Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Laughing All the Way to the MosqueI had the perfect book for my daily commute last week, but for one thing: Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz had me laughing, out loud, all the way to work.  This was vaguely unsettling for my fellow commuters, but, aside from a slight fear that they would band together to force the crazy giggling woman off the bus, I couldn’t have cared less.  There is no better way to start – or end – your day than with a laugh and this book provides many of those.

Nawaz, a Canadian filmmaker, is most famous as the creator of the television series Little Mosque on the Prairie, a sitcom about the Muslim community in a quirky small town in Saskatchewan.  It attracted a lot of attention when it premiered and, reading Nawaz’s memoir, it is interesting to see how some of the show’s characters and episodes are inspired by her real-life events.

If you are looking for a serious, respectful observation of what it is like to be Muslim in Canada, this is not the book for you.  Nawaz is irreverent and slightly kooky and definitely talks herself into trouble more often than she needs to.  Which is what makes her so likeable and this book so entertaining.  For example, her great teenage act of rebellion was to become more religious and to begin wearing the hijab.  This was done partly out of religious feeling and partly, like any action taken by a teenager, out of the desire to outwit her parents:

…the best thing about the hijab was that I had discovered it on my own – my parents had nothing to do with it, which meant that I could beat them at their own game: religion.  I wanted so desperately to be different from them.  Hijab was the answer.  Some people think hijab is used to oppress people.  It’s true.  I used it to oppress my parents.

Nawaz fumbled her way through her B.Sc. undergrad, working diligently towards medical school.  When the med school rejection letter came, it prompted a rethink about her entire future – for both her and her parents.  Nawaz’s mother – who is portrayed as being just as spirited and quick-witted as her daughter, through a little more together – views it as opportunity to find her daughter a husband:

Her biggest fear for me was that too much education might result in old, dried-up ovaries.  Until the letter arrived, my father had squashed her matrimonial dreams for me, because he believed marriage was for women who failed to get into medical school.  I had officially become one of those females.

Nawaz is definitely not onboard with this idea, especially as she overhears unsettling conversations about one-eyed accountants.   She can’t understand why her mother is so determined to see her married.  Her mother’s answer to that, “because you’ll be lonely after I die”, is eminently sensible and true, but I can understand how a twenty-two year old might not see it that way.  Nawaz enrolls in journalism school instead of marrying immediately and, a few years later, ends up engineering her own marriage to Sami, then a medical student, now a child psychiatrist, and moving to the Prairies to be with him.

The years that follow are busy ones, filled with the births of four children and the start of Nawaz’s career as a filmmaker, first with low-budget short films, then documentaries, and finally Little Mosque on the Prairie.  But, thankfully since I’m not much interested in filmmaking, her career track is very much in the background here.  Instead, we hear about what it is like explaining to a Canadian contractor how a Muslim bathroom needs to be laid out or how a not-particularly-accomplished chef (Nawaz) finds herself cooking an Eid dinner for dozens of people.  One of my favourite chapters described Nawaz’s experiences on Hajj, when her father-in-law took all his children and children-in-law (grandchildren stayed home) on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Most of all, this book is funny.  It is full of hilarious dialogue, with all of Nawaz’s family members, particularly her mother and husband, portrayed as the long-suffering straight men to her unrelenting comedienne.  I laughed more than I have in months while reading it and I loved every page.


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Noah’s Ark – Currier & Ives

I have not one but two books for you today that are essentially biblical fan fiction.  Both Before the Flood by A.A. Milne and Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle are (as their titles might suggest) based on the story of Noah’s ark but that is all they have in common.

Before the Flood by A.A. Milne is a one-act play but not, I think, the kind of play most churches would pick to perform at any of their events, despite the biblical origins of the story.  Milne imagines the domestic affairs in Noah’s home in the months between him receiving his divine instructions to build the ark and the day when the rains begin.  The question hanging over them all – Noah’s wife, his three sons and their respective wives – is whether the floods will actually come and be quite as extreme as Noah has been ‘told’.  It can be quite amusing at times, as the family debates the ark-related logistics that Noah’s divine instructions do not account for: how can they bring all those animals on board and prevent the predators from eating their natural prey?  If the animals aren’t going to eat one another, what are they going to eat?  Does the family need to bring extra animals on board for catering purposes?  On the whole though, it is not the best of Milne’s work and easily my least favourite of his plays.  I only laughed once, when, after Noah tells his family that they will be the only ones to survive the coming flood, one of the sons turns to his wife and says “Aren’t you glad now that you married into this family?” (or words to that effect).   The book ends when the rain starts to fall, leaving the question of whether Noah is a prophet or a madman unanswered.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, on the other, leaves no doubt as to the veracity of Noah’s claims.  In fact, Noah is but a minor character and he and his ark are ignored for a large portion of the book.  The focus in this children’s book from 1986 is on the interaction between the earthly and divine in this imagined pre-flood world where angels walk among men.  As soon as I started reading, I remembered why I found this book so weirdly fascinating when I was young.  Not good, necessarily, but fascinating.  It is the fourth book in the “Time Quartet”, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s most famous book, but it was the only one I ever felt compelled to reread.  The mechanics of L’Engle’s idea of time/space travel never appealed to me but seraphim and nephilim, for some reason, did.

Sandy and Dennys Murry, the teenage twins who find themselves transported back to (they eventually realise) biblical times after disturbing an experiment in their parents’ home lab, are not remotely interesting.  They are flat and really unbelievably stupid at times.  Stuck thousands of years out of their own time period, they are remarkably relaxed, even with their knowledge of what is about to happen.  Having befriended Noah and his family, they are perfectly content to work in the garden, help build the ark when the time comes, and pine after Noah’s youngest daughter, Yalith.  Yalith is far more developed than either of the boys – all the female characters are – but still not very compelling.  Still, she doesn’t need to be.  This is not a book that requires in-depth characterization.  Instead, we get to read a lot about sex, which some might find slightly surprising for such a religious book.  There is a worrying but not entirely consistent tendency to equate sexual promiscuity with evil but the real message is that sex is a good thing for those in a loving relationship (not necessarily marriage) and a lack of emotional involvement cheapens what should be an intimate experience between two people.  That, as well as a general opening of the twins’ minds to outlandish possibilities, seems to be the main lesson they learn over the course of the book.

Honestly, neither book is particularly excellent.  Many Waters can feel stilted in its need to over explain both its scientific and religious elements and Before the Flood, though it asks the questions any skeptic ponders while reading the story of Noah, does not do so with Milne’s usual energy and so the story drags along.  Both author’s approaches are interesting but their execution is lacklustre.

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I cannot remember the last book that made me cry as much as Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle and I mean that as the highest form of praise.

Last month, Lisa posted a review of The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle, a book I had never heard of before.   Like so many children, I grew up reading L’Engle’s children and young adult books but she was never one of my favourite authors.  I liked A Wrinkle in Time, was bizarrely attached to Many Waters, and still keep my copies of A Ring of Endless Light and Troubling a Star on my bookshelf today but I never felt the urge as I did with other authors to find about more about L’Engle herself.  So, until I read Lisa’s review, I had no idea that she had written quite a bit of non-fiction, mostly about faith, but also a set of four memoirs called the Crosswicks Journals, named after her family’s home in Connecticut.

Two-Part Invention is the last of the four journals, published in 1988 but focused on the events of 1986, when L’Engle’s husband of forty years, the actor Hugh Franklin, was dying of bladder cancer.  Diagnosed in the spring and dead by the end of September, his illness was intense and very difficult to read about.  I always struggle to read about illness but this was especially tough, perhaps because the indignity of it felt so cruel, with one ailment piling on top of another and then another as his body weakened.  And, of course, it is made that much more painful since we are witness to L’Engle’s thoughts as she is forced to watch this happen to the man she adores.

The majority of the book is not about Franklin’s final illness but about his life with L’Engle: the subtitle of the book is “The Story of a Marriage”.  L’Engle takes us back to her childhood in New York City and, later, in Europe, where the family moved in hopes of finding a climate better suited to her father’s lungs, damaged during the First World War.  Later, there are her college years (now back in the States) and her early twenties in New York, where, after auditioning for Eva Le Gallienne, Margaret Webster and Joseph Schildkraut, she found herself hired as an understudy for a Broadway play.  I loved reading about her years in the theatre, mostly because it is a world entirely foreign to me.  She was never going to be a great actress – nor did she aspire to be – but she was an excellent observer and her stories about the other actors and their experiences on the road fascinated me.  And it was in the theatre that she met Hugh and they began their courtship.

That background takes up only the first hundred pages or so and I loved it.  Then, moving on to the next section, I was in for a bit of a shock as L’Engle’s started talking about religion and its role in her life.  Since it had barely been mentioned at all until then, I wasn’t quite prepared but then I never am when religion makes an appearance in any book or conversation.  It has never been part of my life, nor have I ever been close to anyone even vaguely religious.  I find it fascinating to read books by intelligent, thoughtful believers, which L’Engle certainly was, but it can make for very strange reading.  For example, I am always momentarily taken-aback when I come across people asking others for prayers or when someone says they have considered a problem “prayerfully” (as their doctor did regarding Franklin’s treatment).  It is a lovely and tender sentiment but it is utterly foreign to me and it took some time to get used to the casual frequency with which prayer is mentioned.

But get used to it I did and, truly, I think this is one of the best perspectives on faith that I have ever read.  Her faith played a major part in L’Engle’s life and it was interesting for me to see what comforted her and also how her experiences made her reflect on her relationship to God and with her religion.  She is not pushy or preachy about her beliefs; this is simply her faith and it is what sustains her.  I really don’t think she could have cared less about trying to convince any non-believers among her readers (which I, as an emphatic non-believer, appreciated).  When she ponders questions of faith (as she does frequently), she does so for her benefit and understanding, not ours.  It makes for a deeply personal book, especially since these reflections and so closely tied to her feelings about her husband’s illness and decline.

Really though, the focus is not on faith or death but on love, specifically the love that sustained L’Engle and Franklin through forty years of marriage.  I grew up surrounded by wonderful examples of healthy, supportive long-term relationships and so the lessons L’Engle notes are ones I grew up hearing, especially “a long-term marriage has to move beyond chemistry to compatibility, to friendship, to companionship.  It is certainly not that passion disappears, but that it is conjured with other ways of love.”  That evolution wasn’t always easy but L’Engle recognizes that the difficult years played just as much of a role in cementing their marriage as the happy ones:

Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static.  Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up.  There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs.  I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen.  The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys.  I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over.  Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without.

Throughout the book, L’Engle embraces all that life has to offer, both the joys and the pains.  I was struck by the warmth and love that filled her life, obviously in her marriage but also in the close bonds she maintained with her three children and grandchildren, and her many friends and godchildren.  She and Franklin seem to have had a gift for loving and accepting others and there was a real sense of tenderness in all their relationships, both the long term ones and even the short term ones with Franklin’s dedicated team of nurses and doctors.  I was left with a longing to belong to the Franklin/L’Engle circle of friends – it sounds like a wonderful group to be part of and their marriage, rock solid but always evolving, was at the heart of it.

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