ن وَالْقَلَمِ وَمَا يَسْطُرُونَ“Nun. By the pen, and what they are writing.” [68:1]
I am standing inside a used-bookstore.
It is extremely hot. A bracket fan installed up in one corner spews out bursts of humid air. Beads of perspiration slowly roll down my back as my eyes minutely scan the shelves, up and down. The shop is very small, its walls lined high with used, even tattered, books of all kinds, including textbooks.
Several familiar YA (young adult) titles catch my eye. I cock an eyebrow. “These are still in print?” I wonder.
Eventually, I squat down to scan the Urdu books on the lower shelves. My abaya gets tainted here and there by the dust from the bookshelves. The combination of dust and heat getting to me, I take a few quick sips from my ever-present water bottle.
After about half an hour of scouring for appropriate titles, reading several back-cover texts, and flipping through several dust-covered books, sweltering and almost gasping for breath, I exit the tiny shop with a sigh of relief, a bag of books in hand.
These jaunts at used bookstores are becoming more and more common for me now. Sigh.
Bibliomania has hit!
More than 2 decades ago
It was some time between 1993 and 1996.
In front of the bookshelf at Agha’s supermarket in Clifton, a teenaged girl stood, looking fixatedly at the cover of this book:
She kept staring at the eyes of the girl pictured on the cover. What sensational story did this book tell, she wondered, and was it true?
“Sold? Was she really sold off to somebody?” she wondered. She wished she could purchase the book immediately, in order to satisfy her desire to read what was inside. But, like most other books that she wanted to get her hands on, the price and budget was a decisive factor.
Actually, she had just finished reading another book that had plunged her heart and mind into a seemingly endless, tumultuous turmoil; an extremely controversial book that was allegedly based on the lives of real people. Real Muslim women.
Rather ironically, because of the disturbing content of this said book, she had also picked up reading yet another book; a page of it, diligently every day. Or rather, its English translation.
She had picked up the Qur’an.
Books brought from school, on the sly
It was a time when sometimes ‘controversial’ novels and books were quietly “smuggled” from one set of hands to another under school desks, or swiped from one schoolbag to another quickly, before hopping into cars and vans to go home for the day.
Many parents did not know what their preteens or teenagers were even reading, whilst the latter sat huddled for hours at their desks, purportedly studying for tests and exams. Many parents, sadly, did not even realize when some books and magazines from their ‘secret’ personal collections (housed inside discreet closets, back drawers, or headrest storage) disappeared for days.
As someone who has by now seen the other end (the process of content creation) of the publishing industry, I can tell you, book publishers knew exactly what they were doing when they published books in different YA genres, even 20–30 years ago.
They know just how to ensnare a naive young bibliophage, and what to
feed into infect their minds with, in order to keep them coming back for more of the same content; for more books from the same series to hungrily devour.
Yet, no matter how many “fluff” and “chick-lit” kind of trashy books I had the misfortune of reading during my teenage years (admittedly, peer pressure had a lot to do with it, but that’s no excuse for tomfoolery, is it?), one book always stands out in my memory as the one that had a lasting, life-changing impact upon me.
My 26 years old memories of this book got triggered at a recent trip to a local bookstore chain, when my teenaged daughter suddenly insisted that she wanted me to see something that she had seen.
She disappeared behind the lines of bookshelves, then emerged sprinting, holding up 2 copies of the same book, just with different covers, side by side, for me to see. Her eyes shone bright.
“Well? Is this the same book that you told me about!?” she asked excitedly, holding up both books. “They are the same book, with different covers. The cover with the kohled eyes, is that the same cover that you told me about? Is that the same book that you read?”
I felt a jolt, as a painful flashback went through my brain.
Those eyes. Those kohl-drenched eyes staring back at me 26 years ago, as I turned page after page, reading one gasp-inducing, shocking, gut-wrenching thing after another.
As for my own eyes at that moment, they grew wide with shock and disbelief.
“I can NOT believe it!” I said. “This __________ [insert slang expletive] is still in print? People are still reading it?”
My heart sank.
How many more girls would have to struggle to survive the test that this book represented?
A journey of self-discovery
As an unschooling parent, I am often at odds with myself about how much freedom to give to my children when it comes to reading books. Books of all kinds.
There are those who swear by letting your children read whatever they want. They say that it’ll only make them learn, grow, question things, explore, be curious, and eventually, lead them to the truth. Whether the writings are Satanic (literally speaking) or misguided in nature, they claim, it is not an issue. Just let them read away! Period.
Then there are those who urge parents to strictly monitor and guard what text crosses their children’s eyes. After all, their minds are akin to soft sponges, absorbing, and getting influenced by, whatever they read. If they read something misguided (i.e. based upon falsehood), they can be led astray themselves.
I lean towards this latter opinion. Although, I do think that open communication, commentary on, and conversation about the content of the books that children (of any age) are reading at any time, with adults and older mentors, is what matters most.
Yet, I am only too aware that, no matter how much a parent may try to prevent it, they cannot always stop something disturbing from crossing their child’s eyes.
My inner conflict starts when I recall my own, somewhat painful, teenage reading experiences. Keep in mind that, in the 90’s, digital content did not at all exist. Physical, paper newspapers, books and magazines, that was all we had when it came to reading anything.
A born bibliophage, I devoured whatever book or writing I could get my hands on, from early childhood. I confess now that I even used to flip through Reader’s Digest before I had turned 10! I snuck it from my parents’ room, but with their knowledge, thank you.
I used to love being inside a library, or any bookstore. The quietness. The smell of old books. The texture of printed paper….the memories of childhood all come rushing back to me whenever I step inside an actual bookstore now, as an adult, and experience more or less the same smells.
Not every book that I tried to read during my youth, however, clicked with me. I left many unfinished, I can still remember that much. But those that I did finish, often left a mark.
After all, when it comes to books, one only finishes what one cannot put down, eh?
Being an HSP (highly sensitive person), I used to get affected easily by what I read, especially traumatic, memoir-type, personal, real-life narratives. And this particular book, pictured above, plunged me into such a deep abyss of inner turmoil that I still remember those anguished feelings today.
This was because it claimed that my faith, Islam, was the cause of absolutely horrifying alleged injustices and monstrosities that were being deliberately wrought by men, in the lives of their family’s women, somewhere out there in the world.
Was Islam really so unjust towards women?, I used to wonder.
Did Islam really allow women to be abused and mistreated by men in this manner?
I refused to believe it.
And that is how, and why, I picked up the English translation of the Qur’an at the age of 15-16, in order to find out just what it said.
2020: a quiet place
I did not realize just when it was, when we suddenly transitioned to being very quiet as a household. I can still remember like yesterday, when the din and havoc caused by 3 children under the age of 13 being at home all day, made me intensely crave peace and quiet, and I often wondered if it would ever return to my life. You know, the kind of quiet in which you can hear every car pass in the street, every bird chirp at the window, and every whir of the ceiling fan.
Change. It often happens overnight, but stealthily. Just like dawn and dusk change places every day, but quietly. When exactly did bibliomania take over our house, I cannot pinpoint exactly. But it happened very quickly, almost as if in the blink of an eye.
As of now, I have had to spruce up my book-digging-out, picking, and purchasing skills. Thankfully, Karachi has no dearth of second-hand book shops, ensconced in the obscurest corners of crowded market areas, and nestled cozily between bustling street-food restaurants.
A craving for libraries
Often I find myself making dua to Allah, to bless Pakistan with more libraries. Quiet places lined with bookshelves, where you can just go to read for a few hours, or to even think. Reading, for me, holds therapeutic value. It makes me de-stress like nothing else.
That being said, you will hardly ever find me holding or carrying a book. Yes, you read that right. I am extremely, extremely, selective about what I read.
Sure, I can spend hours in a bookstore, checking out what books they have, flipping through some titles, and reading the back text of several. But that is not reading; it is the bibliophage’s equivalent of a shopaholic “window shopping”. By visiting bookstores, I just like to see what the publishing industry is churning out: the who’s and what’s of the publishing world. It helps me keep an eye on what people are reading, and what writers are writing; on what is being written purely for commercial profit, and what is being written organically, for the well-being of the general masses.
For this reason, I even followed several contemporary book authors (and even some literary agents) online, on Twitter, for a few years. It granted me much insight into the dynamics of the modern-day publishing world: to find out how the industry runs, in this digital age of content globalization. As of now, I have unfollowed them all, after seeing what, for me, was enough.
As my children morph into budding content creators, each unique in their own right, each in a league of their own, I need to keep an eye on what is going on in the writing/editing world, as a writer/publisher as well as an unschooling parent, in order to gauge how the whole publishing process is evolving and growing.
Of course, just what books they are allowed to read, and what they do read (notice how the two are separately mentioned, heh), will not be revealed here.
I will, however, now leave you with a list of books that impacted me significantly during my teenage years, before I turned 21 years old. After that, the blessing of the Qur’an entered my life full-time, and became — alhamdulillah for that — the permanent ‘filter’ that sieved out all useless content (including books) from my life, my mind, and my time:
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Chancellor Press)
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz (English translation)
An American Brat – Bapsi Sidhwa
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
The Firm – John Grisham
Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
Tara Road – Maeve Binchy
For some reason or the other, I really enjoyed reading the above books, cover to cover, and they left a positive impact on me, despite having significant elements of fear, loss, and tragedy in them. It might be obvious that I preferred the mystery-suspense-thriller genre over all other genres, any day. Agatha Christie novels and all the graphic novels in The Adventures of Tintin series by Hergé were, therefore, my childhood favorites. Agatha Christie’s novels greatly influenced my writing style, no doubt, during my preteen and early teen years.
The list of meaningless “fluff” books that I read, and now wish I had never read, is, sadly, much longer than the above list. I deeply regret having wasted so many precious hours of my youth in reading that trash. As you can see, one “unlearns” (and “unreads”) many things as one grows older and more mature, so I do not even remember the titles and content of most of those meaningless books, although I do remember the series/author names. Like I said before, peer pressure had a lot to do with my reading those trashy books. When all your cliquey friends at school or uni have read, and are avidly discussing, a certain book, you want to get your hands on it as well.
Now, here is a list of books that I read during my teenage years, which also impacted me greatly, but they did so very negatively. I would not recommend that anyone read them:
Princess – Jean P. Sasson (this book is a huge truckload of lies, albeit perhaps loosely based on some very rare, true events)
Doctors – Erich Segal (this book made me decide firmly that I would never be a doctor)
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (this is a stomach-churning overdose of darkness and negativity. There has to be a limit on how much darkness can be stuffed into a single novel. Apparently, there was no such limit for this author.)
At a library
Somewhere in Islamabad, she entered the library quietly, and started taking a stroll around the bookshelves, her eyes keenly reading one shelf placard after another. Quickly, her eyes darted around the seating arrangement: which sofa-chair should she pick, in case she found a good book to read? Her eyes returned to the books on the shelves.
The name of a very famous contemporary author caught her eye. “Finally, I can see what the hullabaloo is about,” she mused, as she grabbed a YA novel and took a seat in a secluded corner.
After half an hour or so of struggling through choppy writing, she let out a sigh of exasperation. She almost banged the book shut, trying to quell a mild wave of nausea. Her hand going to her forehead, she kneaded her temple with her thumb. The library suddenly felt very constricted, almost suffocating.
“I can’t believe that kids today actually like reading this ____________ [insert slang expletive]!”, she thought, as she almost sprinted to the bookshelf to put the book back. She was out of the library in a flash.
Hours passed before the effect of the novel wore off.
Sometimes, as a writer, I might give this impression that I must have always finished any book that I ever picked up to read. That is not true at all. Despite being a voracious reader since my childhood, there were many books that I picked up, but was unable to continue reading, for one reason or the other. Most of the time, it was because my interest could not be sustained; at others times, it was the complex language of the books that I couldn’t quite digest.
Many famous books were suggested to me by people, and my school library also offered a generous free collection. Well, here is a list of books (originals, might I add, not abridged versions) that I started to read, but could not continue:
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Animal Farm – George Orwell
Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
The Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
Dracula – Bram Stoker
As for commercially successful but “fluff” novels, penned by some famous 90’s names, mostly those that my school/college peers were avidly reading, I did try to read a few of them as well, just to see what the hype was about, but I couldn’t continue reading them either. Some of these authors’ names were: Sidney Sheldon, Somerset Maugham, Robert Ludlum, and Barbara Cartland.
Major, major turn-offs!
Also, most girls around me in my school, neighborhood and university used to devour what they referred to as “MB’s”, and I did try to see what those icky things masquerading as “books” had to offer as well, but, fortunately, disgust and nausea wouldn’t let me continue. Funny fact: on seeing my utter distaste, girls who read those things referred to as “books” used to wonder if, as a girl, I was “normal”, because, according to them, what girl in her right mind would not like those books?
See what I mean about peer pressure and the kind of delusions it can cast on you?
As for my English Literature classes in middle school, through assigned curricula, I got to read abridged, textbook versions of some classical works that also did not ignite any particular excitement in me. They were: David Copperfield, Wuthering Heights, The Good Earth, and Pride and Prejudice. Studying the abridged version of Pride and Prejudice motivated me to try to read the original version of the book, but, like I said, I could not finish it. By the way, I found Elizabeth Bennet’s dialogues and social interactions with Lady Catherine de Bourgh to be the most interesting aspect of the novel.
As for Wuthering Heights, I still remember how utterly depressing it was. All I remember is that the two main protagonists, Catherine and Heathcliff, were morbidly obsessed with each other, and that they lived on and wandered around some depressing moors that cast a dark shadow on their already dark existences! I wonder why our school, The City School, chose classical works with such dark themes to drill into the minds of us innocent preteens?
I mean, couldn’t they find anything more upbeat and happy for us to read and reflect upon?!
The sliminess of the character of Uriah Heep still resides somewhere in the deep, inner corners of my mind today, like an irritating abscess. And I was tasked to write his ‘character sketch’!
Apologies to English Lit. aficionados, but I do think that many so-called “literature classics” are just plain overrated.
The Qur’an satiated my thirst for knowledge
At age 21, what a relief it was to finally find the source of light that would forever become, as a reader and writer, my ultimate solace and refuge! The Qur’an.
Since I found the Qur’an and connected to it deeply, I no longer, ever, feel the need to pick up fiction. It just does not uphold my interest, though I’ve tried to read it. And why would it? When you find something so much better, so much more fulfilling, not only does the enlightenment in this book satiate your thirst for knowledge, but it also removes from your heart any remnant desire or inclination to find fulfillment in baseless “fluff”.
That being said, I still do avidly read non-fiction, especially any source of beneficial knowledge that helps me better ponder upon the Qur’an, and to connect its message to the omnipresent realities of life.
As for those who might be thinking, “but your journey of self-discovery that involved reading all those non-beneficial books, eventually led you to the source of all truth (i.e. the Quran)”: I beg to vehemently disagree with you.
What led me to the Qur’an was my inner search for the truth, and in particular, my ardent and sincere repentance for my sins in the year 1999. It was a year that changed me, broke me, permanently. And how soon did Allah accept my repentance! The biggest sign of it was, that I joined a Qur’an course in January of the year 2000.
There was no going back from that point onward, alhamdulillah.
All the useless books that I read during my teenage years were part of a “trial and error” experimentation on my part. During my preteens and teens, nobody had ever emphasized to me that I should seek guidance and solace from the Qur’an; that I should strive to understand its meanings, and ponder upon its words. That it is a message for all of mankind, which completely quells a human being’s thirst for knowledge and reflection.
The purpose of this blog post is to highlight the many twisted and misleading points that I touched along my journey to find true knowledge and inner contentment: the tangential pathways that I traversed, the disappointments, the failures, and the letdowns that most books made me experience.
I also wanted to write this blog post to highlight the absolutely over-rated nature of most of the revered written works that mankind has produced, yet, they are still glorified today as iconic and ground-breaking. We revere the writings penned by absolute crackpots, to put it crassly! And, as for the eternally beneficial Quran, we only turn to it when we experience personal loss and devastation?
Finally, as an unschooling parent, I wanted to highlight how I now struggle to find meaningful, beneficial, darkness-free books and content for my bibliophagous children to read. I have not nurtured and protected their minds and time this far, for me to now just let anything enter their brains, have I?
Life, as they say, is a constant struggle.
No one should walk away from this blog post trying to justify the reading of useless writings by claiming that, “If Sadaf Farooqi could find guidance in the Qur’an after reading all those books, then reading those books is justified for me/my teenager as well.“
Please! Do not cast your sins upon me.
If you are thinking along these lines, then you have entirely missed the point.
The point is simple:
يُرِيدُونَ لِيُطْفِؤُوا نُورَ اللَّهِ بِأَفْوَاهِهِمْ وَاللَّهُ مُتِمُّ نُورِهِ وَلَوْ كَرِهَ الْكَافِرُونَ
“They aim to extinguish Allah’s light with their utterances, but Allah has willed to spread His light in all its fullness, however hateful this may be to all those who deny the truth.” [61:8]
Disclaimer: Naming the specific book titles and authors in this blog post was done deliberately, in order to use the page rank of this blog to bring people on to this post via their Internet searches about those books and authors, so that, hopefully, they could be inspired to pick up an English translation of the Qur’an too, the way I was.