creativity. In an increasingly chaotic world the space you curate for yourself can be the difference between sanity and well, insanity. 

Here are a few gems from the conversation with Susan Abulhawa author of Mornings in Jenin.

On reading: book clubs are a radical space where social transformation can occur. Abulhawa recognizes the power of the reader, yes, you and I are powerful because a book only comes alive in the hands of the reader. How we engage with the narrative, and also the conversations centered around the novel are powerful experiences.

On fiction: the novel in span of of the Palestinian experience can be a path to decolonization. 

On fiction [continued]: On the flip side of the above narrative fiction can also be used to “colonize native minds”.  I was jumping out of my seat when this part of the conversation came to light because I remember reading a novel which left me seething for months because it capitalized on the White narrative of Palestinian society. 

On writing: did you know Abulhawa was a scientist before becoming a writer? I didn’t. In any case, as a writer, your loyalty is to the characters not the reader during the process.  

Thank you to @sofia_reading and Leeds Lit for a wonderful evening (it was early evening US time and a lot later across the pond!). 

We Are Not Here to be Bystanders, Linda Sarsour

Sometimes we choose the book, and other times the book chooses us. This was the case for Sarsour’s memoir, which has been on my TBR stack since its release and it beckoned now. 

Sarsour chronicles her life growing up between Brooklyn and her ancestral homeland in Palestine, like many first-generation Palestinian-Americans, summers spent reveling in the beauty of aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors abroad. 

Navigating a first-generation narrative is one challenge, growing up working in her father’s bodega and going to a heavily policed high school is one narrative, but add the complexity of the horrific events of 9/11 to the mix and it completely changes the path of her life choices. 

In reading this memoir you get a glimpse of the civil rights activist and the motivating factors that sustain the work. If you’ve done any type of community work, you know it can be draining and not easily sustained because it can suck the life out of you.  

Reading moments in the book where giants of the Civil Rights Movement, Harry Belefonte and the late John Lewis pass forward the torch of civil rights activism, extending it in time and space to a Palestinian-American Muslim woman. Not only is it humbling and a clear indicator of the necessity for intersectionality in justice work. In her musings on intersectionality, I couldn’t help think to Angela Davis’s collection of essay “Freedom is a Constant Struggle”, systems of oppression are interconnected and in order for them to unravel we must address the interconnectivity. 

Beyond the social justice work, we see a glimpse of an ordinary woman struggling with working-mom guilt (who can relate?) and keeping the greater good at the forefront of her consciousness. 

I would highly recommend this memoir to the American-Muslim community and beyond. It highlights the staggering difficulties of our community and the story of a woman trying to reclaim our position in this country. 

The Runaways, Fatima Bhutto

I recognize when I read books, I’m versed not in commentary on their writing style but how the book helps me evaluate the world in which I live. Good writing will help you move your mind outside of your familiarity. 

Bhutto’s The Runaways is one of those books that had me thinking about my first generation experience, the pressure that came with being a child of immigrants and the expectations. 

The Runaways had me thinking of how Islam is relayed to our children – whatever pressure we may put on them, ingraining faith – but are we doing it in a manner in which fosters love for the deen that they will hold onto beyond our authority?

Bhutto doesn’t say any of these things but the story of Monty, Layla and Sunny all weave these thoughts, just as we are weaved into their lives. 

The Runaways had me thinking of the depth in which longing to belong will push an individual to the edge of the earth. 

If you haven’t read this book already, do so and let me know if it inspires the same conversation within your mind. 

The Pianist of Syria, Aeham Ahmad

This book is everything and more. The news of refugees pouring out of Syria during the [now failed] revolution broke our hearts.

This story chronicles Aeham Ahmad, you may remember his viral photo, sitting amidst the devastation of Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria while playing the piano. In this memoir he chronicles his journey from humble beginnings in Syria, his blind father adamant on having him learn the piano (even against all socio-economic odds), to his journey through Syria, Turkey, the Mediterranaan Sea, Greece and eventually Europe.  

Mass media continues to dehumanize refugees, but fails to identify the devastation people are fleeing. Recently, the issue of refugees resurfaced and @sofia_reading posed the question, what we wouldn’t do to protect our children, our loved ones? This book chronicles the horrors of the Syrian revolution, the stifling failed regime, the militant groups that literally starved out Yarmouk. The double tragedy of Palestinian refugees in Syria, the cruel joke of history recreating their flight, yet again from another country – moving them further away from their homeland. 

Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Angela Davis

This book is a collection of speeches Davis has done all over the world and an interview by Frank Barat via email. This was a read sitting on my unread pile for a while now, I was encouraged to pick it up in light of the current events in the United States centered around the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Through her speeches Davis examines the need for intersectionality within freedom movements including BLM and Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. Some of the gems taken away as I flip through my notes include: *there is a direct correlation between the demands of prison abolition and quality education, health care, etc.; the individual acts of racism are not necessarily about the person per say but about deeply engrained, systemic violence. “…this is why it’s important to develop an analysis that goes beyond an understanding of individual acts of racism and this is why we need demands that go beyond the prosecution of individual perpetrators”. 

She speaks to the notion of bringing freedom movements together in solidarity because oppressed people are inherently interconnected – the systems that keep people oppressed are definitely interconnected. For instance, she cites G4S, the third largest private corporation in the world. G4S is a “security services” company responsible for building the wall along the US-Mexico border (something that existed before the current administration) and the apartheid wall in the West Bank. The profiteering from the international prison industrial complex is mind boggling and clearly solidifies the entanglement of solidarity movements. 

“I think we have to engage in an exercise of intersectionality. Of always foregrounding those connections so that people remember that nothing happens in isolation.”  

Throughout the book I though deeply on the role of the Palestinian diaspora in the freedom and occupation of Palestine. Is there more to do? Certainly. I also think back to the moment in a group conversation with individuals from the Navajo Nation, who visited Palestine at one point and the young lady said “I would give my last breath for the liberation of Palestine”, and I remember thinking in that moment, how many Palestinians in the diaspora are willing to say the same in solidarity and action with other marginalized groups? It’s a tough question to ask but is required as we think about the interconnectedness of oppressed groups globally. 

The Cyber Effect, Dr. Mary Aiken

You think you know, but you really don’t. This is how I feel the more I learn about the impacts technology is having on us as a society, and more so on the generation that was born into a hyperconnected world. 

The impacts are tremendous, what kids are exposed to on the internet, and also – how it is rewiring our brains, adults and children alike. 

As an educator, I was blown away by the concept of “digital hangover”. Something I’ve seen in my middle and high school classes over the years and I now have a label for this epidemic. 

Here is an excerpt on the “digital hangover” phenomena: “…a teacher in Norther Ireland described young students who were allowed to play computer games excessively before bed arriving to class the next day with what you might call a “digital hangover”, and attention spans “so limited that they might as well not be there”. 

As a parent, the implications are alarming. Particularly during this entire COVID pandemic where I feel I’ve lost control over technology use in our home. it’s frightening to think as a parent we can feel a false sense of security because our children are physically in front of us – but what they have access to on their devices are worlds they can reach without leaving the front door. 

The blessings of technology are phenomenal, however, we can not continue to blindly consume it in a way that is reshaping our social dynamic.