An Introduction to “Identity Juice”

December 9th, 2014 by leonpan

** NOTE: The introduction written below can also be found by clicking the following link: Introductory Post


When looking back at the start of this course in retrospect, what I find stunning is how naïve I was. Over the course of the past twelve weeks, our class has discussed a variety of themes that all sort of fall underneath the same umbrella, albeit every single theme is individual and distinct in its own way. At the start of the course, I was familiar with these topics – the importance of identity, for example, and other topics that we’ve been exposed to for a while now, such as stereotypes and prejudice – but I realize now that I was naïve about the complexities of these issues. I knew, for example, that I identified as an Asian American, middle-class young adult. Coming in, this was my sole identity wrapped up in a package, presented to everyone I met in a straightforward way, and this was what I saw myself as. I knew these unique characteristics, these special qualities that made me different, but as far as the superficial world was concerned, my race, age, and socioeconomic status was what I was defined by. Now that we’ve approached the end of these past twelve weeks, my views on this topic have changed immensely; with every reading that we’ve done and every discussion we’ve had, my mind’s been opened in a way that’s allowed me to view myself not by the identity that society has put me into, but by the multifaceted dimensions that exist within myself and within every human being. This, among other things, has been one of the primary themes that have stuck out to me throughout this course and through the readings, and the importance of these different themes will be emphasized in each of the blog posts below.

I’d like to start off by giving a general introduction to each of the ten works that I created in this blog. The ten works cover ten separate readings that we completed this past semester, and also involve a variety of different mediums; for example, in the fields of visual arts, I experimented with oil pastels, pen and paper, pencil sketches, digital photo shop, and photography, and in the fields of writing, I dabbled in poetry, creative writing, and even screenwriting. My oil pastel work was a parody of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album cover; although it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, I thought it definitely exemplified the theme of many different entities having a single origin – in this case, the three religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism represented by the different spectrums of visible light that are reflected through the prism. My pen and paper work required a lot of creativity as well, although I definitely needed some practice before I could actually create what I wanted. In class, we had viewed several examples of calligrams, or visual designs or drawings done using intricate and beautiful Arabic calligraphy. I found out, however, that calligrams didn’t necessarily have to be in Arabic; as a result, I Google searched some images of calligrams done in the English language, and then created my own calligram that emphasized the beauty of God’s word in a visual form. My pencil sketch, similar to the oil pastel work, was also inspired by another “classic,” or great work – this time by Oscar de la Renta, a world-famous fashion designer who just recently passed a few months ago. I chose to relate the pencil sketch to “We Sinful Women,” an anthology of poems written by famed Muslim poets that included many works detailing the frustrated feelings of women who were oppressed and stifled based on the clothes they chose to wear or the shapes of their bodies. In this case, I chose to sketch out two fashion designs – something that I had never done before and actually found quite fun – and then used the sketches to reflect the criticisms and unjust name-calling that are often thrown at women for incredibly superficial things, such as their clothing.

What I really enjoyed, however, were the works of writing that I got to do. I feel like I’ve always been more of a creative writing type of person rather than someone who was more visual arts-oriented. In middle school (way back before my life had gotten consumed by schoolwork and extracurriculars and such) I would spend a lot of my free-time writing short stories, poetry, and fictional narratives; now that I had the opportunity to go back to that pastime, I found myself feeling incredibly apprehensive about sitting down and actually writing a story again. It seemed like such a hassle, a huge hurdle that I was making myself jump through. When I finally sat down at one of those metallic tables outside Memorial Church, however, and faced Widener Library in the midst of the autumn leaves floating down around me, the process of writing came as naturally as it had all those previous years. My first piece of writing was an untitled short story, something that was vaguely drawn from my own experiences as a growing adolescent who was conflicted by my own identity. More specifically, it involved an unnamed character and his final meeting with his high school guidance counselor, and the subsequent game of chess that reveals more about not only the relationship between the two characters, but the reasons as to why the student had been meeting with the counselor for so long in the first place. My other pieces of writing are a collection of five haikus, which I wrote in response to “The Swallows of Kabul” and which emphasize the theme of mob mentality and the power of fear, and a short screenplay of a one-scene, one-act production entitled “[Insert Title Here]”, which I hoped would represent the fluidity of identity and how society’s external standards and perceptions often affect how people perceive a certain individual, even without his or her consent (this theme I drew from “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”).

All of these creative responses seem to envelope themes that are encompassed within a certain “umbrella” of themes, if you will; while the themes discussed through the readings – the power of fear, the intersection between science and religion, and religious pluralism, just to name a few – are each distinct in their own ways, they can also be grouped together pretty clearly. Some readings, for example, are very strong in their themes of multifaceted identities. This type of identity, I have realized, is not strictly limited to human beings. Certainly, we can talk about every human having a identity of many different sides. In “We Sinful Women,” for example, one strong message that is delivered is that a woman – just like any other being – should have the ability to think for herself and be defined not by societal standards, but by how she chooses to define herself. In the same way, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” also demonstrates the frustrations that may come from one’s inability to define his or her own identity in the world; rather, society and/or close-minded viewpoints define that person’s identity the way it wants to. Changez, for example, doesn’t want to be labeled as a “fundamentalist” or “radical” by any means. Instead, American media portrays him as some sort of extremist or ally of the terrorists simply because he actively chose to abandon Western ideals and live his life based on Pakistani traditions (most of which are unfamiliar to people here in the United States). What I also want to focus on, however, is identity not in terms of single human beings, but of collective societies as a whole. This can be seen in our readings of “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi and “Jasmine and the Stars”, for example. Both readings emphasize a different identity of Iran than one that we’re used to seeing, an Iran that is incredibly beautiful and full of artistic life and vibrant culture, only to be subjected to common stereotypes about Islamic fundamentalism and, most notably, the requirement of the veil. Both “Persepolis” and “Jasmine” show that while yes, Iran does face many obstacles and issues – ones that plague many different nations all over the world – it’s also the homeland of these two authors, and that in and of itself shows that it’s a cherished land, one that holds special meaning for many. In the same way that you and I have many dimensions to our full identity – whether it be our race, age, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, nationality, or our dreams and aspirations – other types of entities  have different dimensions to their identities as well. Iran has its good and its bad, the United States has its good and its bad, and Christianity and Islam have their goods and bads, just as each person as his or her own.

The next “big theme” that I’d like to address is the power of religion, which further branches out into smaller, more specific themes such as religion as art, religious pluralism, and the intersection between science and religion. From the very beginning (when we read “An Egyptian Childhood”), our class discussed the power of religion as both a visual and aural art form; I know for me, at least, the idea of the Qur’an being seen as art was something that was quite foreign, especially since I grew up memorizing Bible verses at Sunday school almost aimlessly. I learned, however, that the acts of transcribing  Quranic verses and drawing them as art, or even just memorizing verses from the Qur’an played the role of allowing the individual to transcend to another part of spirituality. It made the Qur’an – and any other holy book that you choose to follow – something more than just a book or a set of parables and instructions; it became ingrained in you, a part of your blood and soul. What we also discussed was the theme of religion pluralism, which we saw in works such as “Children of the Alley”. Mahfouz’s “Children of the Alley”, in my opinion, was really meant to show readers that conflict between world religions, specifically the three dominant world religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – needn’t be necessary because when looking at the big picture, all of these religions stem from the same origin. The tales told in each one, for example, are also told in the other, and many of the leaders of each religion – individuals and prophets who played huge roles in spreading the word of God – are existent in all three. This is all centered around a broader message of peace, the idea that if we were all to come together and notice the similarities between us, the many conflicts and confrontations that we experience day by day as a result of our differences would just fade away. That last point ties into another more specific theme of religion that we discussed in this class – the intersection between science and religion, or faith and reason. We saw this in “Ambiguous Adventure,” for example, and what we took away from it from our class discussion was similar to what I just said above: although religion and science face many differences, and thus many criticisms from opposing sides, we must be able to look at the bigger picture and see that the two are both meant to explain our lives here on Earth, and may actually correspond with each other a lot more fittingly than what we had originally perceived. All of these themes and readings, I feel, can be tied together to form a single message, and it is this message that should be considered as our class’s “takeaway,” if you will. It is a message of tolerance and of love – a reminder, as we complete our first semester here at Harvard and simultaneously begin the rest of our journey here as a blossoming young adult and a college undergrad, to never stop loving and never let go of the drive to do good and serve the world in peace and compassion. I’m truly grateful for the experience I’ve received through this seminar and for the amazing stories that I got to share alongside my classmates.

Session Twelve: “The Journey of Ibn Fattouma”

December 8th, 2014 by leonpan

I chose to do my last creative response for “The Journey of Ibn Fattouma,” a Mahfouz tale of a man’s journey throughout space (and time) in search for Gebel, a heavenly city of mystical realms and supposedly a place that no one left once they had arrived. Gebel represents this perfect destination, a site of endless wonder and captivation that’s almost meant to be the source of all of his goals and the reason why he chooses to embark on this treacherous journey in the first place. Along the way he encounters temptation and civil war, and left and right he’s forced to delay his journey until the magical city of Gebel finally fades into view. It’s seen as perched atop of a far-off mountain, close enough so Ibn Fattouma can see it, but far enough so that the readers are still left wondering whether or not he actually arrives at his destination. For my original response, I wrote about how I took Mahfouz’s message as saying that we mustn’t use this idea of “heaven” to spur us to do good; rather, we must embark on difficult journeys and tests of self-worth because of our genuine desire to do good and to make good, not for any type of personal gain or ending destination. If we were only to embark on our personal journeys because of that finale, we lose sight of the progress we make along the way and the challenges we overcome during that process.

Without a doubt, choosing what type of creative response to do for “The Journey of Ibn Fattouma” was definitely one of the more difficult decisions. In the end, I chose to do a digital collage using a college-maker that I found online; although it’s incredibly simple, I definitely feel like I put a lot of thought into which pictures went into the collage and what the pictures both represented to me and how they related to the story itself. As seen below, the collage features a collection of photos that all depict a sort of magical, “heaven on Earth” sort of setting. Although these pictures may seem like they were computer-generated or heavily edited, they’re actually all real places all over the world, and the photos are all pictures taken by ordinary photographers and avid travelers. Starting from a pretty young age – around ten or eleven years old, I would say – I’ve had a habit of making lists of very specific places that I would like to travel to one day (“At least when I’m rich and famous,” I would say to myself and my parents). Every single one of these pictures included are places I found on my list – these places include, but are not limited to, Angel Falls in Venezuela, Mont St. Michel in France, and Zhangjiajie National Park in China. But what do all of these places have in common? Sure enough, every single one of them is breathtakingly beautiful; some are natural formations (waterfalls, mountains, etc.) and some are manmade constructions (castles, for example), but all of them share a similar wondrous beauty that captivates the eye and truly gives off that special “heaven on Earth, hard to reach” sort of atmosphere. What they also have in common, however, is what they symbolize for me personally. For a long time now, these destinations – and all of the places on my travel list – were more than just pretty places that I “just HAD” to visit one day. Rather, they represented my goals for the future and my personal ambitions, essentially my future success represented in a materialistic form, or in the form of a place that I could travel to. While it’s definitely true that there is nothing wrong with having personal ambitions and dreams of what you want to accomplish in the future – after all, those goals can effectively fuel one’s drive for perseverance and doing one’s best – it’s just as important to note that if you focus too much on that final goal, you lose sight of what’s equally valuable – the journey you went through to achieve it.

"Heaven" Collage

“Heaven” Collage

Session Ten: “The Swallows of Kabul”

December 8th, 2014 by leonpan

** NOTE: Haikus can be found if you click “Read the rest of this entry,” but they can also be found by clicking the following link: Haikus

In response to “The Swallows of Kabul,” I chose to write five separate haiku poems that were all related to the themes of mob mentality and fear of the suppressed. In “Swallows of Kabul,” the reader is exposed to two characters who both most face the conflicting powers of their inner consciences – the entities that tell them to do good, to confess to their wives that they committed a horrible act, or to return home to care for their ailing wives, who are close to death – versus society and the pressures that are attached to it – the entities that tell them to go with the crowd, to stone girls even though the injustice is apparent, or to simply divorce wives when they’re dying, since they can then be seen as dispensable and replaceable. In this blog post, I’ll be going through each of the five haikus in an attempt to explain how each one relates to the overall themes of the book.

The first haiku relates to fear of the minority, which further relates to fear of the unknown or the uncertain. In cases throughout history, views toward the minority were – or became – shadowed in hatred and persecution, and as a result of those wicked thoughts, wicked deeds followed suit. In fact, we don’t even need to look at cases throughout history; it’s happening in this very moment, right in front of our eyes in the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and more. The majority has a tendency to hate what is unlike them; WHY, they ask, are you not like us? Why are you not TRYING to be more like us when you have the chance to? Well, they say, if that’s how you want it, don’t blame us when we’re trying to defend ourselves against your demonic ways. The second haiku is like a response to these wicked deeds, a call to all potential allies to stand up and fight against oppression of their brothers and sisters, even if they belonged to a separate minority. The poem is telling you to fight for what’s right not when it’s convenient for you, but simply when it’s time; there will come a day, after all, when you are the one who must be protected, and those that you failed to stand up for out of fear for your own life or out of your own inconvenience will surely return the favor. The third haiku describes an encounter behind a persecutor and the Final Judge that he or she is answering to. I thought this poem was suiting, considering how many acts of persecution are committed in the name of religion; in this poem, the persecutor explains to God that the only reason he or she acted in such hateful ways was because of pressures from others. God, however, has no room for hate in His Kingdom and turns aside, leading us to the fourth haiku. This fourth one emphasizes further the power of God in comparison to that of mankind. Men on Earth convince each other to do horrible things, and these horrible things are done often because of fear of these powerful men; what people forget, however, is that the power of God, the God that they’re so “devoted” to, is much more powerful than any man on Earth and far more just.  The last haiku is perhaps my favorite, and is less so a message than it is an example of why humans fall so short of doing good. Songs of peace are easy to sing and easy to repeat; we’re taught to be peaceful and to be rational from a young age, to always treat others with respect and to always be fair. What often happens, however, is that we sing these messages to ourselves and tell ourselves to be peaceful over and over again without actually putting these songs into action. When we’re taught songs of power, however – that almighty, glorious, toxic power – it’s much easier to inflict that song upon others and demonstrate our “strength”.

Read the rest of this entry »

Session Nine: “Persepolis”

December 8th, 2014 by leonpan

Although I had originally written my response to Session Nine on “Jasmine and the Stars,” I wanted to do a creative project in response to “Persepolis” and highlight something really interesting that spoke out to me while reading it. Persepolis is an autobiographical account of Marjane Satrapi’s childhood in both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, about the betrayal of the revolutionaries – some of which were dear family friends – when the overthrow of the Shah actually took place and the Islamic fundamentalists took over, and lastly, the terror that came about when the Iranian-Iraqi war took place. Satrapi’s narrative tells this entire story from the point of view of her adolescent self, and it was how the story was written from the perspective of one particular Iranian youth that really stuck out to me. Marji, as a child, is innocent, but profoundly passionate and sincere. She has trouble understanding why her mother wants the traitors massacred – “Why does my mother want people dead when she tells me to forgive?” – and she is quick to bullying her classmate when she finds out that he – and his father – have different beliefs than she was taught by her own parents. In a way, Marji, just like any other child with an open mind and a strong-willed heart, is incredibly vulnerable and also volatilely dangerous. Because her adolescent mind is quick to believe and easy to mold, and because she has yet to truly think for herself, she can almost be seen as the fertile soil in the field that can be used to plant and nurture any type of seed. Although it’s not seen very clearly because her points of view are clearly defined by what her parents have raised her with, it can’t be denied that a parent fostering a child with the same point of view is also a form of manipulative molding (as harsh as it sounds), albeit one that is socially accepted.

For my creative project, I decided to create a movie poster for Persepolis; rather than go for a similar design to that of the actual movie poster/book cover, which features Satrapi’s beautiful graphic-novel cartoons, I aimed for a more simplified, sleek, and modern feel, the result of which you see below. I created the poster using a photo-shop software known as GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) – kind of a free Adobe Photoshop, if you will. It features the title of the movie, the novel and the author that it was based off of, and of course, the striking digital representation of the fertilization of an egg cell. This is a photo that we’ve all seen before, whether in biology class or elsewhere; although many may find it odd that I chose to use such a photo to represent this book (and the movie), I thought it was fitting because it was not only controversial and very striking to the eye, but also representative of the planting of seeds in young peoples’ minds. In the way that the joining of a sperm and egg cell in the process of fertilization forces genetic information to join together to result in and shape a vibrant, creative, and unique human being, the gradual influx of information (more specifically, biased information) in a child’s mind causes that child to create new thoughts, new beliefs, and new ideas. With these new ideas, he or she carries the ability to act upon his or her newfound ideals, and thus a new active citizen is formed – one that is capable of playing a dynamic role in society, even if that role stems from the same roles that his or her parents or role models played during youth. 


Persepolis Movie Poster

Persepolis Movie Poster

Session Seven: “Ambiguous Adventure”

December 3rd, 2014 by leonpan

I chose to focus primarily on “Ambiguous Adventure” for Session Seven, and more specifically the big theme that I got from Hamidou Kane’s work, which was the reconciliation (or perhaps inability to reconcile) of reason and religion, faith and science. Growing up, whether it was from the lessons I learned at Sunday school or even the lessons in both social studies and biology that I learned in day school, I felt like I was always being taught that science and religion were two mutually exclusive entities, and that one could not exist alongside the other. Even more specifically, it was often implied in each of these lessons that science was progressive, always moving forward and integral to our continued existence in this world while religion was backwards, overly conservative and often the source of chaos rather than peace. Samba Diallo seems to go through this same conflict in “Ambiguous Adventure” – he grows up in Senegal as an incredibly devout Muslim, but when he’s exposed to “Western culture” and the wonders of science in France, his viewpoints are challenged and his entire life seems to shift. To him, science seemed to murder the idea of God, rather than bolster it. The question that I’ve had since I was a child and which I still have to this day is this: are religion and science really incompatible, or are the similarities between the two simply obscured behind our inability to see?

To illustrate this supposed contrast between the two, I decided to turn to photography. I traveled to both New Jersey and New York City with a friend over Thanksgiving break rather than return home to California, and I used that opportunity to take some snapshots of the subway system in both cities; I found that although both cities used similar underground trains as transportation, they looked incredibly different on the outside. The train that led through Secaucus and Rutherford, New Jersey, for example, can be found on the left; it’s much more old-fashioned, isn’t even completely underground, and judging by the picture, it actually leads into a snowy abyss. After taking the photo on the left, I found it to be very mysterious in a way, and it definitely captured that unknown essence of winter with the snowy backward. On the other hand, the subway system in New York City was incredibly modern and complex, something expected of such a dense and huge city. The underground tunnel was almost completely lit up, in contrast to the tunnel in New Jersey, and I felt a lot more secure both looking at the photograph and riding the subway itself. I found that these two subway system and the photographs I took of each really represented the ideas surrounding faith and reason; while one is mysterious, old-fashioned, and unknown and undiscovered by many, the other is modern and very refined, presented without room for interpretation and much more familiar. Despite these differences, however, both subway systems share the same purpose: to get you to a certain destination, regardless of how it appears on the outside. In the same way, religion and science are both perfectly capable of allowing us to understand and feel secure about why and how we’re in this world and why and how we’re living our particular lives.

New Jersey vs. NYC Subway Systems

New Jersey vs. NYC Subway Systems

Session Six: “We Sinful Women”

December 3rd, 2014 by leonpan

The poems included in “We Sinful Women” screamed out a message of shame to me, but it was a shame that was clearly undeserved and unwarranted; in many of the poems, it seemed like the author was simply asking, “Why am I being called sinful for something as petty as this?” or “What did I really do to deserve this kind of condemnation?” This is a problem that we see all over the world, and in no way is it only contained within countries with a strong Islamic presence. The world has experienced millennia of stifling women within the standards and barriers of men, and although progress has been made relatively quickly within the past century in many parts of the world, we are still far from complete equality and freedom between the genders. Nowadays, we face questions that are even more complex than the ones we had to face just decades ago. A woman should be able to wear whatever she wants, but is what she wants TRULY what she wants or merely a result of the cultural standards that have been ingrained within her since she was little? Where is the distinction between gender equality and sexual freedom? How can women and men work together to promote the same ideals regarding gender equality? How do we exactly define what liberty is when men and women alike share different values depending on their respective cultural societies? Many of these questions were brought up and addressed in class when Professor Asani shared the article with us regarding the burqa and the bikini, the double standards associated with one and the other, and the different definitions of gender repression that are exhibited in both.

In response, I decided to try something I had never done before and draw out some fashion sketches; these sketches would show examples of how typical American fashion is represented, and next to them I would put the labels “SINFUL” and “TRASHY” to show how women are often labeled by society solely by the clothes they wear. I had no previous experience with fashion designing, and I had never even considered it an interest until I stumbled upon some vintage sketches done by famed fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. Using his sketches, I found inspiration to sketch out the two dresses you see below using just pencil and paper. The two dresses differ from one another in that the one in the left is quite short and even a little bouncy, while the one on the right can be seen as more elegant and aesthetically complex than the other. Regardless of their differences – and, to be more specific, regardless of the amount of skin the woman may be revealing with either dress – the labels written above and underneath are equally demeaning and repressive, essentially lowering both women to a status of nothing more than a piece of trash. To add more of an effect and emphasize this point even further, I drew censor bars over where both women’s eyes would have been placed, representing the idea that much of society, the only thing that is really focused on when looking at someone is what they wear or the way their body is shaped. Both of these sketches, although certainly not to the level of Oscar de la Renta, are meant to reflect the feelings of degradation and shame that many of the authors felt in “We Sinful Women” when composing their poems.

Design sketches, based on sketches by Oscar de la Renta

Design sketches, based on sketches by Oscar de la Renta


Session Five: “Complaint and Answer”

October 31st, 2014 by leonpan

**NOTE: Short story can be found if you click “Read the rest of this entry.” It’s also attached to this following link: “Short Story

“Complaint and Answer” was interesting to me because I had some trouble determining what I thought was the general theme of the poem. On one end, there was the complaint – the narrator of the poem addressing God about his frustrations, accusing God of betraying him and his people and going against His promise of giving them salvation and blessing them with protection and fortunes against their enemies – and on the other end, there was the answer – God telling the reader that he had no right to complain, as he and his people had long lost their true identities as believers of the faith and weren’t deserving to receive whatever promise they were hoping for, let alone have the right to challenge God himself. At the same time, there was a general idea that neither of these sides was more favorable than the other; rather, the poem was about misunderstanding and misconceptions between two sides. When trying to figure out what the theme was and how exactly to portray it in the form of a creative response, I took a slightly different route. I wanted to focus more on the idea of a child feeling as if he were deserted by his parent, someone whom he admired deeply, without being given an explicit reason and left broken and confused. This was a concept that I found really heartbreaking: that a child could be left alone with no where to turn to, no role models to follow, and no clear path to journey through, all the while struggling with his or her identity during a time of crisis. I’m definitely not saying that the relationship between believers and God is like that, but I know personally that there are moments in the walk of faith when you can really feel as if you’re not worthy of God’s love and blessings, and that maybe God really has deserted you because of who you are. I don’t think this is true, but it’s definitely something that many believers struggle with.

I kind of went on the riskier side and decided to write a short story, an allegory of sorts that revolved around this theme. I haven’t explored any creative writing since the sixth or seventh grade, so it didn’t really hit me until around ten minutes before I started writing that I was finally about to sit down at my laptop and start writing a piece of fiction again. Having the opportunity to do this again really brought back some strong emotional connections to the past for me; I really love writing and I haven’t even thought about creative writing since the end of middle school, I believe. My untitled short story ended up having a sort of interesting synopsis. An unnamed boy, presumably a high school senior, attends his last meeting with the school guidance counselor, an unnamed woman who’s known the boy for the past four years and can read him like a book. Throughout the majority of their meeting, silence fills the room and they play a game of chess, a tradition that they continue at every meeting with each other; the length of the game determines the length of the boy’s story for that particular meeting, and thus the length of the meeting itself. As the story continues, it’s clear why the boy sees the guidance counselor so often; he’s plagued by issues with his family, primarily his father, who just recently left the house for no apparent reason. The boy believes that it’s his own struggle with identity and his own self-image as a disappointment that causes his father to abandon his family, although the counselor disagrees. Before the reader is able to tell why exactly the father left or whether or not a resolution can occur, the chess game is announced as a “stalemate” – there is no winner, no loser, and the game has been defeated by a never-ending loop of pointless chess pieces being placed here and there and back again. The boy feels as if he’s driven his father away, and this crushes him to a certain extent inside. If there is a parallel between the short story and “Complaint and Answer”, it is this: sometimes, a child misunderstands, and the absence of a parent can imply many things to such a naïve, insecure soul. Read the rest of this entry »

Session Four: “Children of the Alley”

October 31st, 2014 by leonpan

In all honesty, I have no clue why I immediately thought of Pink Floyd when coming up with a creative response for “Children of the Alley.” Or more specifically, why my first thought when thinking about themes for this particular week was Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album cover. It’s one of the iconic covers of all time, and even though I certainly didn’t do it justice, I think my intention behind it came off pretty clear. “Children of the Alley” is still one of my favorite readings out of all of the ones we’ve done throughout the course, and I think it’s because the message of it was really something that we can all remind ourselves of time and time again. In our current world, a world that’s filled with turmoil and conflict between belief systems and cultures, I feel like our self-reminder to always remember our similarities and common pursuits is integral to keeping conflict at bay and resolving issues such as prejudice and bigotry. “Children of the Alley” shows us that while humans can be divided along certain lines, these lines stem from the same origin and should bring us together rather than drive us apart.

This is especially apparent in the divides between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, divides that have existed for literally thousands of years and continue to exist to this very day. Known as “People of the Book,” followers of these three world religious all share common beliefs at one point or another. In  “Children of the Alley,” for example, the stories of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad are all told one by one, and the reader can see very clearly just how these stories tie together, how we as believers can use lessons drawn from each one of these stories to better ourselves and strength our faiths. In addition, it shows how each of these individuals relates to the one “ancestor” of the Children – Gebelaawi, who represents the origin of these three distinct faiths and thus the commonality that links these three religions together For my creative response, I really wanted to portray the important message that certain beliefs or systems that may appear incredibly different on the external surface may actually hold deep, significant similarities with one another, or perhaps a common origin that makes them more similar to each other than originally perceived. To show this, I decided to draw my own recreation of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album cover with oil pastels. This cover, which features a pitch black background and a triangular prism in the foreground, represents the idea of one “thing” bursting into a multitude of other “things”; this is shown by the ray of light that hits the prism and thus forced to split into the entire range of visible colors of light – a glowing rainbow in the pitch blackness of the background. I thought this fit perfectly with the message I wanted to show with “Children of the Alley” – the idea that one specific thing can essentially be transformed or branched off into so many vibrant, meaningful products that have the power to give meaning and light to darkness. In order to make it more “my own,” I attempted to redraw the main part of the album cover, but instead of a rainbow spectrum of colors, I chose to have the rays made up of different symbols of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The ray of light shooting into the prism, of course, represents God – the same God that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all believe in and the same God that should be uniting brothers and sisters of each faith into a cooperative community rather than keep them as separate rivals.

Religious Pluralism Album Cover

Religious Pluralism Album Cover (based on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”)

Session Three: “The Saint’s Lamp”

October 31st, 2014 by leonpan

I found that the main theme in “The Saint’s Lamp” was identity, something that we’ve discussed in class almost every week. Identity, perhaps, is one of the most confusing things about being human – what is life, after all, than a constant struggle and determination to answer the questions, “Who am I? What kind of person was I in the past, and what kind of person can I become in the future? What, in this never-ending chaos of labels, stereotypes, and cultural boundaries, truly DEFINES me?” In class, we’ve often discussed the dangers that can come about due to the conflicts surrounding identity. People view and label others as having one identity – your race. Your religion. Your skin color, hair color, height, speech pattern, body language, clothes, and the list goes on. Yet what we fail to remember and what we consistently fail to see in each other is the plethora of identities that exists within each of us. I’m Asian. My name is Leon. I’m a Christian. I’m from California. My parents are…etcetera. Having said these characteristics (and with the ability to continue the list virtually endlessly), can anyone really tell who I am as a person? In “The Saint’s Lamp,” we’ve got a prime example of two cultures being stereotyped and presented by each other as if they were destined to clash with one another. On one hand, there’s Fatima – the fragile, but overall gentle and obedient representative of what Ismail’s traditional Egyptian world was to him – and on the other hand there’s Mary, the representative of Western culture that appears to be corruptive of Ismail’s traditional, holy mindset. I felt like Mary – and Western culture as a whole – was almost “villain-ized” in a way, meant to appear shallow, strange, and superficial compared to the way Ismail’s Egyptian world was portrayed.

What I chose to do with Session 3 and “The Saint’s Lamp” was take a picture of each one of my classmates in this seminar, allowing them to make whatever face they wanted. Looking at these different portraits themselves showed me a lot about identity, but I wanted to further emphasize it by researching each students’ name and the meaning/origin behind their names. I’m not 100% sure whether or not these meanings are completely accurate, as many names are more than one meaning, but the point behind this response was to show just one aspect of each of our identities. The result – a collage or poster of sorts, containing portraits of each of my classmates with their names, their names written in the same spelling/characters as they had originated from, and finally the meaning behind each of them. Looking at this collage, one can see that each one of us is incredibly different from the other – we make different faces to the camera, we wear different clothes, have different hairstyles, different voices, different backgrounds, and we have different names with different meanings. If I just gave you a picture of each student with their names, would you know their stories? Would you know their cultural backgrounds, their beliefs, their lifestyles? Even if I gave you in-depth meanings behind the origins of their names, would they accurately describe who they were or what their lives were like? These portrait photos of each of my fellow classmates represent not only our diversity and differences, but also the importance of knowing that our “image” of each other only gives us one identity. We need to look beyond our images and names to explore each other’s different identities and varying backgrounds.


Names and Identities Collage

Names and Identities Collage

Session Two: “An Egyptian Childhood”

October 31st, 2014 by leonpan

Growing up in a predominantly Christian family, I attended church every Sunday with my family from before pre-k to the weekend before I left for college. It was the whole package – morning sermon, afternoon Sunday school, and always with the occasional Friday or Saturday night Bible Study mixed in between. Memorizing Bible verses was something I was familiar with, something I knew was expected of me and, to put it simply, something that all of the other kids did. Something they all had to do. Although I silently followed this instruction for years and years, I came to the realization around my sophomore year of high school that even though I knew so many Bible verses by heart, I couldn’t truthfully say that I knew them. What was the context behind each of them? What did they mean? Did they have the power to transform me or shape me into a better follower of Christ? These are all questions that I still struggle to answer day by day in my developing journey of faith, and it was a pleasant surprise that “An Egyptian Childhood” actually helped me put all of these questions to sense.

In “An Egyptian Childhood,” the author retells the story of his own growing up in Egypt, his struggles memorizing the Qur’an and his many attempts to prove to both his father and his teacher that he could memorize the verses in the scripture without fault. When reading “An Egyptian Childhood,” I was still pretty naïve about what the Qur’an really was and more importantly, what it meant to Muslims all around the world. To me, the Qur’an was “the Muslim Bible,” almost – a very narrow-minded view, now that I think of it, but pretty common for someone who’s only known how to base other religions around his or her own. After reading this novel, I found myself criticizing the narrator – and other characters in the book – for putting so much emphasis on “blindly” memorizing the entire Qur’an without really thinking about the words and what they meant. I realized, at the same time, that this was exactly what I was doing with verses from the Bible – in fact, this was what I’ve been doing since pre-k and above. During class that week, Professor Asani explained something that I had never really thought about previously: constantly reading and repeating scripture, he said, wasn’t just a blind practice that meant nothing once you committed it to memory. Memorization was a way of transforming the Word into something that was a part of you, something that was attached to your very being that you could absorb and feel inside of you. In relation, he explained that the Qur’an wasn’t just something that was meant to be read – it was meant to be heard, to be said, to be treated like an art. It was not only visual, but it was aural.

Using this information, I thought it would be interesting to explore an art form that we had actually seen in class. The calligrams that we saw – images that were created using verses from the Qur’an, in the form of calligraphic Arabic characters – were visually stunning to me, and by seeing the calligrams I could really tell how the Qur’an was so much more than just a book to Muslim believers. I chose to practice some English forms of calligrams – as seen in the “elephant,” “swan,” and “panther” drawings – and finally create my own calligram that represented sacred scripture as an authority that could take the shape of many art forms – visual and aural alike. Now looking back, I can see how this definitely applies to my own study of the Bible and my own “blind memorization” of Biblical verses and parables. Like the Qur’an, the Bible can be viewed as something a lot more than a book – it can reach human hearts through many senses at once, and viewing it through different types of lenses can help you transcend to a new, tangible level of spirituality.

Practice Calligrams