A Shout Out to Inspiration

Virginia Woolf, novelist.

(photo: Virginia Woolf’s workspace, buzzfeed.com)

I have gathered some important people around me without even knowing I was doing it.

Any motivational speaker will tell you that to get closer to realizing your dreams you should never be the smartest person in the room. Although it was not always intentional, I see now that I have a strong circle of successful and inspiring people in an international ring around me. Most of them are women and for that I am very grateful.

They feed my creativity, my entrepreneurial spirit, my pursuit of academia when  the duties of having children and keeping the logistics of life going seem to take up all of my time.

There is an environmentalist in Switzerland who loves my children like her own and serves as a constant source of encouragement and affirmation that I am going to achieve my dreams.

There is a world traveler hiding in Boston suburbs commiserating with me over hours of sleep lost at the hands of our infant children. We day-dream about businesses we will start. We pontificate about the preferable cultural details of Spain and North Africa.

Today there is a great reason to celebrate one of my major inspirations. Heather Demetrios is living a writer’s dream – writing and publishing in a wave of energy and creativity. She put all of her intention into her career as a writer for many years and now it is all paying off as she rises to the top of her chosen genre, Young Adult fiction.

Since I was a very little girl  too young to read and write on my own I wanted to be a writer. I have written and I have hesitated to write. When I met Heather four years ago, she was on the brink of this great success she is now enjoying. I am inspired by her because I saw what she did. She sat down and wrote. And she learned everything that one should learn in order to market themselves as a writer, seek publication and flourish. All while writing without rest. It is a formula that anyone can follow: Find what you are moved to do – whatever it is that you cannot live without doing and then do it. Keep doing it over and over again. And something will come of it. Whether it is a private, secret success or a public one, something will happen and chances are it will be pretty good!

Learning this lesson from Heather and others is part of what has led me to this blog -again – after a year of neglecting it. I didn’t write for a year because I didn’t know what I should write – what I was supposed to write. And I still do not know today, but I do know that I must write. Not sure I mind what happens next…

"Secret to Writing a Bestseller: You write..." - Jonathan Gunson #quotes #writing *

(photo: bestsellerlabs.com)

Heather Demetrios, your successes feel like success of my own. I don’t know why or whether that sounds selfish. But when I see all that you are doing and I overwhelmed with pride and I feel the fires stoking in me to press on.

Please read this article about Heather’s current place on a list of 13 Female YA authors That Owned 2014. Just go ahead and see who else is on this list and tell me you’re not inspired!

Here is her second book published, which is also the first of a trilogy! I especially like it because it has the classic details of an old. Arabian genie story, yet it is saturated with heather’s unique style! (photo taken from yaseriesinsiders.com)

We’re so excited to have Heather Demetrios with us today celebrating her new release EXQUISITE CAPTIVE. Thanks for the interview, Heather! YA Series Insiders: Who is your favorite character to write and why?  Heather Demetrios: Not gonna lie, my favorite character to write is Malek, Nalia’s master. I’ve known from the beginning that he has a dark past and while we get hints of that in Exquisite, it really comes out in Book 2 (Blood Passage, which comes out next October). There’s something so incredibly satisfying about slipping into a voice and skin so unlike your own. Malek is unbelievably cruel, but it’s his vulnerabilities that get you off balance. Nalia’s confusion about him is a direct reflection of my own: you’re so evil—why am I drawn to you? This isn’t a love triangle situation, though. At most, Nalia has symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. We learn some secrets about Malek as to why there is this seemingly inexplicable connection between them. But even as Nalia is repelled by him we, the readers, can’t help but see those things Nalia isn’t privy to. YASI: If you were going to write a spin-off about one of your characters, who would it be and why? HD:  I’d love to write a spin-off about Leilan, Nalia’s BFF, who is a free jinni living in Los Angeles. There are a few different kinds of jinn: those who are on the dark caravan (the slave trade), those who are expatriates (they’ve run away), and political prisoners who’ve been banished to Earth by the ruling caste of jinn. We learn a little bit about how Leilan escaped Arjinna, but I’d love to explore what it was like for her to make that decision to run away from home and go to an entirely different plane of existence, brave the dangers of crossing through the portal between Arjinna (the jinn realm) and Earth, and how she navigated living in the human realm all on her own. I also suspect cute boys and girls are involved. Leilan’s an artist and she sells her work on the Venice Beach boardwalk. I’m curious about how her art helped heal her after some of the stuff that went down in Arjinna. YASI: Who or what was the inspiration for the villain in your book? HD: Exquisite has two major villains (though there are more than two very unsavory characters). One of them is a ghoul—a cannibalistic jinni—that basically uses Earth as a buffet on his search for Nalia, whom he’s been hired to kill. I did a lot of research about jinn—there is a wealth of folklore out there—and ghouls are often mentioned. My inspiration came from the book Legends of the Fire Spirits, which is a non-fiction book about jinn lore. I took certain common traits of ghouls and added a little, shall we say, flair. What you get is Haran. If he doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will. I had so much fun working on his sections, which are about 3 or 4 pages each and scattered throughout the book. Each section takes place in a different country (I’ve been to all the countries featured in the book). I had no idea I would enjoy writing horror, but it was great fun! YASI: What motivates you to write even when you don’t feel up to it? HD: Fear. Honestly, I make myself sit down and write even when I don’t want to because I’m terrified of having a totally dried up creative well, of somehow losing touch with that part of me that writes. There’s also fear of disappointing myself, fear of not meeting a deadline, and fear of not being able to crack the code of my work-in-progress. My favorite quote about making art is tacked onto a board right above my laptop—it’s by Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” YASI: What book have you read that somehow changed your life and how? HD: I actually wrote a blog post all about this called “Coming out of the YA Closet” because one of the reasons I write YA is because of Twilight. This is a pretty unpopular thing to admit, but I’m trying to be more open about it. Haters gonna hate, right? Say what you will about it, that book made me want to write for teens. It was the first time I’d been so hooked on a book that I literally lost weight because I didn’t want to take the time to eat—I just had to keep reading. I’d never read a romance before, not that kind, anyway. I loved Harry Potter, but that was pretty much the only fantasy I’d ever picked up too, other than The Hobbit. Imagine my surprise when Edward Cullen walked into that cafeteria. Since then, I’ve become very educated in the YA genre and have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m not a book snob, but I know what’s what when it comes to craft. Obviously Twilight has its problems, but I will be forever grateful to the culture that dropped that book in my lap and made me want to create book crack for my future readers someday. YASI: What is the core thing in your book? The one thing you would never in a million years have given up no matter how much money someone paid you? HD: The thing I wouldn’t have given up in The Dark Caravan Cycle is its connection to slavery and, more specifically, trafficking. There are a lot of other huge issues that come into play with the novels, but I think the thing that sets this apart from other fantasies is the jinn folklore connection to slavery. We always see jinn enslaved to human masters who make them do their bidding. It was important for me to really highlight this unique aspect of their character. They are magical creatures with enormous potential, yet they are constantly being stifled by people who have zero magical power. I quickly realized that this idea of transporting jinn in lamps and bottles means that they’re being trafficked in some way. I wouldn’t have wanted to give up the idea of the dark caravan, which is a euphemism for the jinn slave trade. This was never going to be a cute book about wishes. YASI: Did anything happen in your series that surprised you, that you didn’t plan? HD: I would say that the biggest surprise so far has been the changes I’m making in regards to Book 3. In Book 2 (Blood Passage), there are definitely things that came out that I hadn’t expected, but I always knew Book 2 would have surprises for me and for the reader because it was the one that terrified me. I am SO PROUD of Book 2. I really keep the reader on their toes, if I do say so myself. A LOT of unexpected things happen and I was just as surprised as the reader is going to be. Now I’m working on Book 3 (Freedom’s Slave) and I realized that my original ideas for it just aren’t satisfying after all the cool places Book 2 took me. I want to surprise my readers and find unique ways to honor these incredibly cool jinn legends my story is born from. So I’m really going back to the drawing board and figuring out how to use some of the new characters that come in the story in Book 2 and reconsidering my plans. It’s exciting and terribly scary, all at the same time. YASI: If you could pull one thing from your series world to have in real life, what would it be? HD: I created this magical energy force called “chiaan” – it’s how my jinn draw magic from the elements around them, but it’s also the energy they have inside themselves. Each energy force is individualized within each jinni. Just like fingerprints, no two are the same. So their particular magic is related to a feeling you get about them that is also somehow related to the element they draw magic from (so earth jinn—“Djan”—might have a calm, resolute, strong kind of feeling to their magic). I discovered it when writing the sexy dance scene between Nalia and Raif—I love how it can be unbearably sexy, this exchange of energy even when nothing sexy is necessarily going on (okay, but that dance puts Dirty Dancing to shame). It’s extraordinarily intimate—kinda like touching someone’s soul. I love this idea, that you can share this really intense connection with another person that is transmitted through a simple touch. You can get the true measure of a person this way. Chiaan will out, so to speak. That’s why my jinn very rarely touch one another. To touch someone’s bare skin without their permission would be the height of rudeness. About the Book  Forced to obey her master.  Compelled to help her enemy.  Determined to free herself.  Nalia is a jinni of tremendous ancient power, the only survivor of a coup that killed nearly everyone she loved. Stuffed into a bottle and sold by a slave trader, she’s now in hiding on the dark caravan, the lucrative jinni slave trade between Arjinna and Earth, where jinn are forced to grant wishes and obey their human masters’ every command. She’d give almost anything to be free of the golden shackles that bind her to Malek, her handsome, cruel master, and his lavish Hollywood lifestyle.  Enter Raif, the enigmatic leader of Arjinna’s revolution and Nalia’s sworn enemy. He promises to free Nalia from her master so that she can return to her ravaged homeland and free her imprisoned brother—all for an unbearably high price. Nalia’s not sure she can trust him, but Raif’s her only hope of escape. With her enemies on the hunt, Earth has become more perilous than ever for Nalia. There’s just one catch: for Raif’s unbinding magic to work, Nalia must gain possession of her bottle…and convince the dangerously persuasive Malek that she truly loves him. Battling a dark past and harboring a terrible secret, Nalia soon realizes her freedom may come at a price too terrible to pay: but how far is she willing to go for it?  Inspired by Arabian Nights, EXQUISITE CAPTIVE brings to life a deliciously seductive world where a wish can be a curse and shadows are sometimes safer than the light. Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Goodreads

Tell me who inspires you!

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Today’s thoughts were all images: Here are a few of them:

All meeting needs of some kind. Uncharted territory, green and refreshing, organized and eye catching.

A fab Amsterdam apartment of Brechtje Troost. Inside out.

Places I have already been but who call us back. The desert and the oasis.

Qasr al Sarab Abu Dhabi- I could see myself vacationing here and looking out at this for daysMake sure you make time to ride the camels.

Dreaming of a new apartment, how we will decorate it and organize it to make it feel creative and clean and comforting.

Bow Bridge, Central Park. New York City I've been, but would love to go again!!

Have you been here?
you would never guess what lay behind that door!

What did you daydream about today?

photos found on the following websites:

1. augustana.edu

2. myscandinavianhome.blogspot.co.uk

3. jetsetter.com

4. elites.bizzboard.com

5. apartmenttherapy.com

6. apartmenttherapy.com

7. flickr.com

8. assilah-holidays.com

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The Next Move

An ancient photo but it looks about right. Complete with the strange guy peekng over our heads in the background!

An ancient photo but it looks about right. Complete with the strange guy peekng over our heads in the background!

We’re moving! That is what we keep telling everyone.  Moving is what we do. In the past, it seemed that our desire to move in and out of countries and cultures has often been stronger than our need for a home. With two children now, the need for some kind of is gaining priority but the urge to move on at least just one… ok, maybe two more times is a light that never goes out. So we are going. To Morocco. No, New York City..or Abu Dhabi, UAE… or New York City. Wait, what about Spain!? This is part of what happens to people who have few mental, and cultural barriers that would keep most people in the place they are familiar with. We have experienced feeling familiar almost everywhere and equally unfamiliar or foreign in the countries we were born and grew up in.

Some people around us are on the edges of their seats. Many more are rallying around us, encouraging us to make this choice or that choice. Lately we are wondering if the choice is even ours. We have to find jobs  or at least one job first. We have to know that there will be childcare and schools that are good for our kids. With so many moves and experiences under our belts at this time, we have the added dimension (pressure) of trying to make sure we learn from the past.

Fifteen years ago I moved around the world by throwing a dart at a map. Today it’s much more complex. That complexity is completely throwing me for a loop this time! It can be so challenging on certain days that I get trapped in a circle of questioning and comparing pros and cons. Every morning I wake and say “What will happen?”

That’s where it all lies here on this darkening winter Tuesday afternoon. Where will we go next? Will we go at all? Does it matter where we go? If we go?

Have any of you moved abroad with small children? Had you lived abroad before? how did you choose where to go? Tell me your stories!

Categories: Morocco, Nomadism, UAE, Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment

To Do List

My writing is significantly rusty. Getting all of this down is like riding a bike for the very first time – wobbling over all the place. But one must ride right through that. Consistency is a word at the forefront of my mind these days. I think productive, intentional consistency in a personal practice can be very challenging.  As I embark on refashioning the shape of my family life after 4.5 years in the USA, I notice there are many angles from which I am being called to practice being consistent. I’ll make a list:

1. Weave some purpose into the day. Though I am not technically working a full-time job right now, I must consistently create and follow a schedule for as many days a week as possible. This can help me avoid feeling stuck. I do not currently have the kind of job that schedules my day for me. So I am realizing how necessary it is to rise in the morning with a purpose – even if it has to be a sort of faking it kind of purpose on some days just to keep the ball rolling.

2. Read something. Right now I am reading a sort of spiritual historical novel depicting the meeting and relationship of Shems Tabrizi and Jalaluddin Rumi. (A thoughtful and perfectly timed gift from Yassine. Hi Yassine!) When I say reading, I mean that I hold the book in my hand once or twice a day and every few days, I actually read some words out of it – a page to three pages at a time. But hey it keeps me going in the sea of child centered tasks and activities I engage in everyday at my house.

3. Be consistent with Aslam. Even for a four-year old, his personality is intense. He is sometimes so annoying and just when I want to run away from him I remember that I can actually influence him significantly. With this guy, you must be on at all times. He doesn’t let up so neither can you. Learning lessons all day long.

4. Write everything down. It worked when I was 7 and 14 and 21 and 28 and 32. Until recently I had been writing everything down. Now seems like a good time to get back to that.

5. Eat well. Because it feels crappy not to and it will be helpful to be in tip-top shape throughout this lengthy and energetic transition that is life itself.

I realize I could generate a much longer list of things I need to be consistent with. However, the full edition of such a list would surely be overwhelming and probably cause some apathy so these five things are currently at the top of this list.

Though there are moments when the effort it takes to be consistent feels like too much to bother with. However,  in a life like this one – teetering on the edge of great change and guiding two small others through their continuous personal evolution as well, developing that consistency is going to keep me grounded and possibly even be the way to my own self realization.

What is on your to do list? Where do you challenge yourself to be consistent?

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We used to be a lot more creative: I saw that sitting in the Met yesterday looking at clay bowls and noticing that we used to have to make everything we needed -we the people of the human race. Now what we mostly do is consume. We buy plastic bowls made in other countries in a supermarket lit with fluorescent lighting and everything is a little bit far away from the skin and bone.  This is what I was thinking about when I stumbled upon this in the Islamic art gallery:


It is beautiful. And historic. The courtyard of a Moroccan Ryad full of traditional artistry serving as the very structure of it. But at the same time, it looks an awful lot like my first (Marrakshi) husband’s house. They weren’t rich people. They had just been in their little alley folded into the medina qadima (old city – a walled in section of the city built by the Arabs who came to settle in North Africa – called the old city for its differentiation from and contrast to the Ville Nouvelle built by French colonists) for several centuries. I visited and slept at and lived in that house over and over again over years. And then yesterday I found myself standing in front of what felt like a replica of it in a New York City museum. So I started to cry. I didn’t even read the little blurb about it on the card. I could not bother. What could some text typed on a card in a museum possibly tell me?

When I saw two men speaking in low tones and pointing at specific details in the exhibit, I knew they were going to tell me much more.

I asked if they were Moroccan. (Yes!). One of them started to explain what we were looking at and then quickly recognizing the knowing expression in my face and the familiarity in my nodding head, he asked: “You know this. Have you been to Morocco?” I told him a 10 second version of my 7 year “visit” to Morocco and said, “Isn’t it strange to see our home in a museum?” We remarked that we were all feeling homesick. Our bond was created.

Introductions: Mohammed, Abderrahim, Erin. They are from Fes. Fassi. We talked, forgetting about the art. Abderrahim – with his shy silence – made it clear that he doesn’t speak English. We switched over to a mix of the three( English, Moroccan Arabic dialect and French) – heavily favoring French – and told our stories.

Abderrahim is visiting Mohammed from Fes. Mohammed is an Arabic teacher for CUNY. Abderrahim is an accountant. Abderrahim and I pull out photos of our children. He has a little girl, Amira – 5 months old and zwiiiiiina (so beautiful) and he remarks that my Aslam is bogossss (a Moroccan transformation of the French beau gosse – meaning handsome). But we did not just politely appreciate one another’s children. We jumped up and down and squealed the words out and smiled and joked about arranging the marriage of Aslam and Amira. This is what happens in a real Moroccan ryad. This is how we relate to each other – how we greet and appreciate one another. This was better than the blurb on the card typed up by an employee of the museum. This was transportation to another place. And that’s what they put it there for.

And I found myself creating once again. Sure I am going to buy a plastic bowl from Target again someday. But I got to participate in creating a connection and I felt like a human being. I flipped a switch from a moment of feeling very tired and spent and a little bit lost – lost on behalf of all of us – to a moment of creating another human connection – another family. That’s what we are doing here.

I would like to thank the people of Morocco for awakening this in me. No one does it like you do!

And Pour mes amis nouveaux, Sidi Mohammed et Sidi Abderrahim, Je serai on contact tres bientot! C’etait un grand plaisir!!!!

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That’s an uncomfortable word. And if you know that feeling then you also know the feeling of this one: Plotting.

I am plotting my escape to a new lifestyle right now. I have been for awhile but I didn’t know it in these terms until the wee hours of this morning when I woke up from a heart-racing dream of being stuck in a teeny tiny elevator made of glass. I could see out but no one seemed to see me and the height of the thing was just tall enough for me to sit cross legged on the floor and leave an inch of space between my head and the ceiling. That’s what I dreamt this morning. This is how I spent my sleep. Not restful, exactly. And just when I was about to lament, when I wanted to give into the feeling of exhaustion I was sure I would have when I sat up and started walking around the house – I realized that my fearful and uncomfortable dream would serve as a refueling of a kind. Though I did not rest peacefully last night, I awoke with a burning to plot my escape.

Gathering tools:

Right now my biggest challenge is to stop feeling like a victim. I hear it in my voice and I can observe it in the way I behave. I feel like I don’t have time. I leave dozens of blog posts unedited and unpublished in the administrative window of my webpage. I have journals with only a few pages written in them littered all over the house. Can you identify with this?  I would like to now put my plotting energy to activating all of the efforts I know very well that I have to make. I have all the tools lying around me in a tidy half circle on the floor. I just need to pick them up.

It may me I have to stop sleeping. Right? Do I? Last night I had all the intentions in the world to write and I started to but then I was interrupted by my son’s very honest and obvious needs – a bath, dinner, attention, a lunch made for him to take to preschool tomorrow. By the time I had finished those things, I found myself with my hands poised over the keyboard and my eyes drooping shut in front of a Disney movie.

Then there’s the business I mentioned earlier: www.shop.com/asherin. This is my online shopping portal. It’s the project that can fund my escape. My biggest challenge in running this business so far is that I do not talk about it enough. And how are people going to know if I don’t advertise? So here is a brief advertisement: If you create a login for yourselves on this site, you can comparative shop at thousands of popular stores and earn 2%-50% cash back while you shop. This site helps you find all the best deals and then gives you an added cash back discount on top of them. It isn’t complicated and there are no strings attached. If you are in another country, I have a global site: global.shop.com/asherin that will lead you to a wide range of high quality products from supplements to skin care to household cleaning products and offers free shipping on purchases $50 or more. Contact me for any details.

To arm myself for a future PhD in Islamic studies, I practice Arabic in the subway and have conversations with old friends in my head.  I teach my son silly things to say to my husband in Arabic and we all laugh. Baba, nta mudhik (Dad you’re funny). I have begun telling people: “I speak Arabic.” which I shied away from saying before because I thought it wasn’t really true. But it is. I am not proficient but I do. speak. Arabic. And I am simply brushing up in order to qualify to take a test that will make my CV look like one of an Islamic Studies doctoral candidate. I say this because I have to Because it is one of the threads of the web I am weaving. (Imagine this web being cast out and down from a broken window in my elevator cage – I squeeze through and nimbly shimmy down to freedom. I am the mother of a three year old boy. Spider-mom).

Right now I am wheel spinning in a limbo position of when and how to make my transition to freedom. It seems as though time is all I really need but is that an excuse? Doesn’t everyone say that? Did all the great ones have a lot of time to pursue their passions? Isn’t it true that the best of the best were desperately forging their paths in stolen moments just as I will need to do? This is official a call for stories, people. 

I am going to publish this one here not because I believe I have blessed anyone of you out there with a great piece of writing but because I HAVE to publish it. It is 7:15 am on Friday morning. I will close my computer and rush through dressing and preparing for work. Then the day will start to spin away from me. The publication of this humble piece of writing is an act of rebellion against  the voices in my head and the ticking of the clock.  It is an enactment of the process one of my dear girlfriends reminded me of yesterday: “Ponder ponder ponder until you find your own magical and radical solution.”

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Going for it.

To be honest I am all over the place in a way.

But I can tell it’s coming together. It’s not for nothing. I am a living brainstorming session.

Today I realized that I need to be writing this down. Again.

So here it is – bored to death by a job I think I only ever took because I was wrapped up in the idea of how good it would look on my resume and because I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And I can. But I am not doing it – not very well anyway – because I don’t believe in it. And I am distracted by things that seem more important.

Here are the things that seem more important:

I have a business. I own a Market America/Shop.com franchise and I believe it has a lot of potential. I am learning to sustain the energy to grow it even when I am exhausted by the necessary overtime at my current day job.

I have a gorgeous son who is three years old and thinks I am the most interesting most beautiful most fun person in the world. I would like to spend more, less exhausted time with him.

My husband, too, is amazing. I may have mentioned him before. We have been through some unique experiences together. I was living in Casablanca, Morocco – teaching English – when we met. Over the years we lived in Turkey and the UAE as well as traveling through India together on what was a long month for him(!) before we ended up int he USA. Just over three years here now and we have spent the entire time day dreaming about when we can get out. We came to study and to gain experience, to give birth to our son and the whole adventure has always had an undefined but clearly necessary end point. Now he works literally an opposite schedule from me as a cook in a hip Cambridge – Harvard Square – restaurant. I see him for a max of 8 hours a week  – the only amount of time that over laps when we are both awake and in the house. That isn’t fun. I want to change that yesterday.

My studies. I started this blog just after I earned my Master’s degree. Almost two years later, I know that I want more more education. Lately that looks like a PhD and I have been trailing Tariq Ramadan among a few others in hopes that I can start a relationship with one of them that will lead me to a PhD program at an interesting school. By interesting, I mean – a school that will fund me to explore the impact of Islamic Feminist and reform movements in the West on Islamic thought in Islamic countries. By interesting, I mean not in the US. (I do not hate the United States. I get it. I see what it offers. I have benefited very much from being born and raised in the USA and I do not take that for granted but I also know to leave a party before it all goes fuzzy like a reflection in a fun house mirror).

Finding my passion and earning a living from it. ASAP. I am 16 weeks pregnant with my second child. A few calculations have strongly suggested that I cannot actually afford to go back to the job I am bored with. The cost of daycare and the breaking of my heart at the act of leaving a 12 week old baby in a daycare would make it economically idiotic. So I have essentially 6-9 months to make this work. Some may think it was irresponsible for me to go ahead and make another child when I know I can’t afford it. But I will make some thing happen and I suppose in some way I knew that a new child would send me into action like nothing else.

I will be exploring my options here.

I am thrilled by all of this in the way that one is thrilled by the horror of riding a steep roller coaster or some other amusement park death-defying contraption. I don’t know that I really want to be on but the ride has already started and anyway, I am not the type to turn back.

So for a little while now, this blog is going to be about going for it. All of it. Following my passion and earning a living from it. Making those things that are important to me central to my life, rather than something I long to do in my “spare” time which I never seem to have any of.

It has occurred to me to start a new blog to dedicate to this but I still think the premise of Border Intellectual is relevant here. Still on a journey, still standing on many frontiers, aiming with great pleasure to capture it all in my lasso of truth. I will make it tell me a story and I will pass that story to you. lasso of truth

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Ramadan Karim

The second of Ramadan. I had a late cup of coffee and now, unable to sleep, I have decided to use this midnight hour to come back to my beloved blog.

Ramadan Karim. Ramadan is generous and bountiful. This could sound coninterintuitive to non Muslims. A time when a believer will go without food, or drink , refrain from using any of the foul language that has crept so casually into many of our vocabularies, and refrain from sex, among a few other things from sunrise to sunset does not seem to jive with our usual sense of bounty and generosity.The phrase Ramadan Karim asks us to reconsider the meaning of these concepts. I am greatful for that.

My time spent in Arab culture has given me the opportunity to hear about the bounty Ramadan has to offer. It is said that those who practice Ramadan by fasting, praying and otherwise consecrating their general existance to the Cosmic Oneness that is Allah for the duration of the 30 day month have the opportunity to receive many blessings. Prayers are more valuable and more powerful, the act of fasting in itself is prayer like (At this time of year in North America, it is a 17 hour daily prayer, with sunrise coming just after 3 am and sunset just after 8pm). During Ramadan, Muslims stay up late at night to pray for many hours longer than usual. It is a concerted meditation, physical and vocal and a very energizing and emotionally powerul experience. This is the bounty of Ramdan for me – it brings people together. It helps build that spiritual energy that occurs when tens, hundreds and tens of thousands of people all open their hearts and quiet their minds together.

And therein lies the challenge of practicing Ramadan in North America. For five years I fasted in Arab countries – for the first three of those years I had not stopped to consider whether I was actually interested in the religion itself but simply sought to synchronize my life with the lives of the Arab people I enjoyed living among and learning about. I went to mosques and prayed the eveing prayers. I broke fasts with families. I listened and I learned and I began to feel inspired and I began to enjoy the feeling of the communal, consecrated fast.

And then we moved back to the USA, just about 2 months before the start of Ramadan 2010. 8 or 9 months pregnant at the time, I did not fast. And I missed it. I watched my husband fast and longed to join him but it did not makes sense for me at the time. The following Ramadan, I began to write my Master’s degree thesis while working a full time job the same week that Ramadan began and again I did not fast for all 30 days. Now, in 2012, I have begun to fast again. But I am missing somethng. It is not like it was in Morocco or the UAE. Busy with a very full time job, opposite schedule from my husband and taking care of our young son, I do not go to the mosque for evening prayers. Wrapped up in what I have experienced as a very fast paced American lifestyle, I have not found (or taken) the time to seek and join a community of Muslims here even though I live in the extremely diverse city of Cambridge, MA with a mosque not 15 minutes’ walk from my house.

It is a conumdrum. I long for the Arab world more than ever at this time. I miss the radio stations playing the Qur’an all day long – the recitation rhythmic and soothing. I miss the slight shift in the work day schedule- most schools and offices will open an hour later and end an hour earlier or otherwise adjust their timetables to allow everyone to at least try to get the amount of rest necessary for people who are fasting and spending a significantly longer amount of time praying each night. It is an allowance for spiritual rejuvenation which I am so hungry for but feel unable to completely take hold of in my busy life in the US.

I miss being surrounded by many others who are also fasting – those who can look at one another and understand.

My conversion to Islam came, in great part, from my love of the community and culture that it grew out of and that have grown from it. I will be spending this Ramdan honing my new, heightened consciousness of what bounty and generosity can mean in a time and place where my gut reaction is that my life is lacking in the space and time for spiritual rejuvenation.

I am hoping that other fasting Muslims in the US and abroad will comment here. I hope that I will be able to rebuild a bit of the sense of community I am missing so badly in this time.


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Nomadic Homesick Blues

When you are a nomad, what does it mean to be homesick?

 I currently take Harvard Square for granted. Today, I walked into the Harvard book store and read five pages of a book that made me cry. I looked around the room and I saw this very cozy, very warm and stable room, anchored down with books. Ten years ago I sat here all the time. I would come and pull a pile of books and sit on the floor and read them. I’m not sure I was supposed to do it that way, but no one ever told me not to. Then I went away. Like I have told you before, I went to Morocco and Turkey and the UAE. From those places, I went to India, Thailand and Oman and maybe some other places that are slipping my mind for the moment. And while I was in those places, I would think about the Harvard bookstore. I even had a friend take a photo of it for me once and bring it to me when she came to Morocco. I stared at that photo and I felt homesick. I longed for Harvard Square. I missed the familiar feeling of it. I missed the people around me reading books. How those people have many different thoughts and perspectives and how it is often possible to sense that those people accept the differences among them.  I missed it being a place where I could go and disappear. In most of the countries I named above, it is incredibly difficult to disappear. Everyone stares. Americans don’t stare nearly as much as they must want to. Don’t we want to?

So now I am back here. I even work in Harvard Square. I walk past the Harvard bookstore every single day. I rarely go in, due to my grown-upfulltimejobmotherhood lack of free time. But it’s there. Here. It’s here and I am here. And today while I waited for the bus, I looked out across Harvard Square and I realized that I take it for granted. And for a moment I stopped. I looked at it and I felt the feeling of it -the lovely brick buildings, the ideology of American education that is Harvard University, the gutter punks, the tourists, the shops and the famous old newsstands, the subway station and the Unitarian church with the rainbow flag waving. I breathed it in. I am in one of the most liberal cities in the USA. I love all this.

But damn, am I homesick.

Moroccan taksheta.

I haven’t hennaed my hands since before my son was born in September 2010. My clothes have gone quite conservative – jeans and trousers, turtleneck sweaters, blazers, and clogs as I naturally begin to blend in with those around me. My Indian “suits” have slowly disappeared from my wardrobe, along with my long flowing scarves, catching the wind behind me as I glide through an Emirati mall or an Indian bazaar. Our hefty collection of oil-perfumes: musks, frankincense and amber is dwindling. My husband never wears a djelleba or a gondora here. I miss the endless cups of tea and the circles of women, gabbing or the circles of men playing drums, drinking wine. I am mashing all of my countries together. I am missing everything and also very specific things. Aren’t I from these places too? Wouldn’t it be better if…? Wouldn’t I be happier, wouldn’t I feel fulfilled, won’t things have finally all come together when we finally get back to….. Fill in the blank. I seem to say these things about every place I have lived in and then left.A Turkish engineer in Bursa once referred to me as Marco Polo. The Arabs have their own Moroccan born Marco Polo, called Ibn Battuta, travelling the globe, fitting in – finding himself everywhere he went. So the legend says.

Do the Bedouin long for the seaside in the winter while they camp in the desert? Do visions of the chilly winter desert nights tug at their heartstrings while spending their summers fishing in the Gulf? Is it possible for a nomad to ever be completely in the present? Hasn’t she left little pieces of her heart everywhere she has been?

Categories: Morocco, Nomadism, UAE, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Can we afford to relax in the USA?

Lying on the massage table this morning – redeeming a birthday gift certificate for this pricey spa – sent me into a reverie of remembrance of all massages past. My massage history is probably a little unique. From a rather painful, but somehow wonderful three weeks of traditional massages on a Thai island, on to steamy and cleansing bath house massages in Morocco and also including an overpriced Ayurvedic doctor in Rishikesh, India, where I was kneaded and beaten with soaking hot tea bags full of medicinal herbs, I have come back to America to be massaged all too infrequently and expensively. That got me thinking about how accessible personal care and the art of relaxation is a bit lacking for my taste in the USA.

I grew up in a world where only money can buy a person the time and the place to nurture the mindbodyspirit with some spa activities, family vacation or even a few days off from the daily routine. I think I always thought that was normal – downtime is expensive. And then, at 21 years old, I set foot in Morocco, and everything changed. I should preface this by underlining just how ignorant I was about Morocco or any place, really, outside of the US. I think I had internalized, after a life time of public school the idea that America is an oasis of opportunity, liberty and dream-realization. I don’t want to say that all of that is wrong. These ideas can be true. They did not spring from nowhere. But they are not equally true for everyone who lives here and, more importantly to me, it is not only in the USA that people can feel free and realize their dreams.

But what I really want to talk about here is the Moroccan hammam. The public steam baths of Morocco have revolutionized the way I think about caring for myself and people should know about them.

A hammam is a bath house where Moroccans traditionally go to bathe, relax and purify. Although most Moroccan homes these days have some kind of bath tub or shower, some of them may not have hot running water and the hammam is commonly regarded as the only place one can go to get really clean. The first hammam I ever went to was in Marrakech, deep inside the souq around the corner from the shop where I met my first Moroccan friends – the first of those boys in the street I have spoken of before. From the outside, like many other buildings in the medina (the traditional, walled-city quarters of Morocco), it looked plain, maybe even a little scary – a concrete, windowless building with mysterious doors leading to nowhere that could be perceived from the street. I walked past it for weeks or maybe months, listening to the grand legends of the luxurious Moroccan bath houses all the while, wondering, and daring myself to get up the courage and go inside.

A men's hammam in Marrakech. Many of the traditional ones in the medinas look like this - plain, simple, and if you can't read the sign - mysterious.

I finally did go inside, accompanied by the American woman with whom I had traveled to Morocco. We were awkward. We stumbled, naked except for our underwear, through the three dark, stone-walled rooms – the level of intensity of the heat and steam increased as we passed to each room – trying not to slip. Hammams are either equipped with separate chambers for men and women or designate different operating hours for the genders. So we tip-toed among the women and children, also naked and sprawled out on those hard, sloped floors. They were surrounded by a littering of buckets of water, sponges, scrubby mitts, cakes of soap, bottles of shampoo and 1.5 liter bottles of fresh squeezed orange juice.. The floors were designed to let the water run down into drains. Women washed their hair with henna – dyeing their white stands to a shameless bright orange and as they rinsed it away, the watery brown past ran in rivulets to the drains. We learned the hard way that day that you shouldn’t sit on the down slope in front of anyone else or you will be swimming in their dirty, soapy water as it makes its way out.

This particular hammam, being a hammam populaire, that is, a cheap (about 1 dollar for entry with no time limit) no frills hammam made to serve the function of providing a place to bathe for the common people of Morocco, was a very particular kind of anthropological experience. Back in 2000, when this first hammam visit took place, there was not a word of English being spoken and even French, so widely used in the street, seemed to have no place in here. Since we were suddenly enveloped, by default, in the mysterious women’s world at a time when I had yet to discover myself as a woman who could relate to Moroccan women, the whole experience is sort of dim and cloudy and awkward. Though, I suppose that could be due to the fact that I was in a dark steamy hot sauna bathing with a gaggle of strangers.

Seeing myself as something of a cultural purist – not wanting to be perceived as a European descendant of the colonial citizens who came to Morocco with French, Spanish and some Portuguese ruling, I spent the next several years going only to this type of hammam. I eventually became quite adroit at navigating the dressing room, tipping the women who guarded my bag of dry clothes and learning how to communicate to the keysala that I wanted a scrubbing. (It is possible, and common to have a woman, a keysala, who works in the hammam scrub you from head to toe like a little child. She will scrub you until the dead skin starts rolling off your body in little black rolls. No wonder Moroccans feel truly clean only in the hammam!) I knew there was a more luxurious option but I avoided it in what I saw as an effort to preserve my integrity among the lower to middle class Moroccans I had befriended. In retrospect, I am not entirely sure that my insistence on doing everything “the difficult” or the most foreign way was always entirely necessary. But taking the road less traveled is a continuing theme of my life.

Traditionally, Moroccans visit their local hammam once every week or two. Although I did not always keep up a frequent schedule of hammam bathing, I was able to benefit from them as often as I wanted to for very little cost. As time went on and I eventually moved to Casablanca, I began to discover more varieties of hammam. Later, when I met my husband, I experimented with the hammam his mother preferred because it had private rooms you could rent. Still a steam room with a faucet, buckets and a bench, this room allowed me to close the door and take my time. No matter how many years I might spend in Morocco, there will never be a way to deflect the constant stares a western woman receives in the traditional public hammam, so sometimes this private room option is nice.

Finally, I was pulled out of my stubborn public traditionalism by a good friend who didn’t have the same weird chip on her shoulder as I did about forcing myself to be absorbed by old school Morocco.

She took me to a more expensive, luxury hammam. Topkapi hammam in Casablanca is modern, beautiful and decked out with a large circular central room where bathers can sit on benches at individual sinks and also disappear into a sauna room for heightened purification. This hammam uses olive tree wood to stoke their fires. The smell of that wood in the sauna is divine. Back in the round room, there are massage tables in a circle around a central pillar and this is where one can stretch out for a good scrubbing and a massage. The price of all of this amounts to less than 12 USD. And that is somewhat expensive.

This hammam is actually in Marrakech, but Topkapi looks a bit like this on the inside.

The lesson learned here, folks, is that there is a lovely quality of life in Morocco – a place that may be called a “third world” country in some contexts. At least in some ways. What I witnessed in the country that has become my second home is that Moroccans know how to relax. They know how to party, how to spend good time with their friends and family. They know how to take time for spiritual nurturing and how to rest and purify their bodies. Why can’t we figure that out here in the US? Even with the relatively new-to-the-mainstream trends in yoga, natural healing, and whole foods eating, it all still feels a bit inaccessible. All of those things are expensive to procure in the USA and people who do not earn enough money or who live outside of a city or some other progressive community may not come into contact with organic farmer’s markets or a reflexology practitioner.

I tried not to mourn this as I was having my 90 dollar massage on a table in a quiet room in Cambridge, MA. I tried very hard to enjoy the skillful touch of my excellent massage therapist. But I could not help but wonder how American life would change if there was a hammam in every neighborhood. How much would be a fair price to go for a nice soak two or three times a month?

Categories: Morocco, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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