A big shout out to my brother-in-law, Murad Hasan, for creating the cover to my new novel.
A big shout out to my brother-in-law, Murad Hasan, for creating the cover to my new novel.
The Summer of 1991 was one of Chicago’s most deadly moments in history. Nearly a thousand people murdered, many thousands more victims of violent crime. I had nearly convinced my mother to allow me to attend the local public school, but that violence had hit our southwest corner of the city, leaving my mother to insist on me attending a private school.
We had spent the previous fall touring different all-girls schools, and I had settled on Queen of Peace. My mom had cautioned me that I had to work hard and pray for high results on the entrance exam because it was a competitive school. Though I was happy to receive acceptance to that school, I still held out hopes of going to the public school with all my friends.
Queen of Peace was a different type of school. Despite being Catholic, it had a rather progressive, pro-feminist feel to it. Sinsinnawan Dominican nuns had established the school. Unlike most Catholic schools, QOP was not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Chicago, but directly run by the convent that established it.
I can only remember seven male faculty or staff in the building. At least two of those male teachers were former seminarians and taught religion. The local pastor would come twice a year: one prayer mass, and Ash Wednesday. Fifteen hundred girls in the gym, quietly led through prayer. I did not always like the school. I struggled often, but most of that was from a chaotic home life than any problem posed by the school.
Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed to learn that QOP would be shutting its doors this year. In all my education and professional experience, I have never been in an environment that was so pro-women, even if I disagreed with them on certain topics. I have never seen a school so dedicated to one central mission: developing “Women of Peace”.
In the last decade, one by one, the all-girls schools had slowly dwindled away. Now, only two girl schools remain in the area: Mother McCauley, a Catholic school, and Aqsa School, an Islamic school. I can’t think of anything more devastating than the continuous loss of female spaces.
I finished watching ‘The Keepers’ on Netflix a few days ago, and it has taken me that long to digest what I learned. It was hard to watch these women recount the violence they endured. In an all-girls school. By violent sadistic priests.
It is devastating to know that they were harmed by those who should have protected them. And it is frustrating to learn that the Archdiocese of Baltimore continues to hinder their investigation, their search for answers, and closure. My ardent hope is that the Archdiocese of Baltimore steps up and provides that closure to their victims. Because that is what faithful people do: they stand up for those who can’t, and against those who would push us down.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but compare it to my own experience at this strange Catholic girls school that had limited its affiliation with the Archdiocese, and with men. I wish there were a way to preserve Queen of Peace, to provide such space for girls for years to come.
I can’t assume to know the minds of those sisters who created Queen of Peace. I can’t know for certain if they intentionally blocked Archdiocesan interference because of fear of the predatory male hiding in vestments. I’m sure if we asked them now, they would deflect and remain humble.
Yet, I am forever grateful to those original Women of Peace for creating a sacred feminine space for girls to grow and learn unencumbered.
#TheKeepers #QueenOfPeace #WomenOfPeace
Forty Days carries great significance. The Christian Gospels tell of Jesus fasting for forty days in the desert. Matthew and Luke tell of Satan’s temptation of Jesus. The penitent Jesus is dared to turn stones into bread, to worship Satan and gain worldly power, and to kill himself and end his pain. Yet, Jesus persisted. From this story, we learn steadfast dedication, abstention from luxury, mortification of the body for the soul. From the most famous Palestinian rebel, we learn that only through #sumoud (Steadfast Commitment and Faith) do we reach our goals.
This year, as Christians all over the world ended their “40 Days in the Desert” on Easter Sunday, Palestinian Political Prisoners began their #DignityStrike. On April 17, 2017, some 1,600 Palestinian prisoners committed to a hunger strike demanding better treatment while incarcerated. Their primary demands include increased contact with family members, access to medical treatment, reinstatement of high school testing, and an end to solitary confinement. Their demands are to be treated with human dignity by the Israeli Occupation.
Despite clear attempts to disrupt their strike, the majority of the prisoners remain steadfast. However, after 40 Days in the Desert, their health is fading fast. Their captors tempt them with food, encourage them to just die, but they remain committed. Many have been moved to the hospital. Some are vomiting blood. All cling to their humanity.
Forty Days without food.
Forty Days without family.
Forty Days of nothing but a teaspoon of salt in a glass of water.
Exactly 40 Days in this Desert, their fast bridging two holy months, two holy fasts. Their starvation symbolically embraced by the faiths of Palestinians: Christianity and Islam.
Tomorrow begins the Holy Month of Ramadan, a month of daily abstention and mortification of the body for the soul. Typically, this fast, is broken each of the thirty nights with a date, jubilation, grand feasts, and lovingly prepared meals with family and friends. The thirty days lead to a Eid al-Fitr, three days of celebration. It’s a celebration of faith and life.
My hope is that Forty Days in the Desert is enough, and these men and women can gain the medical attention they need. I hope Israel meets their needs, and they live to see the end of Ramadan, to celebrate their faith and life in a month.
In the meantime, I wish you all a Blessed Ramadan.
Don’t forget a prayer for those left out in the desert.
Writing is difficult for me. Being brutally honest with my audience, with myself. I spent years hiding my thoughts from others. We all have our traumas and travesties. Some of us learn to hide it all away, to bury it under wit or sarcasm. Writing this book has been a cathartic experience.
However, I have been admonished lately by peers because the heroines of my novel, Ruination, are not considered acceptable female role models in the Arab/Muslim world. Noor, an unmarried mother of an illegitimate child; Ahlam, a sexually fluid teenage girl who chooses to wear hijab. They challenge the code. Gay. Unmarried. Female. They are an amalgamation of all the traits we are supposed to repudiate.
And for me, they are so much more.
I came up in a pro-woman household, with strong feminist ethos. I went to a progressive Catholic all-girls school, ran by Sinsinnawan nuns, not the Archdiocese. I taught for years in an all-girls Islamic school. I have spent the better part of my life in service to the betterment of my sex, encouraging young women to be something more than what other would define them.
With that knowledge, I realized that in a diverse world, being an experimental–perhaps fluid, perhaps gay–teenage Muslim girl in hijab had to be the loneliest planet to inhabit. I think I may have known a few, but speaking it would have been a grave injustice. Women inhabit a curious world of silence, and no more so than those who challenge the status quo. She would have to keep the world at a distance. She would have to be silent. She would have to hide her love away. My character, Ahlam, the dreamer, looking forward to a future with the love of her life. Is that love platonic? Sexual? Romantic? Who knows? She certainly does not. In the way feelings are layered, hers could not be described in any one way. However, she instinctively knows that silence is her only recourse.
Noor, head strong, combative, and utterly alone. If Ahlam has to keep people light years away, Noor has to segregate herself on a tiny island, just herself, her son, and eventually, her Dean. She had to create life in order to find the love she needed. She literally isolates herself in what becomes a segregated bantustan in order to have peace. She is happy in her bubble, and it is the introduction of the outside family that bursts that bubble.
However, the themes of the book are grander than the sexuality of either heroine. They are survivors. They are what is left when the rubble is shoveled away. Their years of hiding, of silence, of listening, of isolation has prepared them for a changed world. It is the rest of the family, clinging to tradition, to old feuds, to zealotry, who struggle in this changing landscape.
Yet it amazes me…and maybe it shouldn’t…that the outrage I have heard has been because of a lesbian kiss and an illegitimate child. There has been no outrage at the concepts of race, segregation, secession, sexual and domestic violence, child abuse, and the ever pervasive radicalization of a mentally ill Muslim woman. Those things are somehow acceptable, palatable…perhaps, normal.
But a lesbian Muslim in hijab…now, that’s haram!
And we are live! Download your copy of my new novel, Ruination. Print will be available next week. And please, don’t forget to give me a review on Amazon.
Thank you all for your support. This would not be possible without all of you listening to me drone on about this idea.
And now, for some drones…
Hayat looked over the railing into the reception hall of the Signature Room. Ninety-five floors above the bustle of humanity below, and she felt a tinge of dread. She attributed her nerves to a fear of heights. A photographer paid to stalk her all day snapped photos of a pensive bride looking over Chicago at dusk. Her gown cascaded in perfect ruffled blooms, her ears twinkled with her wedding jewels. In the reflection of the glass, she thought she saw her mother behind her, but chalked it up to a figment of her imagination. Fear of the future and dread of the past mingled, disorienting her for a moment. Outside she noticed the helicopters buzzing above Lake Shore Drive.
Her father-in-law rented the entire restaurant. Almost five hundred guests waited to see the bride and groom enter the room. The thought alone made her queasy. Hayat did not know most of the people she would greet tonight. The vast majority of the guests attended out of respect for her father-in-law and the rest of the family. Most of the guests were dignitaries of the new world and the old world, of New Chicago and Illinois, even a couple of Feds. Yet, to an eighteen year old almost completely compelled into marriage, she would not have recognized many of the names on the list. She knew only that the Issa name commanded respect, despite the occasional scandalous incident. These calamitous events, though rare, attracted the community’s gaze. Likely, many attended anticipating a continuation of drama.
“Some are here hoping for an encore performance,” Aden whispered in her ear, in a rare moment of intimacy. Proximity during multiple traumas had created a false familiarity, or perhaps they really were falling love.
“They look so content. Talking to each other, sipping cordials, being kind. I almost don’t want to disturb them.” She faced him and forced a smile.
“Well, they are all kind of here for us. We should make some sort of entrance. I mean, I’m in a tuxedo. People need to see this,” he sniffed, spun on his heel. Aden had overnight become a charming suitor, and Hayat, his intended, his prize. “I clean up good.”
“You do! Wallah, you do. But do they really need to see us? Are they really here to see us? No, they’re here for them. For your father, particularly. We could totally bail on this. Get the limo. Grab Ryan and Ahlam. Maybe Noor and Dean. Hit the clubs. No one will card an Issa in a wedding dress.” She smiled and her green eyes twinkled, her strawberry blond hair offset with crystals gave added the exact right amount of bling to the moment.
“I am sorry. I know I need to do more than just say it. But, I am sorry about everything that happened yesterday.” He spoke with caution, as if she may flee, run away, leave him behind to sort out the madness. He would not blame her if she did.
“I know you are. There’s nothing to be sorry about. Yesterday is scorched earth. Nothing of it remains. Today, everything begins,” she offered, trying desperately to convince herself. COuld she put it all behind her? Could she move on with this man? Would she be able to put her childhood to rest?. She peered over her left shoulder. “Except this, of course. I think it’ll scar, but it’ll be a reminder of what we will never be. We will never be hateful or vengeful or petty.” She smiled at her husband and sought his dark eyes for affirmation, but only saw exhaustion. They were too young to feel so tired, but secession, then siege, and then honor and tradition all weighed so heavily on young souls.
“Let’s make a deal. We make an entrance. Shake some hands. Cut the cake with that giant sword. Watch some dancers. An hour. In and out. You’re right. This party is about them, not us. But it’s still a hell of a party. I mean, it is the Signature Room, not the VFW. We need to let that sink in. Let’s give them the show they’re waiting for. The rest of our life is ours. None of them can tell us anything.” He leaned over and kissed her bottom lip. “This time tomorrow, we’ll be flying to Paris. We’ll see the Eiffel Tower. We’ll go to the Louvre. We’ll do all the touristy stuff. But first…” He gestured for Hayat to go first.
“Fine,” she responded. “But one hour. Then out the door. We have things to do. Places to go.” She adjusted herself. Her floor-length lace halter designer dress of cascading romantic ruffles slightly irritated the bandage on her left shoulder. Aden adjusted it for her. “Have you looked out the window? Those helicopters are close. Are they news? Are we that important?”
“Those aren’t helicopters. They are drones,” Aden responded. His eyebrows furrowed in the way all the Issas did, creating a straight line of consternation. He heard that there had been an escalation in negotiations, that the UN had pressured the federal government to lift the siege, that the Interim Government had stopped taking phone calls. The situation had become incredibly tense, however, Aden’s father had assured him that all would be fine, that a wedding in the occupied city would not be a problem.
“Drones? Like with missiles?” Hayat asked, a bit shocked at the idea.
“Yeah, we’re that important,” he laughed. “No, they’re probably just some kind of techy spy drones gathering information for the Stateys. Don’t forget that we are a large group of Arabs congregating in New Chicago.”
“You make it seem normal.” She looked at him askance. When did all of this become normal? Drones and spies and death everywhere. When did their home become the center of an occupation? When did it become commonplace for Americans to live under siege? Grant it, the “siege” was more ceremonial than anything, and until recent months, barely noticeable to those living outside the New Chicago borders. In fact, her life had barely been impacted by the siege until yesterday’s attempt to cross into New Chicago. However, slowly, the people had started to feel the consequences of political movements.
“Normal? Ain’t nothing normal about us, hayati,” he laughed. He needed this day to go smooth. He needed this all to be alright.
“Are we going to be alright?” She stared out onto the setting autumn sun, her thin shoulders shuddered.
“We are all going to be alright. It’s all going to be ok,” he assured her with the steadiest voice he could muster. “Are you ready, then, Mrs. Issa?” He offered his arm, though the height differential was almost comical, she rested her arm on his and prepared to enter the party.
“Well, at least I don’t have to change my name,” she laughed. Her laugh was bright, infectious. The wound on her shoulder ached a bit, but she shirked it off. Tonight, there was no wound, no pain, no memory of a time before: Hayat and Aden Issa, a room full of well-wishers, some dancers, some champagne, photographers, family, and most of all, love.