Journal Your Ramadan – Day #28: Traditions

My family and I, in general, tend to go big when it comes to Ramadan as well as Eid – we like to plan a lot of things, give lots of presents, decorate the house, have big iftaris with plenty of samosas as well as our Eid feasts.

So in our own way, we’ve established our own traditions over the years, like the way we get up in the morning of Eid to get ready and say hello to our Mum first. Or the way we eat our iftari dinners, starters, samosas and fruit first, then prayers, then the main meal. Or even the way we wait for Eid to be announced – it’s not official in our house unless our dad has confirmed it, (from anyone else, it’s just rumours).

We don’t really have any established traditions apart from some of the cultural ones a lot of people in our community follow – dressing up in new outfits for Eid, getting henna done on Chand Raat (the day before Eid when the moon is sighted), buying gifts for each other and giving money to the youngsters – but we keep our ‘traditions’ fun and easy.

One thing we have (kind of!) started a tradition of is throwing Eid parties nearly every year – we all get together with decor ideas, themes, games and good food, and invite lots of friends and family to get dressed up and enjoy the evening. We’re planning one soon at some point this year, so it will be nice to have a fun night and get together, although more about this closer to the time!

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Love, Graphics and Slavery in ‘Habibi’

Habibi, by Craig Thompson, is a novel with a difference. Not just because it is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, full of layers of subtle meanings, stories-within-stories and a depiction of society, but also because of the ingenious way the artist weaves together the life of a young slave woman’s, Dodola, with that of a chance meeting with another, slave child named Zam, whose own life is shaped just as he shapes hers.

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Thompson, then, begins20121111_134856 a story which, although not conventionally happy, becomes one which is beautifully moving and extremely easy to engage with. We follow Dodola from her poor and unfortunate beginnings of being sold by her parents to be a wife at the age of six, and from there, her life does not get any better – kidnapped, sold into slavery and rounded up until she meets Zam, a toddler with whom she runs away with to look after.

From there, we see plenty of layers, of love, of slavery, of being gender roles and of being a possession. Thompson does not shy away from the brutality of sex, as well as the hardships of being a slave, of being poor and of course, of being a woman.

Dodola, then, becomes almost an archetype for almost every role a woman can assume – mother, sister, daughter, wife, slave, prostitute, and even food-bringer, as she shrugs off her hardships and her past to try her best to survive, and of course, bring up Zam.

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Throughout the novel, we see both character’s roles, personality and even relationship change, which has a tragic effect on both Zam and Dodola. This is particularly emphasised as Thompson combines modern realities such as coming to terms with your own identity and sexuality, with older-fashioned values such as trading for food, the life of a slave and the realities of  being a woman, being black or being poor.

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Just as we see Dodola’s concerns in bringing up her adopted child, however, we see Zam’s (whose name is no accident, originating from Zamzam water, a holy well situated in Mecca), anxieties in his own role as a man.

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And that is not to say that the story focuses purely on these characters, as Thompson weaves in beautiful architecture in the Middle East combined with the grimy, poor dwellings of the rest of the country. Stories of King Soloman, the Queen of Sheba and Islamic number based puzzles are weaved in as parables to mirror Dodola’s dilemmas and concerns, as well the history of the country, different plans in the city, and the environmental concerns of current society.

And it is no accident that there is a motif of story-telling, calligraphy, writing and drawing throughout the story, artist points not only to the graphic form of the novel, but also the centuries old form of telling stories, writing and recording history, and in a way, recording our identities. Thompson does not leave20121112_125713 a topic untouched, yet this does not feel messy, everything is weaved in beautifully and depicted in seriously beautiful, detailed drawings.

I particularly also liked the architectural drawings in the story, which ranges from ships and small towns to beautifully regal palaces and gardens, and back again to shanty towns and rubbish filled waste-grounds. Again, Thompson points out the range of cities and it’s environments through these encounters – the danger of pollution, the apathy of its citizens and the excess carelessness of the rich are all movingly captured – one sub-plot which struck me was a fisherman who catches rubbish from the sea every day, never getting a fish and yet remaining happy until he has a breakdown – which is surely symbolic of the Earth slowly killing itself with pollution in a truly depressing scene.

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As each scene and circumstance changes, it is no accident that the characters change and adapt with them – Dodola changes from young innocent girl to a teenage thrifter to a harem woman and still goes beyond this, just as Zam’s identity anxieties take him on his own adventures.

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While I though this novel was brilliant, some readers may be put off by the amount of sexual content in this novel, which is never crude but does seep into a lot of its chapters and scenes, and can feel unrealistic. When reading this, while I felt sympathy for Dodola’s character, I also felt it was depressing to see that she is constantly measured by her worth as a woman, and how she can satisfy men sexually. While I’m sure that this is Thompson’s intent, to show that she is objectified to the extent that this defines her above all else, it is sad to see that she is constantly seen as a sexual object by all the characters in this book, which is only stressed by the fact that she is the only female character in this novel and essentially is alone in any type of sisterhood, motherhood or any other positive, female relationships.

Without revealing too much, there are certainly some twists in the novel which changes the initial outlook on not only Middle Eastern society, but the rest of the world and its history in general by the time you reach the end. While the ending itself is ambiguous, it is not a sad one and there is certainly a note of hope by the end of it, although it one which has taken a hard journey to get to. Thompson has done a great job with this novel, and one which is full of beautiful illustrations, poignant meaning and amazing symbolism which is weaved together cleverly – it’s certainly made me want to look out for his other work.20121112_231253

My Niece’s Cupcakey Aqeeqah Party

We had a family celebration this weekend, which was a lovely celebration for the birth of my newest and tiny-est niece, which is called an ‘Aqeeqah‘ (this is when Muslims will sacrifice an animal as thanks to God for the gift of a new baby, which is then fed to relatives and then to the poor. If you can’t afford that then an alternative is just to give some money to charity). We did something similar for my (slightly older!) niece just a couple of months ago which was also, incidentally pinky and cupcakey, but just as family filled and fun.

There were of course, some seriously beautiful handmade cupcakes and cake pops made by my very talented sister, and plenty of fresh cream cake, presents, balloons and lots of little ‘uns all present – and not least the gorgeous guest of honour who was actually a good girl the whole night and did the nice thing of falling asleep half-way through.

And us being girly-girls, we all dressed up and had sparkly heels on and gossiped through the night with the only interruptions being more cuddly chiddlers with cute, fat hands who kept trying to grab cake they weren’t allowed (my mum horrified the family of a 7-month old cousin by feeding her Coca-Cola, but we just told them that we wouldn’t have been able to stop  her anyway – my mum is of the opinion that a “little bit of the stuff won’t hurt anyone”.)

But anyways, less of my yapping now anyway,  here’s a few pictures of the evening, and of course, the beautiful cakey goodness. Sorry if you’re on a diet. But not really.

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Mother’s Day Presents and Cakes

We had an enjoyable Mother’s Day with the family this year, with plenty of bunches of flowers, pretty jewellery (I got these bangles) and not least these  lovely Mother’s Day cupcakes made by one of my sisters, which promptly got photographed by several people, and then swallowed.

My sister also managed to get bombarded with presents from her children, who mysteriously managed to pick out and buy gifts she liked with their kiddy-credit cards (they must have an mummy’s section at their local Toys ‘R’ Us) and even my sister-in-law managed to get a few bunches of flowers and gifts (like a really cute, quirky flower plant in a tea-cup) from her five-weeks old newborn. Kids these days, amazing.

While it was a quite affair at home (and aren’t they the best ones, anyway?) we made up for it with plenty of noise and good food. My Dad skulked around a little wondering what was happening though (or maybe he just wanted flowers too, I have no idea), and my mum was beaming at her kids with love (and her grandkids with even more love, because let’s face it, they get all the fun), and generally, it was a good Sunday. Even if we did have to go work the next day : )

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Alison Bechdel: A contemporary author explores the vexed relationships between children and parents.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
(Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse)

Parenting theories established in our post-modern society advise parents on the most effective methods of raising their child, stressing the idea of awarding and approval, rather than discipline. There are changes in the socialization of children, as there are increasingly more outside influences, such as the mass media and their peers, rather than their parents. There has been an increasing change in attitudes, which have been found surveys carried out in the past decade, where around ninety-three percent of young people and eighty-nine percent of their parents and grandparents believe that the main goal of socialisation of adolescents today is independence (statistic taken from here). According to research data, many youths in post-modern society aspire towards the state of autonomy, rather than making their decisions based on their parents’ views.

Alison Bechdel’s graphic Fun Home presents the idea that the child is not allowed to be a proper child, exploring the relationships between child and parents. She looks back on her childhood as an adult with retrospect, emphasising the idea of the individual, and effectively highlighting the difference between parent and child. Contemporary literature often stresses the importance of the individual, which is significant since the child from an early age establishes itself through its relationship with its parent.  The idea of individualism is, then, seen as a process to gain independence from parental authority. While previously a sense of belonging was created from “the culture of interrelatedness”, a process of socialisation where the child referred to its elders for control and approval in its behaviour; in these post-modern times, this is no longer the case. Children, it can be argued, are becoming more conscious of their own identities, choosing to make their own decisions and shaping their futures rather than take the cue from their elders. It is interesting that while the Bechdel family fit into the traditional nuclear, middle-class family model, they are revealed to be quite dysfunctional, thus exposing the myth of a ‘normal’ family, so that in these contemporary times, it is abnormality that becomes the norm.

There is a continuous theme of the traditional parent-child relationship being challenged, as these roles are often reversed, reflecting the idea that these roles are fluid. It can be argued that in the creation and telling of Fun Home, Alison effectively gives birth to her father Bruce’s identity, thus making her a sumbolic  ‘parent’.

The most interesting reversal of these roles is through the ‘Icarus and Daedalus’ allegory applied and reworked to suit the characters. Although initially, it is Bruce, the parent, who is required to support Alison in their ‘Icarian games’, this is quickly reversed as Alison depicts her father to be Icarus who “was to plummet from the sky”. There are other references, however, later on in the novel where Bruce is designated the role of Daedalus, who he relates to as a designer, “that skilful artificer” as well as a father. Thus Bruce becomes both the father and son, which also corresponds with Alison’s alternating identification with Icarus and Daedalus, which subsequently blurs their roles. It is interesting that the last and first pages of the novel present an almost symmetrical idea, which is that of Bruce supporting Alison. This may not be entirely convincing, since their relationship is revealed to be stilted, and complicated with their sense of fractured identity. However, ultimately, these last, idealised images of Bruce as a father catching Alison seem to stand as a clear symbol of the traditional parent-child relationship, serving as a form of resolution for their troubled relationship.

Another example of role-reversal is the scene with Alison reading her mother’s Dr. Spock parenting books while her parents fight in the background. Alison presents a double perspective of herself as an adult in the present while observing her child self, who makes herself “subject and the object, my own parent and my own child”. By explaining this as a “self-soothing, autistic loop”, Alison suggests that she is taking control of her parenting, as well as her status as a child or ‘object’.

There are also reversal in traditional, or rather, socially accepted gender and sexual roles, which shows how the roles of men and women in Fun Home are constantly sliding from one category to the other. Gender reversal is prominent in Fun Home, which is significant since this is one of the key ways that Alison is able to identify with her father on equal terms. Alison is ‘outgayed’ by her father: that is, when she reveals to homosexuality to her family, this is overshadowed and turned into a spectacle to reveal her father’s affairs, as well as his insistence that she should not ‘label’ herself. Although this would seem to undermine her sexual identity, it allows Alison to regard her parents as individuals as well as become secure in her own identity. Alison describes this reversal using Proust’s term, ‘inverts’:

Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of each other.
While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in
him, he was attempting to express something feminine through
me.

Thus Alison attempts to takes on the masculine gender that her father ‘should’ have, while her father correspondingly attempts to express feminine tastes. This is most clearly seen at the ‘centre’ of the novel, where Alison confronts her father in his car in order to ascertain his homosexuality, as well as her own. Interestingly, the pictures in this scene are as equally informing and significant as the text, with the same picture used in sequence that is unique to the rest of the novel, in the form of a film strip, thus making it iconic. This is a profound moment, with father and daughter mirroring each other’s actions, and perhaps is the moment where they confront each other and becomes equals in their own rights rather than through the fixed roles of parent and child. If anything, it is Alison who feels “distinctly parental” towards her father, while simultaneously explaining her own preferences. Ironically, not much action occurs in these pages, suggesting that it is the meaning applied to the scene that is important. Their relationship is best summed with their comparison to a “fatherless Stephen and sonless Bloom” , where although there is no “joyous reunion” ; there is still a form of acceptance and compromise. This scene serves as a metaphor for Alison’s and Bruce’s relationship, posing a sort of resolution: they are side by side, and while they do not look at each other, they hold an equal status.

In another scene, Alison depicts herself holding two photographs: one of herself taken by a girlfriend, the other is a picture of her father aged twenty-two.

“The exterior setting, the pained grin, the flexible wrists, even the angle of shadow falling across our faces – it’s about as close as a translation can get.” Again, Alison shows how she sees herself as an equal to her father through the realisation and acceptance of their respective sexualities.

Alison also plays on the words she uses to describe her home, like “queer home”, showing an awareness of her own and her father’s sexuality. Bruce’s obsession with restoring and decorating the house displays the idea that his identity and sexuality become buried in the house, effectively fetishizing it. It allows Bruce to channel repressed, secret desires, so that ultimately, the house also buries the family’s secrets.

However, this relationship with the house consequently affects the way that the children are treated, who become accessories:

“I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” It is implied that in his absorption with the house, Bruce neglects his role as a father and distances himself from his children.

Literature is also a medium used by Alison to understand her parents, while also introducing the idea of ‘intertextuality’, where there are texts used within texts.

“My parents are most real to me in fictional terms” Alison states, comparing them to characters from Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is interesting to note, for example, that the conversation between Stephen and Bloom in Ulysses is echoed by the only real conversation she has had with her father about their homosexuality. The Bechdels’ library is seen as the emotional centre of their home,  and Alison contextualizes most of her experiences by thinking of them in terms of literature. It is also significant that her realisation that she is gay is not due to attraction to a specific person, but from looking at books recommended by her father. Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, Colette’s autobiography, Kate Millett’s Flying and especially Ulysses provide the basis for Alison’s final discussions and correspondence with her father, as well as pointing her toward some kind of understanding of his death. Thus it can be argued that what ultimately brought her and her father together, in fact, were books. Even the fact that Fun Home itself is an autobiographical account shows how Alison understands her father better, delving into his past in order to better related to him.

“My parents seemed almost embarrassed by the fact of their marriage.”

Marriage is a big factor which affects both parents’ relationships with their children and the upbringing of children. It is significant that divorce rates have been steady since 1980 but six times higher than they were in the 1950s, with around forty to fifty percent lower marriage rates than previously . This inevitably implies that there is an increasing awareness of children affected by their parents’ relationships, with recurring themes in literature of idea of being ‘broken’ and having a fragmented identity.

Alison and her sibling’s discomfort at their parent’s, albeit rare and chaste, displays of affection can be argued to be a result of the “arctic climate” of the atmosphere cultivated by their parents and their home life. This is described as “unnerving as the antagonism” that their parents have with each other; by comparing her parents’ affection to their arguments, Alison depicts the awkwardness of their relationships. The fact that the couple do not appear to have a comfortable relationship with each other, such as Bruce avoiding addressing his wife by name, have the same effect on the children: that is, they too take on a “cool aesthetic distance” from personal situations. Like their parents, they are unable to criticise their father, nor show affection, which is a “dicier venture”, thus creating an atmosphere of detachment between them.

It has been suggested that in patriarchal cultures, achievement, competition and material success are highly valued, with a strong emphasis on sex role differentiation. While contemporary literature challenges the idea of a traditional male earner, as well as the traditional housewife figure, there is also an emphasis on the idea of giving children the right amount of attention. Although in this text, both parental figures have careers, the focus on the mother as a working woman highlights the progress of women in modern society. The changes to women’s statuses and their rights mean that new values have emerged in the system of bringing up children: the woman has been provided with more egalitarianism and more opportunity to contribute to her family income. Thus there is an increase in the representation of working mothers, which is present in both texts. Alison’s mother appears to be absorbed in her career, which, it could be argued, is a result of being neglected and becoming bitter over the years, so that her relationship with her children is also affected. Both her parents’ “rapt immersion” in their “creative solitude” suggest that it is not possible to give equal attention to their children and their careers, inevitably one will become neglected. In Fun Homeit is the children who are overlooked so that they are forced to look after themselves, and thus become more independent: “I learned quickly to feed myself”.

This leads onto the idea of absent parents, which also affects a child’s bonding with their parent. The fact that Alison’s mother is absent during the important milestones of her life: her period, her realisation that she is gay, her discovery of masturbation, serves to symbolically estrange them. Alison herself notes that it is only after she establishes herself as a lesbian and becomes secure with herself that for “the first time my mother had spoken to me as another adult”, where ironically her mother uses her as a confidante to complain about her husband. Similarly, Bruce is also described as absent, since “he really was there…but I ached as if he were already gone”; suggesting that Alison craves attention. It is interesting to note that while the novel focuses on Bruce, even though it was created after his death, Alison’s mother is still alive and yet treated with a sense of detachment, suggesting that this is a result of being unconsciously pushes away from her parents.

Death in contemporary writing is also a theme that affects parent-child relationship, since this leads back to the idea of an absent parent. Bruce’s death is a key moment, since it sums up the numb reaction felt by his children, who even laugh at its absurdity. However, this also creates a sinister overtone to the scene, since it shows the feeling of displacement they feel. By using his death to provoke a reaction from other people, Alison exposes the idea that they are ‘meant’ to feel something. The children’s lack of emotion makes them want to displace this disjointedness onto someone else, since it is too painful to confront, making them push it away. Perhaps this is their ‘legacy’ passed onto them by their father, and a result of their upbringing.

There are layers of life and death throughout the novel, since Alison’s father engages with her beyond his death, such as the ‘clues’ and notes written in his books which point to his sexuality and his death. It is here that the idea of meaning becomes significant, since her father’s death is seen as suicide not because of the ‘evidence’ but because of the meanings applied to his death.

One particular scene also becomes emblematic split across two horizontal frames is the image of Alison’s dead father in his coffin: Alison, with her back to the reader, is divided in two across either frame. Each half gives the reader the illusion of a single complete image, that of the daughter looking at her deceased father. However, the reader feels the divide more sharply than the connection, thus exposing the illusion of completeness.
Thus the idea of replacing the parents is also prominent, such as symbol of Bruce’s grave, which simultaneously disguises and highlights his death.

Although the relationships between parents and children are often vexed, writers have managed to create awareness about giving children the required attention, depicting the potential consequences of being neglected. Alison can finally make sense of her own history through her parents as well as a re-construction of her life. Like the actual graphic novel itself, relationships operate on the idea of the said and unsaid, which puts the responsibility of interpretation and revealing the truth back onto the reader. It can be argued that only when Alison leaves her family and her home can she confront her sexuality and identity.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel (London, Jonathan Cape: 2006) pp.