Monday, January 31, 2011

I Bleed Red, White, Black… and Blue

Reflections on the uprisings from an Egyptian-American

Hourayaa.”  It’s a funny word when repeated with an American accent.  It’s a universal word uttered in different shades of gray, black, and red, etched across countries struggling to break free from an oppressive regime.  It’s “freedom” with all its loaded implications.  It’s a chant that falls from the lips of thousands of Egyptians and rankles in the minds and hearts of those who watch the drama unfold.
Words like “historic,” “momentous,” and “critical,” pepper the nightly news and the on-going conversations.  It’s the first time in many years that Egyptians are taking a stand and taking back their country.  The collective conscience of a sleeping beast, 80 million strong--transcending divides of age, religion, and class, has been awakened.  Hunger, pain, and hopelessness can only fester for so long until spilling over and giving way to overwhelming bursts fueled by passion; tempered by fear and hate.
Watching familiar faces of people who might be my third cousin twice removed or my brother-in-law’s fifth nephew makes me feel a certain affinity to the events that are unfolding.  I struggle in deciding whether I should call myself American-Egyptian, American-Muslim-Arab, or Egyptian-American.  The differences are subtle but each sings a complicated story of hyphenated identity. 
I think back to summers spent wandering Tahrir Square with cousins, fool and falafel sandwiches in one hand, termous rolled in newspaper in another, lost in the irony of a place called “Liberation.”  I remember the months spent living in Alexandria, awakened by the sea and shouts of the roaring “Rubabickya” man.  I remind my children of the happy places we visited two summers ago, now ablaze with anger and flames.
My memories make me realize that the Nile streams in my blood and banks in my heart.  The sunny country known for iconic ancient structures, sand, and sea is embedded in my identity.  It takes a revolution sometimes to remind us where we come from.  It takes a revolution in countries thousands of miles away to remind us of the freedoms we take for granted. 
As Americans, we might argue about our government and fight about our factions—but at least we have the right to do that.  We may hate our presidential politics and hate the proposed economic reform-- but we know that there is an end in sight and that we, the people, have some say in who presides over us every four years.  This basic inalienable right to express our voices and speak our thoughts without fear of repercussion is what the Egyptians are fighting for.  Waking up free and able to afford basic amenities can’t happen without moments of friction.  Knowing that the side dish of change is often a period of chaos and terror should not deter our people from speaking up and finally letting loose the centuries-old silence of repression. 
Even though our hands are helplessly tied and we can’t share Egypt’s hunger, we can feel her pain.  Our hearts are chanting support for all those who are struggling.  The fight against tyranny has to begin somewhere and at some time.  Egyptians have chosen now.  As much as my heart bleeds for the people of Egypt who are battling government-supported convicts, looters, and gangs to stand up for a cause, my heart also bleeds for my grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends who are struggling to feed their families and resume some sense of “normalcy” amidst the chaos. 
The ripples of change inevitably come with waves of anguish that the average citizen, far-removed from any political embroilments, must also ride out.  While I am genuinely afraid for my family, I am also proud of my “mother” country.  To find a voice and articulate it clearly as a cohesive nation standing in solidarity is a first in Egypt.   History has shown that revolt is sometimes the only way to oust a corrupt government.  From our own American Revolution, to the French Revolution, to the most recent South African revolution—each struggle ended in ultimate upheaval and eventual liberation. 
Will all people’s lives improve if the current regime is ousted?  No, but the nation itself will begin to heal eons of wounds simply because people stood shoulder to shoulder shouting in unison for a cause.  Why should we, as Americans, care?  Because we are so embedded in the Middle East’s interests that we can’t afford not to care.  Because we are watching a people etch out their own path towards freedom for the first time.  Because we call ourselves protectors and promoters of democracy.  Because “Masr”  has finally spoken and the world cannot ignore the faint syllables of freedom’s familiar call.  
          --Suzy Ismail

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing? (Musings on the art of writing)

I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop for a solid fifteen minutes staring at the vertical cursor blinking insistently at me from the blank screen.  I’m clueless as to what today’s blog post should be about.  I don’t have much to say, but I feel that I should say something.  After all, I should have something monumental or miniscule that I want to share with the world today.  Right?
Sure, I’ve got lots of ideas floating around my mind.  Maybe a book review for one of the many Sci-Fi books I’d just read, or maybe a movie review on one of my recent rentals, or possibly a reflection on MLK’s words in honor of the recent holiday or even an analysis of Cicero’s “Treatise on Friendship” if all else fails.  But, none of these ideas sound appealing in the least.
It seems criminal though, to take up a modicum of cyberspace with just any sort of nonsensical babble.  So, if I am going to post something today, as I desperately want to, shouldn’t my writing hold at least half an ounce of value to someone out there? 
With that, the metaphoric light bulb goes on.  I suddenly realize that there’s a very valid reason for my lethargy.  No, I’m not feeling lazy or unproductive or unwilling to dig a little deeper today.  It finally dawns on me that I am just all “written out.” 
For the past three weeks, a friend and I have been hard at work at JaNoWriMo.  Essentially, beginning January 1st we committed ourselves to creating our own version of National Novel Writing Month (normally held in November and known as NaNoWriMo).  The only rule we had to remember was that we would begin with a novel idea and commit to writing about 1,650 words a day so that by the end of the month we would have a nicely-packed approximately 50,000 word manuscript as a starting point to build upon.  Oh, and one other stipulation—we’re not allowed to read anything that we’ve written until the month is over.
And so the month began with ups and downs.  There were days where the words literally flew off my fingers and onto the page of their own volition.  Characters basically created themselves and complicated plot twist were resolved completely on their own.  And of course there were days where the only words that filled the page were long lines of “Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” 
As we pass the midpoint of the month, I’m beginning to understand the magic of forcing out “unforced” writing.  You may decide to set an egg timer for uninterrupted writing time, or get a little less sleep, or type away at your laptop while waiting to pick up your kids afterschool.  No matter what way works best for you, “finding time” to write that novel is the only way our stories will ever be told.
True, I may never want to write again after January 31st—but I highly doubt that.  As another good friend once told me-- “If you write, you are a writer.”  And the writer in me refuses to quit.  With that bit of wisdom, today’s blog post comes to a close, and I realize how painless the writing really was and how enjoyable the journey.  J

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blood Ninja II: The Revenge of Lord Oda, by Nick Lake (A book review)

You had me at wakizashi.
Many of you know I am a romantic, a lover of fantasy/paranormal YA, a ‘give me a happy ending or I’ll hurt you’ kind of girl.  But…I have a deep dark confession.  Please refrain from snickering.  I am a lover of most things Japanese:  manga and anime (ninjas and samurai only please) and have spent hours of my life watching Naruto and Ninja Warrior on G4.  We’re all dorks about something and I suppose this is mine.  So reading the Blood Ninja books allows me hours of blissed-out Japanese dorkdom.  I also confess that ‘wakizashi’ is my most favorite word in any language.
The quest for the Buddha ball continues in Nick Lake’s follow up to his debut novel (Blood Ninja).  Male protagonist, Taro, born and raised as a peasant in a fishing village, continues to come to grips with the fact he is now not only a ninja vampire, but also the lost son of Lord Tokugawa, the most powerful daimyo of 16th century Japan.  Accompanied by his most loyal friend, Hiro, and the beautiful wakizashi wielding princess, Hana, daughter of Lord Oda, the second most powerful daimyo, Taro continues on his quest to find his mother and beat the evil Lord Oda at retrieving the all- powerful Buddha ball.  
Mr. Lake follows the tried and true formula for fantasy:  a simple person (Taro) who is greater than he knows, who unwillingly gets caught up in the supernatural.  There is the best friend (Hiro), who would willingly die for his friend (ala Samwise Gamgee), and ah, the princess of course (Hana), rescued by Taro when her father orders her to commit seppuku (Japanese ritualistic suicide…I’ll let you google the gory details if you are unfamiliar).  It’s a formula that works and this author is gifted enough to work in some surprises along the way.   
I thoroughly buy Mr. Lake’s rules of vampirism, unlike Stephanie Meyer’s (sorry, Steph).  Sunlight and vampires don’t get along as a general rule, unless there is something special about them, like Taro.  Not all vampires are ninjas but all ninjas are vampires (say that ten times fast).  They have super human strength and agility, the ability to feed off of humans or animals to sustain themselves, and the capability to feed without killing.  These vampires have blood in their veins and you can only kill them with a good old-fashioned decapitation or sword to the heart (ah, the good ol’ days of Buffy).  Yes, they heal from all other wounds, but it takes time and they are not free from the pain of injury. 
Note to author and spoiler alert:  Nick…Nicky… may I call you Nicky?  You make me wait two whole books for a kiss and that’s what you give me? <I’m shaking my head affectionately at you> No, it was not the worst kiss I’ve ever read.  I was even thinking I’d get all sexist and say, “he’s a guy, of course he can’t write a good kiss.”  But dude—you wrote an entire paragraph of Hana just touching Taro’s hand.  Gorgeously written by the way, bordering on lyrical.  I swear I read it three times in a row because it was so beautiful.  And then you wimp out on the kiss???  Please…consult me on the next book for all collision of lips.  I promise to drop everything for you.  Email me, Facebook me, text me…call Cassie Clare or Lauren Kate, if you must.  Just please, write better kisses.  The Hogwarts kids are seriously getting better snogging action.  J
Bottom line:  An easy, enjoyable read.  Lots of blood and violence, but a bit of swooning and pining as well.  Do yourself a favor and get the first book first.  I myself am already waiting to pre-order the next one.  Oh, and every time you read the word ‘wakizashi’, I highly recommend shouting it out loud with your arms in the air like your favorite team just scored a touchdown (in my house that would be the Eagles).  Yeah…I’m a dork. 
          --Suzi Ryan

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resolutions in Reverse (Reflections on Eat, Pray, Love)

Every year around this time, I head over to the gym with renewed dedication only to find half the townsfolk with the same noble intention.  This year though, I decided to approach my resolutions a little differently.  A few days before New Year’s Eve, I accidentally grabbed the movie “Eat, Pray, Love” rather than my intended first choice.  Of course, not wanting to let the dollar rental go to waste, I watched the movie despite the fact that I had distinctly disliked the book.  After getting past the subversive Hollywood messages promoting selfishness, thinly disguised as following your dreams, I gathered a few interesting bits and pieces of pearls that helped form my reverse resolutions this year.
1)      Early on in the movie there is mention of a poor man who goes every day to pray before a sacred statue.  He consistently begs the statue “Please, please, please let me win the lottery.” After years and years of the same unanswered prayer, the fed-up statue finally responds “Please, please, please buy a lottery ticket.”  While I am morally and religiously opposed to the whole concept of the lottery (whether it’s Pick 6 or Shirley Jackson style), I still appreciate the moral of the proverb.  I realized that my former knee-jerk reaction would have been to metaphorically buy ten thousand lottery tickets to increase my chances of hitting the jackpot.  Instead, my reverse resolution this year is to adopt the mantra that “less is more” and to accept that as powerful as prayer is, action is also a must.  But, the key is to find a happy balance somewhere between utter inaction and obsessive neurotic over-action.  Maybe one lottery ticket and lots of prayer will be just enough this year.

2)      Il dolce far niente”—the Italian art of doing nothing.  It’s a foreign concept for most of us stress-loving, productivity-addicted East Coasters. The delicious idea of “doing nothing” and being satisfied with a do-nothing day once in awhile is as foreign as the words themselves.  Reverse resolution on this one:  accept that it’s okay to sometimes stay in bed a little longer than usual, leave a few dishes in the sink and order take-out for dinner-- without scheduling it in.     

3)      Enjoying food, family, and fun—guilt free, without measuring myself or anyone else by a productivity scale that’s sure to disappoint.  Getting rid of the Size 2 dress that I know I’m never going to fit back into and accepting that whether I’m a size 2 or a 12, I’ll always find something to wear, even if it means draping myself in my old baby blue maternity muumuu for awhile. 

4)      Letting go—“It is what it is”—beginning with tearing up this year’s list of resolutions.  Knowing that it’s okay to break these resolutions and slip back into my old familiar neurotic self is as liberating as tearing through a bag of Doritos and washing them down with a chocolate chip cookie-- a cardinal sin for any weight watcher.  Ironically, the “do something” Doritos campaign mocks me from the nearly empty red bag as I lick the sticky orange stuff off my fingers.

5)      Resist the urge to whine and realize that a little faith and a lot of love goes a long way in putting everything in perspective. 

I hope you have as much fun as I did putting together a ‘dispensable’ resolutions list and that 2011 is filled with new blessings and new beginnings for all!
                      -Suzy Ismail