Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures

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Introductory Essay

One of my favorite metaphors in the texts we read this semester for our Freshman Seminar was that of Rumi’s elephant. This elephant, the mystic explained, was standing in the dark, so that each person who touched him described him differently. One man touched the trunk and thought it was a pipe, another touched the tail and compared it to a snake, etc. Yet, none of these men could see the whole animal, and they could only begin to understand the complexity of the elephant itself if they began to speak to one another and describe what they experienced. This class was very much like trying to understand the elephant. We read the perspectives of many authors and then discussed how each new work influenced our vision of Islam. We shared our own stories too, and expanded our worldview through one another’s eyes. Yet, I know I still cannot see the whole elephant of Islam. I cannot know every experience or belief or cultural difference. I cannot know every individual’s story. However, I now know that there is more than just a snake or a fan. I haven’t discovered every part of the elephant, but I have the tools to absorb new stories and continue to expand my view.

Though I never thought of Islamic peoples or countries as all one in the same, the cultural diversity in the tales of our readings was incredible. Moving beyond Sunni/Shi’a and governmental differences, this class captured how local traditions influence religious practice and belief. In The Suns of Independence, we read of Salimata’s near-death experience with FGC (female genital cutting), which shed light on how important cultural factors are in examining someone’s life story. If, for example, we only tried to understand Salimata’s relationship with her husband and desire for pregnancy by relating it to her religion, Islam, we would miss seeing her whole person. Instead, we must see how her botched traditional initiation ritual and subsequent rape, as well as her beliefs as a Muslim, have made her who she is. In the same way that we need to view Salimata as much more complex than her religion, we must also understand the cultural contexts of our other characters.

One of the stories in which this moves beyond the character and into current events is In the Name of God. Ultimately, by reading this story and understanding the motivations of Kada, from poverty and limited options to wanting to stand out, we can see how someone might potentially, even today, be successfully recruited for an extremist religious group. In the Name of God showed us how appealing it would have been for the characters, as the group promises a good salary, true faith, and strong leadership, three things the rest of the society lacks. We can apply what we learned from this story to our evaluation of the current situation. Clearly, poverty and corruption are two important factors in determining whether someone will seek out a new lifestyle; thus, we must address these two issues to ultimately fight unrest.

We read stories from all over the world, including Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, West Africa, India, and the West. We were able to identify cultural variations and use them to understand the different interpretations of Islam. Governmental control was one such variation that changed the way of life and interpretation of religion. Swallows of Kabul, for example, showed the harshness of living under the Taliban and how religion was used as a way to control the people. Persepolis showed another extreme example of how the state could become obsessed with a certain interpretation of religion and use it to its own advantage. Persepolis also showed how the citizens simply get swept along in the mess of politics. Both of these books filled in some of the gaps in my understanding of Afghanistan and Iran respectively. And, in conjunction with the political commentary in The Beggars’ Strike, I now have a better understanding of how religion can be misused for political gain. Not only does this shed light on the nature of politics and religion, but it also serves as a reminder to not judge countries with national religions (Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) as being truly representative of that strain of religion, as the beliefs are often being distorted for political purposes.

However, that also does not mean that the average citizen would be a better representative of each sect or regional variance of religion (in this case, Islam). Instead, we have learned there is no representative, rather a collection of extremely diverse individual stories that we must work to collect and understand, while also keeping in mind that there will always be gaps in our knowledge. As long as we allow literature to fill in our picture of the world but acknowledge we will never be able to know everything, we can be good scholars. This is a fundamental idea behind the cultural studies approach, which we learned about on our first day of class. This approach to the study of religion takes historical, political, economic, social, literary, and artistic factors into consideration when learning about the context of other people, and recognizes each of these factors, as well as religion itself as dynamic elements. This concept, of an ever-changing world, allows us to have a fluid, rather than stagnant, definition of other people and cultures. This approach to the study of religion is the most important concept that I learned in this course.

Beyond general approach, Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures taught me so much about specific ideas in the study of religion. One of the most interesting ideas that we talked about was nationalism. In the history of colonialism, nationalism has come to mean many things, from the liberation of a people to the inconsiderate re-drawing of boundaries by a conquering European nation. Even today, as we learned in class, nationalism is a double-edged sword. Personally, I sway between being a proud American, holding true the values of freedom, equality, and diversity, and wishing I could be from a place that hasn’t caused so many ruinous wars and invaded other parts of the world. Nationalism, like religion, can spur violent fervor and make people think they are better than others. But nationalism, like religion, can also bring people together into strong, supportive communities. What becomes extremely important is that we take responsibility for our actions as people and don’t use religion or nationalism as an excuse for our actions.

This leads us to the idea that religion is constructed, and is not an active player. People can, as we saw in several of our readings, do things in the name of religion. However, religions do not do anything themselves. So, when people blame Islam for being violent or Christianity for being proselytizing, they are mistaken. People are behind the actions, and people choose to interpret the world and their beliefs in their own individual way. Keeping this in mind, we must realize everyone is an individual and avoid categorizing everyone of one group as the same. It was sad to see everyone react to the Paris terrorist attacks by clamoring to raise hurdles for immigrating Muslims. Not all Muslims committed this act of violence and not all Muslims are the same. My classmates and I understand this, but so many people do not. Indeed, it is not a clash of ideologies, but rather, as we talked about in class, a clash of ignorances, as people misunderstand one another and aren’t tolerant.

The way we perceive the world will ultimately affect the type of world we live in. We can choose to take the approach of understanding, education, and tolerance, or we can choose to ignore the differences around us and stand in opposition to all we see as “other”. Every day, I am disheartened by the words of hate I hear and see around me. I cringe at the calls for oppression. Yet, I do understand. It is terrifying to see what people are capable of, and yes, religious extremist groups have done terrible things. But, we should not be led astray by our fear. Instead, we must embrace and learn. That is what I loved so much about this semester of Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures. I loved that I was being fed material to open my eyes and expand my worldview. No one was telling me to hate, and everyone was telling me stories. I loved the tales of our texts, the wisdom of our professor, and the musings of my classmates. I loved that every Tuesday evening I entered a space of curiosity.

Beginning with story time allowed me to learn about the experiences and perspectives of my peers. I was able to learn about more than just the texts by hearing their stories of the week, and I also understood where they were coming from when they made a contribution to a discussion in class. No one was simply stating fact, but rather their opinion as formulated by their life experiences. I really enjoyed our class because everyone was so interesting, and because everyone was so interested in the subject matter. Our conversation never ran dry, and we would always walk back to the yard each night still discussing ideas from class. We also met outside of class, simply to learn more about one another. I also enjoyed that my classmates asked really good questions, as it made class far more interesting. Questions tying our readings to current events were some of my favorite, as the stories provided similar situations or at least cultural context for contemporary debates.

Every individual is made up of many parts. Every community is made up of many individuals. Every society is made up of many communities. This world is made up of many societies. Thus, if our ultimate goal is to understand the world, we must break it into pieces. And, just like the men examined the Rumi’s elephant in the dark room, we must examine whatever is nearest to us to understand that piece of the world. But then, instead of stopping with the idea that we are touching a snake or a fan or a pillar, we must move on to other domains and find more of the elephant. And, for those areas that are too far out of reach, we must listen to the stories of the people on that side of the elephant to discover what they have found. We cannot be every person, so we must share through stories. Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures taught me a lot about the study of religion, the diversity within Islam, and a variety of cultures around the world. I learned from my incredibly interesting and intelligent classmates and a fabulous professor who taught us important background information, gave us a framework for analysis, and allowed our discussions to follow tangents. I looked forward to class every week, and I am sad that the semester is over, though I know I will continue to approach my understanding of the world in the ways I have learned in this class.

This portfolio of creative works is a collection of my artistic responses to the majority of the readings of this semester’s class. Each week we wrote longer (~700 words) written responses to each of the readings for the week, and these were collected in a discussion format on the class website. Then, with the ideas we voiced in these responses in mind, we had class discussions. From these discussions, we drew the larger themes and ideas of the week, and from there we made creative responses to 10 of the texts. My artistic collection includes paintings, drawings, a poem, a collage, mehndi designs, a print, charcoal, and a sculpture. The 10 texts I responded to are: The Beggars’ Strike, Madras on Rainy Days, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, In the Name of God, The Children of the Alley, Jasmine and Stars, An Egyptian Childhood, The Complaint and the Answer, The Saint’s Lamp, and We Sinful Women.

 

 

The Beggar’s Strike

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Is begging a trade; rather, is it a necessary part of society? This is the question that The Beggar’s Strike seeks to address, while simultaneously tackling political corruption and countering using religion for gain. The city politicians constantly complain about the way the beggars clog up the streets and discourage tourism, but when the beggar’s leave, the leaders don’t know what to do. This is because they constantly ask the marabouts for help, and the marabouts always tell them they can solve their problems by giving certain alms to beggars. Without beggars, they can’t give alms or receive the blessings and good fortune that comes from giving alms. Slowly the city men begin to realize that the beggars are indeed necessary.

My art piece is about the before and after of the beggar’s strike. Before, the beggars sat on the street, receiving meager alms and scraping by. After, they lived, as described in one scene, like princes because everyone kept visiting them and raining gifts upon them, as their services became more visibly valuable. On page 58 of the story, we can see the description of the battu-bearers before the strike, people said to “have nothing, absolutely nothing, and who would starve, were it not for their battu that they stretch out to passers-by.” Two pages later, we see where they stand now, “the beggars are living like princes…donations rain from heaven…” This stark difference points out the power of a strike, and, indeed, the importance of the beggars for the society.

Madras on Rainy Days

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Madras on Rainy Days is a novel by Samina Ali that tells of a woman torn between two cultures, that of India and that of the United States. She spends almost one half of each year on each continent, and while her parents are Indian, she feels like she has strong ties to the U.S. As the novel begins, she is brought back to India for her arranged marriage to a man she does not know. Yet, while in the U.S., she did the unthinkable and had sex with a man named Nate, and now she faces pregnancy and the consequences of her spouse and father finding out she is no longer a virgin.

Marriage is the focal point of this story, and thus I chose to do Mehndi drawings on a pair of hands, as Mehndi is central to bridal decoration at Indian weddings. Though I used wedding designs as inspiration, I created the final designs for my roommate’s hands on my own, incorporating flowers, dots, and abstract lines to make her hands both interesting, and, in a way, hidden. The characters in Madras on Rainy Days have many secrets. The mehndi represents this in two ways. Firstly, the interweaving designs are like secrets in themselves, as it is difficult to try to unravel their meaning. Secondly, the mehndi works to cover up the hands underneath, and it is hard to see the truth without being distracted first.

I liked working with the mehndi because it required very careful forethought, as any mistake would last as long as the design (~2 weeks). This permanence also reflects the idea of marriage as an institution of life, which is challenged in this story with the marriage of Layla’s parents. However, even they pretend to still be married in India because it is too shameful to not follow tradition. The mehndi represents the binding oath that the marriage will contain; the oath that Layla wants to avoid. Yet, she must wear it and follow the preparations for the wedding because she can’t let anyone know what is hidden underneath.

The Journey of Ibn Fattouma

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The Journey of Ibn Fattouma combines the historical tellings of the Journey of Ibn Battuta with the political musings of the author, Naguib Mahfouz. Just like Children of the Alley, Mahfouz changes another story to fit the purposes of his commentary. Like Ibn Battuta, Ibn Fattouma travels from place to place, and settles in each one, sometimes marrying and having children, and sometimes just observing in passing. However, instead of building mosques along the way, Ibn Fattouma’s purpose is to learn about other societies to hopefully improve the failings of his own or identify a perfect society. He travels from his home in the land of Islam to Mashriq to Haira to Halba to Aman to Ghuroub to his final destination, Gebel. Each of these places is associated with a particular type of government and society (from tribal clans to a monarchy to democracy). Mahfouz points out the failings and benefits of each as he tells Ibn Fattouma’s tale. Finally, Ibn Fattouma reaches Gebel, which is some sort of heaven.

For this art piece, I chose to paint a map because I felt like that represented the journey best. I imagined a route full of twists and turns as Ibn Fattouma caravanned to each city. I also made his route roundabout to communicate the idea that life is a journey that may not take you in a straight line, and you may have years of detours on the way. But, as Ibn Fattouma’s life shows, you will eventually get to your destination as long as your persevere (his goal was Gebel). At the end of the journey is Gebel, which is in the mountains and near a river, which is my idea of heaven when compared to the desert of the other areas.

In the Name of God

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This book, written by Paula Jolin, was extremely heartbreaking, as we see a village fall into violence and terror as an extremist religious group first recruits members and then kills anyone they wish. The deepest sadness comes from the well-illustrated idea that recruits may not understand what they are doing until it is far too late. We also see that the community turns against itself, and friends murder one another simply because of they are told. This is incredibly pertinent to current events, as we deal with extreme terror groups that use strong recruiting tactics and ultimately kill many people.

The title of the novel, “In the Name of God,” is closely related to the saying that many people say Islamic extremists yell before committing an act of terror (Allahu Akbar, which means God is great and implies that the violence was done in God’s name). However, doing something in the name of God, as it occurs in this book and in real life, doesn’t truly mean God sanctions it, and it certainly doesn’t mean that other people within the same religion believe the same thing. Thus, the violence we see done in the name of God is just violence that extremists and journalists alike are blaming on a religion.

I created this piece to represent the violence committed by the extremist group in this novel. I specifically depicted the scene in which the severed head of a villager is found on the bridge, as a public display of the group’s violence. I found that this scene really stuck in my head, as it was very gruesome, but also because it seemed so twisted that anyone could think that violence like that is condoned by God, who is supposed to be all-loving and merciful. I made a print for this piece, so I carved my design into a styrofoam printing block and then I rolled it with paint, and then I printed it on paper. The printing process was actually much harder than I expected, as I had to make sure the images appeared and the layers were even. The process also limited my colors, which I think helped me make a clearer, simpler, and more stark image. Above the print, I wrote “bi-issim allahu,” which means “in the name of God.”

The Alley of Gebelawi

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The Children of the Alley, by Naguib Mahfouz, is a clear analog to the stories of the Holy Qur’an, from the story of Adham, which clearly comes from the story of Adam, to the stories of Gabal, Rifaat, and Qassem (respectively analogs to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammed). There is such an expanse of history and variety of beliefs and stories told in the book, that I found capturing the essence of the book in a single image to be quite difficult. It is as if I had to try to fit the origin stories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam into one painting, and then further integrate them with the concept of science (as the last chapter of the novel does). Thus, I decided to focus on the location. Because, though the characters can easily be seen as representatives of people in the Qur’an, the location was invented by Mahfouz to be symbolic. Thus, instead of God living in heaven, Gebelawi lives in a great white mansion. And, instead of taking place in different areas, this alley contains the history of all of the great men of the Quran. Because location is so important, I painted the mansion and the alley where we see everything take place. I put the mansion at the top not only because it contains power, but also because we associate heaven with being above us. The road is the road of the literal alley, but it is also the path to and from heaven. When Adham and his wife are kicked out (just like Adam and Eve are forced to leave Eden), they leave the mansion, and go down the alley road to make a new home. And, just as some humans aim to get to God and Heaven after death, the characters in the novel aim to reenter the mansion.

 

 

 

Rumi’s Elephant

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In the introduction of Jasmine and Stars, Fatemeh Keshavarz references Rumi’s story about the people identifying an elephant as various other things because it is dark and they cannot fully see the whole animal. This story is meant to reflect the idea that often we only look at one narrow perspective of something and fail to miss the big picture. I am in complete agreement with that. The world is vast, and yes, perspectives are often skewed because people look too closely at one view of things without recognizing that there are other parts of life. But, in some ways, I am confused by this metaphor. It seems to me that Rumi is saying it is indeed possible to see the whole elephant, as long as you turn the lights on (or the sun rises… essentially there just has to be light). However, it seems that Fatemeh Keshavarz is saying that we never can fully switch on the light in understanding another culture or religion. Yes, I know that I am not fully conscious of everything that goes on, and I am not claiming that I could ever understand every perspective of every person on Earth. That would be irrational and unrealistic. In some ways, though, I feel like her perspective is a bit defeatist and could be interpreted by others (in fact, has been interpreted by others) to mean that we should even try. I am not using this space to counter Fatemeh Keshavarz or tell Rumi that his story isn’t all-encompassing. Rather, I just want a put in a plug for people who try. I want to shine a little bit of light on the people, like my colleagues and professor in Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures, who try to make their candle brighter and see more of the elephant. It is, in a literal sense, impossible to truly understand the entire elephant. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. We must educate ourselves to learn more about the world around us, and we shouldn’t be told that trying is worthless. We should be embraced by the world because we are really trying. We are working as hard as we can to see more of the elephant, and we should be acknowledged for that. By telling others that they can never fully understand us, we aren’t telling a lie, but we are also being insensitive to the fact that they are attempting to understand.

 

For this piece, I created Rumi’s elephant, as it is described by all of the people who touch the elephant’s different parts. Thus, the ears are fans, the tail is like a snake, the trunk is a big pipe, the legs are like pillars or trees, and the back is like a throne. I creates this piece with paper scraps, a piece of birch bark, some ribbon, and foil. I used these elements to bring Rumi’s imagined elephant into existence—each scrap of perspective pieced together into a whole elephant.

Stuck behind the Maize

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“However, if there has remained to him any clear distinct memory of this time about which there is no cause to doubt, it is the memory of a fence, which stood in front of him and was made of maize stems and which was only a few paces away from the door of the house.

He remembers the fence as though he saw it only yesterday. He remembers that the stalks of which this fence was composed were taller than he was, and it was difficult for him to get to the other side of it.

He also recalls that the stalks of this fence were close together, as it were stuck together, so that he could not squeeze between them. He recollects too that the stalks of this fence stretched from his left to an ending he could not conjecture; and it stretched from his right to the end of the world in that direction….”

 

The opening scene of An Egyptian Childhood may seem, at first, to be mostly unrelated to the rest of the story, simply dropping in a few details about location and then moving on. However, the author’s memories set up the themes and ideas of most of the remainder of the work. An Egyptian Childhood tells the story of a young blind boy who grows up in Egypt, and focuses especially the time he spends learning to memorize and understand the Quran. This opening scene, while not mentioning the Quran, does explain the background of the author’s circumstances and the sources of the author’s happiness. The fence of maize is described as going on forever in either direction, simultaneously providing him with a clear path to follow (which he does, going on adventurous walks to the canals to both the right and the left) and keeping him enclosed, unable to push his way through the maize like the bunnies he so admires. The fence of maize also reflects the limit that his eyesight imposes on him. You will notice that he begins his trip down memory lane not with a visual descriptive, but by guessing the time of day based on the amount of warmth and breeze he felt on his face. This then leads into his experience of the maize field, which very tactile.

 

This scene, as well as how it relates to the rest of the story is what I decided to depict in my art reflection for this week. I began by making a box out of maize-like plants. I couldn’t make it infinite in all directions for obvious reasons, so that part you will have to imagine. Then, I created an opening in the side of the box. I wrote out a verse of the Quran in Arabic on a sheet of paper and then extended it reaching out through the opening so that it looks like it is flowing out of the box. The maize box is a depiction of the first scene of the story. The Quran verse leading through the hole is a symbolic depiction of his studies of the Quran enabling him to escape the cornfield and also to escape from the confines of his blindness. Even though he is blind, he is still considered throughout the story to be a strong student studying the Quran.

The Complaint and The Answer

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Charcoal Drawing based on The Complaint and The Answer by Iqbal

“The Complaint” and “The Answer” are complementary poems written by Pakistani poet Muhammad Iqbal that act, respectively, as the voices of a Muslim and of God speaking to one another. In “The Complaint,” an unsatisfied Muslim asks God why he is not being rewarded for all of the devotion he has given. He wants riches in return for his prayers and he complains that he has not yet been adequately compensated for his efforts in piety. God responds in “The Answer,” explaining to the Muslim that one should not expect direct rewards for submission. God says that Muslims these days are focusing on the wrong things, like material wealth. He tells his follower to stop “sitting snug” and waiting, and instead find an art and do something. He points out the many exceptions people make from religious obligations, and then asks the follower how he could think that was devotion. He also says that even if Muslims do everything right, they might not be rewarded because rewards happen in the after life of eternity.

In my charcoal drawing based on these poems, I tried to highlight several of my favorite images and use images to explain some of the meaning of the text. I found, at points, that the text wasn’t entirely easy to understand, so I hoped my images would help clarify the poet’s words. The dominating image in the piece is the pair of the nightingale and the rose in the lower portion of the drawing. The rose and nightingale imagery is repeated throughout South Asia literature, and often signifies the lover-beloved pair. The nightingale sings and laments to the silent and slightly mean (thorny) rose. This image was brought in at the beginning of the poem, and is later scattered throughout. Though it is not entirely clear, it seems as though Iqbal wants to portray the complainer as nightingale, constantly hoping for some reward from the rose. In my portrayal of the pair, I made the nightingale quite large and further up on the page than one might expect. Usually the nightingale is seen as deferring and looking up to the rose, but in the poem, the Muslim is simultaneously begging for God’s attention and telling God what he is doing wrong. I tried to make the bird look sad at not being recognized by God (in the eye), yet happy in his singing (enjoying complaining).

Another image I drew is that of a Muslim submitting to God. The Muslim is engaged in one of the daily prayers, and he faces Mecca’s Ka’aba (the black box on the left). This submission is on the rose side of the drawing because it is representing what God wishes all Muslims would do (be more devoted). I added a spin to my depiction of the Ka’aba, however, by drawing money pouring into it as if it were a piggy bank. This is meant to represent that the Muslim who is submitting is also really interested in wealth and is unsure where to draw the line between religious and personal gain (like the complainer in the text). I also drew the graveyard that God said Muslims might be willing to sell, even though it contains their fathers. I also drew the planets that are in “The Answer” because I loved the image of the celestial bodies discussing God. Finally, I drew a wrinkled pear inside the outline of a ripe pear. This represents the dichotomy in the way that God and the complainer view the complainer’s actions. The complainer thinks he has done enough and should be rewarded, but God sees his effort as weak and incomplete.

 

 

 

The Saint’s Lamp

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Piece 1: The Saint’s Lamp/ Session 3: The nature of religious authority

The focus of this week’s readings was the nature of religious authority, and we began with traditional opposing forces of religious authority in The Wedding of Zein. In that story, we saw the differences between a mystic (Hadeen) and an Imam, as well as between political and religious authority. Yet, in Yahya Haqqi’s short story The Saint’s Lamp, we moved past the nature of authority within one society, and began to examine conflicting authorities in a global context.

With globalization, every individual around the world is presented with many versions of the world, one of which they have grown up with as their own view. This view, created by one’s parents and the environment one grew up in, is the default perspective until one actively decides to look from a new perspective. In The Saint’s Lamp, Ismail did exactly that, leaving Egypt for an education in England. Once abroad, he absorbed the ideas of “the West,” embracing science and secularism, and putting his Egyptian background on pause. However, when he returns to Egypt near the end of the story, he becomes utterly confused and can’t decide whether he likes Islamic or Western ideas more. This opposition is slightly misaligned because religion and a region are not parallel ideas. Yet, in the end it makes sense because he combines both. Like most people torn between different cultures, he must find a proper balance. In the end, he chooses to blend his two influences, mixing faith and science. What I find interesting about this story is that it points out that Islam and Western society are not at odds with one another, but rather contribute to different elements of life.

For this piece, I chose to create a colored pencil and pen ink drawing to represent the dichotomy of the East and the West. I placed the saint’s lamp in the middle to represent the fragility of the balance between the two influences, as well as the fact that while the lamp is at times his source of comfort and peace in the world, he ultimately breaks it. I drew it because it can be both peaceful and a reminder of his distress in sorting out his differences between the two cultures. I feel like this is a struggle that many people have today, as globalism points out the good and bad parts of one’s own culture in comparison to others. In opposing corners, I have two simple representations of the East and the West. The East, heavily associated with Islam in this story, is represented by and Egyptian mosque. The West is represented by Big Ben in England (Ismail’s place of schooling). What is interesting is that, despite the differences in roundness, many of the architectural elements of the two are similar, with low walls and high towers.

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