Friday, March 6, 2009
Today's guest blogger is Shaila Abdullah author of Saffron Dreams. I am in the middle of reading this book and I can't put it down. Look for my review of this touching novel...coming soon.
There was a time before September 10, 2001, when I could jaywalk down 6th street in downtown Austin and blend in with the locals. I was colorless, stripped of ethnicity, even faceless at times. After all, diversity is what added to the flavor of the city––that and a certain cross dressing gentleman in thongs who once ran for the city mayor.
That was before some of the locals exchanged their world vision glasses with compromised ones and took a serious look around. What they saw terrified them. They were in a minority in their own land with a group of people they knew little or nothing about. It scared them that the color of their skin matched the ones who took the towers down. After all, didn’t all Muslims prostrate in the same manner as the attackers? Did they not worship at mosques as well? Then came the lumping-of-all-potatoes-in-one-sack epiphany. If all Muslims prayed the same way, surely they must share the same ideology as the terrorists. As the overly-corrected vision of the locals turned blurry from the daily input they received from the media and those around them, they learned to live in fear. With every change in color in the national security threat level, their hearts sank even more. Could they trust the friendly Muslim neighbor across the street, the one who greeted them every morning but sported a beard and whose wife wore a headscarf? The day after 9/11, Muslim-Americans woke up to a new America––the one where they were no longer regarded as locals but outsiders and lumped together with the fundamentalists. They struggled to know themselves, only to lose themselves in the interpretation of others.
The geopolitical concerns that have drawn Islam and the West into many conflicts since 2001 have also generated a thirst for fiction and nonfiction, with a Muslim angle. At a time when much of the world associates Islamic culture with oppression and terror, the new genre is tackling such universal themes as love, hope, and women's issues.
Saffron Dreams is the story of basic human desire to be accepted in society, no matter what your background, ethnicity, or race. The tragedy of 9/11 was a great shock to the American psyche. Some of that anger was directed towards those who shared the race and religion of the terrorists, especially those who publicly exhibited symbols of their faith such as veils, beards, even their own names. In the terrorist attack of 9/11, the shards of glass reached far and wide wounding the hearts of Americans who had been very accepting of the melting pot their country had become. The event put them at odds with a community that had come to this country with very simple objectives: to work hard and lead honest lives.
In Saffron Dreams I have attempted to capture how ordinary Muslims were affected by the tragedy of 2001—the silent majority who lead very normal lives and are law-abiding citizens of this land. They are the ones we never hear about because their lives are too ordinary to be the subject of the nightly news. The protagonist of my novel, Arissa Illahi, is a veil-wearing Muslim artist and writer in New York. Pregnant and alone after the tragedy of 9/11, she discovers the unfinished manuscript of her husband and decides to finish it as a tribute to him. In the opening scene, the protagonist discards her headscarf, which has become almost a scarlet letter for her following the attacks of 2001. In a courageous attempt to take charge of her life, she transfers “her veil from her head to her heart.”
Where the media instilled fear in the heart of the nation about Muslims, lately they have also attempted to learn the true purpose of Islam by bringing in renowned and respected scholars and researchers to interview. There still needs to be more dialogs with positive role models of Islam like His Highness the Aga Khan who stresses upon the importance of pluralism in a civil society and speaks about the clash of ignorance. Others like Karen Armstrong and Dr. Ali Asani who time and again have taken center stage to correct some of the misconceptions that exist around Islam. Much work still lies ahead but as with any wound on the psyche of a country, it will take awhile to heal. There is a great need in the U.S. for various religious entities to come together and build bridges of understanding and tolerance to find a common ground—work that Dr. Eboo Patel is doing through the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core.
And so, as the readers scramble to buy yet another book about Muslims in an effort to understand that group, they need to be clear about one thing: even the followers of mainstream Islam can’t tell them what drives terrorism. We are as clueless as the rest of the people but keep on reading. You might learn a thing or two about the true face of Islam.
Thank you and thanks to the readers of The Book Connection. For those with comments and questions, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you mention The Book Connection, you will receive a free e-book called A Taste of Saffron, containing recipes of dishes mentioned in Saffron Dreams. Readers who sign up for updates on my website will get a free excerpt of my 2005 book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall.