Up until I decided I wanted to dedicate my time to writing over wanting to be a lawyer, the majority of the questions I received from people were all related to my hijab and why I chose to wear it. It made a lot of sense to me for people to be drawn to the most visible and “different” item I chose to display daily. I never thought there would be another question that would take its place.
“Why do you write?”
It’s incredible how many people I run into from my past, high school acquaintances and community members, who either knew or assumed I wanted to go to law school. After spending the majority of my short life following the plan I had set for myself, to become an international lawyer, I switched gears (or rather set old gears in motion) and went after what I always had great passion. You can imagine their surprise when they run into me years later and the conversation goes a little like this.
“What are you up to these days? You must have just graduated from law school, right? International law, right?” They’re always eager to hear a response affirming that they knew where I would end up.
At first, telling people I actually went after an MFA and having to explain it to them was difficult. It’s not that I wasn’t proud of where I am today. It’s that I had to get used to the confusion, surprise, or even distasteful looks of disappointment I had to face. I’m not the kind of person to put up a defense-mode shield. I don’t believe in having to defend the choices I make. I’ve never done anything so horrible that I’ve regretted it enough to feel hideously embarrassed or disappointed in myself. (That’s not to say that my life isn’t one big awkward moment, but that’s for another novel.) In the end, I do what makes me happy and with the intention to please Allah swt and gain His blessings. Other than that, it’s to see me put a smile on my parents’ faces. I believe that everything happens for a reason as God intended it to. Every situation and action I’ve taken must have meant to serve a purpose, a lesson to learn. What I regret are usually the points of my life that I have yet to understand the lesson I should have gained to better myself in the future. I’m digressing here.
I always take a moment to reply, “Actually I’m a writer now. I just received my MFA in Creative Writing. That’s Master of Fine Arts…. Writing novels.”
I let that sink in and watch them react slowly. I pretty much receive one of two reactions or both.
A. “Wow. That’s amazing! Good for you.” They proceed to ask how they can get a hold of my work and writing.
B. “Why? Why do you write?” I guess it’s better than the harsher responses of, “How do you expect to make a living? How old are you now?”
(The latter question is usually tied to checking to see if I’m married, because that’s clearly how I’ll gain stability since I have chosen to be a writer.)
The reality is that writing does not guarantee me a stable future and I was aware of that when I chose to go after an MFA. I don’t write to produce the next New York Times Bestseller, although that would be incredible, nor do I write to make money, hence my career goal on entering the publishing industry as an editor one day.
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
I write because I believe in the power of words.
“Why do you write?”
Books, words, have always been my perfect escape. Words hold a great weight. The first words I remember hearing were Allah’s words. As a child, reading, specifically to memorize the Quran, was the first thing I was taught. The first word ordered to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was “IQRA!” “READ!” Words hold great power. As a Muslim, when you are born, your father or male guardian take two actions. They recite the Athan in your right ear and Iqama in your left ear. Both are the call to prayer, but the Athan is called at the exact time that the prayer comes in and the Iqama is called when you actually stand up to pray. The reason they must be the first thing a baby hears is because of the specific words that are recited for each call. My father was in Palestine when I was born. If you don’t already know, I was born in San Diego, California. My uncle took the responsibility of reciting these words. The words of the Quran have always given my heart the stability of peace.
Recently, at a writing retreat with friends, the Athan went off at around five in the morning signaling the time for Fajr, or dawn, prayer. It woke up the friends I was sharing a hotel room with. One of them commented that it was a nice way to wake up. It definitely is. The Athan is the first wake up call I receive daily. Better than any alarm, radio, or random song. The melodic words that are recited are powerful and yet peaceful.
One of the first hadiths, sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), that I heard as a child was, "Acquire knowledge. It enables its possessor to distinguish right from wrong; it lights the way to Heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless, it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament amongst friends; and an armour against enemies."
I have lived my life by this hadith. Is there anything more enriching that the constant intake of knowledge surrounding us. I educate myself with the books that I read. Words are powerful.
“Why do you write?”
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch television or hop onto the computer. Forget the dial-up internet that could only be used in short spurts of time in case someone needed to call us. I didn’t go to friends' houses and I have never had cousins my age that lived near me. My parents were overprotective of their first child. If there was anywhere my mom trusted aside from school to leave me alone, it was the library. My library card was my ticket to adventure. I lived in the library. I lived among words. I lived in a different world every day of my life. I didn’t think it could get any more exciting than being able to escape so easily. I still don’t.
As punishment when caught doing something wrong, my siblings were always sent to their rooms. Not me. My room held treasure: books. I would hide them everywhere and sneak a couple chapters between my studies as a reward to myself. When I got in trouble, I was sent to the kitchen to help my mom or sent to do chores. You can see where my hate of the kitchen comes.
On Eid, I would ask for books. Books were my source of adventure, mystery, and especially knowledge. I wrote my own original stories and turned to my favorite novels when I was stuck. I could never let a story end after turning the last page of a book. I would write my own alternate ending and carry on the story. Years later, I learned I wasn’t the only one. This thing called fan-fiction existed. By then, I had stopped writing it down and kept it in my head. I went back to writing original stories. I never thought it would take me anywhere.
“Why do you write?”
There was one LARGE problem with the books I read and stories I wrote. I was never able to insert myself into any of the stories. I never belonged in any of them. I could relate to the stories, sure, but only on the surface. It struck me as odd that there was a lack of people of color, different cultures, and different religions in the stories I read. When these diverse topics existed, I was forced to read them as required reading in school and it was always for the same reasons. Racism, war, violence, the Holocaust, historical events and yet still nothing about Arabs or Muslims.
In eighth grade, I decided I had enough. I walked up to my English teacher, who was a very open-minded woman, and told her I didn’t want to read Anne Frank’s diary for the tenth time. I wanted a challenge. She said if I could find an equally alternate book and as long as I completed every single assignment, I could take on this challenge. She warned me that it would come with difficulty because I would be the only one reading the book I chose, but still encouraged me to take it on. I did some research and stumbled upon a book about a young girl who experienced the gulf war while living in Iraq. To put things in perspective, eighth grade for me began in 2001, right before the events of 9/11. I was excited that I finally had this opportunity and I’ll never forget my teacher for allowing her students to grow by learning in different ways.
Here’s where I feel guilty. I did all the work, presented on it, and still have my project saved to this day. Unfortunately, I just spent half an hour looking for the title of the book because years later, I sit here with no recollection of what that book was called. I still couldn’t find it today. Why? Our school curriculums are set up to teach to specific standards that basically lack diversity and an understanding of multiculturalism. I can go on with a full essay on this. I believe that even in our education system, as my tenth grade English teacher let slip once, the United States doesn’t want to teach any history that doesn’t involve us being the heroic savior in the end. My overall message here is that I was raised in black and white bubble when the world is actually made up of more colors than a rainbow.
Ignorance that exists in our world comes from the lack of tolerance we have in taking the time to actually educate ourselves about others. This lack of knowledge leads to horrible paths. My mom is currently working on her doctorate dissertation. It involves researching the challenges that Muslim women face in the Unites States and in educational institutions. She shares a lot of the articles with me. Last night, she reminded me of an article she read years ago. A young Muslim girl who wore hijab was severely taunted in class. Instead of shedding light and providing a bit of education to her students, the teacher reminded the girl that she and her people were to blame for 9/11 and therefore deserves to withstand the disgusting jeers of her peers.
I’m going to let the sheer, what should I call it, ignorance of this “educator” sink in. I know I don’t need to reiterate that what this young girl had to experience still isn’t as horrible as other stories I have heard. Shocking? Yes. I know for a fact that my own mother has been through just as harsh and difficult situations as an educator and student.
Sometimes the stories that I hear just sound like sick jokes. Like the guy that thought racism ceased to exist in the United States when Obama was elected president… Buddy, what rock have you been living under? Am I being too blunt?
“Why do you write?”
Ignorance, hate, violence, racism, all sorts of misinformed forms of thoughts reside everywhere. Let’s all be a little honest to ourselves. It resides within each of us as well. I’ve learned that when I face someone who holds hate against me, trying to educate them is at times a failed attempt and waste of my time. They face me always ready with an argument and blinded with anger. Sometimes they aren’t even sure why they’re full of anger and hate. At times, it’s just because they need something to hold on to and someone to place the blame on.
"Write to set someone else free."
Writing gives me an alternate avenue to get through to them. When they sit across from a screen or paper, they can’t face me. It would be a waste of their time to build up a blind argument when they can’t shove it back at me in person or possibly online. They’re forced to at least read everything and take it in. Same goes for a book. Now, if they don’t want to hear the truth, I can’t control that. That’s for them to decide. I have done everything I can. Words are a powerful form of education.
“Why do you write?”
I do write stories without color. I write stories with regular experiences that any girl or guy faces growing up in the west. The reason I’ve dedicated my life to writing is because I want my words to mean something to me and anyone reading them. I write to educate, inform, and entertain. I write stories that I hope many will feel connected to regardless of color, race, religion, gender, etc. Underneath every story I write, it’s laced with knowledge.
At times, I don’t intend on giving any sort of lesson or dispelling of misconceptions. It just happens. It surprises me just as much as it does anyone reading my writing. What I write is not meant to be shoved in anyone’s face. In fact, the only place I openly tell you what’s on my mind is here, on my blog, where everything I write is meant to be informal and honest.
I know you agree with me when I rhetorically ask, what’s better than education that’s also entertaining? Bill Nye the Science Guy, anyone? Genius.
“Why do you write?”
When I was first accepted into UCSD, my parents knew how badly I didn’t want to go to this university and insisted I go to their Admit Day to check out the school and meet other students who were excited about attending it. I went with dad. Even after my surprise of how many Muslims attended the school (having never gone to school or even lived around other Muslims or Arabs) and almost being sucked in by the beauty and nature surrounding the campus, I still wasn’t convinced. On our way off-campus, literally almost a few steps before leaving, I spotted a white man, his wife, and son – who I presumed was also an incoming freshman – coming towards us. My dad was checking out the handouts in his hand and excitedly recapping our day. As the man passed us, he made eye contact with me and slowly spelled out the F-word. INSTANTLY, I turned to face him and said, “YOU” and gave him a steel cold look. I’ll never forget the anger, or maybe it was shock, that flushed from his neck up through his face or the ashamed looks on both his wife and son’s faces as they pulled him forward and argued with him to stop. I made strong eye contact with the boy my age before he ducked his head low and rushed onto campus. It took me a few moments to realize I was still walking alongside my dad, still chatting with me, and I quickly began worrying internally. Had my father heard the man or my reaction, as tame as it was to his? My dad is a smart man and both he and my mom have become experts at hiding their emotions in these instances to protect their children. If he had, he didn’t show it. If he didn’t, well, he’ll know when he reads this.
The reason I tell you this simplest of stories among MUCH harsher experiences I’ve had is because this specific moment is one of four that sealed my decision to attend UCSD. I had dedicated my life to fight ignorance and hatred across the world by wanting to become an international lawyer and yet the same issues were staring at me in the face in my own hometown. How could I begin to bring change to the world if my own home needed it the most?
A lesson our government needs to be educated upon, don’t you think?
I’ve been through much worse and yet still nothing compared to others across the nation and the globe. I could hold hate in my heart for every person who has wronged me and those I love. I could choose to react irrationally and play by the notion that “ignorance is bliss”. But then I remember anyone who has ever proved that good does still exist like this man.
This soldier is what a hero looks like.
Yes, this clip made my cry… right in the middle of sitting in a coffee shop.
When I posted the link on Facebook, the title came up as “WATCH: American Soldier's Jaw-Dropping Response To Islamophobe”. He spoke the truth, "If you're an American, you're an American. Period." His response should not be categorized as "jaw-dropping".
I’ve seen this video pop up everywhere for a few days, but only just convinced myself to watch it this morning. I always have trouble watching or reading anything about Muslims, especially around 9/11, a day that affected EVERY AMERICAN.
I do choose to fight ignorance, hatred, and violence.
I choose to fight with my words.
I believe words are the greatest source of lasting power.
“Why do you write?”
I love the smell and feel of books. I love hiding my face in the pages of a book when I don’t want to be bothered.
“I believe in the magic of books. I believe that during certain periods in our lives we are drawn to particular books—whether it’s strolling down the aisles of a bookshop with no idea whatsoever of what it is that we want to read and suddenly finding the most perfect, most wonderfully suitable book staring us right in the face. Unblinking. Or a chance meeting with a stranger or friend who recommends a book we would never ordinarily reach for. Books have the ability to find their own way into our lives.”
Growing up and watching Disney movies, I never wanted to be a princess. I’ve always wanted to be a warrior. I was pretty excited when Princess Merida was created. Even though I didn’t want the stuffy life of a princess, my favorite movie has been and will always be “Beauty and the Beast”.
THAT LIBRARY! Faints
Anyone watch the television series "Once Upon a Time"? (Spoiler alert!) You already know I don’t have much time to watch television and I don’t own one in my room, but I did see the episode where Rumpelstiltskin shows Belle to her new living quarters and he leads her to the library. This grand library with a small bed in the middle. I had to pause the scene just to take in the library. Am I jealous of Belle? Obviously! Being locked up with a beast is not cool, but that library…
“Why do you write?”
If you know me well, you know I’m not a romantic. I wouldn’t call myself a pessimist or an optimist. Maybe a realist? What is put into my books doesn’t represent how I live my life and I never expect fiction to seep its way into reality. What I mean by that is that my stories aren’t based on my own life. I do try to represent Islam in the same way that I live it as a devout Muslim. Of course, what I write about comes from real life experiences, but my characters are all a fabrication of my imagination along with the specific lives they live.
I want my readers to not just be able to escape and live new adventures and new lives, but to also gain something in the same way that my favorite authors gave me.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”
I love writing novels because I have a story to tell, but also to educate in the same way I was educated. That’s why I want to diversify my writing, which is not how I began originally.
I believe and have faith that one day I will be able to take my writing to new places and experience this world with my own eyes.
“Why do you write?”
Quite simply, words are knowledge.
This life is short and I want to live it fully and to my best potential.
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”
As promised to my family and friends, my goal is to post here every Thursday. Stay tuned!
Tonight, I’ll leave you with this entertaining link that my friend just posted online: http://www.buzzfeed.com/evalangston/10-things-writers-are-tired-of-hearing-elan