Soniah Kamal

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'Islam is not Pakistan's religion; Marriage is'

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Barry Udall, The Lonely Polygamist, Immigrants and Fleas

Barry Udall's novel 'The Lonely Polygamist' is getting raves for its sensitive portrayal of a polygamist who has an affair, and the trials and tribulations of his lonely wives and even lonelier children. And it is sensitive. And well written, especially the parts about grief incurred by successive miscarriages and the death of children. With all this sensitivity going for it, I'm finding it very hard to come up with excuses for the following passage. But, really, is there any excuse good enough, or of value, in likening immigrants to fleas?

By the time he made it to St. George, the fleas had begun to stir. They'd
been laying low, like immigrants getting used to the neighborhood, but now that
they'd acclimated, picked up on the local language and customs, they were on the
move and causing trouble. Anywhere there was hair, they congregated: in the vast
prairies on his cheeks and belly and the forest that covered his scalp. In
particular they seemed to be making themselves comfortable in the crack of his
page 413 hardcover.
As my nine year old would say 'this is just wrong!' Excreable, more like it. How did this odious passge bypass an agent and an editor and the many readers before it arrived in stores.
Of course, I read the novel, but no matter how good a work, it is not going to convert me into being comfortable with polygamy, be it Mormon or Muslim. The last chapter in The Lonely Polygamist where a fifth wife joins the fold in a marriage ceremony, certainly pushes quite a few buttons.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What the fuck is wrong with Faisal Shezad?

Faisal Shezad swore the pledge of allegiance to the U.S., then turned around and put a bomb in Times Square. Really, what is wrong with people like him? I say people like him because he is not people like me, though many in the U.S. might see us as the same: he's from Pakistan, I'm from Pakistan. He lived in the States. I live in the States. He is Muslim. I'm from a Muslim background. And yet Mr. Stupid Shezad and I are universes apart. So, like other humans watching Mr. Shezad's stupidity unfold on TV, I want to know exactly what is wrong with Mr. Stupid Shezad?

Please don't say he's angry at America. Or that America deserves it. Or that he's disillusioned. Or that America deserves it. If you really want to change the world, or do something about anger towards American foreign policy or Starbucks' ridiculous coffee prices there has to be a better way then boming Times Square or any Square.

It actually makes me very angry that Mr. Shezad applied for citizenship and got it then abused it. If you're pissed about the state of Pakistan, please, get out of the U.S, return to Pakistan and stay there and do something about poverty, education and no electricity. Spreading terror in your recently adopted country is not going to help the mess your birth country is in. Seriously between the likes of Faisal Shezad and the recent Arizona immigration laws whereby the good and fair police can stop anyone who looks like an illegal worker (does this include blonde, blue eyed and white-- if so then I've got nothing to worry about), the likes of me is not happy with the birth country or the adopted country.

Here are two very excellent points of view on Stupid Shezad.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Perinatal loss- a father's tale

Today I received my perinatal loss newsletter Caring and Coping published by Northside Hospital in Georgia. It's been three years since I lost my four month old in utero, but he lives in my heart as a soft, pearly cartilaginous little face with perfectly formed ears. I was alone in my loss. No one could understand why I was so devastated since 'it was only a fetus'. Today's newsletter includes a poem I want to share.

A Father's Grief
(Author Unknown)
It must be very difficult
To be a man in grief,
Since 'men don't cry'
and 'men are strong.'
No tears can bring relief.
It must be very difficult
To stand up to the test,
and field the calls and visitors
So she can get some rest.
They always ask if she's all right
And what she is going through.
But seldom to they take his hand,
'My friend, but how are you?'
He hears her crying in the night
And thinks his heart will break.
he dries her tears and comforts her,
but 'stays strong' for her sake.
It must be very difficult
To start each day anew
And try to be so very brave-
He lost his baby- too.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Holly Goddard Jones and her short story collection 'Girl Trouble'

A few days ago I recieved my Guernica issue update. In the features section writer Claire Messud showcases the work of seven female writers: Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Holly Goddard Jones, Elliott Holt, Porochista Khakpour, Lorraine Adams, and Hasanthika Sirisena. I was already a fan of some of the writers such as Chimamanda Adichie and Lorraine Adams (whose story 'Zalzala' is set in Pakistan), however I had not heard of many others.
I began reading the stories in sequence. First Adichie, then Atta, next Holly Goddard Jones' story Suspension. As I began it I thought, oh no not another high school drama between the good looking and the not so good looking, but, the more I read, the more my initial presumption was replaced by sheer awe. It is about high school and the good looking and the not so good looking, yet the hard, fast, elegant prose delivers a story that will cling to your soul.
I so very much wanted more of Ms. Jones that I put on hold reading the remaining Guernica stories and began a feverish googling.
Holly Goddard Jones has a website. She has two doggies. And a short story collection 'Girl Trouble'. The stories are set in Roma, Kentucky, USA and are about unremarkable humans remarkable for surviving ordinary ups and downs, and sometimes terrible tragedies. Holly's story telling skills are extraordinary, and her characters fiercely masculine and harshly female, simply humans you can recognise no matter where you live.
A few stories are on line. Good Girl. Life Expectancy. Parts. Apparently, Parts has much revised for her the final published collection and since I couldn't wait to read the re-vision, I braved the snow falling outside and went to buy 'Girl Trouble'. I have read some fantastic books over the last many months; Girl Troubles is uberfantastic. Run, sprint, leap to get your copy, and then settle down to be smitten.
P.S. Holly discusses her writing process.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Death of a Domestic Maid/Help/Serf

The death of 12-year-old Shazia, who worked as domestic help for an
affluent Lahore family accused of beating her frequently, is a crime on multiple
levels. According to the autopsy report, Shazia died as a result of severe
physical torture. The police have now taken into custody the principal accused
and three members of his family who were nominated in the FIR, as well as the
couple who originally put the family in touch with Shazia. It is hoped that the
case is investigated speedily and thoroughly, for delays will cause the young
victim’s family further anguish.... Representative of the manner in which
Pakistan fails to protect the most vulnerable of its citizens, Shazia’s death
ought to serve as a wake-up call.
from the Dawn Editorial- 26 Jan 2010

The death of a domestic maid at the hands of her employers serving as a wake up call to the law and to the people; I fear that will not be the case. Rather, those who can afford maids (in countries such as Pakistan, labor is so cheap even middle class famlies can afford round the clock servants) will tut-tut and pat themselves on the back about how nice they are, after all they never beat their servants. In fact the employers will go one up and talk about how it is they, the affluent, who are at risk of being cheated/murdered by their servants.

In Pakistan, maids are referred through word of mouth, and once employed, the norm is for the maid to move into her employer's house where she works from the dawn till dusk-- no 9 to 5 here-- and is allowed a day off once a month, and even that, at times, begrudingly.

At times the 'maid' in question is as young as the children she is employed to look after, and so a ten year old will be serving dinner to another ten year old cum friends who are watching cartoons without a care in the world.

An educated maid is often viewed by both their mother and Mistress alike as just a big headache, no doubt because education increases their expectations from life. In any case, sending a maid to school is considered a waste of money by her parents. Sooner or later, the maid's destiny is to get married and have children (that this is the preffered destiny for all women in Pakistan does not breed any solidarity between Maids and Mistresses because the social distance between them is too vast). Once she is married off, if the former maid does need to work outside her house and become the breadwinner (reasons often include her husband turning to narcotics or running off) she can always get employment as a maid while her own children are looked after by extended family.

I am not suggesting that employers are devils and maids are angels. Of course some steal, others cheat, and yet others shirk their responsibilities. A common complaint is the maid who swears to return from her vacation only to not do so and therby leave her employer in a lurch. Never the less, no matter what lurch a maid leaves one in, at the end of the day, it is she who is powerless.

In Pakistan, all maids, let alone the live-in maid, is literally at the mercy of her employers. Some employers are unkind, others are not, and whether a servant gets employed by the kind or unkind is nothing more than the luck of the draw, fate, kismet. Even the kindest of employers can turn deadly if the right buttons are pushed, buttons which are pushed easily in a clime where the class structure is rigid and, from poweless to powerful, an impossible chasm.
Following is an even more appalling report of the last days of twelve year old Shazia Bashir:
SLMP chief coordinator Sohail Johnson said the girl worked under constant
stress and experienced emotional and psychological trauma. She was also denied
the agreed salary (Rs 1,000 or about US$ 12 per month).
Shazia “would get
insults whenever she raised the subject of payment,” the Christian activist
said. Three days before her death, her employer tortured her, he noted.
Afterwards, he tried to have her treated at his home without informing the
parents of her health situation. In the end, the medical care she did get proved
inadequate and she had to go to Lahore’s Meo Hospital.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Discovering J California Cooper and Family

Until joining my African-American book club I had not heard of author J. California Cooper even though she is the winner of a National Book Award for Homemade Love (1989). Why is this? After all I'm fully aware of story tellers such as Toni Morrison, Edward P Jones, Terri McMillan, E Lynn Harris. Bebe Moore Campbell etc... Have I been living under a rock? In any case, I have been reading her first novel Family, published in 1991, and I am swept away. On the face of it, this novella is about slavery, however under the skin and bones it is a beautifully rendered tale of human endurance and hope, no less because the tone the main character uses to tell the story of her family is not engulfed in anger or bitterness. Instead the sytle is both lyrical and crisp and perfect for allowing the reader to absorb brutal details without getting too heart sick to continue. In fact the novel ends on a note of hope and connectivity, a real feat to pull off given the subject matter. I love the way she playfully wrestles and uses word play to present the concept of time and the times in this novel. Her style reminded me of Khalil Gibran whom I used to read a long, long time ago once upon a time, so I was defintely tickled to see him listed in her dedication. I so recommend Family, a little treasure of a read with a big heart. And look forward to reading more of Cooper's work.

I could quote whole chapters, but here are a few words:, once upon another time, a long, long time ago, time didn't mean
anything to my people, exceptin it was hard times all the time. And time can
look endless. That's the time I was born.

...When the children was sold and the money used to buy more land or somethin
for the land, Always named whatever was bought by the name of her child. So
there was fields named Lester, Ruby, and Lark, and whole lotta cows named Satti.

...So they loved in silence and touching. Always's heart overflowed so til it
hurt. He did not know where her other children was tho. It's always something to
remind you that everything ain't never gonna be alright!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Magdalene Sisters

I have been meaning to watch The Magdalene Sisters ever since I heard about it, but have not had the gumption till yet. The Magdalene Asylums was one institution amongst many where disreputable girls were sent away to presumably be reformed although in fact to often live out their lives in hard labor, supposed apt punishment for their sin of being unwed mothers, or raped, or in some cases merely flirtatious and good looking. This film in particular focuses on the fate of four Irish girls. My mother loves the Irish, they're just like us, she's always said. Accordingly, this was a hard film for me to watch, no less because, had I been born in that clime I would have, no doubt, ended up in one of those institutions out of, no doubt, the goodness of my parents's hearts, after all they would have only been trying to save me as well as themselves. How thank full I must be then that Pakistan harbors, at least, no such institutions for fallen women. Of course troubleseome wives, sisters, daughters etc... do often go mad for which there are institutions...

I was shocked to discover in the film postscript that the last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996.

19 bloody 96. The year I graduated from college. That year I was still trapped in my mind, scared, broken, and trying to make sense of who I was versus where and to whom I’d been born. That year I did not know there were still institutions where my broken, scared, senseless sisters were trapped too.
The Magdalene Sisters is based on the documentary 'Sex in a Cold Clime' which you can watch here (it is also available as an extra on the DVD). Please do take the time to watch it so you can bear witness to these stories which should have never been. I was heart broken by the looks on the womens faces as they relate their losses of so many years ago. And, as usual, really pissed at the way religion and community manipulates females.
The picture above is the cover of the book by James M Smith 'Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment. Here is a blogpost by the author himself on the Manchester University Press blog.
"Are you the man who wrote the Magdalen book?" A voice, hesitant and frail,
asked from the other end of my office phone. "I just finished it. I read about
ten pages a day." She called to share her story. She wanted someone to listen.
She needed someone to understand.Her mother died when she was seven. Initially,
she and a younger sister were cared for within the extended family. The farm
required her father's attention. At fourteen, he deposited her with the Good
Shepherd nuns in New Ross. Her sister was sent to the congregation's Limerick
convent." read rest here