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.

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!

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!

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!

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!

Perspective and proportion in the modern era

Life is what you make of it. Literally.

At least, that’s the thought that’s been running through my head of late. I’m currently reading three books at the same time: “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong, “Diaspora Politics” by Gabriel Sheffer (just a little light reading, you understand), and one of my all-time favorites, the complete “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams.

Why yes, it is an interesting combination.

I honestly don’t know how I ended up with these three together, but the end result is that it is occurring to me that there are very few absolute truths in the world. Everything we know is tied up in the lives we live and the worlds we inhabit, which can be infinitely different from those of others. In the second Hitchhiker’s book, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” (probably my favorite in the series), Adams really takes this concept home: we live in worlds that revolve around our own heads.

To show us this, Adams takes our hero (sort of), Zaphod Beeblebrox, the fugitive former President of the Galaxy, and puts him on the abandoned Frogstar World B, where he will be placed in the Total Perspective Vortex, the worst kind of torture in the universe. Here’s how it works: it shows you just how small and utterly insignificant you are to the functioning of the universe. Adams writes:

For when you are given just one momentary glimpse of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here”.”

…And into one end [Trin Tragula, the Vortex’s inventor] plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Of course, Beeblebrox survives the ordeal (I won’t tell you how, but rest assured: it is hilariously Improbable). But the point is that we live in worlds were we are the center of the universe. We are naturally selfish creatures, and it’s not entirely our fault. We don’t have insight into how other people think or live or experience the world. We say, “walk a mile in their shoes,” but it’s not just about the shoes; people walk at different speeds and in different directions.

So how is this related to religion and diasporas? Well, I haven’t gotten though the other two books yet, but already I’m seeing that a lot of what’s being described is basically “the world according to [fill in group/community/country here].” They are not observable facts or objective analyses. When it comes to religion, this might not be so surprising because the most basic factor in a religion, the god, is unobservable. Religion by nature relies on faith to one extent or the other – of course, such faith can appeal to logic, but the appeal must be limited because the object of faith cannot be seen or experienced in a tangible manner. But what is really quite interesting is just how subjective and narrow history can be. You’d think history would be pretty simple: it either happened or it didn’t. The problem is that these facts are not created in isolation nor are they interpreted in isolation.

As a writer, I believe firmly in facts. There are things that happened, and things that didn’t. There are things that exist, and things that don’t exist (or at least cannot be proven to exist by current methods available). There are things that are true, and things that false. Furthermore, each individual has the resources to confirm said facts in a way that was not possible even 30 years ago.

This is important. In an era where many would rather have us believe “alternative facts,” we need to mobilize social media to establish truth from falsehoods and fact from fiction. But this requires a level of personal responsibility from each of us, to be honest, to be accurate, and to own up to mistakes when they are inevitably made, as quickly as possible.

Not everyone will meet that responsibility. And there will always be subjectivity in reporting, whether it’s in journalism or history books or academic papers, because we’re all humans and we’re by nature subjective. But the act of seeking out truth, the act of aiming for objectivity and acknowledging when we are incapable of it, is crucial. We have to try. Our sense of proportion depends on it, because even if we are just microscopic dots on a microscopic dot, we’re not microscopic to each other.

This post was adapted from one that originally appeared on my personal blog, Nadia’s Writing, now defunct.

Burn any incriminating documents: The power of the written word

I like to watch a show called “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Yes, I watch too much TV. Don’t judge me!

But this show is historical, so it’s practically educational! It’s like watching the History channel, if the History channel actually showed any historical programming. But that’s a post for another day.

So the show, for those of you with productive lives, uncovers the ancestral roots of celebrities. Some of the episodes are, frankly, pointless. Kind of like the celeb in question was pitched the idea and was like yeah sure, I’ll dig into my historical background just for the heck of it. Then they have to come to some sort of deep realization at the end of the episode.

(FWIW, @RobLowe, patriotism is NOT an inheritable trait. You cannot believe how much this annoyed me.)

Some, however, are actually quite meaningful and the person really learns something important about themselves (see, for eg., Christina Applegate’s episode, which could not have worked out better if it had been scripted. Julie Bowen’s episode was also quite the emotional rollercoaster).

One episode I thought was really interesting was the one featuring Sean Hayes. He starts out wanting to know why his father abandoned him and ends up going to Ireland to dig up his great-grandfather’s criminal record. I couldn’t help but think, poor great-grandfather Hayes, he traveled across the world to get away from that criminal record and all the people and situations that led to it, and here comes his great-grandson, who didn’t even know he existed until what, like two weeks ago, and is airing it out for the entire nation to see! Damn descendants!

It really is a testament to the power of the written word. We live in an era where everything we tweet or post lives forever and we’re constantly warned about the dangers that poses, but the truth is that anything you write down anywhere could haunt you even beyond your grave (which is ironic, since you should be the one doing the haunting. Geddit?).

Terry Pratchett writes about this a lot in his fantasy novels. The Wee Free Men, tiny aggressive little blue guys, are terrified of having anything written down because they’re afraid it’ll be used against them (this is not a paranoid thought given their criminal proclivities). The books in the library at the wizarding university have the power to “make fireworks go off in the privacy of one’s brain.”

So it’s not just tweets is the point I’m making here. I think we like to believe we live in a unique age that poses unheard of challenges when it comes to privacy and public image, and that’s not untrue in a sense. But ultimately, just as deleting a tweet often cannot kill it, apparently you have to burn down your local county records house before you leave the country if you really want to lose that criminal record. Hey, what’s a little arson after assault?

Please don’t commit arson. Or assault.

This post originally appeared on my personal blog, Nadia’s Writing, which is now defunct.

Never go with a guy to a second location: A review of Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

A good friend of mine recently recommended the book “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” by Ayisha Malik. It was a book that had been on my radar for a while, so I took this as a sign that this was the time to read it.

Via goodreads

“Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” follows the trials of – you guessed it! – Sofia Khan, a Pakistani Muslim Londonite working a rather unfulfilling jobs as a book publicist. (A little self-insertion on the part of the author? You know where I stand on this).

Sofia inadvertently suggests writing a book on Muslim dating, such as it is, and gets roped into doing it herself. She gets an advance she can’t refuse, and signs up to an online dating site for people from the Indian subcontinent.

Meanwhile, Sofia’s preexisting love life presents recurring issues. A relationship on the cusp of marriage has recently broken down because of the boyfriend’s insistence that she live with his parents per South Asian custom. Sofia’s 30 years old, and she really liked this guy, and she struggles with the breakup even as she embarks on new dating adventures for “research.” It doesn’t help that these adventures are extremely disappointing. One man in particular is everything that is wrong with men as a group. He’s self-centered, noncommittal, aimless, looking to kill time with Sofia while he waffles through life. Unfortunately for our protagonist, he is also very charming (these types often are), and we spend a lot of very frustrating time with him.

While this is happening, we’re also introduced to Sofia’s family – traditional South Asian parents and her sister Maria, who is getting married – and her friends, each with their own romantic problems. Her coworkers also form a significant portion of her social circle, misconceptions of Islam and South Asian culture included, as well as aloof Irish neighbor Conall.

I thought this book was great! It was a refreshing departure from a lot of “Muslim narratives” out there, that tend to revolve around arranged marriages, government corruption, gender-based oppression, etc. This is just an average girl living an average life, and she happens to be a Muslim from a South Asian family. That obviously has it’s impact on the trajectory of the story, as it impacts the kinds of decisions Sofia and co. make and the way in which those decisions are implemented. But it’s not the crux of the story. Yes, it’s about Muslim romance, but the story doesn’t live or die on details like Sofia’s ex’s attachment to his parents or on her friend’s struggle with polygamy (a detail I personally found rather pointless in that it presented a very serious and controversial issue and then barely addressed it).

Ultimately, Sofia is a fun-loving, lighthearted working gal, faced with a life that becomes increasingly serious over the course of the novel: the book that needs to be written, the tension between her sister and her now-husband, pressure from her parents to just pick a guy already, etc. As these conflicts heighten, we see Sofia struggle to handle it all – her personality makes her, I think, averse to this level of seriousness. That nuance in the story’s development was something I really appreciated.

Overall, “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” is a funny send-up of love, marriage, generational conflict, and the push and pull second generation kids are always balancing. It’s also a great example of the kind of Muslim representation that I personally would like to see more of. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to picking up the second installment, “The Other Half of Happiness.”

Have you read this book? Share your opinions in the comments!

An ode to Terry Pratchett on his birthday

Well, not an ode really. Just a blog post. A post to Terry Pratchett on his birthday.

For those of you who don’t know, famed British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett died two years ago, leaving behind a plethora of some of the best, funniest, most inspiring fantasy novels ever written – most significantly, the “Discworld” series.

I’ve mentioned Pratchett a few times on this blog, and that’s because he was a formative influence in developing my reading tastes and in understanding the interaction between politics and society.

My first introduction to the amazingness that is Terry Pratchett came in the form of the Discworld novel “Soul Music,” wherein Death’s (as in the Grim Reaper) granddaughter is forced to take on his duties while he contemplates the meaning of life, to the extent that he has one. As Susan Sto Helit takes up the Grim Reaper’s mantle, magical horse and skull rate included, she crosses path with a young musician who is meant to die in a stupid accident. As Susan struggles with the apparent unfairness of taking a young life in such a meaningless way, the man is saved…by music.

Then, he and his band invent Rock N’ Roll.

Via goodreads

To say that “Soul Music” is a rolickin’ good time is an understatement. This book is gold from start to finish.

“There are millions of chords. There are millions of numbers. And everyone forgets the one that is a zero. But without the zero, numbers are just arithmetic. Without the empty chord, music is just noise.”

– Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

From there, I was hooked. At time of writing, I’ve read the bulk of the Discworld novels and a few of Pratchett’s other books. The beauty of Pratchett’s writing is that it’s not just about the laugh. Discworld is a parallel to the real world, in many ways a mirror of it – its countries based on our own, its civilizations and cultures mimicking ours. And with that comes all the good and all the evil people create: racism (or speciesism, if you want to get technical), sexism, xenophobia, insulation, tyranny, money (which is a special kind of evil when amassed in too large a chunk).

[T]here…are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, follow any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin…without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.

Lord Vetinari in Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett was the first person I ever heard ask: Who watches the watchmen? Who guards the guards?

These are two of the most important questions a society can ask itself. It goes to the core of what keeps societies intact: trust, in a system, in justice, in fairness. In the idea that if you work hard and stand up for what’s right, you will find those who will stand with you and you will prevail.

It’s an optimistic belief that too often fails to manifest here on Earth, but in the Discworld Pratchett’s acute sense of justice can prevail.

That’s what makes his books so great. They’re funny and deep, so you laugh as you marvel at the selfishness and deliberate stupidity of beings, human and otherwise.

So today’s the anniversary of his birth, so I wanted to take a moment to remember all the good times I’ve had on the Discworld, relive them, and say thank you, Terry Pratchett, for asking me the important questions, for making me laugh, and for inspiring me to want to write my own books.

And speaking of writing, I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from the man himself:

In my experience, what every true artist wants, really wants, is to be paid.

-Glod the dwarf in Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Ain’t that the truth?

Arabic lyrics with Southern music: KUWAISIANA lead singer talks about his mashup of Arabic and indie rock

A while back I connected with musician PlusAziz, a musician of Kuwaiti origin based in New Orleans. I listened to some of his band, KUWAISIANA’s music – and let me tell you before we get any further that I am not a music buff by any means. But even I can tell when a song is cool.

Cover art for the KUWAISIANA Willow Show – courtesy PlusAziz

The interesting thing about KUWAISIANA is that it is envisioned as a mashup of jazz and blues music and Khaleeji (Arab Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, etc.) dialect singing. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I lived in the Gulf region for a decent chunk of time as a kid, and when I was there in the early 2000s, Khaleeji music was pretty much all there was to listen to on the radio. You didn’t get a lot of Egyptian or Lebanese songs until maybe 2004 or 2005.

As a result, Khaleeji music has a special place in my heart. The thing, though, is that it has a very specific, traditional beat to it. There’s an underlying drum rhythm that lends itself to traditional Khaleeji dance that exists in pretty much all my favorite Khaleeji songs, and it’s really not something you can recreate in blues music.

Naturally, therefore, I was interested in getting PlusAziz’s input on his band and why he does what he does.

What’s behind the name “KUWAISiANA”? (Is it Kuwait-Louisiana?)

Yes! It is Kuwait-meets-Louisiana.

KUWAISIANA, as a name or title, comes from the recognition of cultural parallels between Louisiana and my hometown of Kuwait. When it comes to music, both of their musical traditions evolved out of exchanges with foreign cultures coming together and forming something cohesive. The collective nature of a New Orleanian “2nd line” is, from an anthropological point-of-view, similar to the Kuwaiti “samri” or a Bahraini “jalsa.”

Both are also crippled by high obesity rates, poor infrastructure. These linkages are very subtle at the moment because the band is not even a year old, but this is the cultural trajectory I would like KUWAISIANA to work within.

New Orleans emerged as the turnkey solution for me when I was considering a next step after New York, where I recorded a debut EP as a solo artist titled SoHo Sprit (2014). I wanted to move to a “music city” in the American South because it’s a region I romanticized since I was a teenager. Oddly enough, the band was supposed to be a simple rock trio with me singing in Arabic. But the makeup of the band took a life of its own and I was suddenly dealing with seven other musicians who augment the sound and bring in different varieties of world music grooves. Luckily, I’m still rocking out in Arabic but the sound palette has undergone a poignant evolution.

What made you decide to start an indie rock band?

The short answer to that is music videos. Growing up in Kuwait, I would wake up around 3-4am to watch and record music videos on VCR. 16 tapes later, I was sold on the dream of forming a rock band. In particular, Smashing Pumpkins’ music videos were very compelling (visually and lyrically). After that, I would fall in love with a few other bands like Sigur Ros, The Mars Volta, Gorillaz, and Deftones.

KUWAISIANA at Howlin’ Wolf – photo courtesy PlusAziz

My musical intention in moving to New Orleans is to address the problem that Khaleeji music has virtually no presence in “world music” (a catchall genre which captures all non-Western music). The most prominent musical heritages in world music hail from North Africa, the Levant, Turkey, Iran, and India. Basically everywhere across the Middle East minus the Arabian Peninsula. These regions have set a standard that independent Khaleeji musical artists have yet to meet in my opinion.

I initially wanted to do a stripped-down alternative rock trio where I sang in my Kuwaiti dialect. In typical New Orleans fashion, I kept the door open for other musicians to join and now I have commitments from eight people, all of whom bring their own influences. My goal now is to try and sustain KUWAISIANA’s big band sound and tour around the US in summer 2017.

How exactly do you combine the style of indie rock with Arabic music? Who do you look to when you’re composing and writing?

 

There’s a ton of great bands coming out of Amman and Beirut who are combining indie rock and Arabic music in the best of ways; I’m not sure how / if I fit into that family. I would love to leverage maqam [a set of traditional melodic patterns commonly used in Arabic music] in my singing scales or Khaleeji pearl diving music ensembles, but that’s more long-term for me.

I’m less interested in Arabic music and much more interested in the Arabic language. When I work, for example, I may be watching Arabic content on YouTube. From Khaleeji TV shows and indie comedy shows to lectures and poetry recitations. This is what feeds me themes to think and sing about.

In terms of the tone of my music, I feel akin to other Kuwaiti creative acts, which have a cold sarcasm and dark humor about Khaleeji identity. You can find good examples if you look into the Youtube comedy series like Shino Ya3ni or the art exhibits of GCC Collective.

I use to have more control over my music when I worked alone, but now there are numerous influences at play in the band. My drummer plays a huge role in shaping grooves and we work as a team to identify what the song is asking for. It may be a Brazilian samba, afro-beat or any number of other ethnic influence. I hope that the band will evolve into a more democratic KUWAISIANA where I am not the only one driving decisions and shaping our songs.

Check out KUWAISIANA’s song “Murra,” sung in Arabic, and the English “Say Yea.”