Saturday, March 22, 2014

Book Review- “Normal Calm” by Hend Hegazi

This book tells the story of Amina, a young Arab-American woman. Amina is ambitious and hardworking and leaves home to study at one of the best universities in America. Very early on in the book she is raped by one of her college friends and this sets the scene for the rest of the book. Not only does Amina have to deal with the ordeal of her rape, but she also has to live through the after effects, the biggest one being how her rape has affected her marriage prospects.

The author delves into the usual stigmas associated with rape and focuses on how this is interpreted and understood in the Arab American community. It was also interesting to be given some insight into how Amina’s rape affected her parents.

One thing I really liked about the book is how the author attempts to shed light on the other perspective by occasionally shifting the spotlight onto the thoughts of the other characters. She also briefly touches on the feelings of the rapist, after he had committed this heinous act. Although this focus was very brief, it nonetheless provided an opportunity for the reader to try to understand the thoughts and reactions of an attacker, something that most of us are not very willing to do.

The relationship that was the most emotional for me was the friendship between Amina, and her non-Muslim best friend Kayla. Although Amina has a close knit group of college friends, it is Kayla, her childhood best friend that she turns to in all her times of need. The respect and support the two women give each other and the love they share for one another reminds us that as human beings we have the ability to connect to each other, despite cultural and religious differences. This relationship in the book also brings about opportunity for religious dialogue, which is included in a coherent and natural way.

Amina’s relationship with her parents however is also a very interesting one. For me there was a shift or growth in their relationship from the beginning of the book until the end. For some people, Amina’s parents may be perceived as unnecessarily overprotective, however, it is slowly revealed how their protectiveness stems from their deep love for their only daughter. At times her parents reactions to her may seem harsh and unemotional, but as the book progresses it can be seen how her parents act according to what they think is in her best interest and finally towards the end we begin to understand their strong love.

Issues relating to love and marriage are of course the most vivid in the book, and while these issues are usually selling points, the context of Amina’s rape provides an even more interesting discussion. The age old debate of passionate love versus a mutual respect and understanding is brought to the fore as Amina grapples with trying to find the most suitable spouse for her.  

I experienced Amina to be a practical and level-headed character, who always looked for positivity, even when faced with the most difficult of trials. It was her honesty and insistence on holding on to her values that made her a strong character, someone who could easily be called a role-model.

The book was generally an interesting read, which shed light on cultural understandings of issues which are pertinent to all people. In my opinion it has opened up the dialogue on issues that are often swept under the carpet in Muslim societies. I would say that the educational value of this book supersedes the entertainment value, and I would therefore describe it as a book with vision and purpose. 

Image from here 

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

The creation of false hierarchies

It seems that it’s a natural tendency of human beings to create false hierarchies, placing people on levels according to their perceived importance. Unfortunately these hierarchies are usually based on material things and many times people are given status not because they deserve it, but because of titles which have somehow come to represent power and of course money.

I find it odd that people will suddenly start treating me differently when they find out that I have studied psychology. I’ve heard things like, “oh we didn’t know that you were so educated”, or “oh why didn’t you tell us that you are a psychologist?” And then suddenly they start treating me like I deserve to be listened to, and somehow my words are automatically given credibility. Many times I have wished that people didn’t find out about the degrees I studied or the work that I do. That way I would know what they really think of me, not as a so-called professional but as a human being.

People do that all the time, somehow people with professional careers have come to occupy the higher ranks of the hierarchy. This is why our travel agent was so insistent to get flight bookings for a doctor on our recent trip for umrah. While the rest of the people had to wait patiently, the doctor’s arrangements were made first priority (and no the doctor was not going there to help others it was his family umrah trip).  Likewise, professional people’s children are treated better at schools and somehow it’s believed that they naturally have higher status.

I often wonder how all this began. It just seems so ridiculously superficial to me. What prompts us to create these hierarchies based on things that don’t even matter? It seems that it’s all about the perception of power and status. Somehow going to university and obtaining a degree ceased to be about gaining knowledge and expertise, and began to be about power and status, and of course the more high paying your career is, the better.

This reminds me of when I first started university. People in first year have a tendency to ask each other what they are studying and so on. On more than one occasion I got the quizzical look when I said I was studying psychology. “But why, there’s no scope for psychology and there’s no money in it?” Was the response I’d get from some people. That was the first time I realized that studying, like many things in life, has lost its purpose and these days it’s more about earning status than it is about gaining knowledge.

Somehow people have managed to label most things in life according to these false labels of status and power. In the same way, people have created false hierarchies, placing at the top those with more “status”, “power” and not forgetting more money.

What type of hierarchy would we have though if we based it on human values, morals, etiquettes and so on? We’d probably find a reverse hierarchy, with those people who are currently undervalued right there on the top. The teacher for instance would hold a higher position than the businessman, the cleaners would be given a much higher level than what they currently occupy and of course, the mothers or caregivers would be somewhere right at the top.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying here that doctors or other professionals don’t have value. However, I believe that value should be given based on actions, and not mere perceptions of status. I also believe that people should be treated fairly and equally no matter who their parents are. The problem with these false ideas of power and status is that it takes away the true value of things and replaces it with falsity. So for instance, instead of someone wanting to become a doctor because they have a genuine need to help others, people then begin to want to study medicine because of the prestige it would bring them and that’s how the essence of things get lost.

The question I have is this- why does there have to be societal hierarchies in the first place? Why can’t people all be valued intrinsically, why do we have to have titles and labels assigned to us? Why can’t we trust that words uttered by genuine people, whether they have a degree behind their name or not? Why can’t we see beyond all the physical barriers and accept each other for who we are instead of what we are?

Sometimes the way the world has become just really irritates me, it reminds me that we are currently in battle, we are battling the forces of negativity and falsity and we cannot afford to relax and stop fighting, because there has to be some people fighting for good.

I pray that Almighty Allah helps us to see the good in others, no matter who they are, to gain benefit from those who Allah has bestowed with real knowledge, no matter who they are, and to treat everyone fairly and equally, no matter who they are. May we have respect for those who deserve to be respected, the ones who have sacrificed their lives to bring about goodness and real knowledge, and may we be of those who shun falsity wherever we may see it, Inshaa Allah!  

Image 1 from hereImage 2 from here