Category Archives: religion

A Rainbow in the Night

A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa by Dominique LaPierre, is a fantastic non-fictional history on the region.

Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the nation of South Africa.  For me, the first word that comes to mind when the country is  mentioned is “apartheid”, without really knowing much beyond that. A Rainbow in the Night does devote a great amount of time to the subject of apartheid, and much of the detail is a shocking proof of what human’s are capable of doing to one another, (particularly when driven by a religious sense of entitlement.)

This book surprisingly comes in at less than 300 pages. I say it’s surprising because it seems to cover every inch of South Africa’s very interesting and unique history, (white people came to settle in the area because they wanted to plant lettuce that would be available to crews from spice ships suffering from scurvy.)

Recounting history with names, dates and events can easily become tedious, but LaPierre manages to write an informative book that reads like fiction.

If you want to know more about the country of South Africa, this book is a fantastic choice to give you a well-rounded history very quickly.

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The Groom To Have Been

The Groom to Have Been by Saher Alam

Back of the book:

Just as Nasr, a young man with a vibrant professional and social life in New York, begins to prepare for the arranged marriage he hopes will appease his Indian Muslim family and assure him a union as happy as his parents’, he starts to suspect that his true love has been within his reach his entire life. Nasr has known Jameela since they were children, and for nearly that long she has flouted the traditions her community holds dear. But now the rebellion that always made her seem dangerous suddenly makes him wonder if she might be his perfect match. Feeling increasingly trapped as his wedding date approaches, Nasr contemplates a drastic escape, but in the wake of 9/11, new fears and old prejudices threaten to stand between him and the promise of happiness. Current in its political themes and classic in its treatment of doomed love, The Groom to Have Been is a graceful and emotionally charged debut.

I loved this book. It was hard to put down and unpredictable to the last page. The characters were incredibly well-rounded, the imagery fantastic, and important observations on race, religion and tradition were woven into the fabric of the plot seamlessly. This would make an excellent book club selection for the discussion it would surely encourage.

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Children of Dust

children_of_dust_covChildren of Dust by Ali Eteraz is the gorgeous, thought provoking, hard-to-put-down memoir of a Pakistani-Muslim man who struggles to untangle the difference between religious obsession and peaceful devotion.

The writing is carefully crafted, making a scholarly topic that could easily be lackluster, into a literary masterpiece. The stories from Eteraz’s childhood and difficult youth as he walks the line between American culture and strict religious expectations are touching and the imagery transportive. This is a memoir that anyone of any religion who has struggled to make their faith their own instead of an imposed standard, will be able to relate to.

You don’t have to take my word for it. I’ve been authorized to share the first chapter here. Read for yourself and enjoy.

Chapter I
by Ali Eteraz,
Author of Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan

My mother, Ammi, had just returned from Koh-e-Qaf, where women went when they were annoyed with their husbands. It was far up in the heavens, far beyond the world of men, above the astral planes of the jinns, and hidden even from the angels. Upon reaching Koh-e-Qaf a woman became a parri and congregated with others like her. Then all the parris gathered upon rippling streams and rivers of celestial milk. They bathed and splashed and darted around on rich, creamy froth.

I was just a seven-year-old child living in a tiny apartment in Lahore, Pakistan. I couldn’t get enough of Koh-e-Qaf.

“What happens there?” I asked Ammi. “Please tell me! Please!”

“It’s a safe place where I can gather my thoughts,” she said. “When women go there, we don’t take our earthly concerns with us. We don’t even need our earthly clothes. Allah restores to us the cuticle skin we had when He first created Hazrat Adam and his wife, Havva.”

Ammi said that Koh-e-Qaf was created secretly at the time the universe was made. Allah had asked each one of His creations whether they would be willing to bear the burden of free will. He asked the mountains and they said no. He asked the skies and they refused. He asked the sun and the seas and the plants and the trees and the angels. They all said no. But Adam, the first male — “who took too many risks just like your Pops” — accepted the burden. “And he didn’t even ask his wife what he was getting into!” Upon hearing the news, a chagrined Havva went to Allah and told Him that men would make a big mess of things and “then take out their frustration on their wives.” So, for all the wives of the world, Havva convinced Allah to create Koh-e-Qaf, a sanctuary for all time.

“Then she made Allah give long nails to women so they could remember their special place.”

“That’s not fair,” I said, poking a finger through Ammi’s curly black hair. “I don’t have a special place to go to.”

“You don’t need a special place,” she replied. “My little piece of the moon is more special than the whole world.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“No, I’m not,” she said. “Haven’t you ever thought about what your name means?”

“Abir?”

“Your full name. Abir ul Islam.”

“So what? It’s just a name.”

“Not just a name.”

I shrugged. Compared to intergalactic travel and teleportation and heavenly drinks, my name didn’t inspire much awe.

“Come on,” Ammi said, taking my hand as if she could read the disappointment on my face. “You don’t believe me? Let’s go see Beyji. She will tell you that you are the most special.”

Beyji was my maternal great-grandmother. She lived in a white marble bungalow in Lahore. She was a saint because she had forgiven the woman who used black jadu to kill Beyji’s husband. Beyji regularly met with the Holy Prophet Muhammad in her dreams. One year, during the Night of Power in the month of Ramzan, she got chosen as one of Allah’s elect and saw a glimpse of the Light.

Ammi led me past my grandfather’s room, where he was busy listening to old Noor Jahan recordings, and toward Beyji’s darkened quarters. We went inside and Ammi pushed me toward Beyji’s bed. She wore a floral print shalwar kameez — loose trousers with a tunic top — and had cast a gauzy blue dupatta over her head. Taking my wrist with one hand and holding my chin with the other, she gave me a smile. Her gummy mouth murmured a series of prayers.

“Beyji,” Ammi said. “This one doesn’t believe me when I tell him that he’s special.”

“The most special,” Beyji corrected.

“I told him that his name is Abir ul Islam.”

“Such a beautiful name, isn’t it?”

“He doesn’t think it’s such a big deal.”

“Is that right?” Beyji looked at me for confirmation.

I made my case. “Ammi flies around like a parri and goes to Koh-e-Qaf. I just sit here.” Beyji looked at me with compassion. She pulled a piece of dried orange out from under her pillow and handed it to me. “Come and sit with me,” she invited. “Then ask your Ammi to tell you the story of your birth.”

“What about it?”

“She’ll tell you,” Beyji said.

Ammi sat down on the other bed and rested a cup of chai on the palm of her hand. With two fingers she pinched the cream congealed on the surface.

“When I was pregnant with you,” Ammi said, licking her fingers, “Pops moved to Saudi Arabia for work. When he was there, he went to the Ka’ba in Mecca and made a mannat. Do you know what a mannat is?”

“No.”

“A mannat is like a covenant with Allah. You promise to do something if Allah grants one of your wishes.”

“Like a jinn in a lamp!”

“Except God imposes conditions!” Beyji amended.

“Your father’s mannat was that if his first child was a boy,” Ammi continued, “he would be raised to become a leader and servant of Islam. Are you listening?”

“Yes,” I said, orange sticking out of my mouth.

“Then you were born — a boy — which meant that the mannat must be fulfilled.”

“Are you still listening?” Beyji prompted.

I nodded and adopted the serious expression that their intensity seemed to require.

“So we needed to give you a name that reflected your purpose in life,” Ammi said. “There were many options, but Pops said that your name should be Abir. It means perfume. Full name: Abir ul Islam. Perfume of Islam. You were thus born to spread Islam as if it were a beautiful fragrance. Special, no?”

“It’s just a name,” I said skeptically.

“Ah, but that’s not all,” Beyji said, nudging me affectionately. “Keep listening.”

“Then,” Ammi continued, “right when you were born we moved to Saudi Arabia. When you were barely eleven months old, you and Pops and I went to dohajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca. I dressed you up like all the other pilgrims. You looked so cute wrapped in all white. You had been trying to walk for many weeks, but I swear as soon as we got to Mecca you began walking properly. It had to have been that holy sand. You really took to Mecca. Walking around. Greeting everyone. You even ran away from me in the middle of the night. We were frantic until you were discovered hours later with a pair of Bedouins. It was like you were meant to be there.”

“Did the Bedouins have goats?” I asked, my attention momentarily derailed.

“I think they did,” Ammi said. “Anyway. One night I went to circumambulate the Ka’ba and took you with me. The place wasn’t as crowded at night. There was a long row of Africans walking with their elbows locked like a chain. I stayed behind them until they made their turn and I found myself right at the border of the Ka’ba . . .”

“The House of God,” Beyji said, her eyes shining. “I’ve been there twice in my life. It’s the most beautiful thing in the universe. Astronauts will tell you that the world sits right in the center of the universe, and that Mecca sits right in the middle of the world, and that the Ka’ba sits right in the middle of Mecca!”

“There’s a semicircular wall around the Ka’ba,” Ammi continued. “It was built by the Prophet Ibrahim thousands of years ago. I forget the name of that space, but it’s said that if you pray there, it’s as if you’d prayed inside the Ka’ba. It was peaceful there that night. No one else was in the area. Imagine: millions of people wearing the same thing and chanting the same thing — Labbayk Allahumma Labbayk — all around us, and a mother and son just all alone with the Ka’ba. It was beautiful.”

Beyji interrupted again: “Don’t forget! Mecca was founded by a mother and son, too. At Allah’s instruction, Hajira and baby Ismail were left there by the Prophet Ibrahim. They had no water, so Hajira put Ismail down in the sand to go and find something to drink. While she was gone, little Ismail kicked his feet and the Zamzam spring sprouted from the desert sand. A town was built there when some nomads discovered the spring.”

Ammi nodded and continued: “I had you stand next to me and we made a pair of nafal prayers together. I asked Allah to place Islamic knowledge in your heart and make you a true servant of Islam. Then I removed your clothes, lifted you up, and rubbed your bare chest against the ancient wall — back and forth a few times.”

As I listened to the women, my heart beat fast and my face became warm. I felt connected to this distant place that I didn’t remember. The reverence it elicited in my mother and great-grandmother poured into me.

“Then later, when I was resting,” Ammi continued, “your Pops took you with him. He went to rub your chest against the heavenly Black Stone at one corner of the Ka’ba. He wasn’t able to get to it because it’s always so crowded with people trying to kiss it, but he pressed you against the bare walls of the Ka’ba itself. He made the same prayer I did, about you serving Islam.”

“Subhanallah,” Beyji said and put her hand on my heart. “One day you should go back to Mecca and kiss the Black Stone. It will absorb all your sins. But not yet. Go when you are older. Right now you are sinless.”

I nodded eagerly.

“So,” Ammi said. “Do you believe you are special now?”

I felt as if the entire universe was listening to my answer. God. The angels. Even the parris.

“Yes. I believe you. I believe that I’m special.”

“By the way, did you know that when the Black Stone first came down from heaven it was white?” Ammi said.

“What happened to it?” I asked.

“People touched it and it became dirty,” she said.

I imagined billions of hands touching a large, egg-shaped crystal over thousands of years and gradually making it black. Suddenly I pulled away from Beyji and stood up in the center of the room, feeling proud and powerful.

“I will take a towel and make it white again!”

Beyji kissed my hand and told me that I would be Islam’s most glorious servant.

***

The above is an excerpt from the book Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan by Ali Eteraz. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan

Author Bio
Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan, was born in Pakistan and has lived in the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the United States. A graduate of Emory University and Temple Law School, he was selected for the Outstanding Scholar’s Program at the United States Department of Justice and later worked in corporate litigation in Manhattan. He is a regular contributor to True/Slant; has published articles about Islam and Pakistani politics in Dissent, Foreign Policy, AlterNet, and altMuslim; and is a regular contributor to The Guardian UK and Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language daily. His blog in the Islamosphere received nearly two million views as well as a Brass Crescent award for originality. Eteraz has spoken publicly about the situation inside Pakistan, Islamic reform, and Muslim immigration. He currently divides his time between Princeton, New Jersey, and the Middle East, and is working on a novel.

For more information please visit www.alieteraz.com.

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When you lie about your age, the terrorists win

lieaboutageComedian Carol Leifer shares wise and witty lessons about life in her autobiographical new book, When you Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win: Reflections on Looking in the Mirror.

Leifer talks about everything from sweet, loving memories of her father and growing old gracefully, to an obsession with dog adoption and a mid-life surprise team switch to lesbianism.

If you’re Jewish or have Jewish relatives, (particularly with roots in New York), you’ll especially appreciate some of the humor that seems to be part of our blood.

Leifer comes across as the real deal – a genuine person who has come to fully appreciate everything in life and is generous enough to pass on her wisdom.

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The Islamist

islamistWhen I was offered The Islamist by Ed Husain for review, I was hesitant to accept. Without knowing what it was about, the title put me off. Not knowing better, I thought that “Islamist” was an offensive word for “Muslim”, but after researching I discovered that these words refer to different groups. Without being too complicated, I’ll give my simple understanding.

A Muslim means “one who submits to God”, and is used to refer to a person who follows the religion of Islam.

An Islamist is a Muslim fundamentalist who does not follow Islam as a religion but uses it for politics.

We can argue semantics and such but this is a widely accepted interpretation.

So now that I understood what an “Islamist” was, I was ready to learn more. I wanted to be sure before investing my time in reading this book that it wouldn’t disparage Islam or Muslims. I was wary of the possibility that this book would perpetuate the myth that Islam is a violent religion and that all Muslims are terrorists, but in the end, I was pleased to find that it was not the case. On the contrary, this book should encourage all Muslims to stand up and recclaim their religion from extremists. (In fact, followers of all religions could and should take lessons away from this book about how religion can and is used for non-spiritual pursuits.)

The author, Ed Husain could have been considered an ordinary boy growing up as a first generation South Asian in London. The eldest of four children with a father from British India and mother from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Ed was raised Muslim, but as a teenager, his fanatiscism began to worry his parents. With a curious mind and a naive heart, he was easy prey for the various Islamist organizations. He soon found himself part of a world where the words “jihad” and “martyr” were part of every day conversations.

Eventually, Ed finds his way out and lives to tell about it. While some stretches of the book give so much detail that it gets a little dry, in the end his spiritual realizations make it well worth the journey.

The Islamist is a reminder to followers of all religions to be true to themselves, a warning to society of what can happen when youth struggle with a sense of belonging, and a much needed voice of truth amongst a world of lies and prejudice.

“Beware of extremism in religion; for it was extremism in religion that destroyed those that went before you.”

– The Prophet Mohammed (570-632) /The Islamist by Ed Husain

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Greater Than You Think

Greater Than You Think by Thomas D. Williams is subtitled, “A Theologian Answers the Atheists About God”.

While I’ve never considered myself an atheist, even during the years I struggled most with my religion, one thing that has always been certain is my uncertainty. Faith is not my strong point, and so I often find myself reading books of this nature; books one would typically use to encourage a non-believer.

After reading this book I did not have any kind of great epiphany but I found the arguments well thought out and convincing. In a society that would increasingly have us believe that faith in any religion is a sign of weakness and naivety, this book offers reassurance that one can be both a thinker and a believer.

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The Minivan Years

I just finished reading The Minivan Years: Celebrating the Hectic Joys of Motherhood by Olivia Bruner. (I love the title of this book.)

In the introduction it lists some ways to know if you’re officially in “the minivan years”. It says in part,

There is at least one car seat in your vehicle – probably filled with pacifiers, cracker crumbs, and smashed French fries or M&M’s.

Snack wrappers and Sunday school take-home papers litter the floor of your automobile.

I don’t know about you, but that describes my minivan on a good day. (Except the pacifiers. We’re a bit beyond that. Though who knows, there could be one lost in there somewhere.)

The book has some Christian based advice sprinkled throughout, but it’s refreshingly non-judgmental. In fact, she reveals some pretty personal mistakes she’s made as a mother. You know the mistakes you’ve made that you don’t want any one to know about! … And she even touched on the difficulty of deciding whether to let her kids get involved in some things which are considered controversial by many Christians, such as reading Harry Potter.

I really loved this book. It’s one of the best all around books on parenting I’ve ever read.

I would like to pass on my copy (It is a paperback advance reading copy) to one of my readers. If you would like a chance at being the one to get it, just leave a comment on this post. That’s all you have to do! I’ll pick a winner at random and announce them as an update at the bottom of this post on Wednesday, January 30th, 2008.

UPDATE: WINNER!

Using the online randomizer at Random.org, a winner has been chosen.
Congratulations to… ZOE! … Zoe will be receiving an advance paperback copy of The Minivan Years by Olivia Bruner.

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