An Introduction to my Blog

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Looking back at the semester in this seminar, and at all of the stories, poems, novels, and other works of literature that I have read shows me how much I have learned in a relatively short period of time about life, human interactions, cultures and religions as a whole. Throughout the course we travelled the world, reading about Islam in the context of the Middle East, Central and South Asia, as well as sub-Saharan Africa. When I reflect on the creative responses I made in reflection of the literature we read, I see both the wide scope of the setting and also the universality of certain themes.

Most apparent to me is the variety of women’s roles portrayed in this literature. Women’s roles are not standardized across cultures, even cultures who practice the same religions. I was somewhat surprised by this upon entering the course because I had the false impression the women’s roles in Islam were largely the same, and that they were very restricted. This was no doubt because of the portrayal of Muslim women in American media. Powerful Muslim women are always shown as unusual, and something to be celebrated. While this important, it nevertheless undermines the potential for all Muslim women to be empowered. For this reason, I was excited to read The Swallows of Kabul and Sultana’s Dream. Sultana’s Dream showed the passionate command displayed when women used their intelligence to win a war. After reading this novel I felt empowered to do the same, to fight using my brain rather than brute strength or weapons. But, in the end, as I reflected in my poem, it was still a dream. The theme of female empowerment reappeared in The Swallows of  Kabul when Zunaira refused to wear the attire demanded by the extremists. This was an inspiring display of self-determination and even though eventually she did wear the burka, her outright refusal and confidence in standing up to her husband showed that she had power in their relationship. This was an exciting evolution from Sultana’s Dream, because I felt it showed the transition from the early 20th century to the 21st century in terms of women’s roles suggested by Islam.

While I realize that I have just mentioned perception of women’s roles suggested by Islam, I wish to comment on another concept that I learned and have developed a more complete understanding of throughout the course of the semester. The concept of Islam, and religion in general as a construction is one that is hugely important to remember when considering contemporary international conflicts regarding religion. In reading these piece of Muslim literature, I have realized the wide variety of practices, characters, settings, and outcomes that all fall under the umbrella of one great religion. So often people unfamiliar with the religion view Muslims as “terrorists” and the religion as “violent”. The very first reading of the year described this phenomenon, saying that Islam and other religions as well as America and other nationalities too often become personified and connected to various singular ideas. It is of the utmost importance that one separates the followers of the religion from the religion itself, and the people living in the country from “the country’s” ideas.

In addition to the idea of women’s roles in society, the search for an ideal religion as well as an ideal society in general was prevalent across the readings. I thoroughly enjoyed readings such as Children of the Alley and The Journey of Ibn Fatouma that focused on such debates. I found the way in which these novels were structured to show and evaluate the options available to mankind to be extremely thought-provoking. By putting the various religions and societal structures in an indirect competition, Mahfouz allowed the reader to consider the ideal society. Interestingly, the resolutions of these stories were never final. I enjoyed Mahfouz’s style because it allowed for the reflection while reading. In some ways, however, the reflection was somewhat pessimistic, for example, Mahfouz suggested in Children of the Alley that religion and science are both ultimately successful in ruling the alley. The Journey of Ibn Fatouma was slightly less pessimistic in that it showed the possibility of reaching heaven, or an ideal society, but it showed faults of every other real-life society. Because of this it both allowed the reader to ponder the ideal society, and also implied that such society is not actually attainable on Earth. In my opinion, this showed the importance of religion, to fill in the gaps that the real world cannot attain. It also shows the importance of an after life as a crucial aspect of these religions. By leaving the “right answer” ambiguous, I believe that Mahfouz really etched a role for religion into a society that promotes secularization.

The theme of secularism was also prevalent throughout the stories we read this semester. From The Saint’s Lamp to The Wedding of Zein, these stories demonstrated pros and cons of religion. In The Wedding of Zein, the contrast between Seif and Zein served to underscore the importance of religion as a pathway to good character. It also showed that there is a path to redemption even if one gets off track at times. My sketch of the auspicious dates falling off of the tree represents the symbol that initiated redemption in the case of Seif ad-Dein, as well as the period of prosperity that followed. In The Wedding of Zein, secularism lost the battle. In The Saint’s Lamp, instead of misbehavior of all sorts, the secularism was represented by science. By pouring the oil from the lamp into Fatima’s eyes, Ismail’s mother acts against science, in a way that suggests traditional religion does not understand the concepts important to one’s wellbeing. Interestingly however, Ismail was not able to use his scientific insight when this unfortunate event occurred, making it harder for him to find success with science or the secular practice. Religion was unsuccessful as well, but it is frustrating for Ismail that he is unable to prevent Fatima from being permanently blinded.

While many stories discussed the ideal role of religion, also interesting were the stories that discussed the ideal practice of religion. In both The Complaint and The Answer as well as The Beggar’s Strike, the practice of religion is an important factor in understanding the culture and literature as a whole. I felt these two stories in particular aligned with one another because they brought questions of class into the discussion of the best practice of Islam. This was of particular interest to me because it connects the culture and the caste system to the traditions of Islam. In The Answer, God implied that the lower castes and poorer people were the more devout Muslims, and that the wealthier people should look up to them and worship God as they do. I found this interesting, because it showed the ways religion and religious literature is influenced by socio-economic status. Literature is a powerful tool to display this connection because it can create a voice for God based on current events, something that is not possible by reading the bible. In this way it is a dynamic representation of God’s leadership role with his followers.

The concept of dynamically representing God’s relationship with and leadership of his followers was seen no better than in The Beggar’s Strike, when the wealthy townspeople could no longer give offerings to the poor after they had removed them from the city. This was God’s way of saying that the higher castes need to respect and treat the lower castes well. I appreciated this sentiment and the concept of both groups relying on one another tremendously, which is why I created a charcoal drawing of the hands. These hands are the perfect symbol of the complex power dynamic between the rich and the poor. In writing The Beggar’s Strike, Aminata Sow Fall gives God power and a voice that he wouldn’t otherwise have in this context. He shows that God is watching and maintaining the multifaceted relationship between the rich and the poor. It is important to maintain this dynamic relationship, because without it the poor suffocate at the hands of the rich, and the rich do not get into heaven, having created an enemy of those to whom they need to give alms. Like in The Complaint and The Answer, The Beggar’s Strike facilitates a vehicle with which to perpetuate the correct practice of religion and the important opinion of God.

Overall, throughout the course of the semester, I have been made aware of themes not only in Islam, but in religion in general. Studying religion through literature has given me the opportunity to study the transformation of religion throughout time. After all, being a construct, religion is dynamic; this quality is vital to its longevity. One of the most notable aspects of this course has been its ability to guide me to a more powerful understanding of the importance of religion. Previously I had not been a serious Christian, but this course has truly fostered my interest in the study of religion in general. I am thankful to have taken this course this semester, as it has prepared me to be a knowledgeable consumer of political events and contemporary opinion of Islam, as well as an educated consumer of religion.

Which is the “best” religion?

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This mobile-like piece is a representation of the three Abrahamic religions and their attempts to control and govern the alley in Children of the Alley. I have drawn Jesus, Moses, and the prophet Mohammed, along with Albert Einstein as a symbol of the “god” of science. These four entities each compete with futuwwat for ultimate leadership of the alley, yet the ultimately the alley always returns to chaos. Even Arafa, the symbol of science, cannot beat the futuwwat in the quest for ultimate control of the alley. This lead me to wonder what the best faith is, or even if there is a “best faith” at all. Additionally, this outcome demonstrates the author’s somewhat unorthodox view of Islam. I drew pictures of each of the four ruling entities in their god-like representation because I felt it was important to highlight their religious interpretations, since in Children of the Alley Mahfouz somewhat stripped them of their religious power. They are all depicted as suspended above ground because of their immortal qualities that show that deities may not really have power on Earth. While this is a somewhat radical thought, after having read Children of the Alley I felt that it is more powerful and effective for morals to follow religion as a guide to empowerment, than it is to have the prophets live among the humans on ground level. To represent this, I have suspended each of them in air, available for their followers to choose from according to their individual cultures and beliefs.

A musical representation of Suns of Independence

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I discovered this song by Baaba Maal last year at Thanksgiving. My uncle played it for me because he had recently become a Spotify fanatic, and had stumbled upon the music of Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour. After reading Sons of Independence I remembered that the Malinke tribe is from the same region of West Africa as are Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour. After discovering this I looked into their music and tried to find the song my uncle had shared with me almost a year ago. When I found Fulani Rock, I realized that it had a melody that mirrored my interpretation of the plot in Suns of Independence. Fulani Rock is a song that is focused on the Fulani tribe, a nomadic tribe in West Africa. Although not the same as the Malinke tribe, the tribe present in Sons of Independence, the Malinke tribe also practices Islam. After listening to the song a few times, I felt that it was an interesting way of interpreting the plot and the conflict between the growing nationalist sentiment in the region and its conflict with traditional tribal practices and religious culture. The background music from the outset suggest tension, and the drum beating made me envision a scene with opposing parties on different sides. The protagonist, Fama, is portrayed through the singer, who attempts to make sense of the situation in the background. Although I do not understand the language in which the song was composed, my interpretation of the tones, rhythm, volume, and speed of the music, as well as the instrumental pictures served to help me connect this song to the conflict between religion and government in The Suns of Independence. The part of of the song in which Baaba Maal is singing by himself aligned with his isolation when his role as tribe leader is taken away. Overall, when listening to this piece of music, I couldn’t help but envision tribal conflicts as they pertained to Fama’s story in The Suns of Independence.

The Path to Understanding Iranian History

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This comic strip is a reflection created in the style of Persepolis. One of the reasons I so enjoyed Persepolis was because of its comic book theme. It was a unique way of telling the story of a young girl as well as describing the history of Iran. Seeing the history of Iran especially during that time period unfold was interesting because it was through the eyes of the child. For this reason, I decided to make my reflection something that displayed my understanding of Iranian history “through my eyes”. The first square shows our seminar in class discussing the story Persepolis. Next, we study Iran and the history of its politics and religion, and different students raise their hands to contribute to the class discussion. The third segment shows a movie screening of Syriana. This was an important part of my understanding of Persepolis, because I read it at the same time as I was studying Orientalism in the context of Syriana in my Expos class. This provided me with a unique opportunity, as I was able to read the history of Iran in Persepolis but also see a fictional representation of the Middle East while I watched the film. The film presented the history of the Middle East in a decidedly Orientalist light. The following segment shows the next week’s Expos class after we have discussed Iran in relation to America. This discussion was especially important to my understanding of Persepolis, Iran, Orientalism as a whole because it allowed me to contrast the way Persepolis is told with the way Syriana is filmed. The subsequent square shows me watching the news in which American-Iranian foreign policy was prominently highlighted. The final square shows the next week of our seminar as we discussed the next weeks reading. This progression is an autobiography of the week during which we read Persepolis, and an attempt to show my developed and multi-dimensional understanding of Iranian history as it relates to my life as an American.

Paris and The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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I made this collage after reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Because of the timing of the lesson and its correspondence with the terrorist attacks in Paris, I wanted to capture the reactions from the media, because I felt that my understanding of the events was influenced by my reading of the novel. Because of this realization, I felt that a collage would be the best way to display the images. Real life visual representation of the the reactions to these attacks show the perspective of the news media. After reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist I looked at these images with a new sense of clarity. I felt sadness and sympathy for those who lost loved ones, but I deliberately chose images that showed these feelings, not the many pictures that called for attacks on Muslims. When I read the headline “Shocking Terror, Enduring Grief” I thought of the word terror. The Reluctant Fundamentalist could not have been assigned at a more opportune time. Changez’s story gave meaning to the word terror. It gave it an origin, an origin that does not have anything to do with terror itself. Terror is not a person, it is a concept, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist showed the way one becomes a fundamentalist in a way that was logical to a Western reader. I think it is important to not be “terrorized” by religious extremists and instead to seek to understand the causes behind such movements. This novel greatly aided my quest to learn more about potential followers of extremist or fundamentalist groups. For this reason, I included the image with the lights that read “NOT AFRAID” because The Reluctant Fundamentalist taught me to not be afraid of the people who are so antagonistically portrayed on the news.

Madras on Rainy Days

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This charcoal drawing depicts a bride and groom on their wedding day. This is the image that persisted in my mind as I read Madras on Rainy Days. The couple, whose marriage was arranged, stands back to back to back facing outwards as their hands are joined by a chain. This seems a standard representation of an arranged marriage, but I felt the difference in this particular story was the weight that was attached to the marriage. There was pressure felt by both parties from the outset, when Layla had her miscarriage and her family discovers that the groom has a faulty leg. These initial problems never seem to subside, and the weight continues to become heavier. In some ways, this weight can also be perceived as a bomb, I left it purposefully unclear what the exact structure was. In a marriage as tenuous as the marriage in the story, the conflict is so strong that the marriage could detonate when one of the two character’s secrets comes to light. Because of this, I felt it appropriate to chain the couple together with a heavy object, restricting their freedom. In some representations of marriage, the couple joyfully holds hands, sometimes with both hands, and stares longingly into the eyes of their spouse. In this case, a chain representing the bonds of marriage would be not only welcomed, but desired. For Layla, this chain could not be any less desired, in fact, in the conclusion of the story, the chain is cut from her husband, leaving the weight of the ball and chain solely her burden as the woman in the arranged marriage.

The Swallows of Kabul

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This charcoal drawing of a Muslim woman in a burka reaching out to her husband’s hand is a representation of the prominent themes in The Swallows of Kabul. In the novel, I found this particular scene to be the most awe-inspiring of the entire story, in that it showed a contemporary relationship between a man and a woman that included a strong female character. The woman in this picture represents two women. Firstly, it represents Zunaira when she ventures out of the house onto the streets. The Taliban has restricted women from leaving the house in anything less than a burka, while the men need not abide by any restrictions of dress. One of my favorite lines in the story is Zunaira’s opinion that the burka “cancels [ones] face and takes away [ones] identity, and turns [one] into an object”. Initially, Zunaira decides that she will walk out in public in anything that she likes, but upon reconsideration, begrudgingly decides that she will put on the burka. She is reaching out to her husband’s hand, which is held out behind him with his back to her. This positioning represents Mohsen’s tendency to look toward the future and at things besides Zunaira. He is dressed in Western attire to show that the men are not forced to wear as confining of clothing as the women. Although he did not wear that in the story, I felt that in being with Zunaira when she was in a burka, Mohsen effectively left her behind in the East as he walked toward the West. Additionally, the charcoal drawing represents Mohsen as he turns his back on the woman he killed in the beginning of the novel. He threw the fatal stone and has felt guilty ever since, but with this image, he leaves he as she reaches out to him, in Western attire he turns his back on a fatal deed he committed.

Miracles in The Wedding of Zein

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This pastel and ink representation of the dates falling from the palm tree is a representation of the auspicious dates that fell that fateful night in The Wedding of Zein. In the specific line that the Imam reads from the Koran, the person is directed to “shake towards thee the trunk of the palm tree, it will drop upon thee fresh dates fit to gather’ from the Chapter of Mary, a verse which is a particularly auspicious and blessed one”. After this reading, a comet appears and Haneen says an evening prayer. In the period of time following the “auspicious night”, “supernatural events came in quick succession, miracle following miracle in a fascinating manner”. The year is known as Haneen’s year and the townspeople all recognize that “miracle after miracle” was all attributed to the events of that fateful night.  I felt it important to capture this line of the Koran because it is the moment of revolution that begins the transformation in which Seif ad-Din corrects himself from a sacrilegious womanizer to a pious man, the personification of everything that the Imam lives for. The Wedding of Zein was a story that polarized religion and sacrilege or secularist ideals. The dates falling from the palm tree represent pieces of God and religious responsibility falling from the sky. This image from the Koran, coupled with the lines Haneen reads and the comet’s appearance combines to create a religious intervention for Seif ad-Din. Additionally, the dates falling from the tree were an interesting contrast with the forbidden fruit of Adam and Eve. In the Christian story, the consumption of the forbidden fruit immediately disconnected the couple from God. In The Wedding of Zein, the “gathering” of dates is a “particularly blessed verse” suggesting that the gathering of dates is a reaffirms one’s connection with god.

Sultana’s Dream for Reality

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Asleep, or wide awake I dream the dream

A world where women lead

And men are left inside

A world where women rule

And men are rarely seen

 

Intelligence and science are the way to succeed

The brain stops at nothing, no muscle is too strong

We, the mighty women do belong

As rulers, as queens, in charge of the greater world

Education is the road along which we travel

 

When the choice must be made:

Intelligence vs. Military strength

Who is the better choice?

When awake the military wins

When asleep the brain claims its voice

 

And they win

The sun is clear

The light is clear

The answer is clear

But dreams are unclear

So

Will this dream remain in the daylight?

 

 

 

After reading Sultana’s Dream I felt a sense of empowerment that could only be expressed in the form of a poem. The primary themes central to the story were not only female vs. male societal roles, but also intelligence, as associated with women, and military strength, as associated with men. As I mentioned in my blog post earlier, my education in an all girls school taught me that intelligence is the means to power for women. In Sultana’s Dream I found it interesting that the debate between military power and intelligence was portrayed under the beams of bright sunlight. I reflected upon this image in my poem, because I feel that there is an important connection between the light shining and its illumination of the female capacity to act intelligently and triumph in “battle”. The women’s scientific use of the light is a metaphor for the brightness and intellect that they possess. Upon waking up from a dream, the majority of my dreams are blurry and disconnected. I often wonder why I had such a dream, and what its “deeper significance” is. In Sultana’s Dream it was clear that the women won the test in battle, but will the decisiveness of this dream remain when the narrator awakens? What does awakening from such a dream really mean? I felt that since this dream was recalled with such clarity, the concept of female empowerment in general has commenced the transition from dream to reality. The answer, the meaning of the dream was so apparent to the reader that it seems nonsensical for it to not be a more prevalent view in society.

The Power of Sight

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While reading an Egyptian Childhood, I was fascinated by the power of eyesight and the significance and meaning of the ability to capture light though a window to one’s soul. Taha Hussein idolized the group of religious elders who shared his disablility. He learned about the world in ways different from his peers because of his inability to understand everything he saw while playing outdoors as a child. While reading The Saint’s Lamp this symbol became even more pronounced. Fatima’s progressing blindness is a problem central to the family, as they all wish to eradicate it so that she is able to see. “Light” from the Saint’s Lamp is seen by the religion to be the cure for Fatima’s blindness, although in reality the light they would pour is really just oil. When Ismail discovers that his mother has poured the oil from the Saint’s Lamp into Fatima’s eyes he is furious. His feelings about Western science are such that he cannot reconcile religious superstitions with his newfound medical knowledge. The concept of sight versus insight is a theme central to the story, as Fatima’s sight is taken forever just as Ismail’s insight is stunted in mid-action. He entirely dismisses the religious upbringing that he was raised with. These themes combined with the tradition of some cultures to wear burkas prompted me to create this charcoal drawing. I wanted to capture the importance of eyes and sight as it is one of the few parts of both the male and female bodies that is visible to the general public. I find it interesting that woman are only connected to the outside world thorough their eyes, and Taha Hussein’s eyes are the only part of his body that is disconnected from the outer world. This contrast and the theme of sight as it relates to insight prompted me to represent the problem through a medium of visual art.IMG_1244

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