Loveinshallah asked Jennifer Zobair, author of Painted Hands, to share insights on her novel, the writing process, and the dynamics of Muslim fiction in contemporary society. Click here to listen to audio of the author reading a passage from the book.
How would you describe Painted Hands to a reader in fifty words or less?
Painted Hands is about successful Muslim women in Boston. Zainab is a sharp-tongued campaign strategist with a penchant for generating controversy. Amra is an ambitious attorney. They face difficult choices when relationships with complicated men—including a right-wing radio host—shatter their friendship and the political climate threatens their careers.
What made you decide to write the novel? Can you describe your writing process?
I wanted to write a novel about the kinds of Muslim women I don’t see often enough in fiction—strong, educated, independent women who, should they need “saving,” are perfectly capable of saving themselves. I also wanted to write about the power (and limitations) of love to overcome differences. I explored the latter both through the lifelong friendship between the secular Zainab and the more traditional Amra, and, of course, through the attraction between Zainab and Chase, the right-wing pundit.
Love, Inshallah’s fiction debut!
The False Phoenix
Not a drop of rain had fallen in six weeks. Then one August afternoon, Zeenat watched from her window as day turned to night in under a minute, pregnant charcoal clouds overpowered the sun, and the sky roared as rain started to pour.
Zeenat had a tingling sensation in her fingertips, as a strange half smile teased her lips. She watched the sheets of rain appear and disappear like magical clothes swaying on a clothesline, their visibility a series of staccatos, from her window. There was not a soul in sight so she wasn’t worried about the outside staff catching a glimpse of her uncovered head; there was no need to hide behind a drawn curtain and tilt her head to peek out onto the courtyard, as was custom for the women in the house she had come to call her own.
Before her marriage she had looked upon the event with the optimism characteristic to most young ladies; she had believed her marriage would be a liberating experience, she would have her own house, a husband and at some point obedient children. Perhaps it would all give her license to make her own decisions, the way her mother seemed to do while she was growing up. She didn’t realize the invisible hand of societal pressure would not only follow her into her new house, but a similar burden in the shape of a whole other set of norms would be waiting for her in her father-in-law’s large haveli, where she was welcomed as daughter-in-law and wife of the eldest son.
It had been two years since she had agreed to marry Abid, and though her marriage wasn’t what she had hoped for she had found comfortable crevices, compromises and half-sacrifices, and had conveniently settled into them. She considered herself to be – for the most part – happy.
The first Muslim wedding I attended was my own.
When I was twenty-seven and working in New York City, I connected with a fellow Georgetown Law grad. He had a first name I’d never heard before, a Mustang I hated, and an apartment near the Long Island Sound where he took me the first time I visited. Standing in front of the salty sea, I was filled with the overwhelming conviction that I wanted to stay.
When we got engaged, I broke the news to my friends and family in ways intended to distract from his Muslim faith. I emphasized a beautiful diamond, his law degree from my alma mater, a man raised in this country.
I did not initially mention that I’d decided to convert.
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Love, Inshallah reviews a beautiful collection of poetry from poet, mother and rabbi, Rachel Barenblat. In her fourth poetry collection, Waiting To Unfold (April 2013, Phoenicia Publishing), Rabbi Barenblat documents her pregnancy and the first year of her son’s life through her powerful voice, unfurling the jubilations and challenges of motherhood.
A perfect Mother’s Day gift – purchase your copy, here!
Love, Inshallah (LA): You are a writer, a poet, and a Velveteen Rabbi. Tell us a little bit about the link between creativity and a woman’s spirituality. Why is it important to write/speak/create art?
Rachel Barenblat (RB): For me, creativity is a tremendous spiritual gift. I’ve learned over the years that I am most spiritually healthy when I’m creating, which usually means writing poems. Having a regular writing practice gives me a creative outlet. And having a regular prayer practice gives me a spiritual outlet, too.
Some years ago, in my early 30s, I suffered from a few strokes, and the way I made it through that adventure (which was scary and unfamiliar) was through writing poems, and through working with my spiritual director on the spiritual qualities I needed most. For me, the two — writing and spiritual life — are deeply interconnected.
Jewish tradition says that God spoke the world into being, and that God continues to speak the world into being now. There’s a connection between words and creation, between words and life. When I write poems, I feel as though I’m connected with God — my words also create worlds, though on a much smaller scale! And when I became a mother, I felt a new kind of connection with God as the Parent of all creation.
(They will be) on couches inlaid
Reclining on them, facing each other
Round about them (serving), eternal boys
With goblets, beakers, and cups (filled) from
No after-ache will they receive therefrom,
nor will they suffer intoxication
And with fruits that they may select
And the meat of fowls, any that they may desire
And Companions with beautiful,
big, and lustrous eyes,
Like unto pearls, well-guarded.
-Quran: Al-Waqiah, 15-23 *