The villain’s villain: Big bads, small fry, and the dynamics of power (Or, A review of SVTFOE: The Battle for Mewni)

Last week, Disney XD released the long-awaited, three-episode Season Three opener of “Star vs. The Forces of Evil,” titled “The Battle for Mewni.”

For those of you unfamiliar with this show, it essentially follows magical girl/rebel princess Star Butterfly of the Mewni dimension after she is sent to Earth to learn how to employ her magical princess powers. She befriends human boy/karate kid Marco Diaz, and together they hop through dimensions and battle the monsters (literally) who would strip Star of her magical wand.

Star GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

From the get-go, there are two main villains in this story. The first is Ludo, a tiny owl-like creature who is intent on getting Star’s wand and has somehow corralled a group of hapless but far more intimidating monsters to do his bidding. The second is Toffee. We’ll get to him in a minute.

Ludo is what I like to call the “Emperor Pilaf” of SVTFOE: determinedly evil but hopelessly (and hilariously) inept. He has moments where he poses a true threat to the life and safety of our heroes, but mostly he’s just there to kickstart the series with some kind of conflict. Like Emperor Pilaf in “Dragon Ball” (and if you have not watched “Dragon Ball,” drop whatever you’re doing and go watch ALL 200 episodes IMMEDIATELY. I’ll wait.), Ludo is there to provide structure and purpose to a set of episodes as a season, as opposed to it simply being our two protagonists (Star/Marco; Goku/Bulma) overcoming a series of minor hurdles.

Excuse me while I quake in fear. Via Tumblr

Ludo in particular provides some much-needed worldbuilding to the SVTFOE universe: he gives us a sense of what monsters’ lives are like and why they would want control over the wand so badly. His misadventures humanizes monsters, which gains increasing importance as the series goes on. More importantly, he is there as a contrast to what true evil really looks like.

And now let’s talk about Toffee.

Toffee starts out as Ludo’s right hand man (*ahem*). He’s clearly the brains of the operation, inasmuch as there is one, and he eventually leads an ouster of Ludo after several episodes of hilarious incompetence.

Unfortunately, the ouster of Ludo is not hilarious, because Toffee is not here to screw around. No, Toffee knows exactly what he’s doing, and he has a plan, a long-term, insidious plan. And thus you have the Big Bad facing off with the Small Fry.

Without giving too much away, Toffee possesses Ludo and uses him as a hapless, harmless-looking vessel from which to achieve his goals. Once he’s done with him, he spits him out – literally.

Yeah, good luck sleeping tonight

“The Battle for Mewni” is the climax of the Toffee/Ludo storyline, in the sense that you see the true extent of Toffee’s powers and his abuse of Ludo. The interaction between Toffee and Ludo in this finale is what really captured my attention.

From the start, it was obvious that Toffee was using Ludo for his own goals. In many ways, Ludo was the perfect tool, since he’d been trying to capture Star’s wand for ages without even the hope of success. Star had no reason, at that point, to see him as a legitimate threat – the most he was was an inconvenience. Who better to hide behind than the one nobody takes seriously?

But here’s the thing: once Ludo outlives his usefulness, he’s tossed out as the viewing audience would expect. But Ludo comes back with renewed vigor and this time, he’s actually successful even without the help of his monster crew. BUT – and I know this is a lot of buts – he’s always clearly inferior to Toffee. At no point does he pose a serious threat to Toffee’s goals.

So why does Toffee use him again?

Why Ludo?

Villain vs. Villain is a lot more interesting than Villain vs. Hero

From where I’m sitting, there doesn’t seem to be anything that Toffee can do via Ludo that he couldn’t do without him. Ludo’s ineptitude makes him a comical figure as the usurping kind of Mewni, but what purpose does that serve? Ludo effectively forces the Mewmans into servitude, but surely Toffee would have been even better at that. And in the end, it doesn’t even seem that Toffee is particularly interested in ruling Mewni – having (supposedly) defeated Star and her allies, he simply turns to leave, walking away from the ruins of Mewni.

Let’s compare this to Dragon Ball one more time. In the second to last arc of the series, Emperor Pilaf and his gang revive the Demon King Piccolo after numerous failed attempts to capture the dragon balls for themselves. Their plan is to use his superior powers to gather the dragon balls and then steal them for themselves.

Image result for king piccolo with the pilaf gang

You can tell already this was a bad idea. Source

This, obviously, is not going to work.

Once again, there is no doubt at any point that the Pilafites are in over their heads. They can never be a threat to King Piccolo because he is simply operating at a level beyond their capacity – they cannot even begin to contemplate the evil that he has planned. And, much as you would expect, he only keeps them around while they are useful to him. Once they’ve outlived that usefulness, he dumps them.

So why does Toffee go back to Ludo when he no longer needs him?

In her blog post, writer Katie Cooney identifies nine elements that make for exciting, threatening villains, and a few of these points are very relevant to a discussion of Toffee. The first is his surface motivation. When we first meet Toffee, it seems pretty obvious that what he wants is power. He pretends to believe in Ludo as a leader, but really he wants to wear that hat himself. He pretends to want the monsters as a group to be successful, and that serves as excellent cover for his ouster of Ludo. And truly, power suits him. (See image above. Not the throwing up one, before that).

But what power really is, is control. Toffee wants control – over the monsters, over the Butterflies, over Mewni. When we see him in flashback, we see that had once had control, over a literal army of monsters who believed in him, and who would have followed him into the depths of Hell (or Heaven, depending on your perspective) because of his ability to project dominance.

And then teeny-bopper Queen Moon cuts of his finger.

This flashback scene, I think, is crucial, because it encapsulates the moment when Toffee’s end goal changed. Now he wants that finger, not in his hand but on it, because it represents everything that he lost in that moment – not just control, but the prestige, the respect, the dominance that gave him that control in the first place.

Without the finger, Toffee is emasculated (and yes, I mean that with all the connotations it implies). As long as he doesn’t have the finger, his need for control is overwhelming. He takes a perverse pleasure in forcing Star to be the architect of her wand’s destruction. And he keeps going back to Ludo.

Ludo is easy to control. He’s small and pathetic and in over his head. Even at the height of his power, he is easy prey. Toffee has influence over the other monsters, but without his finger, he needs something more. He needs that tangible control over Ludo’s mind and body to exert dominance. The stronger his hold over Ludo becomes, the more forward he is about decimating Mewni’s magical population. A fingerless Toffee would never have attacked the magical high commission, but in the body of Ludo, he takes them on with a smile on his face.

Once he has the finger, he can walk away. His prestige has been returned to him. He’s proven that can still exert dominance, can still run the show, without it. With it, he is invincible.

Well, not really, because Star kills him. But you get the idea.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of Big Bad-Small Fry interaction before, and I thought it was fascinating – you can tell because I’m still thinking about it a week later. Now, with Toffee seemingly vanquished and Ludo safely on his way to a redemption arc, I’m excited to see what the show does with new villains. Toffee’s demise left a lot of questions unanswered, and I don’t know how they’re going to top his ‘rise to power’ arc.

Season three of “Star vs. the Forces of Evil” resumes in November on Disney XD.

What do you think? Is Toffee coming back in season three? And will any villain ever be able to make us feel the way he did? Let me know!

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Books you should read instead of the classics: An alternative To Be Read list

Recently, Lizzy of My Little Book Blog wrote about how she gave up on a To Be Read list chock full of classics and must-reads as decided by the Conglomeration of Literature Professors, which as we all know is a branch of the Illuminati.

(That was a joke. Hah.)

The post really resonated with me. I too have a TBR list in some dust-covered notebook that I’ve probably lost. It has a ton of familiar titles, all of which I have now forgotten.

I have, of course, read my share of classics. Jane Austin, the Bronte’s, Charles Dickens, several depressed Russians. My feelings on each vary widely. The only Charles Dickens I’ve ever read that I genuinely enjoyed was “A Tale of Two Cities.” Depressed Russians are great, but not for the books they’re most well-known for. “Crime and Punishment” is a great story but much too long. Leo Tolstoy has a book whose name I no longer recall but that was vastly more interesting than “War and Peace,” which is also too long. “Anna Karenina” is too long and has almost no likeable characters. “The Three Musketeers” is a fun romp, but “The Count of Monte Cristo” is too long and has too many characters. About a solid half of the book could be a separate story.

There’s a theme developing here. It’s not that I’m opposed to length in and of itself, or to multiple storylines. I think a large part of it is that language has changed and evolved and our expectations of what books should do has also evolved in ways that make these books seem less epic and more just long. Really, really long.

So instead, I would like to humbly offer a few alternatives to the classics that dominate our TBRs. Here’s a list of 10 books I think you should read:

The Travels of Ibn Battutah – edited by Tim Mackiintosh-Smith

On the road to Multan and ten miles distant from it is the river called Khusru Abad, a large river that cannot be crossed except by boat. At this point the goods of all who pass are subjected to a rigorous examination and their baggage searched. Their practice at the time of our arrival was to take a quarter of everything brought in by the merchants, and to exact a duty of seven dinars for every horse. When we set about the crossing of this river and the baggage was examined, the idea of having my baggage searched was very disagreeable to me, for though there was nothing much in it, it seemed a great deal in the eyes of the people, and I did not like having it looked into. By the grace of God Most High there arrived on the scene one of the principal officers on behalf of Qutb al-Mulk, the governor of Multan, who gave orders that I should not be subjected to examination or search.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marques

Many of those on the docks knew they were going to kill Santiago Nasar. Don Lázaro Aponte, a colonel from the academy making use of his good retirement, and town mayor for eleven years, waved to him with his fingers. “I had my own very real reasons for believing he wasn’t in any danger anymore,” he told me. Father Carmen Amador wasn’t worried either. “When I saw him safe and sound I thought it had all been a fib,” he told me. No one even wondered whether Santiago Nasar had been warned, because it seemed impossible to all that he hadn’t.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes all our lives. Life without memory is no life at all…Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.

A Border Passage: From Cairo to America – A Woman’s Journey – Leila Ahmed

Even in my own childhood, Zatoun, my mother’s paternal home, was a place palpably apart, imbued with some unnameably different order and way of being. The aura and aroma of those other times and other ways pervaded it still, in the rustle and shuffle of silks and the soft fall of slippers along hallways and corridors, in the talk and gestures and in the momentary tremor of terror precipitated by the boom of Grandfather’s voice, and then the quiet, suppressed, chortling laughter of the women as its boom faded and he passed into the recesses of the inner hall. The order and aroma of another time, other ways, another order.

The Truth – Terry Pratchett

Shall I try again? he said. “Listen carefully. Drugs equal chemicals, but, and please do listen to this part, sheesh, chemicals do not equal drugs. Remember all that trouble with the calcium carbonate? When you paid the man five dollars?

“Made me feel good,” muttered Mr. Tulip.

“Calcium carbonate? said Mr. Pin. “Even for you, I mean…”

Alexander at the World’s End – Tom Holt

The City of Athens, you see, has for quite some time now used Scythian slaves as policemen. Sorry, you don’t know what that word means; it means men paid by the state to keep order and punish people who break the laws (or at least, that’s the theory). We had to use foreign slaves for the job because no self-respecting Greek, let alone Athenian, would dream of doing a job that involved exercising practically unlimited power over his fellow citizens. Quite right, too. Ask yourself; what kind of man would you get volunteering for a job like that? Men who want that kind of power are by definition the last people you’d allow to have it.

Full Moon – P.G. Wodehouse

The moment Tipton set eyes on E. Jimpson Morgatroyd he knew that he had picked a lemon in the garden of medicine. What he had hoped for was a sunny practitioner who would prod him in the ribs with his stethoscope, compliment him on his health, tell him an anecdote about a couple of Irishmen named pat and mike, give him some ointment for the spots, and send him away in a whirl of good fellowship. E Jimpson proved to be a gloomy man with sidewhiskers, who smelled of iodoform and had obviously been looking on the black side of things since he was a slip of a boy.

In the Eye of the Sun – Ahdaf Soueif

How wonderful to simply do things instead of wondering if they are worth doing or discussing whether to do them or being told not to do them or listening to somebody else describe doing them.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

 

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their poet master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning,” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the president of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled “My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles,” when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

What are your must-reads that don’t make the average TBR list? Let me know in the comments below!

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Nadia watches Netflix: A Young Doctor’s Notebook

I don’t know why this show is classified as a comedy.

Is it funny? Yes. There are certainly moments of hilarity that catch you by surprise and make you actually LOL, but they are far outnumbered by the sheer depressiveness that drives the actual plot.

In “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe plays a med school graduate in 1917 Russia. He’s a star student with zero experience, sent out to a small village in the middle of an unending blizzard. The nearest town is three days away, and not surprisingly, our hero is less than thrilled about this, especially with all the excitement happening in Moscow.

The reason we’re being introduced to the young doctor’s rather unfortunate circumstances is because of Jon Hamm, who plays the same doctor 17 years later, in 1934. He’s under investigation and in the process finds the notebook he kept of that time, which also chronicles his descent into morphine addiction, something he is trying to hide from the Revolutionary Guard going through all his stuff.

So not really the premise for a comedy, although again, the show has its moments of hilarity. Mostly these come from the city-bred, educated doctor’s clash with the uneducated residents of this sad little village, whose idea of medicine is limited to “gargle” and “drops.” In one particularly dark/hilarious scene, Radcliffe is insisting on operating on a young girl who is unconscious and clearly dying, her face completely blue. Her mother, sobbing and terrified of surgery, asks, “Can’t you just give her some drops?”

I’m going to be honest and say that I was predisposed to liking this show. I have a fascination with anything set in Russia during the first half of the 20th century, especially during or around the Russian revolution. I also like comedies. As much as I like it, however, there is no denying that the show is dark. Visually, the setting is gloomy and gray. Radcliffe’s life is incredibly dull, stuck as he is in this little hospital surrounded by 12 feet of snow. He becomes more and more disinterested in his patients’ welfare in the face of their ignorance and their admittedly blase attitude to health and hygiene. Still, because the seasons are so short (four episodes each), it seems like he succumbs to depression rather quickly.

Hamm, meanwhile, is struggling to hide his morphine addiction. This is where the show loses me a little. Hamm watches his younger self take morphine and laments his fate, but in reality that’s just not how painkiller addictions work. It’s not something that kicks in from the first moment, especially if, as in the case of our young doctor, you take the painkiller for actual pain. As long as you’re taking a painkiller for genuine physical pain, you should not get addicted – this is why morphine is used in hospitals, but not cocaine or opium (anymore, at least).

In any case, “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” is a show I highly recommend. It’s the kind of show that’s a new take on the well-known setting of revolution-era Russia and pokes a little fun at it while at the same time addressing a difficult – and very modern – issue. One thing I know for sure, after this show, I’m going to read Tolstoy with a very different mindset.

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Why YA literature leads the pack in Muslim representation: A guest post at Words Beneath the Wings

Last week, I had the privilege of being featured on “Words Beneath the Wings,” the blog of #RamadanReadathon founder Nadia. My post discusses why YA lit is always quick on the uptake when it comes to diversity and representation. Read it here:

WHY YA LITERATURE LEADS THE PACK IN MUSLIM REPRESENTATION – GUEST POST BY NADIA ELDEMERDASH

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The nature of human nature: A review of “Last Man in Tower”

“Last Man in Tower” is a novel by Indian writer Aravind Adiga. The story is about the struggle between a real estate developer and the residents (eventually, resident) of the tower block he wants to tear down.

Via goodreads

I was intrigued by the book because its premise is very different from a lot of the “set in India” novels you usually get. Here, there are no arranged marriages, no slum dwellers, no epic Bollywood lifestyles. Instead, “Last Man in Tower” is a story about a universal issue, gentrification, and the impact it has on this one building and its middle-class dwellers.

The developer wants the land in order to build his dream project, and he offers to pay an exorbitant amount of money to the residents of the dilapidated Mumbai tower block so as to tempt them into selling him their flats. The catch: they have to accept the offer by a certain day, and they all have to sell before anyone can get the money.

At first, several residents resist, but the developer is able to convince all of them except for an old retired schoolteacher. And thus the conflict goes from developer vs. residents to everyone vs. teacher.

The teacher, by the way, has good standing in the building – he tutors some of the other residents’ children. But he’s also known for being very strict, so as each resident gives in, their opinion of him warps. Instead of being a lovable if curmudgeonly old man, he becomes a cruel, selfish man who gets a kick out of traumatizing their kids with his outdated teaching methods.

The story, ultimately, is a reflection on human nature. What motivates good people to do bad things? What motivates one person to stand against his neighbors, pitting his will against theirs? How far can you push someone before they crack?

Why is it so easy to turn people against each other?

I won’t tell you what happens, because even the Chronic Spoiler has her limits, but I highly recommend the book. “Last Man in Tower” is a novel that goes beyond its setting to address universal issues, and its one that I think anyone can enjoy and learn from.

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Science fiction digs deep in Haris Durrani’s “Technologies of the Self”

I have a complex relationship with science fiction. On the one hand, few genres are as exciting or have as much potential; on the other hand, the tendency for novels to devolve into “let me explain my theories on particle physics in excruciating detail” is, in my experience, high. So when Haris Durrani told me about his debut novel, “Technologies of the Self,” I was intrigued. When I read the blurb, I was relieved.

Courtesy Haris Durani

Durrani’s novel is really an exploration of law and the state via the medium of time-travel and other futuristic weirdness. It’s already won an award – the Driftless Novella Prize – and (interview spoilers!) may just be the first in a series. Durrani gave me the scoop on how this all came about.

 

You’re an engineer. How did you get into writing?

I cannot remember a time when I was not a writer. My interest in science and robotics arrived hand-in-hand with stories I read about them, and I was immediately drawn to producing those kinds of stories myself. I fell in love with writing after my cousin gave me “I, Robot” and “Ender’s Game” in fifth grade, and the rest is history.

I’m now in law school, a path I probably would not have foreseen as a young reader and LEGO tinkerer. But in retrospect it is a natural progression, since my interest in technology and its stories has always revolved around social and political issues, to which law is fundamental. I like to think my obsession with Isaac Asimov’s “Laws of Robotics” had a lot to do with it too.

Is there an intersection between engineering (or technology) and writing? How is that reflected in “Technologies of the Self”?

Writing is itself a technology…I often think of a provocative passage from “Phaedrus,” in which Socrates tells Plato of the myth of the Egyptian god of writing, Theuth…There are interesting stories about Islamic scholars’ reticence to write down the Qur’an and of scholars who did wudu’u [Islamic ritual ablution] before writing down Hadith, because they viewed the written word as an inferior form of communication. All of this goes to say, the written word is a technology, a result of or catalyst for change. I tend to be a Luddite about these things, but I reluctantly succumb to the necessity of putting words to paper.

“Technologies of the Self” cover, courtesy Haris Durani

Law is also technological. This is at the heart of “Technologies.” The title is a reference to a line from Wael Hallaq’s “The Impossible State,” in which…[he] compares Foucault’s concept of “technologies of the self” – the social and legal mechanisms that regulate the inner self as a means of maintaining order in the modern state, from schools to hospitals to prisons – to Al-Ghazali’s “techniques” – the practice of Islam, from dhikr to prayer to other socio-legal obligations. The story in “Technologies” is an attempt to grapple with the tension between these two kinds of technologies: the external regulation of the self by the state and the internal regulation by practices of faith.

Also, engineering, writing, and law all require creative processes. They operate from and produce innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.

The protagonist of “Technologies of the Self” is an engineer with the same background as yourself. To what extent would you say the character is a self-insert or a way of exploring your own identity?

Yes, the narrator, like me, has a Dominican mother and a Pakistani father and is also a Muslim. But this story is a fictionalization of the experiences of myself and my friends and family. I’m wary of calling it a memoir or a self-insert as much as I am of calling it fiction. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story is about the nature of reality, as much as it may be an attempt to capture it. Junot Díaz once said in an interview that his recurring narrator, Yunior, is not the same person that he is but is “drawn from the same cloth” (I’m paraphrasing), and I feel similarly about my relationship with the narrator of “Technologies.”

Still, it is true that “Technologies” is a way of exploring my identities as well as the lives of my family and friends. In part, I wrote the book because I had never encountered their experiences on any screen, page, or stage. On the other hand, everything I write is an exploration of my identity, regardless of whether I’m conscious of the fact, because I am the writer; who I am inherently shapes the narratives and assumptions that underlie my characters and stories.

You write a lot about science fiction. How do you think the genre can best encapsulate issues of identity for PoC?

I’ve never set out to write so much about the genre but, somehow, that’s what’s transpired…Although science fiction, as much as mainstream literature, has problems with representation, the genre as a whole has mostly fallen outside the mainstream, rejected or neglected by the literary elite. Growing up amidst Western-centric curricula and as one of the few Muslims and students of color in class, this quality attracted me. The average science fiction novel often felt more attuned to social and political issues than the average literary novel. The genre gave birth to authors with radical ideas about race, colonialism, politics, and technology, like Octavia Butler, Frank Herbert, and Kurt Vonnegut.

I think there is sometimes a concern from PoC readers and writers that science fiction is escapist, that it deviates from “real problems in the world” and retreats into “allegory.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The genre has the remarkable ability to reveal what is most true – and perhaps most horrifying – about our society and to force readers to confront these truths, no matter how brutal, unnerving, or uncomfortable.

What’s your take on the rising trend of novels around Muslim identity? Is that something that comes naturally because the 9/11 generation is now at adulthood, or is there something else going on?

Your observation about the 9/11 generation is probably true. I think there is also an increasing thirst within the literary community for these narratives. I’m not always sure that this is a good thing. While there are several great novels about the Muslim identity, most of the successful ones hardly ever relate the experiences of practicing Muslims. There are either “secular Muslims” (Muslim in name and perhaps in belief, but not practicing Al-Ghazali’s “techniques”) that appeal to the liberal idea of what a “moderate Muslim” ought to be, or irrational, militant fundamentalists, which also appeal to the liberal notion of what “religious” ought to be. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of those kinds of characters, because they do exist in the world, but…I am hard pressed to think of more than a few widely-known, popular novels that truly dive into the experiences of a practicing Muslim. This is the group that suffers the brunt of Islamophobia today.

Rather than critique from the sidelines, producing my own work is the best response. I also co-founded The Muslim Protagonist, an annual literary symposium at Columbia University that seeks to give a platform, mic, and audience for Muslim and allied writers. The symposium is now entering its sixth year.

What’s next for you?

I just came out with a novelette, “Champollion’s Foot,” in Mithila Review. It’s about a crew of failed rebels, from a colonized planet of Dominican Muslims, who discover alien detritus in deep space – with jinn. I have a short piece on space law and global economic inequality forthcoming from the exciting new journal Poet’s Country. And I’m Guest Editor for the upcoming Special Space Opera Issue of The Fantasist, an important new journal for long-form fantasy, broadly defined.

And, “Technologies” is only one chapter in a much longer saga…

You can purchase “Technologies of the Self” from Amazon.

This interview has been edited for length.

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The fate of a revolution: A review of “Trip Along Exodus”

There really is no place like home, although that’s not always a good thing.

“Trip Along Exodus” is filmmaker and poet Hind Shoufani’s first feature documentary, at once an exploration of the Palestinian resistance and her own father’s personal journey.

Elias Shoufani’s trials and triumphs (mostly trials) form a path that is shaped by the history of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. It starts in 1948, when at the age of 16 Elias and his family were forced to flee their home. When he attempts to return, he is herded onto a bus along with 20 or so other young men, including his brother, driven to the border, and told that if they try to return again, they would be killed.

From that moment, Elias embraced his refugee status, brandishing it as a weapon, turning it into a symbol of his dedication to the resistance. That dedication is still there at the time of shooting, when Elias is living in a Syria still at the beginning of the war that now devastates it. The film is punctuated with calls between him and Hind, who calls in to check on his health – he’s fine, he tells her, but the city is running low on the most basic supplies. But he refuses to leave. His socialist ideals necessitates that he stay with a people fighting for their rights and their freedom in the country he has lived in for many years.

Socialism and secularism are a defining feature of Elias’s life. Of course,  the time when he became most active in the Palestinnian resistance, the 50s, was marked by a surge in the popularity of socialism throughout the Arab world. The other defining feature is travel. As a refugee, Elias goes from Syria to Jordan to Lebanon to United States (not in that order). He marries, divorces, marries again despite his best instincts, but he is driven by the cause of Palestine wherever he goes. His academic work, technically his job, is essentially a side gig to his role as political strategist to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or Fateh.

It’s when the conversation turns to Fateh specifically that you most get a sense of the passion and fire that must have driven Elias for so many decades. The moral decline of Fateh, as he would characterize it, is perhaps his greatest disappointment, more so even than the continued occupation of Palestine 70 years after he was turned out of his home. In one memorable scene, he is digging out old VHS tapes for his daughter to include in her documentary. She asks him how he expects her to get through Dubai customs with this kind of material. He responds, “Tell them Fateh is dead and these tapes are its funeral.”

“Trip Along Exodus” strikes a deft balance between the personal story of Elias and the broader story of a country’s struggle, but Elias’s emotion and passion are really the draw here. It’s easy to see why so many women found him so attractive in his youth – his personality is intense and focused. Unfortunately, this left little time for his family and children. It’s something he shies away from discussing, insisting as Hind shoots that she change the topic. “I’m sorry Baba, we made you cry,” she says when a tear escapes him.

Perhaps that is part of the reason Elias is so passionate about recounting his time with Fateh, about clarifying his position – his opposition – with regards to Yasser Arafat and the leadership of Fateh in the 1970s and 80s. He wants you to know that he saw through their selfish motives, that he stood against his destructive policies; you can hear it in his voice. Maybe he’s so insistent on this point because he wants his daughters, Hind and her younger sister, to know what he dedicated his life to, to understand why he was so absent, a fact even his siblings acknowledge. Does he have anything to show for it? His children are still refugees, along with more than 7 million Palestinians, including 5 million who are eligible for UNRWA assistance. The trip along exodus continues.

But that’s not what matters, really. If that’s the one thing you get this from this film, it’s that the ends are not as significant as the means. This was a man who lived by his principles to the very end (spoiler alert: he dies), and that is really what he leaves his daughters.

You can watch “Trip Along Exodus” on Vimeo. Seen it already? Let me know what you think!

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Scrapbooking is the new binge: 6 YouTube channels you need to watch

Scrapbooking has never been something I enjoyed. Technically, it’s never been something I really did. I used to cut out pictures from magazines and put them in a folder to reference (for what, I don’t recall), but that was about it.

Which is why it’s so strange that I am now addicted to journaling and scrapbooking videos on YouTube. They are entrancing. I have no idea why I enjoy watching someone put together a photo album or make fancy paperclips when I myself have zero intention of ever doing anything even remotely similar, but there it is. I think that there’s an inspirational component to it, something in the process that triggers ideas in my own mind and feeds into my work. Or at least that’s what I’m going with.

If that sounds like logic to you, check out these channels for some paper-based, analog inspiration:

Amy Tangerine

Some of you may know that I would have liked to be an artist in an alternate universe. In that universe, Amy Tan is basically who I would want to be: she has an art studio, she travels, she’s making a living out of what she loves. Isn’t that the dream?

Of her videos, my favorites are her bullet journal videos, but I also really like her lettering videos and her blogs. The best thing about Amy is that she embraces mistakes. Not everything she makes turns out perfect, but she’s okay with that and it doesn’t stop her from sharing it with the world.

Sea Lemon

I originally found Sea Lemon (Jennifer) on Tumblr, where I watched her make slime. She does a lot of fun stuff on her channel, including DIYs, doodling, planning, all of which I love to watch, but the slime. The slime is where it’s at, guys. It’s not really slime in the Kids’ Choice Awards sense – it’s closer to silly putty. But combined with her soft, steady voice, slime takes on a whole new meaning.

FilizLovesPaper

Filiz is a vlogger whose main focus is papercraft. She does a lot of DIY embellishments and the like, but my favorites are her travel journal and art journal videos. Also, she’s Australian and has an Australian accent. If you are also Australian, that’s probably not a major selling point. Personally, I’m a fan of the Australian accent because it reminds me of my dear friend, Hanan, who lives in Australia and whom I have not seen lo these many years. *sigh*

My Little Journal

Heba Alsibai makes Plan With Me, Project Life, and art videos. My personal favorites are the ones where she draws/paints/sticks things in her traveler’s notebook and pen pal art journal. Plus her videos are short and sweet!

Myriad Inklings

This is technically a study channel, which I did not know was a thing. Obviously, I am not watching someone make study notes, but I do like to watch her plan in her bullet journal. She has a really artistic approach to her bullet journal that is really relaxing and fun to watch.

Minnie Small

Minnie Small is a London-based artist whose YouTube channel is almost entirely dedicated to art. She does some tutorial-style videos, but I personally prefer to just watch her draw.

Who do you like to watch on YouTube for inspiration? Leave me your comments below!

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A teeny tiny #RamadanReadathon reading list

It’s rather late, but Ramadan Kareem!

For those of you who are not familiar with Ramadan, it is the Muslim holy month where observers abstain from food, drink, and (ideally) bad behavior from sunrise to sunset, after which you are free to stuff your face till you explode. Islamic months are on a lunar calendar, so the timing of Ramadan changes every year. This year, it’ll extend through June.

Ramadan to me has always been a great opportunity to do some educational reading. Some of this is by nature religious – interpretations of the Qur’an, for example, or scholarly reflections on the nature of the Qur’an and its purpose. But some is broader, which is why I was so excited to hear about Ramadan Readathon, a reading challenge hosted by another Nadia. (Clearly, I’m predisposed to like this already).

The idea of Ramadan Readathon is to challenge participants to read books by Muslim authors as a way of supporting diverse, authentic voices. Nadia has compiled a TBR list of fiction and YA books on her blog, while Zoya, the other organizer, has a list of nonfiction, anthologies, and graphic novels. There are a lot of great titles on both these lists, including “Love, Inshallah,” Malala Yusafzai’s biography, S.K. Ali’s “Saints and Misfits,” and “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged.”

The point of a readathon, obviously, is to read as many books as possible, but for me, I wanted to set modest goals. Aside from the Qur’anic interpretation I’m working through, I’m also reading “Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law” by Sadakat Kadri. Kadri is a legal historian and human rights lawyer, and in this book he examines the interpretations of shari’a and how it evolves through time and place. Shari’a is a controversial term – it refers to Islamic law, but it’s a much more flexible category than “law” implies. It’s subject to interpretations by scholars and jurists from different cultures and backgrounds, which means that shari’a in one country can look very different from shari’a in another.

I know very little about the shari’a and I’m really interested to get the historical perspective on it. Kadri’s book also promises a lot of fun personal anecdotes, which is always great. Watch this space for a post-Ramadan review!

I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on “The Other Half of Happiness,” the sequel to “Sofia Khan.” Two things that scare my about sequels: 1) the possibility that it won’t be as good as the first book, thus ruining the latter for me, and 2) that it will be good, but so different from what I had hoped that it impedes my enjoyment of it. But, as Scooby Doo’s Fred used to say, there’s only one way to find out.

Finally, a little self-plug: an article I wrote was included in an anthology about hijab, the Muslim head covering prescribed for women! I’m super excited to be featured in a book; it’s called “Mirror on the Veil,” and my chapter is titled “Adventures in Hair and Hijab.” I’ll be reviewing that here too. If you happen to read it, let me know what you think of my piece!

So that’s my very modest Ramadan TBR for this year. If I can read more, well and good, if not, I won’t beat myself up about it. Either way, I hope that it will be an enlightening and blessed month, for me and for all of you! Happy reading!

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Happy birthday, Creative Quibble! Thoughts on a year of creative writing

Happy birthday Creative Quibble!

via GIPHY

I can’t believe it’s been a full year since I started this blog. It feels like two or three months ago. It’s true what they say: time flies when you’re having fun!

I started this blog as a place to gather all my sources of inspiration, and to encourage me to actively seek out new ones instead of waiting until I stumble on something on Tumblr or Facebook. On that front, I think it’s been very successful: I’ve read books that I otherwise might not have discovered, examined the shows and movies I watch more critically, and put down some of my better thoughts (if I do say so myself) on writing and storytelling for posterity (and for me to find them later).

But perhaps the most rewarding part of blogging has been the amazing people I’ve gotten a chance to talk to over this past year. Getting to hear from writers, filmmakers, and artists who’ve “made it,” who are living their passions and making it the cornerstone of their lives, is beyond inspiring to me.

The value of creative expression, of creating art in any form, is in its reflection of the world we live in. It’s an urge that comes from our most basic instincts. Our ancient ancestors returned to their caves from the hunt and recreated it on their walls, imbuing it with meaning beyond simply the provision of food. Through artistic expression, everyday work become rituals, which can be examined, critiqued, and changed. To speak to those who are a part of that is a privilege and a pleasure. If that was the only thing I was doing on this blog, I’d be a happy camper.

That’s why I’m looking to interview even more people here on the blog! If you have anyone you think would be a great fit or who you want to hear from, leave me a note in the comments below! Leave your suggestions for books and movies too!

No one can know what the next year will bring. Heck, no one can know what the next ten minutes will bring! But I’m excited and encouraged, and most of all, I’m happy to have you, dear reader, along for the ride!

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