Monday, August 24, 2009

Sumbul Ali-Karamali's Guest Blog: From Star Trek to Ramadan

When I was ten years old, I produced hundreds of handwritten pages constituting a first draft of my Epic Novel, only to find that I’d written my characters into a corner from which I couldn’t extricate them. With the disgusted optimism of a ten-year-old, I chucked the whole thing into the wastebasket and never looked back.

It’s somewhat surprising to me that, given my childhood ambitions, my first book wasn’t the Great American Novel, but rather genre-bending nonfiction. It’s called The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, and I’m proud to say it’s a Bronze Medal Winner of the 2009 Independent Publishers Awards. I can’t help but reflect, however, that it is as much a result of my childhood as that aborted 5th grade epic novel would have been.

I grew up in Southern California, a South-Asian American Muslim girl. Though Muslims have lived in the United States for years, their communities have been small, and I was often the only Muslim my acquaintances had ever known. Remember the Star Trek concept of “first contact”? Tread carefully and cautiously when approaching an alien species for the first time? Well, that was me, the first Muslim (read, “alien”) contact for many of my peers and teachers.

Consequently, I grew up routinely answering questions on Islam. Why couldn’t I eat the pepperoni pizza at the birthday party? How could I go without food or water during Ramadan? (What was Ramadan, anyway?) And what did I mean that I couldn’t go to the prom because of my religion?

When I left home to live in the freshman dormitory at Stanford University, I found myself newly engaged in interfaith discussions, because suddenly my private life, like that of everyone else in the dorm, came under close scrutiny. I found myself answering a plethora of questions: why couldn’t I date? Drink alcohol? Dance? (Actually, my not dancing stemmed more from a fear of public humiliation than from religious restrictions.)

Sumbul in her courtyard: A blend of East and West - Moroccan tiles and a Stanford sweatshirt.

By the time I began working as a corporate lawyer in the 1990s, Islam had become increasingly prevalent in the news. But the media coverage of Islam was crisis-driven and political; instead, my acquaintances wanted to know what Muslims believed and practiced. So I continued to receive questions about my religion, and – for the first time – I also began receiving requests for book recommendations.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t recommend any books on Islam. The only books populating bookstore shelves were dry, abstract textbook-type books or the occasional volume of Sufi poetry. There was nothing for it; I decided to write a primer on Islam myself.

If I’d written it then, my book would have been based on my cultural, “family” Islam, the Islam I grew up practicing. But I didn’t write it then. Instead, I left my job and earned a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London. I could then write a book that grew not only from inside Islam, but that was also based on an academic understanding of Islam. I could write a book that clearly discussed my personal views, but as one part of the entire spectrum of diverse beliefs that reside under the heading of “Islam.”

Almost as soon as I began writing, however, I got stuck. How, I thought with the specter of writer’s block looming before me, was I to write a book on religion that readers would want to read? How was I to write an entertaining introduction to Islam that would keep my readers turning pages, but would simultaneously fly free of exaggerations, hysteria, sensationalism, and fear-mongering (the usual page-turning devices when it comes to Islam)?

I searched for the answer and suffered through a few months of false starts before I became completely sidetracked and sleep-deprived by new motherhood. Writing at night after my baby and toddler had kept me running all day was rarely efficient. (And try taking preschoolers to the graduate library to do research!)I did progress, but soon hit another snag: the tragedy of 9/11 changed the world and changed the perspective of my potential readership. I threw out nearly all I had written and began again.

My son at an age at which he was uninterested in research.

In other words, the time lapse from when I first conceived my book to the time it hit bookstores in September was embarrassingly long. But, ultimately, perhaps it was simply kismet, because this book really is a culmination of my life – of a lifetime answering questions about Islam and Muslims, understanding exactly what Western non-Muslims don’t know but want to know about Islam, and growing up Muslim and American while never really perceiving any conflict therein.

I did find the answer to my writer’s block question of how to write a page-turner on religion. The accolades I value the most come from those who tell me they couldn’t put my book down. But that’s a tale for my next blog on Wednesday!

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