Book Review: Laughing All the Way to the Mosque

This was a first for me; I’ve never read an autobiographical book of a modern-day Muslimah.

Frankly, it’s not a topic that interests me because I feel like I would already know what would be written; que the stereotypical struggles of overcoming racism, oppression of a patriarchal society, religion vs. the modern world, etc. Perhaps that’s dismissive and presumptive of me, but in all honestly, that’s completely how I see it. But this book was given to me as an Easter gift by my aunt (ironic!) who wasn’t sure if it would be offensive or not, but thought it would at least be humorous. I figured it would be a waste not to read it.

The author, Zarqa Nawaz, is a Canadian of Pakistani origin who starts the book with her grade school self wanting to fit in with the other Canadian girls in her class. The only thing standing in her way are her pungent curried chicken drumsticks that her mom packs for lunch. Although after some whining she successfully convinces her mother to pack her PB&J like the other girls, after a short trial period she comes to the conclusion that fitting in is overrated and leaves you more hungry.

As you continue reading, you will see that that is the theme of Nawaz’ life. Although I was doubtful about the impact this book would have on me, surprisingly, Nawaz has gumption which is something more Muslim women should have. At first, due to parental pressure she started going down the traditional and boring path of pre-med undergraduate studies, medical school and then marriage, but she knew she was better than that. Luckily, she did not get accepted to medical school which triggered two desperate quests in her and her mother: Nawaz wanted to get into journalism school and her mother wanted her to get married. Of course, Nawaz finishes her quest first and from there her talent at writing takes her from the newsroom, to producing a couple of short independent films, to the first sitcom of its kind on Canadian television, “Little Mosque on the Prairie”. Oh yes, and she does find the time to get married and have four children in the midst of all of this.

She takes us through all of these milestones in her life and the hilarious events that punctuate them. Her writing is funny in a way that is well-suited to a medium such as film or TV. There were a few times when I felt that she was stretching the humor in a situation (bathroom scene with the contractor, jinn outhouse by the gas station) but for the most part I chuckled along to her foibles. At times she shocked me with her cheeky inattention to social rules (her comments at the dead body washing committee were too much!) but I suppose it’s that same boldness that compelled her to forge the career she did.

This is a mostly light-hearted but meaningful read that explains the common cultural and religious issues that Muslim women encounter at some point in their lives. I was expecting the lamenting of a disenfranchised woman but was surprised to find the smart and ballsy woman for me to admire. Overall, I highly recommend this book to someone interested in seeing a different type of Muslimah than the ones you see on the news — endearingly irreverent though she may be.

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Book Review: Deluxe, How Luxury Lost Its Luster

I’m sorry to say that after reading this eye-opening book that I won’t be able to look at the luxury and fashion industry the same ever again.

Ever since I’ve been taken with purses, I’ve had a suspicion that certain high-end brands with their liberal annual price increases and tasteless limited edition releases were not necessarily in the business of luxury, but rather in the business of making a profit. I know that I am not alone in this perspective; a brief conversation about the topic with any aficionado will bring a similar line of thought.

These suspicions were what drew to me reading this book and with facts, figures, and interviews with owners and designers themselves, Dana Thomas has proven those suspicions to be true.

In an informative and engaging manner, Thomas takes us from Hong Kong to France to South America, into replica sweatshops in Guangzhou to Miuccia Prada’s concrete office in Milan to the vibrant Daslu, a rare and true luxury shopping experience in Brazil. She brings us into the intimate details of the series ruthless and shrewd power moves taken by Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, that changed the direction of luxury forever and through this, narrates the demise of the made-to-order, old world luxury companies and the rise of the democratization of luxury.

But all is not lost even in today’s money-driven and fast fashion environment. Thomas shows how luxury still persists in a few brands such as Hermes, Chanel and Louboutin. Most of the book was horrifyingly candid for such a lover of designer goods like me, but I did enjoy the latter parts of the book that allow these wonderful brands to shine and stand against the dizzying avarice of others.

Christian Louboutin explains that “luxury is the possibility to stay close to your customers…about subtlety and details. It’s about service…Luxury is not consumerism. It is educating the eyes to see that special quality.”

Cristiane Saddi, a marketing director in Sao Paolo says that clients who frequent Daslu, a luxury fashion emporium, “don’t need the logo entry-level handbag or to wear labels or logos. We buy from luxury brands, but not ordinary products. You can see what is mass and what is special. Luxury is not how much you can buy. Luxury is the knowledge of how to do it right, how to take the time to understand and choose well. Luxury is buying the right thing.”

I recommend this book to anyone who is ready to truly grasp what luxury means and stop being fooled into throwing money away on mass glamour. It’s not about how much money you have or how much or what you buy. One can be more luxurious than the richest socialite in all the world by understanding quality, selecting timeless pieces, and above all an unpretentious naturalness in one’s surroundings.

I’ll leave you with this quote by Karl Lagerfeld that sums it up quite candidly,

Luxury is the ease of a t-shirt in a very expensive dress. If you don’t have it, you are not a person used to luxury. You are just a rich person who can buy stuff.

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Book Review: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This book discusses the science behind what make us content and feel that living life is worthwhile. What drew me to this book was its genuine, no-frills approach to achieving true happiness regardless of your material conditions. Anyone who knows anything about contentment knows that material conditions are secondary to our quality of life and in this book Csikszentmihalyi describes how we can enjoy more of our life, more often regardless of our current material advantages or disadvantages.

Throughout the book he shares that the key to our enjoyment is in increasing the amount of “optimal experience” or “flow” we cultivate in our lives. We’ve all experienced it in those moments when we are fully engrossed in an activity that demands our full attention to completing the task at hand. During these situations we remove ourselves from the any worrying, boredom, anxiety or any other “entropy that brings disorder to consciousness” and we enter into the world of flow where we experience psychological growth and the feeling that perfection is attainable.

He deduces that the “autotelic personality”, the person who can enjoy themselves in a multitude of situations by blocking out distractions and focusing their energies on what is relevant for the moment will describe their lives on the whole as enriching, meaningful and challenging. This experience is the polar opposite of what many people feel their lives are which is a life that “passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control”. This is most striking in our era where we are surrounded by a staggering amount of entertainment choices that despite their novelty and cleverness, leave us unsatisfied and intangibly frustrated. The reason for this boredom and emptiness despite the explosion of leisure activities that have been invented is that when they are only engaged in vicariously and for external reasons, they absorb our psychic energy instead of strengthening it, leaving us emotionally spent and more jaded than before.

Csikszentmihalyi goes into much more detail that what I have written here about how to experience “flow” in all aspects of life from work, to relationships, to simply thinking, and the science behind it. But if this subject has intrigued you at all, I recommend that you read this work. Its made me reevaluate what I see has truly enhancing my enjoyment and utilizing my psychic energy and what is inducing psychic entropy and disorder.

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Book Review: Elegance

Today I want to share with you my review of a delightful little book, “Elegance” by Kathleen Tessaro. If any of you are familiar with Madame Dariaux’s concise encyclopedia by the same name and loved it — you will appreciate this book. It follows the transformation of Louise Canova from a drab, depressed and depressing person who is stuck in an unsatisfying marriage to an elegant woman of substance who is unapologetic in living her life.

I really like this story because I think its a journey that all elegant women share. Although Louise’s specific background may be different from ours, we all have times in our lives when we have to choose between what is right and what is easy, an opportunity to express out highest ideals or to stifle that expression out of fear of change.

Louise’s journey is structured with passages from Madame Dariaux’s iconic book that set the tone for her metamorphosis. I will admit, it is a rather banal story, but the question of what elegance actually meant to me was what made it interesting for me.

At a certain point in the book, Louise gets fed up with trying to become the “perfect” elegant lady and decides to live for the moment with the exclamation that “life’s too short!”. She tosses everything she learned about elegance in the bin (including her chic wardrobe) and trades that in for impulsive nights at the trendiest clubs, expensive purchases from this season’s hottest fashions, and the dazed and hungover mornings that follow suit. She starts to interact with the world around her differently and her experiences shift as a result — and not in a way that ultimately served her true objectives. But, she realizes all of this and she eventually finds her way back thanks to a friend and a hilarious yet poignant incident at The Ritz.

By the end of the book we learn that elegance is not about appearances or about belonging to a certain social circle. Elegance is a state of mind that is reflected on the outside of a person. It is the daily practice of refining and cultivating the experience of quality emotions in our lives. Fittingly, the book does not end on a note of resolution. We see that Louise is starting to settle into her new life and enjoying all that she has to appreciate, but with the new awareness that she needs to remain in touch with her values and practice expressing them on a daily basis. Perhaps by reading this book it will trigger you to start nurturing quality moments in your own life, or if you are satisfied with your life, to go deeper into those moments because after all, there is no “destination elegance” — we all must find it everyday.

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Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

I just finished reading this book over the weekend and I’d like to give you my thoughts on it.

Its different from most books I read in that I don’t tend to gravitate towards historical fiction but the title grabbed me from the shelf. I absolutely love reading about jinn and listening to jinn stories. For those of you who don’t know, a jinn is a creature of smokeless fire that lives, reproduces and dies like humans do and inhabit the earth along with us. There is an entire chapter dedicated to them in the Qur’an and along with humans and angels, they are beings that are intelligent and able to judge right from wrong. The word “genie” comes from the word jinn and although they don’t go around granting wishes, they can change into just about any form they wish and travel great distances in a short amount of time. I can go on and on about jinn, but if you’re interested there is a youtube series called “Jinn and the Unseen World” which I highly recommend.

As for the book itself, it was an easy and entertaining read. The main plot follows two different supernatural creatures, a golem and a jinni, and their lives in 19th century New York as the past events that led them to being in New York come back to destroy them. There’s an evil wizard, Kabbalistic magic, tragedy, death and romance all mixed in the story that is set between flashbacks to hundred of years in the past. A past that the reader learns bit by bit as the story develops which is necessary to the climactic finale between jinni, golem and wizard.

It was interesting to find out what a golem was and to read a story where the characters are all basically Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It was especially interesting that the author chose the main characters to be from Jewish and Muslim traditions and I can’t speak for the golem, but her descriptions of the jinn were perfect. Although its impossible to know exactly the logistics of how a jinn exists in this world — all we have are hadiths to go off of — I thought the author did a really great job of taking what we know about the jinn and putting in her own twist on their capabilities. For instance, it was clever of her to take the fact that they are made of fire and make the main protagonist, Ahmed, a gifted metal smith.

All in all, I thought this was a fine read. This was Helene Wecker’s first novel which is pretty hard to believe since the story is so intricate and thoughtfully constructed. If you’re looking for a read that has a little bit of fantasy, history and drama this is going to be perfect for you.

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Book Review: Approaching the Qur’an

It has been a while hasn’t it?

Between Ramadan, the new house, the new job, I haven’t been able to find much time to read, let alone write about what I’ve read. I’ve just settled into my a routine so I should be able to return to my usual antics. Then again, I am going to Korea in two weeks so I guess maybe not. We shall see.

Anyway, last night I finished reading “Approaching the Qur’an” by Michael Sells. You may have heard about it before as this book was at the crux of a contentious lawsuit brought forward in 2002 by three students at the University of North Carolina, whose incoming students were assigned it as a summer reading assignment. But never mind all of that. If you haven’t read it before — like me — and you are non-Arabic speaking Muslim — like me, this book will let you experience first-hand the poetry of the Qur’an.

One of my greatest goals is to be able to one day understand the Qur’an as Arabic speakers do. To listen to a recitation and be moved by the rich literature and poetry of the Qur’an is something that I so dearly want to experience. Until my understanding of Arabic and Qur’anic grammar reaches that level, I will have to settle for the English translations. While the translations may help me know what is being said, they are useless in conveying the same poetic impact that it brought upon those who heard it when it was first revealed.

This book does not cover the entire Qur’an. Sells translates Al-Fatiha, a portion of sura 53 (The Star), and then suras 81 through 114. Sells attempts translate not only the meaning of the words, but also the poetic devices of the original text. Reading Sells’ translations makes me feel as though I am reading the Qur’an for the first time. I felt moved in a way that I wasn’t before and I could understand how impactful the text could be especially in a recited format. Nevertheless, this is a translation and there is always something of meaning lost when a text a translated, so of course this will be the case with the Qur’an. However, to give you a taste of what I mean, here is a comparison of Sells’ translation and the Sahih International translation of sura 104, “The Slanderer”:

Sahih International

Woe to every scorner and mocker

Who collects wealth and [continuously] counts it.

He thinks that his wealth will make him immortal.

No! He will surely be thrown into the Crusher.

And what can make you know what is the Crusher?

It is the fire of Allah , [eternally] fueled,

Which mounts directed at the hearts.

Indeed, Hellfire will be closed down upon them

In extended columns.

Sells’

Woe to every backbiting slanderer

Who gather his wealth and counts it

thinking with his wealth he will never die

Nay, let him be thrown into the Hútama

And what can tell you of the Hútama

The fire of God, stoked for blazing

rising up over the heart

covering them in vaults of flame

stretching out its pillars

There’s a fundamental difference between those two translations. The meaning is the same, but the impact lies in not only what is said but also what is not said in Sells’ version. I so wish that Sells could come out with a complete translation of the entire Qur’an. If there are any non-Muslims out there reading this review who would like to read a translation of the Qur’an, I urge you to start with this book. It doesn’t have the whole entire Qur’an, but it gives you a hint of the power that the original text brings to its readers and listeners in Arabic. The book also contains a CD in the back that allows to you listen to the Qur’an since the Qur’an is truly intended to be recited and listened to — not read. Even the Muslims out there who depend on the English translations to understand what is being said, read this! It will bring a whole new dimension to the suras you’ve read before and possibly some new meaning to you as well.

Book Review: The Fred Factor by Mark Sanborn

“When your life is at low tide, when your professional commitment is wavering and you just want to get the job done and go home at the end of the day, what can you do?”

This small, yet engaging book answers this question by examining the work ethic and commitment to service of one extraordinary person who is employed in a seemingly ordinary position — that of a postman. His name is Fred and the book begins with an interaction between him and the author that inspires him to write this book on transforming any life — your life into the extraordinary through 4 basic principles: how to make a real difference each and everyday, how to be more successful by building strong relationships, how to create value for others and how to reinvent yourself. Understanding these 4 principles gave me a new perspective on the true influence that I hold in my life and others’ lives and I’ll give you a couple of tidbits from the second and third principle that spoke to me.

As far as building relationships go, I consider myself an introvert. This doesn’t mean that I’m shy, in fact I love giving presentations in front of large audiences, but I don’t like making small talk or speaking to others about myself on a personal level (don’t I sound lovely!) so when I approached the subject of relationships in this book, I knew that I’d have a lot of takeaways. There are “The Seven Bs of Relationship Building” according to the author and the first principle is: Be real. We’ve all heard this before, but what caught my attention was that “this is the direct opposite of the prevailing wisdom in our culture today, which is ‘fake it until you make it'”. I’ve read books and watched videos on this subject and have tried to apply this principle but in the end I’ve always felt like I’m becoming someone that isn’t natural or genuine. Sanborn suggests the alternative to “always do your best at being yourself…let these actions come out of who you really are, what you truly believe in, and the things you are committed to.” What a breath of fresh air this principle was to me!

The third principle is about creating value for others without throwing money at the problem. Sanborn has a lot to advice on how to accomplish this, but the simplest for me was to “do what you’ve always done, but do it better than you’ve ever done it” or as H.J. Heinz coined in 1869, “do the common thing uncommonly well”. If we all find ways to ways to do common things (sending emails to clients, taking phone calls, etc.) very well, we would probably be able to transform these situations from negative to positive experiences or from good to world-class interactions. This principle made me brainstorm all of the ways, both big and small, that I interact with the world, not just at work, and think of ways to improve their quality.

I couldn’t possibly cover all of the valuable material that is shared in this book, so you’ll just have to read it yourself, but I’d like to leave you with this quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that I feel encapsulates the entire message of the book: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'”

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