Houston-based author Saadia Faruqi, recently released her debut short story collection, Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan. Deonna Kelli Sayed caught up with Saadia to discuss the book, her interfaith work, and what it is like to live in a chai-free household.
Deonna Kelli Sayed (DKS): You are in an elevator with someone and you have a minute to convince them to read Brick Walls. What do you say?
Saadia Faruqi (SF): Remember when short stories were in vogue? Well, those times are back with Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan! What’s that, you ask? Well, Brick Walls is a collection of short stories based in Pakistan, my birth country. Although the characters are fictional, the situations they face are very real, very tough and very different from the image of Pakistan in western media. The stories are a portrait of everyday life with all its challenges and realities. The best thing is that they showcase the beautiful aspects of Pakistani culture: the food, the scenes, the people with kindness and courage in their hearts.
DKS: How did the story collection come to you?
SF: I am a speaker and trainer on all things Muslim, from cultural sensitivity training for law enforcement to interfaith gatherings in churches and classes at local community colleges. For the last several years I was noticing more and more of my students asking me questions about Pakistan: it’s food, it’s culture, it’s people. The questions they asked were innocent but very telling: How did I learn English? dId I live in a house or a tent? Was I allowed to leave my house? I realized that due to international events there was a lot of media coverage of Pakistan, but not really a lot of accurate information, and Americans were curious to learn more. I write a lot of non-fiction and opinion pieces, but I decided that fiction would be a different yet perhaps more effective way of sharing the stories of real Pakistanis.
What we’re reading these days: Sapelo Square, an important online resource for African American Islam. Named after one of the first communities of African Muslims in the United States (Sapelo Island), the website features articles, blog posts and special features and is a showcase for African American Islam in all its diversity and complexity. From the editors:
Sapelo Square hopes to intervene in the marginalization and erasure of African American Muslims in the public square by building an online forum that places African American Muslims at the center. Our goal is to celebrate, document and analyze the experiences of this unique community in order to shed light on its global impact.
Read more, here.
Late one night as I was drifting off to sleep my phone chirped, alerting me I had a text message. The message was from my older brother, a perpetual bachelor, and it said, “I think I just fell back in love.” I blinked a few times and squinted at the text to make sure I was reading it right then decided it was too late at night to launch into that madness. Early the next morning I got another text message that said, “With reading.” It turned out he sent the text before completing it, or so he claims (I’m side-eyeing you, bro). We had a good laugh about it but it got me thinking about my life with books.
My dad taught me how to read using The Berenstein Bears books. We sat in my bed with me literally sweating over the words until I could read them on my own without help. There was one line from The Berenstein Bears Learn About Manners, (thirty years later and I still remember the exact title!) that was particularly troublesome that I kept stumbling over and rushing through. My dad would retell this story using my five-year-old voice well into my adult years. “And she reached across the table…”
That moment though was The Moment for me. Learning to read was like the single shot from the starter pistol; I took off running and never looked back. I was fascinated with words. I read everything: cereal boxes, signs, billboards, if it had words on it, I wanted to know what they said. I remember once at a hardware store with my dad, there was one word on a sign I kept twisting around in my head, trying to decipher it. When I figured it out I tugged on my dad’s arm and pointed to it, triumphant. “Baba, auto. That sign says auto.”
I gave up a lot of things I enjoyed when I became Muslim, including alcohol, drugs and pork. I gave those things up because they’re haram, but also because I personally believed giving them up would lead to beneficial changes in my life. I also gave them up because I think it’s good to give up something you enjoy each year, in order to not become too dependent on any one thing. I was convinced that leaving them behind was the right thing to do, and I haven’t been disappointed.
Dating, however, has still been a feature of my Muslim life. This is true not because I’m powerless to give it up, but because I think it’s beneficial for me in the long run. The more halal paths to marriage, in my eyes, won’t work for me.
The fact that I’ve basically given in to pursuing a haram (at least to some degree) path to marriage has been a constant source of reflection and concern. It’s also been a useful dilemma to have, however, as it has allowed me to realize just how drastically my conception of dating and relationships has changed in the last few years.
Eds. Note: What a delicious way to complete Ramadan or welcome Eid!
After spending 10 days away being utterly spoiled by my Aunt and having the best time of my life, I’ve found myself struggling just a little bit to return to real life. It feels great to be home and back in my own bed, and not drinking out of a plastic water bottle no one will ever recycle, or walking around sweaty-faced with a drink held to my face, or getting sand in my shoes everywhere I go, or constantly fearing I didn’t apply enough SPF 50 to protect me from the 50C heat.
Hah, now that I’ve got all the not-so-great stuff about my trip out of the way I can focus on all the incredible moments, and there were lots and lots of those. But before all that I should probably sort out the strange sleeping pattern I have adopted after my time away. It’s the beautiful month of Ramadan and I’ll be fasting from approximately 2:30am till 9:20pm. I plan to take it easy for the next couple of weeks before I begin my new career (GAH SO SCARY), go back to dressing like an adult, and have to set my alarm clock the night before.
Speaking of taking it easy, this chocolate mousse is just that: easy and effortless but so gloriously satisfying. I used milk chocolate because it was the only type I had at hand, but feel free to opt for dark and play around with the toppings.
When I was a child, Ramadan – like the life that stretched before me – seemed magical. Forbidden for the very young, fasting was a mark of adulthood, a rite of passage for which we were all too eager. You woke for the early morning meal with a sense of pride, keen to know what mysterious things adults got up to at this delicious hour.
As I grew older, Ramadan became a time to pause life, a time for reflection as well as a time for community. Growing up outside of our respective ethnic identities and cultures, this month provided the chance to regroup and reconnect with friends and family.
We became used to a melding of cultures where we’d reach for spices in two languages during iftar, knowing only our ethnic name for certain spices and only the English one for others (I will never call “saunf” aniseed or “dhaniya” cilantro, but “namaak” will always be just plain old salt to me). We indulge in kibbeh and kunafeh at our Arab friends’ houses, in pakoras and dahi bade at our South Asian friends’ houses. During Ramadan, we seem to make up for the things we never realized we were missing – the sound of adhan from all corners, mosques on every block, altered work hours to make the fast easy: all things available in the Muslim-majority countries from whence most of us came.
After my brother’s passing, Ramadan became a month of refuge from the chaos of my grief. It allowed me space to breathe, mourn, to build up strength for the remainder of the year. The past few years, I have been able to recharge and re-center during this holy month by finding solace in the strength of the spiritual.
But this year? This year is different.
my grandma spoke the language of milk and cardamom
she couldn’t fly but I swear she had wings
the world in her henna-dressed palms
rhythm of her heart still sings
hair trimmed with peacock feather wings
my grandma lives through stories
labour of a cinnamon brown woman
she lived without glories
paan leaves and cumin
her children crossed an ocean
threadbare clothes in tow
nowhere to go
her grandchildren water down their names
tongues swollen with apologies
for a land of hope and glory
Read more by Nashwa, here.
Nashwa Khan identifies as South Asian/African Diaspora and is currently studying creative writing at University of Toronto and Addictions Counselling at McMaster University. She holds a strong interest in narrative medicine and cultural competency. You can usually find her ranting on Twitter on the intersections of pop culture, health and race. Connect with her @nashwakay.