Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Behind Picket Fences by Hend Hegazi

Hend Hegazi’s second book is a departure from her debut novel in many ways. Her first novel focussed on a significant issue and how the characters affected dealt with the fallout of it. We act as witnesses to the protagonist’s journey and desire resolution for her. In her second book, we are invited into the kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms of a host of characters living in one street. Hegazi creates their lives and their problems in front of us and takes us along with them as their lives are changed over a period of time.

Behind Picket Fences is the story of four couples and their very different lives: Faris and Sidra are the affluent young couple struggling with childlessness. Porter and Summer are the company executive and the bohemian artist dealing with her anxiety and feelings of being not being listened to. Hasan and May are a loving Muslim couple dealing with the impact of illness on their own and their children’s lives. Morgan and Mariam are the loving couple with small children whose financial problems begin to threaten their marriage. Each struggles with their own problems behind closed doors, appearing happy and successful to the outside world. 

Hegazi manages you to make you care about each of the characters and what happens to them. She lays bare their inner thoughts and creates interactions between the couples that feel truthful. The first thing I noticed about this book is how the writer’s writing style has matured and improved from her first novel. The prose flows over the pages, but most of all the conversation feels so natural and true to life. 

Whereas the first book made a point of how the protagonist relied on her faith to get through the trauma of what she suffers, in this book faith comes up in more subtle ways, for both the Muslims and non-Muslims. We see the need for faith in difficult times, but also the questioning of faith and the finding of faith when life feels unbearable.

We witness some of the characters change and evolve and I think Hegazi achieved this in a realistic way. We see the impact of the young stay at home mum finding work both on her husband and herself and how this affects their seemingly perfect marriage. The break down of the marriage is painful to witness and the conversations and inner dialogue of the characters at different points is believable and uncomfortably like watching someone you know self-destruct.

Key to the story arcs in this novel is how lack of honest communication can destroy our relationships or nurture them – whether through feeling unappreciated, through feeling outside of your comfort zone in your marriage or whether this is through hiding the pain that you feel. 

We come to care about the characters and hope that things will work out for them, when they don’t, Hegazi portrays this to devastating affect. When I read this book, never in a million years did I think I would feel so much for the characters that I literally cried at one point. The book ends as with real life without all of the characters stories tied up in into neat happy endings, we are left wanting to know more about where their journeys will take them. 

I didn’t think I would enjoy this book as it is not the type of book that I usually pick up, but I found it immensely readable and also very relatable. I also liked Hegazi’s gentle portrayal of a Muslim family, real and likeable without feeling preachy. I think everyone will be able to relate to some of the characters in this book or identify with their experiences on some level.  

You can buy the book on Amazon here, learn more about her writing here and on her Facebook page here.


Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Sun Shall Soon Shine by Adejoke Ajibade- Bakare

When I was approached by the author, Adejoke Ajibade- Bakare to review her book of poetry, I was a little nonplussed. I love books, especially straightforward and fast paced prose, but poetry is another matter. I am never sure if I am missing something, a metaphor of some kind or an allusion to some deeper truth that the poet is revealing. I rarely read poetry, although I do love the poetry of the Sufi Abdullah Shah Qadri, Maya Angelou, Grace Nichols and the great Pakistani poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, but I did not feel qualified to comment. Then I came to the conclusion that I don’t have to judge the structure or technique of the poems, but I can describe how it makes me feel and what it evokes for me. 

The book opens with a poem about a poor mother whose children are hungry, one line stood out: “Necks extended, a plea to the steel pot”, as the children look to the empty pot for food. This poem reminded me a little Maya Angelou’s style of writing and set the tone of the book for me. 

The book is split into five sections, along broad themes, the first “Womb Tales” is around the theme of women and motherhood. I enjoyed these lines from the poem Aye (meaning Life): 

Up and about 
The adogan 
Cracking sparks of fire 
As the ogi dances 
To the rhythms set by blind hands 


I really liked the use of Yoruba words, I love that at the bottom of each page, there is an explanation of each word that is not in English. The poem gives a glimpse into a busy morning on a normal day, the poem gives a sense of a life that is not easy (“battered feet”, “blind hands”), but at the same time gives a feeling of energy and busyness (“Splish splosh into the amo”, “Cracking sparks of fire”, “busy hands”). 

The poems in this section talk of pregnancy, birth, motherhood, and loss alluding to miscarriage. There is a loving and benign father figure that appears through some of them. Often the tone is melancholy occasionally there is a glimmer of hope. In reflection of the private nature of these themes, the poems are often not clear, but allude to events in a subtle way. 

In the section called Childhood Dreams, the tone changes to a more upbeat one. “My Emmanuel” stands out with its lovely description of a young man: 

Strong arms 
Fast legs 
Broad smile 
Grinning ear to ear 
A handshake 
To show gratitude 
A hug 
To show love 
 


The sentences are short, clear and full of energy. The kind of poem I would love to dedicate to a beloved son. 

The section called Woes of a Nation again feels different: with more wide-ranging themes such as patriotism (Woes of a Nation: “And is there for all to celebrate, The celebration of Nigeria Anew.”), these poems have a lyrical, epic feel. Some of the poems are inspired by national tragedies such as a plane crash or the kidnapping of young boys and girls by Boko Haram, making them feel quite poignant. Others mention the land and earth, war and poverty: 

A scenery of fear, poverty and destruction 
Earth shattering sounds 
Hitting hard, sinking deep 
Like hot rocks 
Splashing blood
 

The last lines (from the poem “Aleppo”) make a powerful impression and invoke strong images. Many others, remind us that we should not lose hope in Allah (SWT) and that tomorrow is a new day full of hope. My favourite poem in this section was Arise Naija, for the way it ends with a call to the people to rise and claim their land. 

The poems in the part called Soul Talk are about self-reflection and self-love. They are spiritual in nature and touch on the relationship with Allah (SWT), many of them try to inspire and motivate us to use out limited time well. Some of them spoke more deeply to me than others, I suspect this will be largely a result of where the reader is in their own journey and what resonates. 

The last section, Life’s Palaver, speaks of how we get caught up in everyday troubles, of work and missed opportunity: 

Sooner I should I have come 
Much sooner, I should have come 
The fish waits not for the fisherman 
The fisherman that is yet to come 
(From the Fisherman) 
 


Some of the poems describe the hustle and bustle of every day life (The Alms Seeker, Far Gosford Street, the Street that Never Sleeps), with descriptions of noisy traffic and the smell of food from restaurants, most often the narrator watching it all go by. A number of the poems in this section are about children and childhood (Golden Child, The Prince and the Pauper, Lost Time Not Found). These touch on the way children are affected by poverty or parents that are too busy for them. 

I had my reservations, but I came to enjoy reading the poetry in the concise and accessible book, I enjoyed getting a flavour of Nigerian life and I was moved by the tributes to the people of the country who have been beset by tragedy.


Monday, 8 February 2016

Bargain Book Haul for January 2016

It has been quite some time since I found a good thrifty haul (like this, this, this or this amazing craft haul), especially as the boot fairs I enjoy so much don't start until near the end of March. So instead I made do with a trip to my local charity shop to hang out by the book shelves and see if anyhting caught my fancy.

I found a few treats for myself and the children and came away happy.

The books below were £1 each and two of them: Social Butterfly by Moni Mohsin and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston were ones on my reading list. The Leapfrog Leappad toy was discovered by Litte Man for Darling. It usually costs about £25 with the books for about £8, this one cost £3 with the batteries included. I am a big fan of this brand and she has really been enjoying playing with it.






The rainbow box sets below caght my eye immediatey and turned out to be Coaching Academy training DVD's (costing £3 per set).  I have long had an interest in coaching, so if I can make the time to sit through these, insh'Allah I hope they will benefit me personally and also help to determine if this something I want to pursue in the future.




The little set of books was new and nice for Darling and Baby to share.  I usually avoid ornaments or anything that is slightly chintzy or has no function, but this little bowl of fruit caught my eye and just enchanted me as I love miniatures.  The fruit is made of stoneand I can't tell if it is dyed in some way or the marble is coloured.  I have found a few similar on the internet (Etsy, eBay and antique shops) variously described as vintage Italian alabaster, onyx marble or dyed quartz carved fruit and selling for anything from £15 to £50. This little set cost £3.



I was quite happy with my finds and I am thoroughly enjoying the Social Butterfly book, this should keep me happy until the boot fairs start again.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Sandcastles and Snowmen by Sahar El-Nadi

In Sandcastles and Snowmen, Sahar El-Nadi tells the story of how she grew up in Muslim countries but truly found her religion as an adult through her travels, life experiences and subsequent deep reflection. 

The book starts with an accessible introduction to the key tenets of Islam which is straightforward enough to make sense to non-Muslims.  It then asks some of the really big questions – Why am I in this world?  Why is there suffering in this world? As well as some questions that will pique people’s interest: What is shariah law? What is the ultimate goal of a Muslim?  The rest of the book covers Islam’s place in the modern world regarding just about everything:  art, science, trade, diversity, gender inequality, human rights and politics

I enjoyed El-Nadi’s way of explaining some Islamic concepts.  When faced with a liberal audience who could not understand why some things were halal or haram and how they could be assigned labels of good or bad, she replaces the terms good ad bad with healthy and unhealthy – concepts that her Swedish friends were more familiar with.

I was a little uncomfortable with her way of explaining how we get reward points for good deeds, it almost felt a little as if the faith is being explained very methodically without the spirituality behind it, however the Chapter on Reward and Punishment (Chapter 4) does take this further and explains rewards for good deeds, rewards for the intention as well as the deed and the reward for encouraging others to do good deeds.   The explanation is taken further with the understanding that heaven is for those who consistently make good intentions, try to act on them and try to make the world a better place.

I was moved by the section which described the authors experience of visiting the Kaaba in Makkah and I think many people would be able to relate to the powerful effect this has on her.  For those who are curious about the pilgrimage Muslims make to Makkah, the authors description of the  transformational nature of this journey should be of interest.

The chapter on manners and ethics included some good reminders and reasons on why Islam is a religion of peace, with emphasis on encouraging good and preventing evil, showing compassion to others and particularly the importance of good manners in faith.

The chapter on Islam and human rights is essential reading for all of those people horrified by the cruel things happening in the name of Islam.  The religions actual commands regarding the rights of women, children, parents and even animals are laid out, using short stories that Muslims will be familiar with as examples.

The book also offers some opinion and insight into a number of political issues such as identity and prompts us to consider how often we questions concepts such as middle east and third world?  There is an explanation of the true meaning of Jihad, a term much bandied about at the moment and some thoughts on the role of religion in the Arab Spring.

The chapter on gender roles and equality I found particularly insightful, especially the section on polygamy, as well as the authors beautiful description of hijab and her husbands reaction to her hair on their wedding night of all things.

The book did jump around a little from one topic to another, partly because of the sheer breadth of what the author tries to cover.  My first reading of the book was a slow and careful reading which took me plenty of time, just so that I could digest and weigh up what I was reading.  Definitely a book I would keep hold of and come back to, although probably more to dip in and out of and to provide food for thought.

With recent events in Pakistan, Paris, Syria and Nigeria making headlines and capturing the world’s attention, this book is a good one to help people who have become curious about Muslims and Islam to answer important questions.  It is also a useful guide for Muslims who want to help non-Muslims understand them better.  An ambitious, interesting and accessible book that I will be recommending to friends.

You can find out more at: Amazon, Goodreads, the website for the book, the Facebook page for the book and the authors YouTube channel.




“I discovered another analogy in the legacy of Prophet Muhammad that immediately clicked with me: that the angels put down their wings in humility for a person who seeks knowledge, and that all living things, even the ants in their anthill and the fish in the sea, pray for a person who teaches people good things.


When I read this, I literally felt the goodness flow out of my heart for all creatures. The beautiful mental image it evoked resonated with my concept of the universe as one unit, and of all living things seeking to live together in peace and harmony, and being grateful when humans tried to fit into the circle of life, instead of working so hard to disrupt its equilibrium”  
Sahar El-Nadi, Sandcastles & Snowmen

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Normal Calm by Hend Hegazi

Nursing my little one means I have to sit still, something I am not good at and so I thought that this would be a good time to get reading again. Normal Calm by Hend Hegazi piqued my interest after a saw a review on Muslimah Media Watch, particularly as it broached themes that I hadn't seen touched on in Western literature before in this way.

A Normal Calm is the story of the young Arab American Muslimah Amina who finds herself the victim of rape by someone she trusts. The book follows her on her journey as she tries to come to terms with what has happened to her and the impact on those around her. It also explores the way in her wider community deal with what has happened to her, in particular potential spouses.

All of this is set in the context of Arab American life: the immigrant work ethic, the wish to see children succeed, the anxiety of parents at the prospect of letting their children go as they move forward in their lives. The book also addresses the problems someone who can clearly be identified as Muslim might face in America and the way Muslims integrate and interact with those around them.

The subject matter of this book is dealt with in a sensitive way and the attack on Amina which is fairly early in the book is not graphic or portrayed in a sensationalist way. Instead the book takes the time to follow Amina as she goes through the process of dealing with what has happened to her and how it impacts on her relationship with her parents, friends and potential partners.

The book is written in clear direct prose and moves between events at a fairly swift pace, which is enough to carry you through the book without losing interest so that you maintain a desire to find out how Amina fares. Alongside this the author makes use of dialogue between Amina and her non-Muslim best friend Kayla to try and explain why, as a Muslimah, Amina does things a certain way. This acts as a useful tool throughout the book to explain the role of faith in Amina’s life, the way it helps her in her hardest times and the role of particular elements of her faith (i.e. hijab). You can imagine many of these conversations happening between Muslims and curious non-Muslims in the real world.

I really loved the fact that the author gives a voice to a young Muslim woman – a demographic that is much stereotyped but sometimes not well understood. The book attempts to shine a light on the difficulties that these young women face in the West and also the lack of understanding that can come from their own communities and the reasons behind these.

The book left me with affection with Amina and some of the women around her and also some curiosity about the male characters in the book. I would definitely recommend this book, particularly to anyone trying to understand the role of faith in the lives of young Muslims and how this impacts the way they see and are seen by the world. A necessary and important book.


You can find out more at: Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook

Monday, 21 July 2014

Ilyas and Duck Search for Allah by Omar Khawaja

I like to see new books for Muslims for two reasons - one because I think we need to ensure that in the multitude of narratives about Muslims, some of the voices need to come from Muslim's themselves - particularly Muslim's that might not ordinarily get heard - such as women. The second reason is that it is good to see the needs of Muslim’s fulfilled through products and services tailored to us.

This is why I like to support independent Muslim publishers such as Green Bird Books, Gentle Breeze Books, FB Publishing and now Little Big Kids Books. So when the latter asked me if I wanted to review their book, I was interested.












The book is aimed at ages 3-6 years old and inspired by the Quranic ayah:

"Verily, in the heavens and the earth are signs for the believers.  And in your creation, and what He scattered (through the earth) of moving (living) creatures are signs for people who have Faith with certainty." ~ Quran 45:3-4












The book follows 5-year old Ilyas who asks the big question “Where is Allah?” Accompanied by his best friend Duck, Ilyas sets out on a journey to try and find out where Allah is.








It follows the two friends through a range of landscapes asking the animals that inhabit them allowing the answer to be revealed a little at a time.

















The thing I liked the most about this book is the second reason I gave at the beginning of this post - it answers a need.  I remember when Gorgeous was very small he would ask me endless questions about the nature of Allah (SWT): Where He was, how He made everyone, where He came from, how He could be if no one made Him.  I tried my best to answer those questions, but often struggled.  This book is a nice attempt at answering those kinds of questions that lots of Muslim parents will get asked.

The drawings are also bright and attractive and the bright book cover caught my children's attention.  There is a glossary at the end with facts about each animal, explaining how to pronounce it's name and pointing out why it is so special.

I'm looking forward to sharing this book with Darling when she is a little older and has big questions of her own.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Book Review: Home by Toni Morrison

My concentration is pretty shot at the moment, I keep getting books from the library, reading a few pages and then returning them without finishing them. Because of this Toni Morrison’s Home appealed to me for two reasons: it is a very slim book and I thought I should at least be able to manage that and I am a fan of Toni Morrison’s books, so I knew they should be able to hold my attention.

Home tells the story of a brother and sister, Frank and Cee, born into a rural Georgia town populated solely by black people and characterised by poverty and sadness. The book tells of their desperation to get away from a town too small for them, whether through service in the homes of the rich or through joining the army, and their subsequent return to the small town, drawn by the love between them.

The small town of Lotus is a place where the local black population have settled, many of them having been chased out of their previous homes at gunpoint. They make it their own with their own version of small town life: church-going ladies, quilt making, vegetable gardens and canning season.

Frank has returned from the army suffering from survivors guilt and what seems like post-traumatic stress and vows never to return to his home town, only to receive a letter asking him to hurry back urgently to help his sister. We join him on his journey witnessing along the way the effect war has had on him and the indignities he suffers despite his service for his country.

The book is frank in its portrayal of the brutality of war and the treatment of black soldiers following a conflict, racism and the way women are exploited. It turns a spotlight onto all of the main characters highlighting their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, so that few are left with our sympathy, although some still have out pity.

It is also an narrative on the concept of home, how a place can feel restrictive and too small for the young, but offer solace and a refuge from the wider world for those same people later in life. How the same people that seem staid or judgemental can appear strong and wise when the need arises.

Through the separate journeys of Frank and Cee we are also offered up alternative versions of home: the beautiful home full of plenty where Cee finds work but where dangers lurks, the home that Lily, Franks partner, yearns for, only to find money alone is not enough to buy it

Home is a short book, but certainly not an easy read. The language is blunt and direct and the experience of the characters painful. Not only are we not left with a neat happy ending, but we are left unable to fully sympathise with the main character as his experience of is finally laid bare. The book does stay with you after you have finished reading. It feels as if a dozen more stories could emerge from the layers beneath this story , there are so many events and experiences that are hinted at and alluded to that you end up with endless questions and half-stories in your mind that pique your curiosity and keep you thinking after you have set the book down.