Merry Christmas!

BY Naazish YarKhan

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” goes the song and yes, with the snow and blustery temperatures finally here, I’m happy to report that we are truly and completely immersed in the holiday spirit. Christmastime is my favorite time of the year. My theory is that those living in these frigid climes make the most of Thanksgiving and Christmas so that we have something to be merry about. It gives us something cheerful to focus on instead of the short days, the lack of sun and the sub-zero temps.

Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Warmer temperatures have given way to more frigid temperatures and I, for one, was taken by surprise. I had taken my car to have a puncture fixed – apparently I’d driven over a nail – and was asked to come get the car three hours later. Four hours later I arrive, only to see my car frozen within sheets of ice. It was raining … not water… but hard ice.

“I’m so surprised. All this happened so suddenly,” I sputtered to the car repairman who I’d called to my rescue when I discovered my Nissan caked in unbreakable ice.

He looked at me, weirdly. “They’ve been predicting this since Thursday, three days ago,” he said, jamming his ice scraper into the gaps between the car door and the chassis, to free it open.

Once inside, I turned the heat on. We still had to get the ice sheet off my windows and, most importantly, off the windscreen. I had my own ice scraper in the trunk but that too was frozen shut. It took 20 minutes for the heating to kick in, while we hacked the ice off the trunk where it had gotten sealed shut. Next, we attacked my windscreen, until sheets of ice, each at least a foot long and six inches wide, came crashing off.

My friends in India say we’re obsessed with the weather here and are paranoid because we make it a point to listen to the weather reports each and every day. They can’t understand it. Well, duh, if I’d listened to the weather man, I wouldn’t have ended up having to crack ice off my windscreen, now would I? I would have taken in my car a day earlier and avoided the issue altogether! But to stay true to the holiday spirit, let me give the sarcasm a rest.

Later that evening we were expected to go to Farhat’s office party. From my frozen car, I had called him, asking if he thought it wise to drive to this party when the roads were so slippery and driving conditions so nasty. The roads can be mean when icy. While highways get doused with salt to melt the ice, local roads stay slushy and frozen longer. Many times, brakes won’t grip fast enough, leaving your car skidding into whatever is in front of it. Ditto if you go a tad too fast when turning. “It’s winter in Chicago,” he said, unperturbed. “Just drive back safe.”

My fiasco at the store had well and truly set me back an hour. Needless to say, I was late getting dressed. Farhat wasn’t happy. “Look, no one’s going to be on time. The weather is a mess,” I said, sliding into the passenger’s seat, at length. How I could have kicked myself when we got there. Farhat, I saw, wasn’t the only one thinking, “It’s winter in Chicago. Deal with it.” The room was full and we were one of the last ones to arrive.

That was a week ago. Two days ago, we were inundated with our first bout of snow. Lots and lots of it. Last year, our backdoor and front doors had gotten jammed with snow and ice and weren’t opening. For days, we had to use our garage door to get in and out of our home. Taskeen gleefully wished this would happen again – but not to us. Instead she wished her Quran teacher would be snowed it and unable to come to our home.

“Or, maybe she’ll be too afraid to drive in this weather,” Taskeen added with a twinkle in her eye. With all due respect, I think Taskeen may be right. Our Quran teacher is very uncomfortable even driving in the dark be it as early as 4:45 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. Hmmm… and she lives in Chicago, where it’s dark by that time for half the year. ( But bad me, being a bit of a ‘Meow’ and forgetting all about the kinder, gentler disposition required of the holiday spirit.)

With my Muscat trip on the horizon, I’m even shopping all the sales and snapping up Christmas merchandise. A la Santa, there’s gifts to bring, after all. Yousuf has even created a wish list for things he wants from Santa, and I must take him to the local mall to meet the man in red. Yousuf is older but, without fail, all the babies and toddlers begin to cry the moment they have to sit on Mr. Claus’s lap and have their photos taken.

Also in the holiday spirit, Taskeen and Yousuf both had musical productions at their respective schools. Yousuf’s required some dancing and all I saw him do was stomp his feet down, one after the other, as if he were in the middle of a tantrum. He does not enjoy this singing, dancing routine.

Anything I write isn’t quite complete if I don’t focus on lessons I learned from the experience. So here goes. Farhat used to say that I wasn’t quite content with something until it happened exactly the way I pictured it in my head. For instance, my idea of family time together was never watching TV together. Rather, it was eating dinner together. Or, it was a scene where the father read a paper and the mother read a book, while the children happily played a board game on the floor. I’m pretty sure this was part of my own childhood, in some measure and I brought this scene to my marriage and tried to get all the pieces to fit. 13 years later, this newspaper reading scene has never happened in this marriage of mine, and rarely have I sat down to read a book. So I’ve settled for watching movies together, as family time. Once in a way, the kids and I’ll do board games too. What’s that saying about marriage being all about finding a middle ground?

But, apparently this fixation for the right picture isn’t just a fascination I have. That the song “White Christmas” is the most popular of Christmas songs, is testimony to that. It goes, “I'm dreaming of a white Christmas / With every Christmas card I write / May your days be merry and bright / And may all your Christmases be white. Christmas time was meant to be white, with snow caking roof tops and tree branches, while we slowly drove past in our warm toasty car, listening to Christmas songs on the radio. I doubt Christmas in Florida, or Muscat, really feels like Christmas. It’s just too darn warm and sunny. So now you have an open invitation. Come to Chicago in the winter! Until later, Merry Christmas everyone!


It's all so familiar to me. Yet, to my children, it's a world that's new and strange. I'm returning to Muscat, Oman, from my home in Chicago, after a gap of four years. And while a part of me feels as though time has stood still, another part sees it all with fresh eyes, too, because this time I see it as my children are seeing it. The last time I was here, my daughter was a baby, still not weaned. This time, I have an infant boy of about the same age. Strange and new as this place is to them, it's still home because my parents make it so.

If you were to pick a color to describe my parents' home in Muscat, it would be yellow. It is warm and inviting, suffused with love, affection and conversation—a treat for the mind and the soul. This is the first time my parents are meeting my son. My daughter knows them a little from two previous trips and phone calls from Chicago. Yet both children go to them without the least hesitation. Even across the miles the bond exists. My father talks to my daughter, Taskeen, explains passages he has read in the Quran, tells her jokes, explains to her what a desalination plant does, where Oman and Chicago are on the map; Chicago, which now seems so far away. The 5-year-old revels in the attention paid to her. My dad asks her to speak slower so he can understand her American accent. She discovers she enjoys experimenting with spoken Urdu. My mother dotes on the kids. The first day we are here, she takes Taskeen out to buy a pair of goldfish, paints, crayons, a drawing book and other art supplies. Adults can find ways to entertain themselves in a new place, but children need to be made to feel secure, my mother reasons. My mother also gently corrects me when I criticize the kids publicly. It's not good for their self-esteem, she teaches me. Over the next couple of days Taskeen eats better than ever. She is a calmer, better-behaved child than I knew she could be. Could it be this warm air or a dose of my parents' attitude?

I am excited to show Taskeen the country. The rugged mountains, the beaches, the mosques, Sultan Qaboos' palace. I want her to discover its nooks and crannies, its sights and smells, to make these her own, to make them a part of her memory and who she is. I want her to sense them not as a tourist but as someone who lives here. Am I asking for too much, given that we are here for barely two weeks? Am I hoping that a lifetime of memories and associations can be compressed into 14 days? We cope with the heat by staying indoors until daylight ceases around 6 p.m. We venture out for ice cream or coffee, barbecued squid and fish kebab.I've seen it all before. I used to live here, but I still love sightseeing. My daughter sees Sultan Qaboos' palace and thinks it's nothing like the castles she has seen in storybooks. It's like someone's home, she comments. I privately wonder whom she knows who has such a palatial home. At the beach minutes away from my parents' home, she collects shells and I try to explain how the sea is not the same as Lake Michigan back home. She admires Sultan Qaboos' ship and wonders whether we can go see Sinbad's boat too. My mother has told her about his many voyages.We curve up the roadways to Jussa Beach. Somewhere along the road, I discover that what began as an effort to give my children a sense of Muscat has become my personal homecoming, my rediscovery of Oman. A week later we're in India, my grandparents' home. It was mine too, for the first 20 years of my life. We're here to care for and spend time with my ailing, bedridden grandmother who helped my parents raise me when I was a child. She watches my hyper 9-month-old and jokes, "maybe he eats too many hot peppers." Taskeen picks up the language easily and has no problem conversing in Urdu. In America, I have to goad her to talk in our native tongue. We visit with my sister and her family every day. Taskeen and my sister's daughter are instant friends even though they have met after a gap of two years. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I would like them to grow as tight-knit as Taskeen is with her friends in America. I ask my American-born-and-raised husband repeatedly, "Do you think we can move here?" There are frequent visitors at my grand-parents home. They arrive unannounced. How inconsiderate these guests are, I often think. What if we wanted private, family time? What if we didn't want company or weren't home, when they decided to 'drop in', I wonder. Suddenly I realize how American I sound. A decade of living in the United States and in some small almost imperceptible way I had changed. Changed from the more "we" centered easterner, to the more individualistic westerner. How had this happened? I always thought of myself as so Indian. In America, we perhaps are too busy running ragged. I manage a home, raise children and earn an income without much of a support system. As I always say, I'm the queen of my home, as well as its cook, cleaner, gardener, plumber, chauffeur and carpenter. Need a fresh coat of paint? Fridge needs replenishing? No dinner ready? Need a wire mesh fixed? Guess who does it? Perhaps that's why we're so particular about how we divvy up our time. Maybe our American lifestyle necessitates that there be a time and place for everything. That each slot, each slice of life, have its own boundaries without one overflowing into the other. If we let the ball drop once too often, perhaps we'll set off chaos. In India, chores are divided between family and paid help. Since no single individual gets spread out too thin, there's time to invest in the lives of others, without it disrupting the smooth functioning of one's own. But aren't I a product of my homeland? Did it take all of ten years to undo everything I had learned and imbibed back home? We always had aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents around. When did having them participate in our life ever take away from it? Weren't those every day interactions responsible for making our lives richer, more meaningful in the cumulative sense of things? My sister and her husband take us to restaurants, shopping and sightseeing. Not once do they allow me to pick up the tab. They insist on it even though it makes me feel like I am imposing on them. And my children and I aren't the only ones towards whom they extended such hospitality. They have live-in guests who are visiting for a month. I wonder, would Americans be as gracious, or even consider playing hosts for an entire month? Would I? I see, now with eyes of an American, that in India we have relationships, and grow richer because of them, almost on auto-pilot. It's not about scheduling relationships in. Each person plays an active role in so many lives. And I mean all the time, not just on birthdays and holidays. If I lived here, and if extended family lived in the same city, I would have a chance to be and act like a daughter, mother, wife, niece to ones aunts, niece to the friends of ones aunts', grand-daughter to ones direct grand-parents as well as to their siblings and friends, almost all the time! By default, I suppose I'd be more sharing, caring, loving and giving so much so that being that way would become part and parcel of my personality. In India, these traits certainly appear to be a part of the national character! It seems like there is no other way to be. For me, it's not odd that this is how they are; it's odd that I am even noticing that there is such a difference in how people relate to each other. I'm sure there are arguments and misunderstanding in relationships here as well, but how enmeshed in each other's lives everyone is what really strikes me. It makes me see how my life is not quite the same as theirs, and in a way, lacking. 'Indianess', I begin to feel, apparently refers to a state of being helpful or hospitable as a norm. In the months I spend there I don't see actions governed by selfish motives or the 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' philosophy. I am suddenly more aware of the number of times I tell my daughter, "I want you to try to do it yourself," because I am short on time. I decide to change tactics. "Sure," is something I make a point to say more often when she asks for help. I'd rather she grow up to be inter-dependent and empathetic, than independent and self-absorbed. Reaching into my past, I arrive unannounced at my friend Sangita Fernandes' home and though she is away at work, her parents welcome my children and me. They make sure we have a good lunch. A couple I am introduced to and befriend, Mansi and Vikram Reddy, gift me with a Himru shawl that I'd liked but thought too expensive a purchase to make. Friends of my mother (whom I didn't even know) bring my children and me gifts. Time and money are scarce resources in India too, yet what made people here more generous with both? More generous than perhaps I would be? "Use it or lose it." You've probably heard the phrase used for the muscles in your body or your memory. I now speculate if the "use it or lose it" theory also applies to character traits. Maybe I lost some of the 'good' traits I originally had. Or at least lost them to some degree. America is a society segregated by sameness. We are segregated by economic status, so may not have the "instinctive desire" to share. Our neighbors' lives are filled, more or less, with just as many 'things' as ours. If they were much richer, they wouldn't be in this neighborhood. They'd move to a bigger house, in a fancier suburb and even better trimmed lawns. If they were much poorer, they would never be able to afford a house in my area. In America, when I have talked of giving to the poor, Taskeen asks me, "Where are the poor? We have to go and look for poor people." I, now, make a mental list of the places I can have the children volunteer. It could be old people's homes, it could be soup kitchens. The idea is to get my kids to recognize and work at resolving despair and misfortune in any small way. My intent is to consciously 'sow' these qualities into my children versus imagining they are simply going to pick it up from the air. I must carve into existence the experiences I want them to have, so they can have the character traits I'd ideally like them to possess. In America, this conscious effort is more necessary than in India where disparity hits you in the face. Someone once asked, "If God is all powerful why did He make suffering or poverty or disease?" I was reading some Taoist philosophy and chanced upon the answer there. It is only in contrast that we can know the intrinsic quality of the other. We know beauty because there is ugliness. We know ease and relish it because we know suffering. We seek love because we know the pain of rejection and loss.To know is one thing. Yes, we "know" poverty happens. Yes, we "know" being generous is a good thing. But to understand and internalize that knowledge through personal experience is what ultimately influences our subsequent actions and our behavior, I realize. Human faces will bring the lessons to life. We sign-up our children for extra-curricular art, music and sports, why not for volunteering too? It teaches a very valuable lifelong skill—compassion 101. I wonder whether as parents we are even conscious of how much we impact the way our kids think. I respect much that is America. It's efficiencies, its opportunities. But I tend to miss 'desi' values and the richness of relationships. I could speculate and analyze what makes Indians back home the way they are. At the end of the day it would perhaps leave me wiser but not any happier. What would make me feel richer was if I found a way to replicate the eastern values I so love, in my adopted home.For no reason, my grandmother blows me kisses or kisses my hand when I sit beside her. I wonder how I can ever duplicate, in my Chicago life, this same feeling of complete love, warmth and affection that surrounds me here. My grand-mother is loved so much and by so many because she takes an active interest in the lives of everyone she knows. Whenever an article of mine was published, her joy and pride equaled what she felt the first time she saw my name in print. When she was in better health she'd cut recipes out from magazines and newspapers and compile them for me. Another cousin of mine remembers how g'ma kept interesting articles from the youth section of various newspapers for her. My grand-mother remembered all our birthdays, anniversaries and achievements. She wrote us regular letters. She gently corrected our waywardness. She stayed abreast of the happenings in our lives, she cared to share our goings-on even as we married and went our own ways. That is what made her so well loved. Maybe that is one ingredient that makes for feelings of connectedness and love. Maybe that is one component I can duplicate in my relationships in my new homeland. In some small way, I have begun setting the foundation for relationships that will, I hope, last a lifetime in America. I've begun the work of chiseling into existence relationships as I remember them. Strong, supportive, invaluable, many hands making light work. Piece by piece, one friend at a time, I have created a larger extended family in Chicago. There are the Hammers, an elderly couple, whom my daughter loves to bits, and who shower me with much affection. There is Evelyn Skala, who is my grandmother's age and yet a very good friend to me. And of course, there are my best friends; my confidants, my group of stay-home moms. And if my parents, siblings and my grandparents were with us … ah, that would be heavenly. Still, there are days I struggle emotionally. No matter how good I have it, no matter how many close friends I've made since moving here, I still miss the comfort of immediacy, cultural-shorthand and shared history. When a ninth grade friend of mine started a blog for that batch of class-mates, I hungrily reached out for camaraderie. 'They knew me when I was a kid," I found myself saying as I tried to bridge the 20 year gap in our friendship. Ditto when I visit with relatives who've moved from the middle-east to Canada. "They remember me as a eleven year old. They mother me and I love it," I say. A college friend, Vaishalli, and I recently connected after more than a decade. I call her every week now. I once did a commentary for NPR about my summers as a child in India. I talked about the memory of my mother drawing the drapes shut, the fan on full, a radio softly churning out an old Hindi song as we lived in hot, humid Bombay by the Arabian Sea. But Hyderabad, where my parents lived, with its power outages and water-shortages always took the cake. I recalled how my grandfather would soak his garden, and the walls of their house, much to my grand-ma's dismay. There wouldn't be water left to cook with, she'd moan. Her protests fell on deaf ears ( literally). The intoxicating smell of wet earth on those hot days still lingers. I remember those details vividly, as if they'd happened yesterday. While visiting Fort Meyers Beach in Florida recently, it felt like a homecoming of sorts. I was reminded of the muggy days in Bombay. The sharpness of the sun, the clear blue skies and pedestrians all over the place, were all too familiar. It felt like home even though this was my first visit ever. That is when I realized that for me, home isn't about brick and mortar. It isn't about physical spaces or familiar streets, nooks and crannies. To me, home and homeland is a sense of belonging to strong, loving, supportive relationships. It's about feeling loved and valued. It's about living with the values I respect and want to adhere to. And it's also about smells, sounds, textures and feelings. To some re-creating home is about recreating meals. To me, it's about re-creating sensations. I miss home, but I can try to re-create home too. I guess at the end of the day, I have my work cut out for me. But it starts with just a few well-intentioned steps and then destiny takes over. I've begun the journey and will persist in its path. My intended destination will, no doubt, appear.

Attititude of Gratitude

By Naazish YarKhan

We have our four days of Thanksgiving vacation on right now and I don’t recall the last time I had so much time on my hands. But that’s not to say we haven’t been doing anything. Wednesday morning was spent at Yousuf’s school where his class put on a play about Thanksgiving. The line up of kindergarteners in their little Native American and Pilgrim outfits were just as endearing as songs they sang about loving the earth and one another. Native Americans, however, don’t necessarily think ‘love and happiness’ around Thanksgiving. For them, Thanksgiving marks days when the Europeans exchanged poison ( alcohol, opium) for food with the Native Americans. ( Not my words but those out of a speech given by one of the Native American Chiefs. ) When the generosity of the Native Americans was repaid with plans to exterminate their population. As my Taskeen says, in America we have a way of “whitewashing our history” so that it all looks glorious rather than pock-marked with racism and bigotry. That way we can all pat our selves on the back and go back to watching our basketball, baseball and football. Opiate of the masses, I call TV. In the days of the Romans, there were the gladiators to keep the public too preoccupied to question their leaders. In modern times, it’s sports and TV. But in the spirit of the holiday, my children and I would feel crushed not partaking of this annual, American tradition and so we do, with much enthusiasm.

Following the 30 min. performance that Yousuf and his classmates put together, we shared some ‘friendship soup’ that the kids had chopped veggies for and simmered in vegetable broth overnight, in slow cookers. It was warm and yummy – perfect for the cold, rainy day that it was. Parents had been assigned to bring in different kinds of bread too – corn bread and pumpkin bread and spinach bread - and after the performance we all helped ourselves to some. The rest of Wednesday was spent chilling with two sets of friends – one in the afternoon and another in the evening. All in all, a nice, unhurried way to spend our holidays.

Thursday was Thanksgiving Day. With dad at work (unexpectedly) and Yousuf at his grandparents ( also unexpectedly), Taskeen and I had the whole day to ourselves. We invariably share Thanksgiving Dinner with extended family at their home but dinner doesn’t always happen at dinner time – sometimes it’s at 2 p.m. But this time, with the invitation for Thanksgiving Dinner actually at dinner time, it just didn’t seem right not to spend the day in the Thanksgiving Spirit.

Hence our decision to whip up a last minute Thanksgiving lunch at our own home, without the turkey of course. (Turkeys usually are 13 pounds each at least, and take about 5 hours to cook and hence my hesitation but I do intend to do it next year). Now there exists what is called a Thanksgiving menu and that’s one of the reasons I love the holiday so much. It’s one of the few things in life that is ‘just the way it was last year and the year before and the year before that’. It truly is bizarre how completely comforting that predictability is. The main course is roasted turkey while the sides are always mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, turkey gravy, jello mould, dinner rolls, cranberry something or the other, and pumpkin pie. There’s feeling over-stuffed and then there’s feeling Thanksgiving over-stuffed. The latter is way too much food, in way too few hours. “Gobble, Gobble” is the sound they say a Turkey makes and if it’s thinking of Thanksgiving, you can bet what it’s thinking when it says ‘Gobble, Gobble’. It all sounds yummy, but all of it is an acquired taste. When I first moved here, I couldn’t bear to eat all this tasteless, non-spicy food! Now of course, I;m contemplating making at least some part of it from scratch, perhaps next year.

Getting back to my story. Courtesy the local grocery, where everything can be purchased and heated in the microwave, mother and daughter decided we’d have an impromptu thanksgiving lunch. So we bought some ready-to-eat side dishes. Once home, out came the fall colored table cloth and matching serving dishes, the plates and the glasses. My favorite colors are warm earth colors so my serving dishes inadvertently fit the Fall look. I baked some frozen dough into bread rolls, warmed up the ready-to-eat meals, brought out the forks and spoons. We had lights left up from the Eid party I had last month, so those added to the festive look. Then we called the neighbors to join us with whatever they were planning to have for dinner. The icing on the cake was having Farhat and Yousuf return in time to join our instant thanksgiving party !

One thing I realized over these holidays was how often we don’t eat together, both as a family and as friends. The kids and I usually have dinner together, but Farhat normally has a plate waiting for him in the microwave. I realized how little I entertain and how much fun it is to actually bring out the nice dinnerware and serve food in nice dishes versus just help ourselves from the stove, even if it means more dishes to clear up. It felt warm and wonderful to actually make the effort to make the day extra special – whether it was the nice dinner ware, or the baked bread rolls or having company over.

On the flip side, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, there is something that we have been doing right, and that’s trying to be thankful. Each night, or at least as often as we remember, my children and I thank God for five things in our lives. We thank him and then we ask for five blessings we want in our life. When I forget to go over this, Yousuf invariably reminds me. And when I complain about life, my friends remind me to switch my tune. Being thankful for His mercies and His Bounties, His trials and His tests, is one way to keep the doors to His generosity and His Mercy open.

Somali refugee, Bisharo Amir, finds a home in America

By Naazish YarKhan

It isn’t easy for soccer enthusiast and Wheaton, IL resident, Bisharo Amir, 17, to speak of her past. “My mother gave birth to my little brother under a tree, with the sound of bombs and machine guns blasting, and through it all my brothers and sisters who were small children were crying for her attention,” she shudders. “Can you imagine that?”

Bisharo is originally from Somalia. When war broke out with Ethiopia nearly two decades ago, her family and hundreds of thousands of others fled to Kenya. “It was very sudden. No one knew what was happening. For power and money, friends betrayed each other,” she says of the embattled nations. Bisharo, then three, spent her childhood in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, which was originally established in 1992 for the 20,000 refugees fleeing Sudan.
“My little niece there,” she points to a three-year-old, “children her age shouldn’t have to see so much killing, so much blood, but they have. That’s not good. I don’t think about it, otherwise I won’t be healthy mentally, physically, emotionally. I just don’t think about those days,” says Bisharo. “I can’t believe that a 7-year-old had a gun and wanted to kill people.”

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that at the height of the civil wars in Ethiopia and Somalia in 1991 and 1992, thousands of wounded and famished refugees arrived daily in Kenya's remote border regions. Fighting in neighboring Sudan prompted the flight of thousands more to Kenya, mostly boys escaping the conflict and/or forced military service. By 1992, UNHCR had established 17 refugee camps in Kenya to care for a refugee population of 420,000. 1

As Bisharo explains, refugee camps can be largely lawless. At Kakuma, not only were there diverse refugee populations from all over Africa, but there were also ethnic groupings from a single country who were in conflict with each other back home. “We look very different from Somali people,” says Bisharo, lifting her hijab. “Their hair is straight, ours is curly. We are from Somalia but we are Bantu and we were enemies,” she says.

Proximity to areas of civil strife further enabled easy access to weapons. “When they came for your money and you didn’t give it to them, they’d torture you and even kill you,” recalls Bisharo. She remembers one horrifying night when a neighbor whom she was staying over with was robbed, pulled out of her hutment and raped. “I curled up like a ball in the corner with her children, trying to keep them calm,” says Bisharo, who was no more than a child herself at the time. Rape continues to be a common crisis in refugee camps. Sometimes the police, too, take the liberty to harass refugees. “It was like a prison,” Bisharo observes.

Asked what the hardest thing for her was, Bisharo replies, “not having a father. He was running for his life because they were forcing boys and men into the army. He had also married again, which is very common in African culture. For 2 to 3 years there, I didn’t have a father and I’d see other fathers with their kids, hugging them, playing with them, buying them candy,” she says. “I was ten years old and used to wonder why I was alive? What purpose was I alive for? We needed him emotionally. Now he’s back with us and I don’t hold anything against him. He had to do what he had to do.”

Bisharo glances over at her niece again. “I feel happy for her,” she says. “She has what I didn’t have.”

Her elder sister, now 26, tried filling the void left by their father by working as domestic help in Kenya to help make ends meet.

“We owe her our life,” says Bisharo. “Most of her life she spent doing whatever she could to make us happy. When the food rations UNHCR gave us ran out, we had to work in other people’s homes without a break, without any rest. It was like being Cinderella. I wrote an essay about myself for school (in Wheaton) and I got 100 per cent. My teacher thought it was really good. I told her that wasn’t even half my story,” adds Bisharo, who is learning to play the piano.

To hear Bisharo speak in her English fluent and confident voice, her animated conversation punctuated with laughter, one can’t imagine she moved to the suburbs of Chicago only two years ago.

“My father was a teacher and he knew even girls should go to school,” she says, explaining why her English is so good. “In Africa, they say girls aren’t supposed to go to school. That’s pathetic! That’s lame! My friends’ parents used to say I’ve lost it because I used to go to school. My dad took me to school. Girls grow up early there and get married at 13 or 14.”

Does she plan to tie the knot soon, too? “I worked so hard for my education. I’m going to lose everything if I get married now because I’m going to have to be responsible for my husband. Then if you get pregnant, you’re responsible for the children too. I have to find where I am going first. I just have to go till I end up where I need to go,” she says, resolutely. “If I do get married, it’s not going to stop me because he married me when I was studying and I’m studying hard and you want me to stop? It’s not going to happen!” Is that her advice for her friends as well? Bisharo shakes her head. “They have to do what they want to do.”

A high-school student at Wheaton North High School, Bisharo started out as an ESL student. She topped that class and they bumped her up to the next level, where she came first again. “I didn’t even have to study for health. ‘This is going too far,’ they said, and the next semester I was in a regular class,” she laughs. “I get A’s and B’s but I barely passed history. I’m an average kid,” she says rolling her eyes, then swiftly adds, “but I’m a quick learner.”

Asked about her adjustment to life in America, Bisharo responds by describing her friends. “They are so fun! Americans don’t judge you before they know you. I am a mutt but I hate people calling me a half-breed. My mother speaks Kizigwa and my Dad speaks Mai Mai. I speak both those languages, Somali, Swahili and English! Africans ask me, ‘Who do you like better? Your mother or your father?’ or they ask me, ‘Why did you mother marry your father? Her culture is better.’ I tell them I don’t have to choose between my parents. And about why my parents married? Isn’t that a personal question? So be it, if you think I am a half-breed and don’t like me.”
What else does she like about her new homeland? “Boys and girls are treated equally. Here we can choose. In Africa, our choices are made for us depending on if we are a girl or a boy. It’s not fair! Also, in Africa you can’t be seen walking with a boy because people will gossip. Here, we can joke with boys.”

A tomboy, Bisharo loves that she can be one without it being a big deal like it would be in Africa. “My mother’s friends here tell her she is going to have such a problem with me. But my mum says as long as I am happy, that’s all that matters.”
Bisharo yearns for her aunts and grand-mother who are still in the refugee camps. She wants to become a doctor, loves Japanese Anime and dreams of learning to play the violin. “It would be an honor to learn music. I love Chinese music. It’s so harmonious and peaceful. People used to live in peace in Africa…a long time ago. It’s so much better here.”

Does she think allowing more refugees access to resettlement in other nations is the answer? Bisharo hesitates. “Some people there may threaten you into saying they are family and come with you.” In her answer, you can see ghosts of the past threatening her newfound sense of security. “The future is not written yet. You can only think about now,” she concludes.

1 UNHCR Publications;


July 18, 2006, Published in the Chicago Tribune


By Naazish YarKhan

“Ha,ha, ha. Now whose the fairest of us all?” the wicked Queen chortled, sauntering away from the unconscious Princess Blanca Flor. The audience cheered for the cast, which ranged from elementary school–goers to high schoolers. The actors, the majority of whom were African refugees, represented 12 countries and all attend the after-school program run by Glen Ellyn Community Resource Center (GECRC).

“I’m not really, actually evil, but I liked being evil to the princess,” 4th grader, Nania Chol, says after the play. “Hey, I’m [sitting] right here you know,” retorts Elsita Alarcon, 9, who’d played Blanca Flor, just moments ago. “I always wanted to be a princess,” enthuses the 4th grader, who adores Shirley Temple and Hannah Montana. “I was surprised I got the part. We had to practice a lot to get it all memorized. It was so much fun!” she says. “How did we get the part? Last year, we were in a play called Rabbit in the Well, so I think they had a sense that we’re good actors,” she says on behalf of herself and Chol.

However, their enactment of Blanca Flor, the Mexican version of ‘Snow White’, was more than a play. It was a means to learn English, proper pronunciation and grammar, said GECRC Director, Daniel Zagami, who has a Masters in Intercultural Studies and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), as does GECRC Assistant Director, Margaret Kraai. “They practiced for three months, thrice a week, 30 minutes a day,” said Zagami. “Many of our students are from cultures that are traditionally oral. I really believe we can teach English by teaching the students oral culture. Kids have a great ability to memorize a lot of information. Instead of written exercises, we used drama to teach grammar, including verbs and tenses.”

Students are divided into groups based on Teacher’s Evaluations indicating literacy levels, and Assessments he and Krai developed and conduct three times a year. GECRC volunteers also fill in a daily Competency Log tracking students’ progress. “Most of the students [in the program] are behind their grade levels. There are clear improvements and in the summer when school is out, we know those improvements are because of the program,” says Zagami.

Between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day, “we’re trying to hit things that they don’t cover during school. We teach them to write their name, address and phone number, learn to use a ruler, weigh things, learn synonyms, antonyms...”

The organization was created five years ago when Kasey Sanders, a current GECRC Board member, saw the need for ESL help for some Hispanic families who attended Lincoln Elementary School, in Glen Ellyn, where her own children studied. Today, the program is housed at Lincoln Elementary School itself, since most of its attendees attend Lincoln during the school year. Much of its funding is from the County and Infant Welfare.

“ I liked how everyone had their costumes and looked like their characters and got to say their parts very well,” says Catherine Tarpeh, 11, who arrived from Liberia two years ago, and played the Mirror on the wall. It took her two days to have red extensions, befitting her character, put into her hair. She likes them enough to keep them in until school lets out. Would she ever go back home? “No thank you,” comes the prompt response. Not surprising for a child who has fled the murderous violence that claimed her grandparents and uncles.

“We have 12 or 13 cultural backgrounds, including different languages and religions, and it’s a K-12 program, so we have different age groups too. It’s great to have that cultural diversity but it’s also challenging to accomplish the literacy goals that we have, and have kids work together, because of that,” says Zagami. He is interested in having the children perform at other locations too, so that they can continue to build confidence and practice their English.

(630) 858-0100 ext. 239 or (630) 899-9919;

( This article originally appeared in the July 18th edition of the Chicago Tribune. )

Best-selling teen author Farah Ahmedi triumphs over Afghanistan’s tragedy

At 17, she was the author of a New York Times bestseller, a visitor to First Lady Laura Bush, and a guest of Heather and Paul McCartney who presented her with a Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2005. At 19, she is a junior on a full scholarship at North Central College in Illinois. Excerpts of her memoir are currently being translated into 56 languages for the international edition of Readers Digest. Two publishers have purchased rights to use excerpts from her memoirs, including Hampton-Brown, a division of National Geographic. Meet Farah Ahmedi, author of The Other Side of the Sky; the same girl who took a short cut to school when she was seven and lost her leg to a landmine in the battlefield that is Kabul, Afghanistan.

When ABC News’ Good Morning America, in collaboration with Simon and Schuster, asked its viewers to write for “Story of My Life” describing their life experiences, the network was deluged with 6,000 entries and more than twenty thousand pages of inspiring stories. A panel of best-selling authors and editors chose three finalists, and viewers voted one from among these, to be published. . Farah Ahmedi’s story was that book.

Rarely does a book move one’s soul the way this one does, forcing us to reconsider our own good fortune and persuading us that we are on this earth to be our brother’s keepers.

In The Other Side of the Sky, we learn that after the landmine blast, seven-year-old Farah spent two lonely years hospitalized in Germany, away from her family. Her story is shaped by the context of decades of war in her home country. After the fall of the Soviet occupation, the Taliban took over war-torn Afghanistan and imposed their version of Islamic rule. With millions of men dead and women prohibited from working, countless families were reduced to poverty. The Taliban also conscripted young men and boys into their army; coercing many.Fearing for their sons, Farah’s well-to-do parents sent their sons to Pakistan. That was the last time Farah and her family saw the boys. Weeks later Farah and her mother returned from a shopping trip to find rubble and death where their home had once been. Farah’s father and sisters had been killed in a bomb blast.

Farah and her mother, Fatima, joined the thousands fleeing Afghanistan for Pakistan. Unlike Iran, which had closed its borders to Afghan refugees at the time, there were millions streaming into Pakistan. Achieving freedom from the constant gunfire and bombs was like finding heaven on earth, says Farah. “When we finally made it, we couldn’t stop laughing and praising God from sheer relief.”

Once there, Farah’s trials would include servitude to children her own age, where she and her mother lived as refugees, and becoming caretaker to her mother who suffered from asthma. But despite these setbacks, Farah was sustained by her faith in Allah.

Coming to America was not part of their initial plans, until news of the UN program to accept Afghani refugees spread like wild fire. Farah spent days trying to convince her mother to apply and when she heard the program was looking for widows and children with disabilities, she knew it was worth giving it a shot. “We’d been in Pakistan as refugees for four years. People tried to discourage us from applying for a UN program that was taking Afghan refugees to America. They said in America, we would be slaves. That’s what they had heard based on American history, but they didn’t know America had changed. My mother didn’t want to go. But I had been in Germany and I knew that America could be like Germany. It would be a place where someone with a handicap could still have dignity. I knew that wasn’t possible in Pakistan. I would have been a servant or beggar all my life in Pakistan,” says Farah.

She is not exaggerating. Landmines and cluster bombs continue to harm children like Farah in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and Palestine who, given the impoverished conditions of these nations, now live with few choices at ever having a normal life. These devices inflict damage long after wars are over. Further, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Committee for Refugees, there are 12 million refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world and 21 million internally displaced persons in need of protection and assistance. In 2005, more than three million people became newly uprooted from their homes and/or countries.

Injury, disability, internal displacement and then status as a refugee could certainly have led to the grim future Farah predicted for herself. Following interviews with the American Embassy in Pakistan, Farah and her mother were amongst the families choosen to be sent to America. At New York, some of the Afghani families were sent to California while Farah and her mother were put on a plane to Chicago. The resettlement agency receiving them in Chicago was World Relief. It turned out to be a bumpy, bewildering beginning, but also one that eventually connected Farah and Fatima with Alyce Litz.. A volunteer with Illinois-based World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency, Litz was to become Farah’s friend, mentor and guide in America, demonstrating that love can transcend boundaries of culture and faith. Alyce has been a mother-figure to Farah for the past five years and is also the founder of Helping Hands Inc., a refugee assistance organization for all faiths.

“As soon as I met Farah, I saw her determination,” says Alyce. She and her husband recognized the potential in Farah and decided to move Farah and her mother to a better school district where subsidized housing was available. “We knew if she attended Glenbard North, the school closest to where she lived, she’d go the refugee route. She’d be in school till sixteen and then be pulled out to go to work. I didn’t want that for her,” says Alyce.

“Alyce moved us to a subsidized apartment, and since we were still on a waiting list for it, she agreed to pay the $900 per month herself. She was that determined for me to go to a good school,” says Farah. As it happened, because they were in occupancy, under the regulations of the time, Farah and her mother were automatically moved to first position on the wait list. Their rent became affordable on their limited income from government aid.

When Farah arrived at school, she didn’t know her English alphabet and she was old enough to be placed in the ninth grade. The last time she had been at school was as a second grader, before she’d lost her leg and before she’d spent two years recovering in a German hospital.

Alyce found tutors to get Farah up to speed and with a few months of hard work, Farah was a high school freshman. “There are so many bright, deserving children out there. I really feel that all it takes is for someone to care enough to give them some support and allow them to realize their potential,” says Alyce.

With Alyce’s help, Farah’s potential was soon realized—when she graduated from high school and went on to college, she quickly made the Dean’s List.

“She happened to be very worried one day. She said the Dean had sent her a letter and that she was on the Dean’s List. In high school that meant a student was in trouble, but I explained to her that in college it was a good thing. She got all A’s and B’s and that’s why she was on the Dean’s List,” says Alyce with a smile.

The Other Side of the Sky is the story of a girl who has already lived several lifetimes, facing obstacles and setbacks most of us cannot imagine. Farah’s journey has led her to establish Farah’s Wings of Hope, a non-profit foundation that helps other amputees with their specific needs, a cause she remains devoted to.

Is she a millionaire off the sales of her book? Not quite. According to the rules of the Good Morning America contest, the winner would be paid $10,000 but royalties from the winning entry belong to the ABC producer who developed the idea for the contest. Farah is, however, entitled to proceeds from the books that she and Alyce sell themselves.

Today Farah Ahmedi is the Youth Ambassador of United Nations Group, Adopt-a-Minefield. She has been featured in Teen Magazine as one of “20 People Who Can Change the World.” She has also been called a modern day Anne Frank by the Weekly Reader. With all these achievements within her grasp, does she now have dreams or do the nightmares of the past remain?

This shy but accomplished young woman admits, “I am still a little afraid to dream but my message remains, ‘Never Give Up!’”

To make a contribution to Farah’s Wings of Hope or to order The Other Side of the Sky, visit To learn more about Alyce Litz’ organization, Helping Hands Inc., write to


One-on-One with Noah Merrill, In Jordan
By Naazish YarKhan

Terror and persecution force refugees to flee their homelands. Of the 2 million Iraqi’s whose homes and livelihoods have been lost since the Occupation, the US accepted less than 700, during the first three years. This February, that number changed to 7000, of which 2000 will be resettled in Michigan. These Iraqi’s either have family in the US, or have worked for the Americans while in Iraq.

I am unsure whether Oman has accepted any refugees from Iraq, but a large number of new refugee families are expected here through August, says Heidi Moll Schoedel, National Director, Exodus World Service in Bloomingdale, IL. A refugee resettlement agency, Exodus World Service recruits volunteers to receive the refugee families at the airport, along with a caseworker. Still others, can create ‘Welcome to America Packs’ comprising household goods, food staples, and the like and deliver them to the family, on their first day in the United States. For those interested in a long term relationship, there is the “New Neighbor” program, to help refugee families get acclimated to life in America. We would be interested in having a list of mosques and Qurans to give incoming Muslim families, says Schoedel.

I also spoke to Noah Merrill who is in Jordan at this time, where applications for refugee resettlement are being processed by UNHCR, (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Merrill works with US based, Middle East Cultural and Charitable Society, as director of the project's Direct Aid Initiative, and with its news and analysis website Electronic Iraq ( He is also a consultant to the American Friends Service Committee's Middle East Peace Building Program and was in Chicago on a speaking engagement, recently.

According to the UNHCR Iraqi Refugee/IDP Standing Committee Update, as of June 26, 2007, there are a total of 185,000 registered Iraqi refugees in the region. 90,000 have registered in Syria, 30,000 in Jordan, 7,600 in Egypt (11,000-12,000 are expected to register by 2007 end). A total of 200,000-300,000 Iraqi refugees are expected to have been registered by the end of 2007. 2,000 refugees have been crossing into Syria daily. UNHCR has committed to 20,000 referrals for 2007 and has thus far referred 9,441 to a range of countries including the US. “But estimates place the numbers of Iraqis seeking refuge in Jordan at more than 750,000,” says Merrill.

“Depending on the size of the family, then, it's clear that there are tens of thousands of families, many of which have been broken or divided by the suffering of violence, displacement, and legal obstacles to travel, such as men who are not granted visas, while women and children are,” says Merrill. “Or people are separated based on perceived ethnic or religious identity, for example, in cases where the husband and wife come from different sects.” The vast majority of Iraqi families have had loved ones killed or injured by the violence in Iraq. Those made refugees represent close to 1 in 10 of all Iraqis.

Only a handful of these will make their way to Chicago. “Refugee arrival numbers are always unpredictable, but we received requests for help for more than 25 families that came to the greater Chicagoland area during the month of June alone, and we expect similar arrival numbers throughout the summer,” says Heidi. “Most refugees arrive in the United States with little more than the clothes they are wearing and a few personal possessions. They face the difficult challenge of starting over in a new land. It is important that refugees are welcomed when they arrive and receive support as they adjust to their new lives in our communities.” Besides Iraqi’s, new arrivals that Exodus will handle include Burmese refugees of the Chin and Karen ethnic groups, who fled a brutal military dictatorship and Burundian refugees, who have been housed in remote refugee camps for more than thirty years.

“Applicants for refugee status must pass through a complex series of interviews and documentation sessions describing the suffering they experienced and are required to provide whatever proof of persecution they can. If approved by UNHCR, they then must be approved by the country that would accept them for resettlement. “Often this means passing extreme security screenings, as well,” says Merrill. “One family, who are very good friends of mine here, have been waiting for six years to be resettled.”

While these families wait, never knowing if they will be selected for resettlement in another country, the situation in Jordan remains one of frustration, hopelessness, fear, and despair. “While for many the conditions here are of course better than what they fled in Iraq, they have few rights. They are barred from work, and are frequently subjected to raids and threats of deportation if they are caught working. The majority are without sufficient funds to maintain a decent standard of living, and so health problems, lack of good housing, and basic security are significant issues,” says Merrill, who has been involved in work opposing the sanctions in Iraq and then opposing the invasion.

Noah Merill and his wife, Natalie, are in Jordan, expanding on the work they did in the US. ‘I felt I needed to contribute in some small way to improving the conditions in which so many Iraqis found themselves as a result of the actions of the US government and others without the best interests of the Iraqi people at heart,” he says.

The duo make arrangements for medical care and other support for a small number of refugees they met in Jordan this Spring. “Donations to pay for this care came from Americans who want to provide some direct restitution to Iraqis who have suffered and lost so much as a result of the actions of the US government. We also hope to be able to bring the severity of the crisis and the voices of Iraqis to people in the United States through writing and advocacy while here, and on our return in mid-September,” he concludes.

The War in Iraq Etc

By Naazish YarKhan

Spring is in the air. How would I know if I were oblivious of the longer days, the warmer weather? Well, I’d know because I’d have allergies. Yes, tis’ the season for sneezing and wheezing, but I guess I take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone. Naw.. it’s not like everyone else I know is in the same boat… it’s just the multitude of commercials selling anti-allergy prescription medicines that are suddenly hitting the air waves, that tell me I am not alone.

This week hasn’t been impossible. I only have to finish up a few pages of proofreading the magazine I work for, Halal Consumer magazine, and send it to the designer. Anyone out there, who wants to advertise to Muslims in Chicago, give me a holler and I’ll send you the rates. Halal Consumer Magazine reaches 40,000 Muslim families and organizations in the US and abroad. According to Business Week,( Jan. 2007), "59% of Muslim adults in the U.S. have a college degree, compared with only 28% of all American adults. Surveys show that median family income among America's Muslims exceeds the national figure of $55,800. And four out of five eligible Muslims are registered to vote, slightly higher than the overall rate." So it’s a great audience, to market to.

This week I did get, and then lose, a contract to do some web content, leaving me feeling very dashed at the lost, potential income. Deflated hopes flitted around my head despite me telling myself that if I lost the project, I’d have more time to actually work on my novel and sell it. So this is the last time I am going to think of the loss. Split milk. No crying. After all, I do have other work, other income. And I can post my resume online, again.

Last week, wasn’t that bad either. The weekend however was choc-a-bloc. Attended a ‘Peace Rally to Bring the Troops Home from Iraq’. About 50 people were in attendance that crisp, chilly, sunny Saturday morning, as they shared information about why we need to end the war in Iraq.

I don’t know whether these rallies or these candlelight protests help. Bush’s ratings are at an all time low of 30 percent and he has nothing to lose since there’s no reelection on the horizon, so he continues to do as he pleases.

Talking of politics, Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton are already doing fundraisers for the 2008 presidential elections and their respective bids for the seat. Hillary hasn’t apologized for voting to invade Iraq when the idea was first presented to Congress, four years ago, so I won’t be voting for her next year. That aside, what kind of woman, stays with a husband given to extra-marital affairs? Monica Lewinsky made the most news, but there have always been women in former President Clinton’s life, and as much as I am impressed by his/her work ethic, I am not quite sure if I’d vote for a woman who stayed in a relationship for, what to me seems, like little more than political gain. Why wouldn’t you leave a man who constantly cheats on you? It’s not like Hillary didn’t know what Bill was up to. But then again, ask me if I would vote for Bill Clinton, and I’d say, “Yes. He makes a great president, why drag his personal life into the picture.” Go figure!

Barack Obama doesn’t have my vote for president, so far, either. I am not going to vote for someone, just because they happen to be a charismatic person of color. While President Carter is going blue in the face calling the situation in Palestine ‘Apartheid’, and while the media can’t stop hating his guts for doing that, Congressman Obama still comes out in favor of Israel ‘having the right to protect itself.’ Sure, let Israel protect itself I say, but then when the Palestinians ‘protect’ themselves, don’t call it ‘terrorism.’ I I am disappointed that Obama choose to tout the party line instead of thinking for himself. My naiveté annoys my husband. ‘He’s a democrat, representing the democratic party. Of course he’s going to spout the party line. That’s why it’s called a party line,” my husband reminds me. Well, yes. And in the end, everything is political, but I’d like a president who has the courage to stand up for the truth as well. To see things as they are. I guess the consequences are dire for doing that, when you’re a politician.

To those not in the US or not into following politics, all this talk of an election that’s going to take place in Nov. 2008, must seem so ludicrous. But really, it’s not. The main issue, is Iraq. The Democrats won both Houses of Congress in November 2006 because of Iraq. It was a mid term election with the largest turnout of voters, because of Iraq. Iraq continues to be a defining issue and hence, all this early interest in the 2008 presidential elections. On this the 4th anniversary of the Iraq War, 500,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. Tens of thousands have escaped to Syria and Jordan. Only 500 were permitted entry into the US. 2000 plus U.S soldiers have died. Where does the candidate stand on this issue, is what’s on everyone’s mind. How soon will the troops be brought home? What is to become of the Iraqi people? Big Questions. How our presidential candidates answer them, could potentially make or break their bid for president. On that note…..Aachoooooo….Aachooooo…achooo…

Even Angels Ask

By Naazish YarKhan

The days are just sliding by. Fun-filled days though. Days filled with downtime and slow time and getting-to-play-with-the kids-time. But mostly summer is a very busy time, with less alone time, with the children being home and on our watch. Amidst it all though, I’ve actually been able to think.

I've been getting pretty uptight about the way some Muslims are so wrapped up in the minutiae of our faith as opposed to the spirit of Islam. Some can endlessly fixate on which foot to enter the washroom with, or how wearing nail polish leaves the ritual ablutions incomplete, hence rendering the prayers unacceptable. Others can get into a tizzy about women having even a strand of hair showing during prayer. That too, apparently, renders the prayer unacceptable. Covering one's hair in public, is the other issue. I don't see it as 'mandatory'.

My understanding of God, is a loving, kind God, as long as we follow the five pillars, avoid what is 'haram' and practice the spirit of the religion. After all, each prayer, begins with the words, “In the Name of the Most Beneficent, the Merciful”. This is my version of Islam. All the 'little' rules, were they really necessary? I couldn’t understand all that energy being spent on fixing others ‘shortcomings’ rather than being energy directed on improving the environment, eradicating child abuse, domestic violence or changing the ills in society, all of which are part and parcel of the spirit of our faith. To me, leaving this world better than I found it, is an Islamic responsibility. Doing it each day of my life, is an Islamic responsibility. A friend reasoned that attention to minutiae, didn’t mean lack of attention to other broader issues. But I disagreed. We most talk about things that we are most passionate about and when nitty-gritty stuff are top of the mind consistently, it’s fairly obvious what one’s most pressing concerns are.

My annoyance at such ‘small-minded’ Muslims began when a lady at the mosque said I should come to the mosque only in full sleeves, (I was in half-sleeves, that day). I had tried on several full-sleeves shirts that morning since I knew I’d be visiting the mosque, but none seemed to match my skirt and I’d given up rather than get late. But she didn’t know that part of the story.

Her comment irritated me. Of what business was my attire to her, since I was only listening to a lecture and was not at the mosque to pray, I thought? I had my extra long duppatta covering my arms and was decently dressed by most standards. “If I stop attending this mosque because I’m insulted by your comment, would that be better?” I asked her, to which she replied that it would be better for me since men were also present to pray and skin distracts men.

The men were on a whole other floor! If catching a glimpse of six inches of flesh on my lower arms is enough to distract them, surely they can’t be paying any attention to their relationship with God. My temper boiled. But not wanting to quarrel in the house of God, as this has been expressly forbidden by the Prophet Mohammad, may God’s blessings be Upon him, I didn’t take the argument further.

This session, for me, got worse during the lecture, when another sister went into how important it was for Muslims to correct other Muslims from wrongdoing, albeit do it in a loving way. While she may have been thinking of asking Muslims to adhere to the five pillars of Islam or something major, I translated it to mean comments like the other lady had just made. Comments, which to me, were extraneous, meddlesome and impolite.

Why weren’t people more worried about their own relationship with God, than how close or how far others, strangers especially, were from attaining heaven? Did I go into their homes and see how politely or rudely they spoke to their spouses, servants or kids? Did I follow them to shopping malls and see if they held doors open for those behind them? Did I sit beside them on a train and see if they politely kept cell phone calls short versus force all the passengers to hear the conversation. A Muslim’s character is, after all, judged by all his deeds and actions. If I wasn’t following them around and critiquing them, what business was it of theirs to comment on my choices? What did they feel they would achieve by making someone feel unwelcome and ill-suited for the mosque? My irritation with that woman, and my annoyance at what some Muslims deem important, from then on seeped into every conversation. I ranted loud and clear to anyone who would listen.

As much as I held fast to my annoyance, I also knew something, which I was willing to accept, and hence examine. I know, when things (or people) begin to irritate us a lot, it is not about them as much as it about us. There was something that was going on within me that was causing me to react so strongly. I had to begin with me, especially since I know from the Quran that God doesn’t change a man's situation, until he changes that which is in himself. Or herself, as the case maybe. There are no free lunches, as my daughter says. You have to sow the seed, to harvest the fruit.

Maybe I was reacting so much because these ideas challenged my comfort zone? Or maybe, I'd rather not see that those ideas have validity, just because they aren't ideas I have intentions of adopting? Or, was it just a matter of me learning to live and let live? Me accepting that God gave us personalities, so that we would be different. By virtue of that, each of us is allowed to lean towards whatever appeals to us about Islam the most. That all of our practices can be and/and, instead of either/ or?

I thought about it, but wasn’t any wiser. I can sort out my thoughts and feelings better when I write, so I began writing an email. An email which I didn’t eventually send. As I wrote, it started to get clearer why some people make such a fuss about nail polish and a single hair showing through the hijab. Prayers in Islam are mandatory. And if one were risking them, one could very well be risking heaven. Hence, these individuals’ concern and feelings of righteous duty, to point things out to all and sundry. Ditto with the sight of women’s skin negating a man’s prayer! To these individuals, everything they knew and had learned about prayer, pointed to its importance. So anything that could challenge the perfect execution of prayer, was to be nipped in the bud.

That was one possibility. But I also realized that it was time to do some reading. I personally feel we often choose the easier path - herd mentality versus intellectual curiosity. We rather do it because our father’s did it, versus seeking the knowledge to find out why such and such, or so and so, applies in religion. It reminds me of a joke. A woman always cut a slice of turkey off before baking it for Thanksgiving. Her daughter, one day, asked why. And the mom goes, “because my mother did it.” And the girl asks her grand-ma, who also says the same. So then the girl asks the great-grandma, who says, " I cut the turkey because I had a small oven and it wouldn't fit in otherwise." I believe a lot simply based on faith. There are no two ways about it. But some issues raise questions. And it would serve me well to know why something says what it does, to understand it with my heart and my mind.

So I've just begun reading up on Islam. I really liked "Being Muslim " by Haroon Siddiqui because it is a critical look at both Muslims and those who are anti-Muslim. I'm also interested in reading Morrocon feminist Fatema Mernissi ( . Dr. Umar Farooq Abdulla of Nawawi Foundation ( in the USA is an amazing resource as well. Tariq Ramadan’s words are worth their weight in gold, too. Yusuf Islam, Amina Assilmi are others. Their works are often online, many times as free downloadable audio files. If you plan to do something similar, do be aware of those who write about Islam, but hate it with all their hearts. There are many of these writers around too, and the most touted have Muslim heritages.

I want to find out more about Wahabi-ism and what its interpretations of Islam are. It seems to have infiltrated mosques in the USA over the past 10-20 years, and I’d like to see in what way it is impacting the understanding we have of Islam today. I also want to learn specifically about Ijtehad which means intellectual endeavor to seek the solutions of day-today, current matters based on the Quran and Sunnah. Scholars bemoan the fact that there is almost next to nothing of this going on, currently. Again, what’s the impact?

God forgive me if I am wrong, but there is nothing wrong in asking questions and learning more. When God made man, it says in the Quran, that even the angels asked Him, if He would make a creation that would cause bloodshed on earth? When the angels, the most subservient to God, can ask, why not us? But, for Muslims, our intentions need to be clear. We can’t be asking questions, when our only intent is to look for wiggle room, or if our only intent is to dismiss the answers. Even when the intent is noble, certain others may look down on our desire to research religion. But it must be remembered, Islam began with the command ‘Read’. The Quran has repeatedly been addressed to those who ponder, who think, those who use their intellect. And as, the Prophet, God bless and keep him, said: “Seek knowledge even if in China, for the seeking of knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim.” His other injunctions were, "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave", and "Verily the men of knowledge are the inheritors of the prophets". And the journey ahead begins with a single step.


By Naazish YarKhan

With my husband working sixty hours a week or is that seventy, I’ve been feeling alone lately. Not that there is a lack of other people or relationships or anything. But more like there isn't someone to totally, totally just talk to, and feel like you've been heard inside- out. But our week long trip to Canada and relatives last week, did feel like that. As though you're wrapped in love, attentiveness and affection. 4 generations of love and relationships - so much history. Fehmida Aunty and Zahid Mamoo, who we stayed with, are siblings and cousins of my grandparents, and know and love my parents. This visit, we got to know their children and grandchildren.

Taskeen had won an international poetry competition and the award ceremony was held in Toronto. I sent a press release out to local papers about Taskeen's winning and she was interviewed by one paper, and featured in another. Feels good to be guiding one's child well. If I had won the event, I would have run when invited to read my poem at the awards, so why not do it for her, I reasoned. Hubby had to work so driving nine hours with the kids in tow was out of the question. No one else wanted to come for the ride, so we took the bus – 12 hours. Not a bad trip, but not one I’d want to repeat, especially the return journey which got more stinky with each passenger. What’s more, in twelve hours, I could be in Muscat!

From Toronto, we took a train to Montreal. I’ve always been a last minute planner and this time it cost us dearly. All the last minute tickets cost twice as much compared to what they did, had we booked them two, three weeks in advance. We stayed at cousins in Montreal and went sightseeing. The city is so small and compact that distances aren’t an issue so we saw tons of sights each day. Zahid Mamoo and his daughter Azra didn't let us spend a penny. I have rarely encountered that having lived here all these years and this family has been in the West almost 40 years! Their hospitality reminded me of home and India, and my parents and at the end of the trip, I wondered why I live here, away from my siblings and parents, when I could live in the shadow of their love and affection instead.

Arvind Sharma, a friend of mine, originally from Bombay, now in Tuscan, Arizona found out I was living here and called this evening. He is in business with Faisal, my cousin and one of my best buds. Long story short, he found out Faisal and I were cousins and got my number. I remembered who he was the moment I heard his voice on the machine, even though he left a message with a long reminder as to who he was. How could I forget them! Arvind used to teach me math when I was in high school and I used to live at their place when I had exams, once my parents had moved to Muscat. They've been family friends with my parents ever since our dads worked together as young men.

Talking felt sooo good. Like stepping into the past. I can't wait to meet Arvind again. Arvind already had a career when I'd barely finished college. His brother, Atul, and I used to hang out more though. Maybe he'll come visit sometime too. Atul is based in Singapore. I feel so impatient now. Like I want to go and see them now. I am so eager, just to be with them again. I am going to ask him and his wife to come visit or we'll go over and visit. I have tons of family in Tuscan so staying anywhere will not be a problem. And besides my parents have ‘paid it forward’ years and years ago when we used to live in Bombay, and our home was a hostel to every relative using Bombay VT or Sahar International Airport. I can call and stay just about anywhere, because my parents opened their home to others with their hospitality and large-heartedness.

Maybe summer is also hard because my girl friends and I don't bother to keep in touch anymore. When the kids were younger and in preschool and hanging around our necks all day, we were desperate. The moms-and-children weekly get together kept us sane. Now, the kids are older. We have a laundry list of activities for them to attend and a phone call a week, between us friends, is something big. Sad, especially since I know I need relationships and what they do for me emotionally, but I just don't make the effort. Even when my neighbors Sadiya and Tariq moved to another town 30 minutes away, I'd go over and spend the night at their home, because it just felt like home. But a year later, I've given up on consistency which really is key to a good relationship.

But all is not lost. We are going to Columbus, Ohio for a former neighbor's son's birthday. Five families will make the six hour drive and we're all going to stay at the birthday house. It will be so much fun. Like a wedding house. We had 40 people under one roof, for two weeks, for my wedding. God willing, my hubby and I will have been together 13 years in August. I’ve been looking at pictures from summer holidays a year ago and two years ago and boy the kids grow quickly. How the last few years have flown by, and Praise be to God, we've really been happy together these past few years. Taskeen going away to college is a mere nine years away, her wedding maybe 15 years away? God willing, Yousuf will be in kindergarten in the fall. It feels like yesterday when I brought him home and called him Hasmuk Raja because he smiled so much. Both children in school. Quasi empty nest. It’s time for another one, maybe?


By Naazish YarKhan

Oh Me! Oh My! Oh No! It’s summer time and the kids are home. Needless to say, everything was out of whack the first week. The kids weren’t listening to anything. I was yelling, I was swearing and I was turning blue. And they still weren’t listening. How obstinate. How argumentative. Whose children were these, or rather why on earth did they have to turn out just like their parents, I wanted to know! Then I decided. Enough was enough. Three strikes and you’re out, became the rule. Want to back talk, want to leave the dishes on the table, want to leave the room a mess? Get ready for the ruler, if those are the choices you want to make, I warned them. Now my kids have never been hit. Maybe Yousuf has been spanked a total of ten times in his entire life. They only know rewards, stars and stickers for delivering the goods. Did baba say this was okay, asked my Taskeen? She was positive her dad would never agree. It’s a deterrent, I said to the man who pays all our bills. And I will not use the ruler if I am livid and close to losing my sense of control, I reasoned with my kids. But won’t you be angry if we’re not listening? You get angry about every little thing, retorted Taskeen.

So the rules were absolutely no whining, no backtalk, no yelling, obeying promptly, finishing meals without reminders and without having to be nagged and without running around in between mouthfuls. Other rules were making the bed before they left their rooms, picking clothes off the floor and hanging them in the closet. If they goofed up thrice, out came the ruler, and across their hand once. The first time my son earned his swat, “it didn’t hurt”, he whispered to his sister. “Come, I’ll give you another one then,” I offered and he politely declined the invite.

I wasn’t the only mom in this state. So were my friends. We were all being subjected to having the kids home 24 x 7. Another friend sent her 4 year old to bed without dinner for his backtalk. I told my kids as much. “What’s happening to all the children? Why are they all getting in trouble?” my Yousuf wailed. “All the mothers use the teachers as babysitters and don’t know how to take care of us, when we are home all the time,” responded my nine year old, Taskeen. I had guessed as much, but since when did she know how to read my mind? I also imagined that our minds have been reconfigured by instant access and instant messaging and instant results, and nothing, absolutely nothing, about raising kids is instant. They don’t listen in an instant, and they certainly don’t follow instructions and do as they are bid, in an instant. Who knew summer meant putting my mind and my expectations in slow mo? But the idea of the ruler, as I saw, was one terrific one. I had control over the kids and really there’s no reason to yell anymore. If they err, they face the consequences… and now they know mom will follow through with the swat. Three strikes is all it takes, and they’re being careful.


Mr. Siddiqui is the award-winning editor and columnist of Canada's largest circulation newspaper, the Toronto Star and author of Canadian best seller, Being Muslim. He is a former president of the very prestigious PEN, Canada, as well as a Hafiz-ul-Quran, which means one who has memorized all 114 chapters of the Quran. Mr. Siddiqui has been awarded the Order of Canada, the nation's highest civilian honor, for his journalistic contributions as well as for his volunteer work. His book Being Muslim is targeted at adults and youth, and his columns in the Toronto Star can be read online at

Why do I think his work is so relevant? Well, we live in dangerous times. The decision to have him speak to an audience would have far reaching benefits, because it is an alternative, a pre-emptive move to appeal to Muslim youth and adults alike, with balanced, informed insights. Let there be no mistake, there are those in our very midst, who believe that violence is justified, and that distorting religion to fuel violence is justified. They exist and they recruit our vulnerable.

While American Muslims, by and large, have not indulged in the kind of terrorism that UK has witnessed, we need to make sure our communities have balanced perspectives made available to them. Views such as Mr. Siddiqui’s would counter-balance talk and opinions based on skewed observations, that can rile up passions to the detriment of Muslims at large. By God’s grace, we in the US, still have time to take a pro-active stance in educating the community, and the likes of Mr. Siddiqui, are the arrows in our quiver. He represents Muslims whose voices often go unheard amidst the Islamophobic ravings of the likes of Irshad Manji and the violent rhetoric and actions of extremists, both of whom have come to define Muslims and Islam in the public mind.

Being Muslim has been internationally recognized as a bridge to create a better understanding of Muslims and Islam amongst Non-Muslims. Amongst Muslims, it provides an overview of key contemporary political and social issues affecting us. A voice of moderation and wisdom in the post-9/11 world, Siddiqui has a readership that includes people from many cultures. According to the American Library Association review on

“While clearly concerned about terrorism and other dangers, Siddiqui attacks the propaganda of collective guilt. Without preaching or political jargon …., he shows that the extremists are being challenged by a new generation of Muslims, and welcomes the current internal reformation.”

Based on Br. Siddiqui's interviews with scholars and other experts and his travels in Muslim lands and in the West, Being Muslim summarizes the impact of terrorism on Muslims; explains how Islam is interwoven into the daily lives of ordinary Muslims, regardless of where they live; dissects Western discourse, especially the media's, on Islam and Muslims; and tackles all the controversial topics, from terrorism to the treatment of women. It ends with the hope that, despite the current misunderstandings and anger, there are reasons to expect a future of mutual understanding.

On that note, I hope you shall buy the book. You can browse through it on Amazon and read excerpts, too. If you’re a distributor, I hope you’re thinking of purchasing the book and stocking your stores. And if you’re a university, or a school principal, I hope you’re thinking of booking Mr. Siddiqui for a lecture. Between his speaking engagements in Malaysia, Singapore and cities across the globe, I’m sure he’d love to visit your city, too. And if you think of doing any of the following, do remember to email me too, or tell his publicist that you read about his book in my column. Like my engineer husband says, it doesn’t matter how hard you tried, the only thing that matters are the results you can produce!


One-on-One with Author, Rukhsana Khan

Meet Toronto based Rukhsana Khan, author of Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk, Ruler of the Courtyard, Muslim Child, The Roses in my Carpet, King of the Skies, Dahling If You Luv Me Please Smile and Silly Chicken. The woman is a cause for celebration! Not only is she a mainstream and immensely readable children’s writer but her stories are about Muslims and their causes. She provides young Muslims with characters they can identify with and at the same time offers non-Muslims a better understanding of their Ramadan observing, Jumaah praying, halal eating, hijab/ jilbab wearing neighbors! Her stories range from heartbreaking ( Roses…) to the wacky (Silly Chicken, Ruler of the Courtyard).

Rukhsana has wanted to be a writer since she was thirteen. And today that is what she does full-time. ( Did I hear someone just say ‘Never give up on a dream? )“ I write books about Muslims that are mainstream in nature. They're for everybody, not just Muslim. I've built up quite a following within the Canadian publishing industry,” she says.

“Basically being an author to me means thinking in non-linear terms. Most Muslims are very good at linear thinking, and learning, but my books are about non-linear thinking. There are definitely messages and morals in all my stories, but they tend to be interwoven into the plot.”

The response to Rukhsana’s books has been overwhelmingly positive. “I've had some pretty amazing experiences in the seven years I've been published. I've had a LOT of emails including one from a thirteen year old boy in Alabama who wanted to become Muslim after he read “Muslim Child” (thirteen times). When I asked him why, he said it just seemed like such a beautiful way to live. I sent him a book on how to pray and a prayer mat and a few other things. He was so cute!” Rukhsana has a treasure trove of stories like that one.

“Dahling, If You Luv Me, Will You Please, Please Smile,” her third book, was rated by one reader as a novel for every middle school and high schooler, growing up in the West. It’s a novel that captures the American/Canadian Muslim experience while portraying how each of us deal with problems that range from wanting to fit in to having to contend with friends with big breasts! And she manages it went resorting to School Marm mindset or manners. It’s the protagonist, Zainab’s, struggle that young adult readers will identify with. Her decisions are made within the framework of her values and that truly makes for a thought-provoking read, says another reader.

“When my third book came out, my novel, I was with my husband at his business booth at this festival called Word on the Street, when a black teen came by. She picked up my novel, “Dahling”, and said, ‘You know, I loved this book!’ I thanked her. Her mom was with her and she said, ‘No, you don't understand. She really loved that book. It's the first book nobody ever had to force her to finish.’ The black teen was nodding. I felt flabbergasted. I was so surprised. Then she asked me if I was working on other stuff. She'd gone to look for any other novels I'd written but couldn't find any. I told her I was working on another novel. I'm still working on it, but honestly, I was scared whether she'd find it disappointing.” Err.. Rukhsana..Chill girl. I’m sure it’ll rock!

Same book, different incident. “I was invited to a preppy private girl's school in a very well-to-do neighborhood. I was expecting the girls to be bored little snobs. But on the contrary, they were some of the nicest, most sincerely interested students I'd ever seen. The girls were in high school, and they were asking in depth questions about me, my writing and especially about the novel. One girl in particular… had obviously read the book and her questions were very well thought out. When I got home, she emailed me and told me that she'd actually pretty much given up on novels until she read mine. She found it to be 'true'.” Wow!

“I've been lots of different schools presenting. I went to one school in a posh suburb of Toronto where there was a real air of tension in the grade eight group I was presenting to. Then this black boy came in, wearing a bandana and baggy jeans tied low in that rapper style….”.

I was just about to begin when that black kid got up and left the room. I asked the preppy young girl who was … to introduce me, ‘Where is he going?’ She said, ‘I don't know. They probably asked him to leave. He's bad!’

I told her I hoped he'd come back. She just looked at me doubtfully. He did come back.

I started my presentation on my picture book “The Roses in My Carpets”, and when I began describing how I wanted to be white as a kid and the various things me and my sisters tried to lighten our skin, that black child … in the back yelled out, ‘YEAH! YEAH!’ All the kids whipped around and looked at him and he was still gesturing and shouting, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ And I thought, ‘Subhanallah!’ He'd been through the same thing!” Awwww…sweeeet!

Many of Rukhsana’s books have nominated and/or won national and international awards. She even has one of the top agents in the North American writing field representing her work. That means that Rukhsana writes a story and her agent shows it to numerous publishers and eventually sells it to the one who offer Rukhsana the highest payment for her story.

Since she’s been published Ms. Khan has had some strange experiences too. “I've actually had Pakistanis email me asking me to match them up with a 'beautiful' girl so they can immigrate to Canada. I've also received numerous emails from people who can't write or spell, asking me to collaborate and write a bestseller, and split the profits. I told them: ‘Why don't you write it yourself? That way you can keep all the money.’ ” LOL.

What is it like being a hijabi author? “I felt a little self-conscious at first, wearing hijab, but I've actually found it to be an advantage. I attended numerous writing conferences and workshops, meeting editors and networking. As a result of the hijab, the editors always remembered me and were intrigued, wanting me to submit my work.”

“Editors tend to be on the liberal end of the spectrum. Very open-minded and tolerant people. I've experienced nothing but respect from all the various editors and publishers I've worked with. It was different with the Muslim publishers I initially approached. They wouldn't give me the time of day.” Hmm… I wonder what THAT’s about?

“I'm often invited to schools with significant Muslim populations because they see me as validating their experience. Especially in Canada there's a real drive to be inclusive and tolerant of other cultures, so I'm often brought in for that purpose. I'd often have the kids laughing and engaged for my whole presentation. Then the Muslim kids would come up to me afterwards and tentatively ask, ‘Are you Muslim?’

I used to get so surprised. I'd laugh and say, ‘Of course!’ The Muslim kids would grin, stand a little taller and say, ‘I'm Muslim too!’ But thinking on it later, I realized that they'd never really met a funny Muslim.” True, true.

Often, the teachers were changed by Rukhsana’s presentation even more than the children. “Because even though we've got such a multicultural drive in the educational field here, many teachers don't expect much from multicultural authors. I mean, they don't expect them to be entertaining and thought provoking. And I've often sensed a bit of hostility or sometimes apathy from some teachers who've invited me. It used to make me feel resentful, but I've learned not to write them off so quickly.”

“Often the same teachers will come up to me after the performance and say, ‘Wow. That was really good!’ I'm often tempted to say, ‘Well yeah!’ But I don't. I just say, ‘Thanks.’ It's often those very teachers who were so hostile and apathetic, who end up becoming some of my biggest advocates.

“I am a children's writer because I love children's books,” she says. And as a mother to three girls and a boy she has plenty of memories to cull from for stories for her books. Her oldest daughter is twenty-one, her twin daughters are eighteen and her son is eleven. She does have a novel geared towards adults in the works but plans to remain a predominantly children's writer. Is that a hurray I hear from Muslim children around the world?

To learn more visit:

Keep Housing Affordable In Naperville, Downers Grove, Say Residents

Together Each of us Achieves More
By Amy Lawless

"Action springs not from thought, but from readiness for responsibility."
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich German theologian (1906-1945)

The cost of housing is sky-rocketing and in effect, squeezing out the middle class – our teachers, policemen, taxi drivers and every day working people. What has been lacking, until recently, is organized political will to either pressure or support elected officials to take action. However, under the guidance of DuPage United, since June 2006, a team of residents from Naperville began to explore the issue of affordable housing specific to Naperville. A team of residents in Downers Grove did too. Lake County United and United Power for Action and Justice in Cook County are also working on the issue in their respective counties.

The Naperville and Downers Grove teams used a number of strategies after they had researched the issue. This included dozens of community meetings, many education sessions on housing, presenting the research at city council meetings, and requesting the city council to direct city staff to work with them on this issue. The Naperville team, for instance, met with each member on the city council to educate them and build support. The leaders also sought support from the Naperville Chamber of Commerce, who agree that affordable housing is a workforce development issue. The City of Naperville had never directed staff to spend time on this issue and did not see affordable housing as a priority. However, as a result of these efforts the mayor and council have voted to have affordable housing as a priority for their Strategic Initiative Plan for 2007, which means this issue is now a priority for the city.

As someone once said, the word Team could very well be an acronym for Together Each of us Achieves More Interested individuals, organizations and mosques are requested to join the effort. Please contact Don Derrow ( in Naperville, and John Hazard ( in Downers Grove, Lake County United ( Kitty Cole 847-735-0418, and United Power for Action and Justice in Cook County ( Stephen Roberson, (708) 386-6102).

About the Writer: Amy Lawless is a lead organizer with DuPage United.

Not Your Mothers Movie Review

I am a writer because I also happen to be an insomniac… at least the nights I do not fall asleep at 9 p.m. sharp. Tonight, is not one of those early nights, and I have actually had to pull myself out from under warm blankets to quite the thoughts running through my head. Downloading them in MS Word normally works better than a glass of hot milk or a shower.

My days, however, have been going well. They’ve been marked by some realizations that have had a positive impact. Sunday, March 4, 2007 I’d stepped out for brunch with some activists friends. (We’re calling ourselves American Muslimah Activists (AMA), or so I think.) “I’ll be back in an hour and a half,” I said to Farhat as I left him with the kids. No resistance, no questions. Same scenario at 4:00 p.m. that evening. I wanted to see ‘Blood Diamond’ before it left the cinemas, and needed my movie fix, as well. ( I am a movie junkie.) I knew the children had something to eat for dinner. With a quick good- bye, I left hubby with the kids. With no servant, rare is the day that he and I watch a movie together in the cinema. Squelching my guilt at leaving the kids again, I told myself I needed to seize the moment and actually do what I wanted to do. That bit of advice to myself is precious because I don’t know how to have ‘relaxed’ fun. I write for fun. I am an activist for fun. I email for fun. Plus, I am an expert at making myself miserable thinking of the really ‘fun’ stuff I want to do, without actually making the time or effort to get it done.

As for Blood Diamond…. Well, I went to watch a movie and I came away with new eyes. That $4.50 I spent on the ticket did more for me than a series of sessions with a therapist would do. It left me without even a fraction of a reason to complain about my life. How dare I…, I who have health, food, heat on cold winter nights, peace and security,… how dare I complain? The kind of terror chronicled in “Blood Diamond” is the everyday reality of millions, both in Africa and elsewhere.

Leaving the theatre, I realized how I’d become the person who notices only the black dot on a white piece of paper. I saw clearly, that no matter how good things were getting, my focus was on the one or two things that were less than perfect, and that colored my entire perspective of how my life was. I returned home, actually wishing I was more pleasant and happy like my husband, instead of the high-strung, grump that I am by default. Talk about paradigm shifts.

Finding fault with him and being dissatisfied in general, I saw, had become second nature. This when, MashaAllah, MashaAllah, things have never been better. Yes, he can be the kind to put himself first, but he is also the kind who doesn’t gripe and groan, if his wife wants to leave the kids with him and go to see friends, or a movie. He is also the kind who will do the laundry and take out the garbage. How had I forgotten to value the good things in my life, the good things about my spouse? How I had not seen that it would make me a happier person, if I could begin to truly appreciate all that met my needs in my relationship with him? How had I never, ever seen that it would do me good to learn a thing or two about attitude from him? And I told him as much, much to his shock. I sincerely apologized for being Mrs. Grumpy so regularly, instead of being Mrs. Farhat Ali Khan.

Haranguing the kids, I realized, had become another hobby. Instead of talking to them nicely, and asking of them politely, and punishing them in moderation if they didn’t listen, I nagged, nagged, nagged. That produced no results, leaving me the archetypal bitter, angry woman.

Blood Diamond mirrored many parts of the world, as they exist today. Darfur is not some far off concoction. It’s a living breathing people being made homeless, living in fear. Babies, women, kids, men are killed as a matter of fact, while others die of starvation and diseases, even as I write this minute. Bosnia, wasn’t some piece of fiction. Boys and men were slaughtered by the thousands. Palestine is littered with cluster bombs, just as Afghanistan is a bed of landmines. It’s no secret. “One of the most deadly legacies of the 20th century is the use of landmines in warfare. Anti-personnel landmines continue to have tragic, unintended consequences years after a battle and even the entire war has ended. As time passes, the location of landmines is often forgotten, even by those who planted them. These mines continue to be functional for many decades, causing further damage, injury and death.” Cluster bombs are no different. “These are bombs that contain many little bombs. When they are detonated, the bomblets explode, spraying shrapnel in many directions. The small pieces are not effective against armored personnel but are devastating to civilians. Many of the bomblets do not explode, however, and are left to lay on the ground until someone, often a child, comes along and sets them off accidentally, like landmines, litter the ground with the potential to explode years later. There are said to be thousands in Kosovo.”

These aren’t things that took place thousands of years ago. This is today, yesterday, the day before. How could I have lost perspective, so truly and completely, of the value of focusing on the positive instead of the negative in my life? I, who grew up in India, seeing shanty hunts in the shadows of skyscrapers and beggars at doors of restaurants asking for mere coins when the people inside splurged like there was no tomorrow? I, who see the challenges refugee families face, as the grapple to piece their lives together? How had I allowed myself to turn into an auto-pilot grump when life was so good to me, by God’s grace? Women need at least three daily glasses of milk, or its equivalent in calcium supplements, to keep mood swings at bay. Apparently, I was running way low on my quota.

Well, it’s better late than never and I hope my eyes stay wide open. My heart, too. I hope I will continue to have friends who will tell me to get a reality check, instead of fueling a pity party. I pray, too, for peace. I pray that I can donate to every cause that rallies against war, injustice and the killing of innocents. I pray that every person who is able, does the same whether in words or in monetary support. I pray that every parent can sleep at night, knowing that their children are safe and will have enough to eat.

In scripture, there are verses that speak of us being accountable for our gifts, be it talent, wealth, health….. I have come to see clearly, that we who have been gifted with peace and security, we will be questioned by God, as to how we used those gifts for those who suffered without. Watch ‘Blood Diamond’. You’ll see there is no way we won’t be held accountable, on the day of Judgment, as to what we did with peace and security when the rest of the world was aflame. .