Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review: I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn
Genre: Contemporary
Rating: *****
Pages: 152
Original French Title: Un Flouard Pour Djelila (A Scarf for Djelila)

There's nobody Sohane loves or hates more than her little sister Djelila. While Sohane's praying in the mosque, Djelila's out partying. She's pretty, and she knows it. But so do the boys-both the ones Djelila flirts with at school and the religious extremist dropouts who roam the projects. Sohane keeps
wishing someone would teach Djelila a lesson. Until the dropout gang decides to do just that.
In the wake of the Parisian terrorist attacks, I've been looking for some way to understand the issues at play. My preferred method of education is reading and fiction packs power that naked facts don't. I'd heard about this book before, but forgot about it until I searched my library for Muslim YA reads and found one set in France.
I read this hoping for an understanding of life in France, but I didn't get it. I realized while reading this that the only France-set books I've read before were by American authors and written for an American audience. This one was not. The French setting is assumed, not built. I did, however, gain a greater understanding of Muslim life.
This is a beautiful little book. I'm Christian, not Muslim, but there were so many little details that were relevant to me as a person of faith, and I believe they'll be fascinating to many readers regardless of religious affiliation. When Sohane talks about going to the mosque, it's not an actual mosque, but a room in a local man's apartment that he's set aside for worship. This is the best they have because they don't live in a community with a high Muslim population.
The issue of wearing a hijab is explored in depth. Sohane gets kicked out of school for choosing to cover her hair while Djelila is attacked for not wearing one. Every non-Muslim character she talks to incorrectly refers to her hijab as a veil, even though she's standing in front of them and they can see her face is completely bare. The day Sohane decides to wear her hair in a scarf, she and Djelila go to visit her grandmother, who has several friends over. All of these elderly women give her reasons to stop wearing it. When she goes to a community meeting about Djelila's murder, the women organizing it, who don't know she's her sister, immediately kick her out.
"You don't belong here. Our group fights for the liberty of women, for the defense of their free will, and for the abolition of a chauvinist society. You disavow these values by accepting to wear the veil."
"I feel like shouting, not out of pain this time, but out of amusement at the irony. Of course, how did I forget? I can't participate in a debate that uses my sister as a symbol! I probably can't even be Djelila Chebli's siter, not the Djelila Chebli these women have chosen as the mascot for their own convictions!"
This book may be short, but it tackles complex issues of identity, religion, sisterhood, violence, sexism, and grief. Even though it has a violent murder scene, it brought me peace in wake of the terrorism that took the Western world by storm. It gave me the greater understanding of Islam I was looking for and it's a beautiful, tender portrayal of sisterhood and loss. Pick this up. It won't take you long to read and it's well worth your time.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Tricolors and Pink Ribbons: The Power of an Empty Symbol

My brothers play pee wee football. At least once a season they have a breast cancer awareness game and all the players wear pink socks. The first time they did this, one of their teammates put on his pink socks, ran around the football field wearing them, and came up to the coach after the game to ask, "What's a breast?" 
It is possible that his pink socks had some impact on the adults on the sidelines. Adults who are already aware of breast cancer because they know people who've fought it or at least read articles about Susan G. Komen for the Cure. But they have a knowledge base about breast cancer. They don't need pink socks.
Some time after that, my brother asked a question over the dinner table. "Mom, why is pink the cancer color?" He'd worn pink socks on the field and seen the pink ribbon icon on everything from key chains to soup cans. He had the vague idea that it was somehow related to cancer, but he didn't make the ties between pink and femininity, femininity and the female body, the female body and a disease that affects (mostly) females. Of course he couldn't, he was a little boy.
But he was given the responsibility of promoting awareness among all the parents watching him play.

Breast Cancer Action refers to this practice as pinkwashing. Customers will choose a can of soup with the pink ribbon over a can of soup without one, believing they're somehow benefiting the cancer afflicted, but any company can appropriate the breast cancer symbol. They are under no obligation to donate money to cure research in return. Never mind that patients are still suffering and dying just like they were before the logo was added to the product. Now customers are aware! That's the point, right? Not curing the cancer itself?
Cancer survivor and blogger Leisha Davison-Yasol scorned "National No Bra Day", a campaign purported to raise awareness for her disease, as diverting attention away from breast cancer itself. Surprisingly, flaunting your nipples in front of someone who's had hers surgically removed does very little to cheer her up. 
There are companies and individuals in the world who are legitimately concerned for breast cancer patients. They'll donate money to see it cured. But there are plenty of others who just want to pat themselves on the back for being aware of a disease. Good deed for the day, check! 
Last summer, I participated in the ice bucket challenge because a friend tagged me. But thinking back to it just now I couldn't remember what it was supposed to raise awareness for. A disease, yes, but which one? Not breast cancer, something else. I needed google to remind myself it was for ALS. And an additional search to figure out what part of the body ALS actually affected. I sloshed ice cold water down my back because all my friends were doing it. Beyond, "Good job, Erica! You did a good deed today. Go ALS patients!" it had no personal impact.
Diseases aren't the only horrors with empty symbols. As I've scrolled through my Facebook feed this weekend, I've watched a similar thing happen with the French flag. I have two Canadian Facebook friends. I have one Nepali Facebook friend. I have one Kiwi Facebook friend. Every other person on my feed is American. And with very few exceptions, all of their friends are American as well. Not French. But in the aftermath of the horrors in Paris, everyone is adding the tricolor to their profile pictures. To "show support". Exactly who are they showing?

When you light up a world famous building, the people of Paris hear about it. That's showing support. But tricoloring a picture that will only be seen by a hundred or so non-French Facebook users is no more effective than hanging a French flag in your closet. 
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I understand that many people are doing this for personal comfort. Bloodshed abroad brings down the morale of people far removed from the action. I've traveled to Paris before and I've been looking into Paris as a study abroad destination. But even if I didn't have these (miniscule) ties to the city I'd be horrified by the bombings. I'll #PRAYFORPARIS every night until the storm settles, but I'm pretty sure God will hear Parisians' prayers before mine. I'll keep up on news and join in conversations with people who know more or have thought more deeply about the tragedy than me. But I'm not going to pretend I'm benefiting Parisians. It's for my own peace. 
All cause awareness symbols have impact. That's what they're constructed to do. Even when they're used in an empty way, they can do some roundabout sort of good. That pee wee football player learned what a breast was that day. That conversation wouldn't have happened without his pink socks. Some of my American friends will leave comments on posts from accounts that are followed by French Facebook users, making their profile pics visible for a few seconds of scrolling. Raindrops are a feeble force but a flood of French flags is convincing evidence that people outside of France's borders care. 
Cause awareness symbols have a tendency to spread the symbols themselves while the actual cause gets left behind. If you're going to use one, educate yourself on what it represents. Don't jump on the bandwagon for the praise of your peers, or worse, your own praises. Don't reduce someone else's pain and anguish to a trendy decoration. You do no good by wearing, buying, or posting an empty vessel, so go fill it up. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

On Refraining from Judgement: Dispatches from a School with an Out of State Majority

I am currently attending Brigham Young University (Go Cougars!) in the lovely Provo, Utah. We have a student population of over 30,000 and native Utahns are outnumbered 2 to 1. Most of them have never been to Utah beyond brief visits and haven't set foot of campus more than a few times since they got here. A lot of them are prone to snap judgments.
One day early on in the term, I was walking across campus with a Washington-raised friend. We passed the motorcycle and scooter section of the parking lot. She said it was a "Utah thing" because "No one rides scooters in Washington." I thought about it and realized that outside of BYU campus, I see about one scooter for every several hundred cars.
It's not a Utah thing. It's a college thing. Cars cost money and college students rarely need to go farther than the grocery store, so why buy one?
Recently I was eating dinner with a Texan friend and various other out of staters, They were talking about how Utahns have such weird and bizarre names.
According to the Social Security Administration, these were the most popular Utah baby names in our birth year, 1996:

1. Madison, Jacob
2. Jessica, Austin
3. Emily, Joshua
4. Megan, Tyler
5. Ashley, Michael
6. Sarah, Zachary
7. Rachel, Matthew
8. Alexis, Andrew
9. Samantha, Nathan
10. Hannah, Jordan

I know one Rachyl. For the other names, I never see variants beyond Hanna, Ashlee, and Meagan, the latter of which happens to be the names of my Wisconsin born roommate.
When I attempted to correct my Texan friend, she said I'd been rendered ignorant by growing up in Utah and couldn't recognize the oddities that surrounded me. So I politely rattled off a list of my friends names and sat back to smirk to myself. Was I really having this conversation with a Southerner?
When I was thirteen, I met a woman named Ann Parks. I asked if that was her full name, and she said no, it was her first. She was from the South. I could jump to the conclusion that Texas, being a Southern state, is full of nothing but Sue Ann and Mary Lou. I know this because I've actually met Southerners throughout my life. I have relatives who've been there. I know they're more than stereotypes. There were so many comebacks I could've used, but I refrained.
Two weeks ago I had to carpool with a boy from Colorado. He complained about Utah drivers the whole way there, but he knew so little about the Utah road system that when his friend in the backseat mentioned the wall (meaning the freeway divider) he looked around wildly, expecting to see what he termed a "Great Wall of Utah".
I'm starting to wonder if this toxic combination of ignorance and confidence is something unique to college students. But I've only been to one college. So I'll pass.
See what I did there?
I'm surrounded by people experiencing college and Utah for the first time. That's more likely the case.
When you're entering an unfamiliar place, you have an obligation to be humble and inquisitive, not self-assured and declarative. If you see something different from the way things are done back home, ask, "Is that a local thing?" before declaring it such on absolutely no evidence.
You have this obligation because everybody else is silently accommodating you. For the past few months I've patiently ignored people who mispronounce Utah place names, listened to complaints that scones here are closer to flatbread than real scones, and done math in my head to figure out where they want me to drive them when they ask for "One thousand four hundred south". "You mean hundred and fourteenth street? Sure, I know where that is."
Learn to think geographically. The world will thank you for it.