Joie de vivre
Fav Literature Lovers don't finally meet somewhere,
They're in each other all along.
Rumi

Cultural Leadership International

The last time I remember seeing the Bosphorus, it was glittering like a sapphire. Today, a spray of mist has been cast on it, giving it an ethereal look. Istanbul, home of famous civilizations for thousands of years, and recently crowned as the European Cultural Capital of 2010, has welcomed a small group of cultural enthusiasts in its winter. I was one of them.

As we walk to the venue for our first seminar, it’s impossible not to get transported to the beautiful Ottoman era, with carefully crafted architectures, alluring aromas of baklavas, bougainvillea hanging from balconies like Rapunzel and her flowing hair, and lots and lots of cats! Michael Binyon, our guest speaker for tonight, shares his insights on how culture can be a tool for soft power in diplomacy, citing language as the tool England uses to export its culture whilst other nations can export ballet, music, or art. We end the speech with a feast served in a decorative dining hall, the hanging chandeliers cast light on my colleagues and their dreams for making our societies appreciate the beautiful nuances of culture. Nothing could be more delectable.

The trip gets better. The next morning, we walk towards a vintage Ottoman bank that’s currently being renovated into a cultural centre. Our guest speakers come from different parts of the world, all with the aim of sharing their learnings with us. Some of the key takeaways from these sessions include: staying informed about our industries in terms of facts and events, the importance of networking, understanding our target audiences, and framing cultural policies to suit governments’ strategies. Two of the best examples of taking community needs and delivering cultural products in an inventive way were The Story Museum in Oxford and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Both platforms bring to life the stories that surround us and connect with us across our various life stages. I was riveted by the sheer passions of the attendees and felt like I’ve reached a cozy home where I can cheerfully discuss my personal and professional love for literature.

In between the sessions, we are whirled off to tours of museums, mosques, cultural centers, the Old Town, the Grand Bazaar, and Miniaturk. Istanbul is timelessly enchanting.

After the sessions, we are asked to draft a plan for utilizing our grants to advance our knowledge and skills in our respective fields. One thing that everyone knows about me is that I’m fond of books. I love reading them, holding them, collecting them, sharing them. I would like nothing better than for people to enjoy the pleasures of escaping to beautiful vistas and action-packed adventures.

So, I’ve decided to invest in a scoping trip to the United Kingdom to gain insights into the inner workings of the children’s literature industry; from policy-making and research through to understanding the management of reader development and literacy programmes, to understanding the children’s literature publishing industry, and networking with practitioners. My plan got approved later in December. I was excited beyond comprehension!

In spring, I got the honor of meeting with three key stakeholders in London; the Arts Council, Booktrust, and the National Literacy Trust – all three entities are in charge of literacy and reader development. I had asked all of them a set of important questions: why is culture still important amidst the budget reform and the financial crisis? Is there priority for certain forms of culture than others? What is the role of the organization? Who are the delivery partners? What are the flagship programmes? Are there any research papers available for public reading on the state of culture in the United Kingdom? What’s the best strategy for sourcing funding?

I received sufficient responses from the three organizations. My takeaways from the meetings are that there are many delivery organizations in the sector and they take on a lead for providing cultural services across the country. Also, with budgets being tightened, organizations are efficient with their spending and focus on programmes that have a direct impact or engagement with their target audiences. For example, Booktrust partnered with health clinics to distribute their gift packs to new parents when they go for their baby’s wellbeing check-up. Libraries also play a significant role in embracing children’s literary interests and honing them as they grow. It’s very important to periodically issue research papers that support the effectiveness of the programmes in order to justify and sustain funding.

I had very much wanted to meet with other organizations, such as Usborne Publishing, Puffin, Random House, and the Department for Education. However, I got no responses from them. Hopefully, I could meet them in another time and place.

Overall, I found the CLI programme to be one of the most enriching and engaging training experiences I’ve ever had. The value of the knowledge, skills, and networks gained during this past year and a half is priceless.

Thank you, British Council, for making my dreams come true!

When Life Gives Lemons

There are many certainties in life. Every morning, millions of people wake up to glorious sunrises. The Earth twirls in a silent and ethereal way within the glittering galaxies it in encased in. And somehow that bite of dark chocolate does wonders to uplift your mood.

Equally, life sometimes surprises us with its mysterious turn of events. You might meet your soul mate in a public library while devouring your velvety coffee. Patients find themselves miraculously cured after battling illnesses for so long. Others might find themselves thrown in the middle of the ocean struggling to stay afloat. Last Friday, I was thrown from a steep cliff into the unknown.

I was in the mall running some errands when I felt a sudden sharp pain striking my neck and back. So I thought I did a stupid move and expected that ache to go away by itself. It didn’t. The pain was magnified to excruciating levels and it reached a point where I was almost paralyzed and could not move my neck or head in any direction. I felt like an innocent prisoner locked in a dungeon for no apparent reason. After being hospitalized and meeting with several doctors, it turned out I had dislocated a disc in my spine and would require months of treatment.

At the moment when I was conveyed the disturbing news, I knew I had a choice to make: I could choose to make a melodramatic mess of myself or turn this into a positive learning opportunity. When I left the hospital after midnight, I looked up questioningly at the celestial skies. Why did this happen to me? Was I being punished? Why did I have to suffer yet another setback in my life? I was in my weakest moments, thrown in a tempestuous nausea from the medications and aching and worse, I was in despair. I could almost envision my precious health robbed away from me and leaving me crippled and limited with my choices.

This is when my books came to my comfort once again. A few weeks ago, I started reading about the lives of great leaders and achievers, including the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) and I started projecting his life in my imagination. He was an orphan who lost his beloved wife and all his children, save one, during his lifetime. Though he had a strong reputation for his impeccable manners and integrity, he was demeaned as a madman. All he wanted was to spread goodness in the world, and lots of it. Instead, he was faced with armies of enemies striving to kill him. Yet he was protected and elevated to the highest status in our eyes. The prophet Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery. He got imprisoned and was the last to leave, but when he did, he became the grand vizier while his two companions got either killed or made as a servant.

Thomas Edison and Ludwig Van Beethoven had hearing impairments. Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Socrates, Theodore Roosevelt, and Vincent van Gogh all had epilepsy. Winston Churchill had speech impediments. Hans Christian Andersen, Walt Disney, Richard Branson, and Leonardo da Vinci had dyslexia. But nothing stopped these people from achieving astounding amounts of success. If you have a great spirit, you can soar to the stars.

Adversities teach us to be resilient and to tap into our untapped power reserves. They enable our souls to become lucid with realization about what truly matters and to count our countless blessings. We can weed out unfaithful people. Most importantly, we feel closer to God in these most helpless moments. It is a marvelous relief to know that despite the world turning its back on you, there’s still Someone who will never forsake you.

So, when life gives you lemons? Make luscious lemon cakes and lots of it. You gotta keep livin’. And don’t forget to count your blessings each day. You may never realize how precious they are until you lose them.

“The biggest thing in today’s sorrow is the memory of yesterday’s joy.” – Kahlil Gibran

 

You can choose to look at life any way you like

Feel the beauty of prayer in your most desperate moments…

Have fun! Life’s too short to live it sourly

Don’t feel bad for what you don’t have. Instead, feel gratitude for everything you have been blessed so far

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The Female Hero

Living in the Middle East, one can’t help but empathize with the plight of women. From birth, a girl is bombarded with a set of social projections that suppress her talents, clip her dreams, and channel her energy to the servitude of the domestic sphere. If she has been lucky to have loving parents who have encouraged her to pursue her dreams, she is rarely lucky when she is entrapped by a man who puts out that feisty desire. The world weeps when another budding female artist, writer, doctor, philosopher, traveler, and dreamer withers out of existence.

Because of the widespread control of patriarchal forces, even literature about women is suffused with instructions on how to provide domestic bliss to husbands and children. Have you ever paused to ponder how Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty are enjoying their captivities by waiting for a prince to make them feel complete and fulfilled? Or how about the recent examples of women flocking the malls in flimsy abayas, glittering in jewels, and arched with heels simply to lure a man’s heart? Why can’t a woman attract a man with her intellect, virtuousness, and inner beauty anymore? Strong women who refuse such directives are immediately shunned as deviant.

After being told she is defective, a woman is encouraged to be “perfect”. – Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope in The Female Hero in American and British Literature

It is an ironic misunderstanding since, deep within the crevices of our souls, we all seek unconditional love, trust, and appreciation best found in the institution of marriage. However, this ‘ideal’ has been twisted to a deformed version of subjugation and servitude rather than acknowledgement of woman as an irreplaceable part of the family. Being a mother is a thankless job and only noble spirits recognize this. It is the mother who anxiously awaits nine months to give birth to a child (while enduring unbearable pain) for the simple reason to shower him/her with love and blessings. It is the mother who nurtures her children with positive thoughts and fills them with beautiful projections of the lives they are going to have. It is the mother who is the chef, the chauffeur, the doctor, the psychiatrist, the matron, the playmate, the teacher, and the friend. All these occupations synergize into one angelic form of a mother.

So, yes, we womenfolk would gladly do our parts in the happy family image. Yet, that doesn’t mean that is the only role that should be ascribed to us, for we are also beings with souls, intellects, and bodies. All at once, we yearn for soft caresses from our partners, and we desire to have a heated debate on politics, and we want to open our wings and soar. Like any living being, with the right nurturance, a woman can be liberated from the chains within her to convert that doubt into a belief that she is worthwhile and that she deserves a chance to elevate to her true identity, for that is what life is all about: a journey to self-actualization. Though her capacities are latent today, they will explode tomorrow with their beautiful rainbow colors and make the world a better place.

To all the women out there, celebrate and support each other.

To all the men, your Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) said that the best amongst you is the best to his family. So, remove the mask of tyranny and love us endlessly. You will see wonders when you do.

A flower can take your breath away. You could either see it utterly beautiful or just focus on its thorns

Don’t condition young girls to seek approval by physical beauty and ignore intellect and virtue

Bring out the individual beauty of each woman instead of creating lifeless puppets out of them

One of the best feminist works I’ve read

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Savoring 2012

There is something so splendid about the beginning of a new year. Bookstores display gorgeous 2012 diaries, cafés and restaurants delight gourmands with their festive menus, and the skies are illuminated with fluttering fireworks. It also gives us time to reflect and celebrate moments that were etched in our hearts from the previous year. The author Phyllis Nicholson says, “And what does January hold? Clean account books. Bare diaries. Three hundred and sixty-five new days, neatly parceled into weeks, months, seasons. A chunk of time, of life… those few first notes like an orchestra tuning up before the play begins“.

Think back to your childhood when you still had a sense of wonder and envisaged how your life would play out before the naysayers popped those dreams like arrows piercing multicolored balloons. Is there something on your wish list that you always wanted to do but never got a chance to? Many people go through life mistakenly thinking that to live spiritually means that they cannot revel in life’s abundance. If these thoughts ever crossed your mind, it is reassuring to read the Quran and ponder on the many verses where God encourages us to be happy.

“He it is Who created for you all that is on the earth.” (Quran 2:29)

This morning, spend a glorious hour putting a vision for the upcoming year. Curl up in your sunken sofa, sip a luscious cup of banoffee hot chocolate, and paint a vision of your wishes in your notebook. Go wild. After you finish, take little steps to ensure you do your part in the plan and luxuriate in waiting for God to do the rest, trusting that He is All-Loving and All-Merciful.

My list for the upcoming year is to:

  • Love God more and get closer to Him by enlightening myself and always trusting that He equally loves me.
  • Shower my family with unconditional love and blissful times.
  • Bless the hopeful and cheerful children who are waiting for glimmers of hope, be it through a scholarship, nourishing meals, a library of books, or kind and uplifting words.
  • Devour books on children’s literature, contemporary women’s novels, travelogues, gourmand cooking, self-help and parenting guidebooks, and historical fiction set in the Andalusian and Ottoman eras.
  • Handwrite my epiphanies and reflections. Mythologist Joseph Campbell (author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces) says that wonders are revealed in sacred spaces, be they in the form of a garden, a poem, a painting, or a book. My library is my sanctuary.
  • Set my wanderlust free and travel. Every night, I will cruise in my land of dreams to artsy Barcelona, splendorous Seville, chic Paris, the fairy tale Romantic Road in Germany, and the azure oceans that surround the Mauritius.

 



Living a Little Festively

There was a man who traveled across the Atlantic on a cruise ship but never ate in the dining room. Instead, he would go off in a corner and eat cheese and crackers he had brought with him. Near the end of the trip, another man asked him, “Why don’t you come into the banquet hall and eat with us?” the traveler’s face flushed with embarrassment. “Well, to tell you the truth, I had only enough money to buy the ticket.” The other passenger shook his head and said, “Sir, the meals were included in the price of the ticket!” - Joel Osteen

Many of us go through life with an uptight mentality when it comes to enjoying life’s abundance. The question remains: what is preventing us from experiencing a piece of Paradise right here on Earth as a way of luring us to the eternal abode filled with unconceivable delights?

Wanderlust is the elixir of life. How often have you watched the globetrekkers on the Travel Channel amazed at the bustling floating market in Bangkok, or delighting in a peach gelato while equally feasting on the marvelous views of Lake Como, or take the time to understand the process of making the most famous brands of chocolates and cheeses in factories residing against the backdrop of a sleepy Swiss town?

This season, I decided it’s time to live a little festively and join the year-long carnival of local delights. An Italian professor friend of mine recently invited me to a screening of an Italian film at the Dubai International Film Festival. I joined a flurry of film aficionados at the glittering venue amidst the oasis of Madinat Jumeirah. The film, Terrafirma, is directed by Emanuele Crialese and it recounts the story of a Sicilian family and how they deal with the illegal African immigrants who land on their island during the touristy summer months. The warmth offered to the immigrants, one of them delivered a child at their house, was a beautiful rendition of the universal goodness innate in people still. It was also a fresh move away from the superficial Hollywood movies.



If you want to fly to Paris for a couple of hours, the L’ateliers des Chefs in Dubai offers an array of culinary courses. I had the most fun in the mouth-watering Macarons and Chocolate classes.

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