Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Teen's Guide to Islam: Ramadan


So, after a kind request from a lovely educator I know on the Interwebs, I decided that perhaps it was time to take on a new project. This project was originally called, “The Teen’s Guide to Islam: The Basics,” but since that original post racked up almost fifty questions from both my own head and sweet, curious contributors, I thought that it might be prudent to break it up into short and sweet topic divisions.

And, seeing as we’re in major moonsighting/stalking masjid website announcement mode, why not introduce you guys to one of the most anticipated months in the entire Islamic calendar?

Hang on tight, my dear readers, because this is…

The Teen’s Guide to Islam: Ramadan

(I could have come up with a cooler title. If I myself was cooler. Alas on both counts.)

So. What is Ramadan, anyway?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. (Just so you know, if we were having this conversation in real life, I’d totally sidetrack the entire discussion by singing this. You’re welcome for the adorable and informative earworm.) 

There are many reasons why Ramadan is seen as an important and sacred month in the Islamic faith – mainly because a lot of cool and historical stuff is known for occurring within it. But I’ll give you the Cliffs Notes version:

  1. The Qu’ran, our Holy Book, was revealed during Ramadan – specifically on the Night of Power, or Lailatul Qadr. That’s near the end of the month, so let’s talk about that again near the end of the post. 
  2.  During Ramadan, Muslims who have reached puberty and are in good health do not have food or drink from sunrise to sunset, for all twenty-nine or thirty days it lasts. That’s probably the reason you’ve heard about it recently. 
  3. Fasting in Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islamic faith…which we’ll talk about in more depth at a later date. Suffice it to say, it’s very, very important. 
Wait, no food or drink? At all? You just don’t eat for thirty days?

No. Don’t worry. That’s not what’s going to happen at all.

When I say that we fast from sunrise to sunset, it means that we get up in the wee hours of the morning when there’s no light outside yet – so, before sunrise, technically. 

We eat breakfast (which is called suhoor) and brush our teeth and do whatever else we have to that involves ingesting something – and as a side note, if you know any older Muslim sisters who might get a little cranky with you during this time of year, it’s because if you want to go back to sleep, coffee and chai are a bit of a no-no. 

And then we pray Fajr, which is the first prayer of the day, and we either hit the hay again for a little bit of shut eye if we can manage it – or we start getting ready for school or work.

Like a boss.
Credit goes to the talented Tumblr artist, serendipikitty.
(Seriously, I don’t know why people don’t appreciate how metal Muslim students and professionals are around this time of year. You get up earlier than you do to prepare for school, you get your religious time in and then you head into the daily grind. And you don’t get coffee breaks during the day.)

What’s the deal about sighting the moon? Do you worship the moon during this month?

The Islamic calendar follows the patterns of the lunar calendar, which, as the name implies, follows the cycles of the moon. So when we turn out for moon-sighting, we’re literally trying to see the new crescent and figure out if a new Islamic month is starting. This happens year round, not just for Ramadan, but this is the time of year when it’s the most exciting to be part of a big group looking for the moon.

So, TL/DR: it’s not anything religious or devotional to the moon. It’s just science.


I heard Ramadan used to be in the winter. Why did you guys move it to the summer months? Doesn’t that make it harder?

It’s all about the lunar calendar, friend. Eventually, Ramadan will roll back around to the fall and winter months. It definitely makes it harder, but I like to think that eighteen-hour fasting days means more blessings to go around for keeping your cool and being kind to people. 

Is there anything else you have to avoid while you’re fasting besides food and drink?

Anything edible. Some people even avoid lip balm, because it might get into their mouth. When we brush our teeth or wash up before prayers, we try not to swallow the water or the toothpaste (which, you know, is already an acceptable and dentist-encouraged practice). Smoking is also discouraged.

Also, this is totally not on the side of eating or drinking, but you’re not supposed to get angry or start fights or be hateful or discriminatory or rude – which, I know, all normal things, but this is a month of blessings, community and unity, and particularly with rising temperatures, it’s easy for some people to get heated. Sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath and let something go. 

If something like water goes in your mouth, or you forget and accidentally eat, are you in trouble?

(This question, and the heart of its answer, are thanks to the mind of my wonderful friend Yasmin, one of the Writing with Color moderators. Thanks, Yasmin!)

Believe me, particularly in the early years, this happens to everyone. You’re out, it’s warm, your mouth is dry, you see a water fountain and those blessed little Dixie cups – you’re outside the door and sipping happily before it hits you in your stomach with a lurch.

Oh. It’s Ramadan.

I’m fasting.

Like I’ve already mentioned before, God is merciful. There’s no compulsion or pressure in faith for you to be positively perfect in every single way. We’re only human and we make mistakes and sometimes you think you heard the call to prayer at sundown and you can break fast, but you’re two minutes early.

One of the important aspects of participating in Ramadan is your intention. You had good intentions. You wanted to fast. I’ve always been taught that if you accidentally slip up, you just restate your intention to fast and continue forward with the rest of the day. No blaming, no guilt. 

Yasmin adds, “My non-fasting friends are really good about reminding me if I ever forget and reach for food, but it almost always happens every Ramadan and it’s not a big deal.”

What can you do when you’re fasting?

We are encouraged to do things that improve the world around us. Another facet of fasting is having empathy with those who are poor and needy and who do not have the privilege of eating during the day, if at all. A lot of Muslims volunteer in soup kitchens, prepare meals for needy families in their area, and give charity.

Muslims also devote themselves to reading the Qu’ran, particularly in its entirety and most often in Arabic, since that was the language it was revealed in. And, though it’s not mandatory, you’ll see a majority of masjids and community centers performing evening prayers after the last prayer of the day, Isha. 

These prayers are called Taraweeh and are considered an extra good deed to perform during this month, as well as a way to mingle with other Muslims in the community and spend some devotional time together. 

Are there any reasons you could get out of fasting?

Yes – and let me add for any Muslim teens reading along at home (hi, lovelies): do not feel embarrassed if you need to break your fast. Do not feel embarrassed if you aren’t fasting to begin with. You are fine. You’re still participating in a Holy Month.

In the second chapter of the Qu’ran, verse 185, note after the description of fasting in Ramadan that it continues on with, “…Whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of days. God intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship…” 

It’s right there in the Holy Book. If you’re ill, elderly, travelling or under a similar stress, you’re okay. You will have to make those days up later on in the year, but our faith stresses that there is no compulsion in religion. You don’t have to make yourself even sicker when God has told you that it’s okay to take a break.

This year, there’s been a lot of questions about kids with eating disorders, and the general consensus is that this falls under this same criterion: if you feel like this will be a stress on you, it’s okay. You can get up with your family in the morning if you want to. You can attend prayers and events and lectures. You can feed a fasting member of your family or in your friend circle. 

Just remember that God also wants us to take care of ourselves.

Do little kids have to fast, too? 

Actually, no. The official guideline is that when you reach puberty, you should be fasting for the entire month. Adding in considerations about maturity, health, weight, long fasting hours during the summer and other variables, little kids are generally discouraged to fast – for full days, at least.

I know I’m not the only Muslim kid who started out with half-fasting days. That meant my parents told me I could fast until the early afternoon, eat lunch, and then fast for the remaining hours left in the day, if I wanted to. That way, the kid feels like they are participating, are not placing strain on their bodies, and feel pretty darn good about life all around.

Of course, there are smooth operators like my younger cousin who sneak in full days sometimes by just not eating at the cut-off time. And, okay, I did that a few times myself. As long as kids are getting up with their parents and not fasting the entire month, though, they should be all good.

Is there any way I could help you while you’re fasting?

First of all, can I sincerely say how sweet you are?

Thank you.

Okay, first of all…I know this time of year, Tumblr in particular will be passing around a post that pretty much says Muslims can’t look at food pictures or their fast will be broken and to tag all food posts accordingly.

Now, I’m going to get all mythbuster here, folks. We can totally look at pictures of food. We just tend to not want to, for obvious reasons. 

(Well, most normal Muslims do. A few Ramadans, I’ve gotten in trouble with friends for browsing Foodgawker in their immediate vicinity.)

That said, it’s a very sweet thought to tag your food posts, or anything you feel might break someone’s concentration on Ramadan, so don’t be afraid to do that. I know a lot of Muslim teens online who appreciate that.

Beyond that, I’d think I would just suggest general kindness and friendship. Be aware that your Muslim friend is fasting and be respectful of that (ie. playing a game of, “Let me wave this lunch in her face!” is something I know you wouldn’t do and is obviously a no-no).

So after Ramadan ends, what comes next?

Eid al-Fitr, which is literally what I hear most little kids looking forward to right now (even though we’re just starting Ramadan). 

Slow your roll, kiddos.
Eid al-Fitr translates to mean the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” and, like the name suggests, means that we get to celebrate the end of a beautiful month with our families and friends.

Eid al-Fitr begins with a communal prayer that everyone is encouraged to attend. After the prayer, everyone is supposed to remain seated quietly while a sermon is delivered – usually on how we should carry the virtues and kindness of Ramadan in our hearts for the rest of the remaining year. 

And then, everyone exchanges Eid greetings and disperses to wherever else they may be celebrating.

I can’t speak for how others celebrate it, but in our community, there is usually a trip to Six Flags or an amusement park planned by the masjid or community center so the kids can enjoy themselves. My family personally doesn’t really dig amusement parks, so we tend to get together at a family member’s house, eat good food and watch a few movies.

So you get to eat on Eid, right? 

It is a festival! But yes, fasting on Eid is forbidden. That’s why moonsighting the night before Eid might be just as or even more anticipated than for Ramadan. Also, you might see a lot of families discussing whether or not their communities have decided on the same day for Eid. That’s why. There’s always worry that someone will either skip the celebration or be the person sitting in the corner and still fasting while everyone else eats.

Wait, not everyone does Eid the same day?

It’s a major issue, every year. In a nutshell, it all boils down to whether or not you follow the pre-calculated calendars or if you’d rather wait to see if the moon is sighted before you start Ramadan. Of course, at the end of the twenty-nine or thirty days, there’s another moon sighting for Eid, but if you started a day ahead or a day later, your community might have a different projected end date. 

Thankfully, the last two years – at least in my area – has seen agreement between both the precalculated dates and the moonsighting committees. So here’s hoping to many more!

You mentioned something before about a Night of Power? 

Thank you for reminding me! The Night of Power, or Lailatul Qadr, is the night on which the Qu’ran was revealed to the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him. It falls on one of the odd-numbered nights in the very last days of Ramadan, and Muslims tend to stay up on any of those odd-numbered nights, devoting themselves to prayer and meditation, because it is considered a night of great blessing and spiritual benefit. 

Usually, people take the 27th as the day when Lailatul Qadr is most likely to be, but that’s not confirmed or sealed in concrete.

One last question: could I share Ramadan with you? 

Dude, of course. Why not? Interfaith events and friends sharing and experiencing Ramadan is one of the coolest things. Feel free to try a day of fasting, or even half-fasting, which is something a lot of religious communities do in solidarity and friendship. If you want, you can also prepare food for a friend to break fast with – which is something that Muslims encourage for extra blessing – or accept an invitation to join a family (or your local masjid!) for Iftar.

To me, the heart of Ramadan is in kindness and humanity. If you want to be part of that, that’s just beautiful and exactly in the spirit of things. Thank you for being so sweet and awesome. 

Have another question about Ramadan or a question for the Teen Guides in general? Feel free to leave a comment, and Ramadan Mubarak to all!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

story begets story. [1] - jewel-toned: the genre.

(i feel the need to type in lowercase today. just roll with it.)

so, i formerly used to file any ruminations on my writing under "as i #amwriting." however, after quality time spent with creative luminaries and dear bookish friends such as miriam weinberg, i decided to rename the feature/series/what have you and segue into a more personal approach.

which is hard because...i'm me. and when we put the words personal and writing together, i feel the need to run for the hills or crawl beneath the bed or sit on top of my printed outlines and notes like a child wanting to hide that incriminating chocolate bar wrapper.

but i'm trying to work through that. so here we are.

so. the theory of "jewel-toned" as a genre is all thanks to activist and friend heather ure, who presented it in a conversation we were having the other day about sarah mccarry's recent interview with online teen girl magazine and fount of inspiration rookie.

(sarah mccarry is incredible. so is rookie. just putting that out there.)

see? my kind of people.

there are certain authors with works that i cannot help but refer to in the language of gemstones.

and, it should also be noted, they are all women because i'm here for women writers first and foremost and always and i'm not afraid to admit that i read stories about girls all the time and have little to no interest if a story involves a man's voice or a man's point of view or a man sorrowfully declining into middle age because the girl of his dreams couldn't take his continuous self-pity and attempts to deny her own agency.

i will add the caveat that i do know several male authors who have works coming out that might very well be deemed jewel-toned later on in and around the premises of this blog and i'll be very happy to promote them, too. but ladies first and always.

now, i've been a snarl of tangled, knotted creative inactivity this week. which is inexcusable. i'm out of school. no papers pending. i'm a summer child and the temperature is climbing and i've had ice cream today and frozen yogurt yesterday and worn my favorite set of flowery sandals. and yet, the magic is not happening.

and this, in a roundabout way, is actually why this is now story begets story.

it'd been so long since i could read something in my category (which, of course, is first and foremost ya and then fantasy and possibly magical realism) without it devolving into self-flagellation and the firm decision that i cannot, will not write anything as beautiful and thus, i should not write, and thus, i should instead devour my weight in chocolate and mope and act miserable, since, i am so therefore i write and not writing may well be the same as not drinking the right amount of water.

and then, while waiting in the line for these shallow graves with my dear miriam, she happened to notice the poster for uprooted by naomi novik.

"it's very much a kaye thing!" she said.

"you won't regret reading it!" she said.

and though i was quite sure that yes, i'd be entirely immobilized in terms of creativity for perhaps years afterwards because naomi novik is one of those luminaries you always hear about and tread about carefully for the sake of your own floundering aspirations - i believed miriam.

(as one always should.)

and i read it.

(as one always should.)

and thus, i remembered that to write stories, you do have to read them, too - even the bad ones, though uprooted certainly isn't bad by any means, and, if anything, was refreshing to read through as though it were a one-woman writing course i was taking, routing out plot twists and making note of foreshadowing and the magic system.

so, now that you've suffered through all that, back to the actual theme of this post.

which is, jewel-toned.

and yes, i think it does stand as a genre - if anything, perhaps a genre within certain genres. you probably know what i mean. have you ever read a work and felt that the author just knows the right way to handle words, how to string them together and bring tears to your eyes from the beauty, or perhaps sucker-punch you in the gut because of the world and humanity and goodness knows how uncomplicated this premise sounded until you actually opened the cover?

that. yes, that.

sarah mccarry's first two ya novels (of which, i'll confess, i've only read the first one) focuses on breathing fresh life into ancient greek myths. under the framework of a dead rock star's enduring empire and mother-daughter relationships, there's the familiar underwire of orpheus and eurydice. i mean, i went through an entire greek myth binge in like fifth grade so this shouldn't be entirely surprising, but it's not just the story line and the unique edgy flair.

it's the texture. (thank you, dear creative writing professor, for leaving that word firmly planted in my head.) it's the way the words just jangle or slide together or lead you downward like an elegant spiral staircase, one rung after another, because if the stairs themselves are lovely, elegant, velvet-encased marvels, what is waiting for you at the bottom?

indeed, jewel-toned, hued, encrusted marvels.

i think i must be a dragon at heart. because looking at these gems make my heart race. 

bonus points can and are always given for stories lovingly told about girls and women - from the hearts and hands of girls and women. there is nothing like being a teenage girl, sprawled out in the middle of a trampoline with a popsicle on one hand (yes, this image is autobiographical) and reading a story that celebrates you and girls like you and encourages you to keep on keeping on.

it can be an epic road trip novel (and as i'll write later on in the week or possibly next week, when i have a smorgasbord of summer reading posts planned, road trip novels are my kryptonite, right after feminist young adult anything). it can be a deep, dark fantasy.

but if the words are lush and lovely and the story rings true, i think it should qualify as jewel-toned.

like i already said, i don't think sarah's the only one who has a knack for this. like she herself says in that magnificent interview, "...i am one tiny strand on this huge gorgeous messy jewel-bedazzled web of girl genius."

note to self: take up cross-stitching this summer for real, so you can make that into a sampler or something.

anyway. jewel-toned. authors i already know and love. got it.

if you've familiar with this blog - with me, at all - you know how i feel about nova ren suma. imaginary girls gives you complicated sister dynamics and haunting magical realism. every time i talk about this title to someone, i have to admit that from the cover inward, it gives every sensation of being submerged underwater. today is incidentally its debut anniversary, which makes it all the more wonderful to mention it.

i didn't properly review it when it came out - which i ought to, as it gave me such complicated feelings - but also, nova's newest, the walls around us. a toxic friendship. murderous ballerinas. a dank prison. it's incredible and if it wasn't awesome enough being from nova's hands, it's also from the hands of the lovely people at algonquin, which might be my favorite young adult publisher.

along with macmillan.

and scholastic.

i feel sometimes that laura ruby and nova go hand in hand - perhaps because i love them both and they always have good things to say about each other and they are just both sweet, honest-to-goodness supportive people in general? but bone gap. bone. gap. it's another title that i received last year and was super excited for and didn't get around to reviewing...soooo i'll just have to indulge in a reread at some point this summer so i actually can.

laini taylor is another given, and it's funny because i used to read her stories just to lament the fact that i'd never, ever be able to write like her, while adoring her for being so entirely honest and sweet about her own struggles with anxiety and imposter syndrome and such. (if you haven't read her static writing advice blog, not for robots, take this as your reminder to do so now.)

but a few nights ago, i was re-reading spicy little curses such as these and besides being rather disillusioned with the colonialist-centric twist on indian culture and lore, i was relieved to realize that i could read it exactly as i read uprooted - enjoying the language and the structure, but not demonizing my own creativity.

(and, as a note, criticizing the world and the decisions made in spicy little curses does not mean that i am degrading or dragging laini as a whole. every time i've interacted with her, she's been very personable and kind. but, authors grow and so do readers and it's nice to realize that i can see that, even if it's subtle and likely drawn from research rather than personal viewpoints or beliefs, and know that i want brown girl, jewel-toned luminosity.

also, a general desire to write brown girl, jewel-toned luminosity.

more on the former in a few.)

this post would, of course, not be complete without reminding you that fantasy is and always will be my first love, and when we talk fantasy, we have to talk about victoria "queen of awesome" schwab. the near witch. the archived. vicious. she is one of those authors that only gets better with every new title and she's incredible and also delightful to talk to and i don't think you could regret reading her at all.

now, moving on to people i've heard write around this sort of theme or with that flair and i haven't read yet, or mean to read in the name of restoring my creative well. which are actually a lot of people, but before i get into it...i've been sitting here, wracking my mind, to think up diverse, jewel-toned young adult novels.

the first person who came to mind was jackie woodson, who is rightfully lauded for brown girl dreaming, which is most definitely on my reading list this summer but is actually considered a middle grade, i think? i've also heard good things about padma venkatraman and a time to dance.

to me, when i think brown girl, i think the jewel-toned genre. not in the name of isolation or barring anyone, because every girl needs to be applauded and loved and emphasized with. perhaps it is more recently amplified because of my wondrous friend shveta thakrar, who i fully expect and anticipate to be gracing shelves as the desi answer to holly black very soon (note: holly is another edgy, luminous author whose works i've only dipped my toe into, but i do have the darkest part of the forest sitting here, so more on her very soon).

shveta takes the theory of jewel-toned in language and legacy so very much to heart. i read her poetry and her short stories and i feel that brown girls have beautiful faces, warm hearts, bravery down to our marrow. i feel we can stand head-to-head with any other heroine in any other fantasy. 

without breaking down into a discussion of just how and why diversity and representation matter, to me, shveta just exemplifies the "genre" and what it means to me and what it does to me when i read it.

i'm also thinking of pointe by brandy colbert and the little i read of that (and must return to), and alaya dawn johnson's love is the drug that i snagged last bea and unfortunately misplaced but am determined to find and take up properly.

in terms of poc men authors, i'm very, very excited for daniel jose older's shadowshaper, which features a heroine and a gorgeous cover. i should have an arc of that winging its way to me, courtesy of the already mentioned and praised and still utterly wonderful miriam weinberg, so more on that soon-ish. 

i am still trying to think of others, but let's just continue with this already ridiculously long-winded post with what we've got.

i've heard very good things, for years and years, about francesca lia block. i've only just picked up my first by her, love in the time of global warming (that title. that cover. and, as an added bonus, more greek mythology renditions!) and will taste test for myself, while keeping in mind what my dear friend debbie reese has analyzed about native american representation in her books, particularly weetzie bat.

nova has also always had good things to say about kat rosenfield. i've got my eye on inland, in particular. (i must be some sort of water baby. those blue-hued covers just get to me.)

speaking of people whose recommendations i always, always, always trust, my lady kelly jensen has had good things to say about the spaces between trees, the in-between and without tess for those dreamy, discordant imaginary girls feels.

honestly, i have a whole list of titles and a pocketful of crumpled library lists and i'm sure my cup runneth over in terms of recommendations and a selection to feast upon over this season. and it's wonderful. i'm glad that i can write a long post like this dedicated to books that i feel have always warmed and inspired me from the inside out. i'm glad to be looking forward and seeking out more like them.

and even if i still can't seem to settle down to write, i'm glad that these books give me hope that i can.

now. do you think "jewel-toned" as a genre - or even just a theme - makes sense? do you think it might just be an offshoot of that particular feeling you get from an incredibly woven magical realism? (which, as you can probably tell, is another of my particular kryptonites.) what authors or titles fit in this atmosphere for you?

and, most importantly, any recommendations you're willing to share? (spill, spill, spill! particularly if it's magical realism. or horror. or both.)

a side note: if you know me and i know you and i haven't mentioned your wonderful writing or your wonderful self, it is totally okay to remind me of your existence in the comments. really.

(and just this side note reminded me of another person whose stories have heart and beauty: claire legrand. middle grade. young adult. yes, yes, yes.)

okay. i'm done.