Excerpt from the Introduction.
Fear. Guilt. Anxiety. Peace. Serenity. Kindness. The word Islam is laden with a broad spectrum of emotional connotations. This word that embodies supportive, loving community to one person is a hate-wielding weapon to another. While Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s population, are increasing in number, a growing anti-Muslim sentiment rages across the globe. With each passing year, I’m further shaken by the global implications of cultural ignorance, mine included.
Four years ago, I started this book project because I couldn’t sit with it any longer. I couldn’t stomach how people were talking about their Muslim neighbours, the poisonous ‘us-them’ narrative and worse—what Muslims sometimes said about themselves: the quiet guilt that seeped into conversations, a passive acceptance of the blame that was not theirs to share. It needed to stop. We desperately needed to see the opposite perspective about Muslims.
Or better, the staggering number of differing Muslim perspectives. With this book, I wanted to showcase indiscriminate points of humanity shining around the planet, like stars dazzling the night sky.
I am a white, American writer of Christian heritage who has lived in Europe, Latin American and Asia. I am no expert on the Quran, Arabic literature, or even world history for that matter. As the stories rolled in, I feared inappropriately treating certain key subjects. It was a hard thing to judge. When a story covered the pilgrimage to Makkah for example, or the Bangladesh war for independence, it might be treated only once in the book, so the topic had to be covered ‘properly’ . . . right? And what about the stereotypes? Sometimes even those writers who meant to avoid the stereotypes ended up playing to them anyway. But it wasn’t my place to choose or reject stories for the writers’ opinions or for the way they represented their country, or for their interpretation of Islam. Instead, I wanted to create a sense of empathy-building intimacy by showcasing writers who would courageously reveal the soft centers of themselves, good, bad or ugly. In the end, I saw that the selection process was simple: just let people be people.
I chose stories about uncomfortable situations, like prickly moments with neighbors, as in ‘Summer’s Ruin’ and ‘Those Eyes of Hers.’ I chose ‘The Unfinished Report,’ not because of the backdrop of the Iranian revolution, but because the writer revealed a moment of na.ve bravery in her childhood so vividly. I felt like I was right there with her when she was lost in the rain. I included ‘From Sulu, a Farewell to Dad’ for the author’s plight to know her father before his death. I chose ‘Khaleh Mina’ for the meaningful portrayal of the safe, warm feeling of being mothered by an aunt.
My appreciation for ‘Islam and the End of the World’ had little to do with its Cairo setting or 9/11 subtext, but everything to do with a man struggling to find himself. And I had to include ‘Pink,’ not only for the brutal account of something so many women won’t dare speak of, but also for the testimony of friendships women are capable of, that no-questions-asked brand of unconditional support. I chose writers who conveyed their emotions so clearly, it was like reading their hearts. I included writers whose points of view I didn’t necessarily agree with because they were so unapologetically sincere. I found the honesty disarming and for me, that commanded respect.
We all want harmony or, at least, compassion-based tolerance. But in this climate, how do we move toward that seemingly elusive state? One of the best ways to understand a different culture is to walk in another’s shoes, through their personal stories. Reading, imagining, marinating in the story of another, until understanding leads to empathy and then guides us to tolerance: that’s how we lift the fog.
Editor, The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human
*Available in select countries in Southeast Asia, and coming soon worldwide.