The One About Love, Relationships & All That Jazz

I try to not talk about this topic, mainly because I do not want to partake in the already prevalent discussions online & offline, of this thing called love. But I guess it’s inevitable, no matter how meticulously I’ve tried to skirt around the topic.

So here’s my two cents. (Brace yourselves for a looong ramble).

Believe it or not, I talk about stuff like this all the time with my friends. Well not all the time but it’s a conversation filler that almost always seeps its way into our tête-à-têtes especially after not meeting for a long time. It’s a topic that warrants a discussion, I suppose, because like it or not, we are at that age.

Yes I am at that age where wedding invitations start choking up my mailbox, every other weekend is wedding weekend, and the dynamics of conversations start shifting from “Have you done this assignment?” to “What brand of diapers does your baby wear?” Yes I am aware. The ball has started rolling.

Friends are getting married, settling down, having babies, sending their children to school… I never thought I’d reach this age, to be honest. How did I get here?! Sometimes I forget that I’m already past the “early twenties” stage (what?) Random surveys requiring us to tick the box beside our age range is a proverbial slap in the face. I no longer fall in the 18-24 group, unwillingly shoved into the late twenties club. Not cool.

Anyway, I’ve accomplished none of the above, but I LOVE where I am right now. It’s just that where I am right now, does not fit society’s expectations of where a 26-year old woman should be. Still studying and working things out. I have learnt along the way that things work out in His time, not in our time. So it’s all good man. I’m totally alright and super cool with it, so it’s bewildering if other people find it not okay. You get me? Trust me, you’ll feel so much at ease if you just let go and let God. Stop worrying about things beyond your control. Just put in your effort in doing what He has entrusted unto you to do now, and tirelessly make du’a to Him to grant what’s best for you. That’s it. Really. If you find yourself on the receiving end of all negative or unnecessary comments, just smile, eschew yourself from the conversation, say “make du’a for me”, and move along. It may be hard for some, but try it. Sometimes all it takes is a little change of perspective. Often, we can be unknowingly caught up in the quagmire that is the whole process of seeking the right one, that we forget to remove ourselves from the whole stifling picture and look at it objectively. Why the unnecessary pressure on yourself when you know Allah is the Planner of all planners, the Writer of all writers, the One you ultimately go back to, at the end of the day?

It helps to be surrounded with like-minded individuals. It’s important to be reminded that you are not alone. Remember, there’s a community of us out there, just like you! I guess I am blessed enough that He had me cross paths with individuals who have grown to become my best friends, who are in the exact same situation as I am. Single, ambitious, never been in relationships (I wish people won’t be so surprised, it makes us feel like aliens), independent, goal-driven. We know what we want. And always wondering why is it so hard to find a man who knows what he wants. Hur hur. But we’ll always remind each other to husnuzhon – instead of giving up hope on men, we know that the simple reason is because, as Michael Buble says, I just haven’t met you yet~ See? It’s as simple as that. And even if we have, perhaps it’s just not the right time. It all happens in His time, remember?

Ya know. I used to get puzzled whenever I’m confronted with the question, “Do you have a boyfriend?”. To which I always wonder why is there an interest to know, to talk about, let alone to have one. I mean, I never took to finding out what this boyfriend/girlfriend thing the other kids around me were getting into, neither was I completely unaware of what’s going on around me. I knew what it was. But I guess you could say that I preferred keeping my distance from such things. A friend who was quite the observer, told me that I was always carefree and relaxed when it comes to this. Well, truth is, I didn’t really know what to feel about it. So whenever I’m asked the inevitable ‘so are you in a relationship’ sort of question and I had to answer with an honest ‘no’, in the most favourable of situations I would get an understanding nod and an ensuing silence, or in the least favourable of situations, a further probing investigation – “But why?” See, my linguistics analytical tendencies (occupational hazard much) would then lead me to discern the choice of words used – firstly, the “But“. In a big capital B as if to say, “What? Never? How absurd!” It could get worse – sometimes said person would make matters even more complicated by following it with a “But you’re (insert preferred compliment). I’m sure guys have asked you out before!” I would love to take it as a compliment, but I couldn’t and it almost always triggered an averse reaction. I’d get even more annoyed, but I’ve mastered the art of being proactive, and not reactive.

But the conclusion that I’ve arrived at, the only reason I could give to the burning mystery of “Why has Humairah never had a boyfriend for the past 25 years of her existence???”, is this: I never really wanted to. Why have I never really wanted to? I’ve said it earlier and I’ll say it again – because I have not met the one I’m destined for. Why do I not feel like I’m missing out on anything? Because, personally, I don’t feel like I do. I guess growing up a bookworm gives me enough drama in my head and ya know, #booksbeforeboys #shelfiesoverselfies and all that (and I’d like to think I’m special and limited edition, okay? lol). But seriously though, I believe that it also stems from my dearest mama’s assurance, pouring in me the sweetest feeling of love as I was growing up – for her, for dad, for Allah – which made finding love with a boy at an early age much less… desirable. I grew up with constant reminders that my self-worth and validation must be built from the inside. Internalised, then realised. No amount of relationships can give one that.

I’ve heard of a friend who exclaimed, “We are young! We need to try getting into relationships with different guys so we know who’s best for us.” I’m sorry girlfriend but unfortunately I do not share the same life philosophy as you do, thank you very much. I don’t want to ‘test out’  and taste relationships after relationships like food. Too sweet, souring, or too bland… What ridiculousness is that? I’ve pondered on this for quite some time, and I realise that there is a beautiful reason behind why I’ve always been the way I’ve been – He is protecting me, till today, from something undesirable. Allah Azzawajal, the All-Knowing, knows what I do not. All these articles about bgr, all the songs, the movies, the stories that talk about ‘infatuation’, not real Love, are a waste of time and brain space. I have grown to eventually realise this.

I’ve always held the opinion that I have a whole lifetime (insyaAllah) ahead of me to spend with the person I’m meant to spend with, so I need to enjoy at least a third of my life being a single, because God knows I’ll miss this feeling and everything that comes with it, and how much I enjoy doing things on my own, with just Him looking after me, before I get a worthy him by my side. In the meantime, I’ll take this gift of time to focus on being better. I want to strive to be deserving of a love deserving of me.  Not just any ‘boy’ who looks ‘cute’ or is ‘decent enough to try to love’. Women like us know our worth, and we’ll wait till someone comes around one day and proves he is deserving of it; with the help of His guidance. That day might not even come, and that’s okay. I remember asking my mom, “Ma, what if I don’t get married? What if I can’t find the guy that I’d like to build a home and spend the rest of my life with?” She simply replied, “Then you’ll find him in Jannah. Remember, the goal in this life isn’t to marry, the goal is to please Him.”

Mothers, they know what they’re talking about. And so the issue of whether I have a boyfriend or not seems far from significant or worthy of my attention. And so will the case of whether I will get married or not. That’s not up to me to decide. The mightier author knows what He’s doing. I’ll let Him surprise me with His story written specially for me. He knows what’s good for me. He always does. I’ll just live my life and be the flow,  so what comes, comes, what doesn’t, goes.

Till we meet the one whose name He has written beside ours, get out of your couch of pointless worries and max out every singleton’s ultimate gift of time and opportunity to be a blessing to family, friends, community, and relish in the abundance of ME time to accomplish all you’re set to do!

May He suffice us all with His love 🙂

The Bookshop Trail

The Bookshop Trail in Singapore (click to watch)

Every bookstore carries the often little-known literary aspirations of the owners. Scattered across the island state, these bookstores help to build Singapore’s cultural foundation while leaving footprints from their historical interactions. These footprints form a portrait of the crossing of the paths of the literati, the bookstores and the readers.

Passage of Time, Singapore Book Stories 1881-2016

Every bookshop visited is a significant cultural, literary and historical barometer of the multiculturally rich Singapore we know today. Bookshops have always been the place I run to whenever I need a safe space to hide. I find comfort and warmth in a bookshop’s embrace. Quite like my mother’s arms. I went on a bookshop-hopping adventure across our tiny island – just a few weeks after watching Between The Lines: Rant & Rave, a play tracing our nation’s history of bookstores and policies in promoting our culture of reading from past to present. I did this partly for assignment reasons, but mostly out of own accord since I have always wanted to go on this little personal learning journey. Decided to follow The Paper Trail route organised by SWF just the other day. Added a few stops. Got lost along the way. Bagged a couple of books (of course). I found respite in every bookshop; chatting with booksellers, touching the paperbacks and hardcovers, unwinding in the intermingling of ideas and lives and imagination bounded by paper, discovering unseen nooks and crannies and simply immersing myself in the company of books. It took me about 3 to 4 hours to complete the trail. Here’s the route I took:

BooksActually (Nearest MRT: Tiong Bahru) | Woods in the Books (Nearest MRT: Tiong Bahru) | Grassroots Bookroom (Nearest MRT: Outram Park) | GGS Books & Stationery (Nearest MRT: Little India) | Basheer Graphic Books (Nearest MRT: Bugis) | Wardah Books (Nearest MRT: Bugis) | Booktique (Nearest MRT: City Hall).

If you need a coffee and cake break, there are plenty of cafes around, all within walking distance. You’ll know when you go on the bookshop trail around town 🙂

Have fun exploring!

Quiet Mornings

On the 30th of January 2016, exactly one year ago, Quiet Mornings saw the world. My friend, Cherilyn, and I, launched our debut self-published poetry book.

Both of us have been working on this project together quietly for the past year and a half. The entire process took more than that, but it was worth the wait. The minute we ended our FYPs, we immediately started on our brainstorming. We wanted to achieve something else in the same year we graduated from university; we wanted to commemorate this milestone with something more. We endeavoured to materialise our dream of publishing a book, and we needed each other to make this project work – Cherilyn was the InDesign and illustrator expert, while I contributed more on the direction and writing.

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at one of the countless cafes we worked at, sometimes from a good 9 to 5
We did everything; from writing, researching, illustrating, editing, formatting, printing, up till the launch day itself. One of the main reasons we wanted to work on this poetry project independently was to gain experience in handling the entire publishing process from start to finish, besides eliminating the amount of time needed in getting through to authorities, seeing that we had a deadline we wanted to work with. The kindest Anthony from Booktique allowed us the space to hold our book launch, @carpelibrum.sg, @thewriteseries, @bumbakes who were all godsend, sponsored goodie bags, bookmarks and cupcakes respectively, and Tysha and Iskandar who were such sporting poets, entranced the audience with their gift of words. And family and friends who came down and spurred us on with their support. Without them, Quiet Mornings would have merely been a sliver of idea reclining at the back of our minds.

Quiet Mornings Launch-DSC_0021
goodie bags courtesy of our good friends from @bumbakes, @carpelibrum.sg, @thewriteseries
Looking back now, I don’t know how I, how we, got through it. The whole process. We were two broke fresh graduates who were struggling to find a job. I lost my mother and my grandmother in the midst of it all. Cherilyn lost her grandmother too. We were a little tight in financing but we pooled whatever we had left in our banks to make this a reality. The journey was filled with so much tears, so much fears, yet, so much hope. We thought it apt that Quiet Mornings would be a culmination of our quiet fears and quiet tears in the darkness that seemed to have no end, hoping to bring with it a quiet ray of hope in mornings, a refreshing and promising new start.

There’s only so much we know about a person’s life through social media. But people often forget. As a storyteller, I’ll choose to share what goes on behind a picture. Through my story, I hope you’ll remember life is never picture perfect, that everyone has their struggles hidden behind their smiles, and that despite all our hardship, we will be gifted with ease. All we see oft-times are glossy representations of reality, the product of an endless struggle, the light at the end of a dark tunnel, the first rays of sun after the longest night, the smile after a long, hard cry.

Just hours before the launch, I was an absolute wreck. I broke down suddenly whilst packing the gift bags in my room. My knees just fell to the floor and I cried hard in quiet. It’s a feeling I can’t explain. This sharp pain that hits me like a knife stabbing my chest. I felt the missing coming back to me in waves.

Truth was, I almost gave up. I did. Ever since the departure of the dearest person to me, it took every bit of strength left in me to carry on. Plans were cancelled. We were supposed to debut our book at an event last December, but I felt I wasn’t ready. It’s only been a few weeks. I was afraid if anyone were to see me, let alone start talking to me, I’d spill. I was a glass filled to its brim. I couldn’t put myself out there just yet. How do I continue when the person I love the most left me at midsentence…

But I prayed for strength every day and told myself this: I need to finish what I started. I didn’t want to disappoint her. I needed to realize this idea which I first told mama – the first person to listen to my every little hope, whim, fear, dream. The first person I run to for a hug whenever life threw punches at me. She’d left me, on a quiet morning too. But I held the side of my bedframe and stood up. Stronger this time. Ever since her departure, I’ve been keeping myself occupied with many things. I needed to move – staying still would kill me. And all along, Allah was there to help me up and move.

During the reading, I was confident I wouldn’t crumble, although I was aware that the wound was, and still is, new. But I felt overwhelmed – He’s gifted me this opportunity and sent kind souls my way to help me accomplish this. I didn’t have to go through it alone. Each time I looked up, the crowd steadily grew. More people streamed in. My heart swelled. And then that familiar, stabbing feeling returned. I didn’t know why but at that moment, all I could think of was to search for her face in the crowd.

And so I teared. I hated being so vulnerable, but I’ve been reminded that vulnerability is a form of strength. I wasn’t tearing up because I was sad she couldn’t be there. I was in tears because I was grateful to Him. Her love kept me going. She’s the main reason I was there, standing in front of a crowd in the bookshop. A love as vast as hers was enough to light the rest of my journey. Ever since I could remember, she had held my hands, taught me to crawl, to walk, to run… and now I will fly on my own, smiling as she watched me go, from afar. And I know Allah is watching over me. Always been. All praises to Him for lifting me up and getting me through it all, gifting me with this gift which I know has been in my mother’s prayers too. For He is Al-Jabbar, The Compeller, Al-Wahhab, The Giver of All, Al-Muhaymin, The Guardian, Al-Wali, The Protecting Friend.

I choked up in the middle of a poem which I had written as a reminder to rise and grow stronger from the pain, titled ‘Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You’. And so I managed to move on. Alhamdulillah. What am I without Him? What am I without these experiences that got me to where I am today?

I’m grateful to be blessed with reasons to bleed these words, in a way that has helped me, and prayfully others too. So many more stories I’ve yet to tell. I pray He’ll provide me more of what He has gifted me, so I can be of benefit to others. And to you reading this right now, I pray the same for you too. Keep going. He will take care of your affairs. He has planned it all perfectly for you right down to every detail. Don’t worry, and more importantly, never give up. Stand up. Stand stronger. All you ever need to do is trust Him, the only One who knows you best. You know your story will turn out beautiful, because the Author has figured it all for you. Keep believing the sun will shine brighter tomorrow for you. Keep believing in mornings.

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our debut collaborative poetry book project in the flesh!
We are elated and beyond grateful to know that it is now sold out in bookstores, and we do not intend to release a new print as we no longer wish to extend our pilot poetry project. If you are still interested in getting one, I have only a select few copies with me. You can drop me an email at humairahjamil@gmail.com. Thank you.

Here are the videos of the event taken by my lovely and patient friend, Faiezah. Enjoy watching us struggle to maintain our composure in front of a crowd – we tried, despite us internally shrieking from all the nerves. ps: you need to log in to your google account in order to watch it.

Quiet Mornings Launch Part 1

Quiet Mornings Launch Part 2

Quiet Mornings Launch Part 3

Quiet Mornings Launch Part 4

Quiet Mornings Launch Part 5

Quiet Mornings Launch Part 6

Keep reading!

A Page off My Journal

So that was it. The end of non-fiction class. The funnest class out of all other classes I’m taking this semester. Also the only class that isn’t my major. Hopefully I’ll get to do poetry and advanced creative writing next semester and file at as a minor. Funny how I enjoy my electives more than my major subjects. Semantics and cognitive almost murdered me good! Don’t get me started on morphosyntax. Or just linguistics in general. Not that I despise my major, I just have a love-hate relationship with it, yknow? People will never believe that it’s more than just a “science of language” or that we simply learn many languages and graduate a polyglot (which is entirely a myth). But I have never regretted this. Not once. Okay maybe once while I was bent over past midnight reading spectrograms and questioning the reason for my existence, pulling an all-nighter to measure the duration of people’s breaths. I’m taking the craziest and most misunderstood social sciences major, I’ll be honest. But I’m proud of it and I’m grateful to be blessed with the opportunity to delve deeper into the subject I’ll always have a deep fascination with. I’m pretty sure I’ll go bonkers by the end of my 4 years and start looking around for jobs that could put my deep-seated knowledge of VOTs and MLUs to beneficial use, but at least I know I’ve learnt a whole damn lot. I love what I’m doing. I’m passionate about it. It’s definitely an area of humanities which has made me more aware and appreciative of God’s oft-dismissed gift to men – languages.

In a way, I’m also reassured of my decision of not putting English Literature as my first choice and to have gone with my gut feeling for Linguistics instead. According to my English buddies, reading ten books in a week is a norm, gasp! I mean, given that I’m a slow reader and the fact that I know I’d be pressured to read and remember every single detail (because, exams) and not because of leisure, is enough to convince me that I have made the right choice to read my current major. Personally for me, at least.

Anyway, back to the whole point of this post (I digress). It’s the end of non-fiction class and my tutor, KCB, a local poet and author, shyly addressed the class how it’s been a pleasure to teach and that he hoped we have learnt a lot in his class. I sure did. I never thought non-fiction could be this interesting. KCB is a quiet and funny (without-him-realising-it kind of funny) man. His introverted disposition is a trait I could identify with completely. Everyone left the class in haste while our table stayed back for a cupcake party. I gave him one and he accepted it willingly, holding it awkwardly in his palm. I have a feeling he hasn’t tasted red velvet cupcakes before. I don’t know, he just doesn’t seem like a cupcake person. Such a privilege to be taught by a famous Singaporean writer. It’s definitely a class to remember. Aside from the fiction class taught by Romesh Gunasekaran, a Sri Lankan British author, who is as endearing. So far, these two tutor-writers are the only ones whom I’ve shared my deepest fear with, through my stories. It did feel strange initially. But it feels liberating too. To have an outlet to express my sadness, despair, anxiety, and having them read by writers you know you could trust. What better way to let it all out than through writing.

It helps that they are incredibly supportive of my work. Romesh told me that I am blessed with a knowledge of beautiful language and that I should keep writing. KCB told me that I have written a brave and honest story. These comments are my fuel to keep writing. They keep me going. I’ll always remember why I’m doing this, and the people who have been so encouraging, and keep improving on my writing. Times may be hard for dreamers, but if we were to channel our hardship through art, we will witness a priceless beauty. No one gets the satisfaction out of it but you. Writers get no compensation out of writing – only freedom in its absolute. That’s the only reason writers do it. To free our soul.

(I’m just rephrasing what Roald Dahl said. But it’s the absolute truth so preach it!)

Keep writing,
Humairah (Monday, 14th May 2014)

Reflecting on 2016

If 2015 was punctuated with endings, loss & leaving, this year was the complete opposite – beginnings, gaining & an enlightening rediscovery of love. Publishing a collaborative poetry book project which was once a mere sliver of an idea, embarking on a calling, & the opportunity to be invited again to where light is… it’d be foolish of me to think I’ve ever lost anything. I’ve only gained more. الحمدلله. In a span of a year, He rebuilt the ruins of this heart into a fortress I forgot was ever shattered. Reconstructed from what I once thought was irreparable. I take a step back to witness my heart beating as though it never broke. How does He do it? Fixing my heart and healing all scars as He’d promised. Allah.

Please. Trust me on this. Don’t let the heaviness weigh you down, don’t let the darkness consume you. Throw your sorrows up & let Him catch it. Fall into prostration, cry to Him, talk to Him, complain to Him, get closer to Him, turn to Him. Then look up, wipe your tears, stand up, arm yourself with solid faith. That only He has the power to remove your darkness completely, make you forget whatever sadness, anxiety, fear, or grief that grips you, and replace in your heart a climate of contentment & tranquility. Look at the nights turning to mornings. Look at the mountains, oceans, galaxies that are fleeting… if all these will soon crumble to dust, if all these will one day perish, what more your pain & worries? He will heal you. He will heal you, only if you turn to Him & let Him. He will remove your bruises as though the hurting never happened. For He is Al-Jabbar; The Repairer. The Restorer.

Looking forward now to where sky meets sea – all the infinite possibilities privy to Him, awaiting my discovery. To read more, write more, to struggle more & smile more on this journey Home. God willing.

Consciousness in Cosmetics

When it comes to beauty products, I’ll admit to using makeup on the daily to make myself look and feel confident, but I’m not crazy about it (ie. owning fifty shades of lipsticks and palettes of eyeshadow in all colours). I know absolutely nothing about skin care regimes and the works. All I have is a facial cleanser. And a decent collection of makeup.

But before I arrive at my current stash of cosmetics, it took me several years and numerous trials of the various types of makeup available over the counter, and a drastic turning point in my life; the day I threw all my makeup away (and renounced my faith in Maybelline, Silkygirl, and other drugstore makeup whathaveyous).

Sometime last year, I took out my makeup box, feverishly filtered the products containing difficult-to-pronounce, suspicious-sounding chemicals (which make the bulk of it), and solemnly swore to henceforth use only non-animal tested, vegan, organic beauty products. The lesser the amount of ingredients, and the more familiar they sound to me, the better it is, generally (same principle I adopt when it comes to food). So yes, basically I went bonkers and threw the entire box.

In my defence, my decision wasn’t completely irrational. It was sparked by some health articles sent to me by my SIL and after doing further research. It was about the various kinds of harmful chemicals typically found in most beauty products. I was aghast at the fact that 99% of the products we have been using contain something toxic and carcinogenic. With this realisation slowly sinking in, I hear these voices in my head – Humairah, what have you been putting on your face? What have you been slathering on your skin all these years? What exactly have your skin been absorbing and accumulating in your body? What have you put yourself into?!

Article after article, my disbelief escalated. Seriously? How can I be so careful about the ingredients that go inside my food, but so heedless as to what goes into my skin?

That’s when I became more conscious and discerning when it comes to my beauty product purchase decisions. Before being swept away by the promise of suspiciously miraculous benefits overnight or cleverly contrived celebrity endorsements, I ensure that the ingredients list is explicitly seen. After skimming through it, I ensure that it is non-animal tested, organic, and if not completely, contains as little synthetic stuff as it possibly can. (You can read all about it at the end of my post).

Shopping for makeup and beauty products, on the bright side, is less time-wasting simply because there are lesser choices to choose from. Sephora no longer got a hold on me – the bright lights spell H A Z A R D O U S everytime I stumble upon a corner in a mall. Call me paranoid, but I’ll save myself from lacing excessive toxic things on my skin in the name of beauty, especially after finding out that sometimes beauty can be skin (toxic) deep!

P.S. Bud Cosmetics (there’s an outlet in Mandarin Gallery and Paya Lebar Square) is the “organic and safer” version of Sephora. The products are free from all the nasties, but be prepared to part with more bucks than you would on makeup found in a drugstore. Still, I guess anything good is worth the investment!

P.P.S. It’s a personal choice, but if you’re interested to know more and subsequently take the oath to become an organic makeup convert, the articles I mentioned above can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

My Mom Told Me to Never Take My Crown Away

A friend once asked me, “So Humairah, what’s your hijab story?”

Almost every Muslim woman I know who dons the hijab would have their personal ‘hijab story’, which is basically a turning point in their lives which made them decide to don the headscarf for the first time, an obligation we Muslim women need to fulfill in obeying God.

So I told her mine.

“Well, I was 5 when I first started wearing it. It all started when I saw my cousin wearing a white tudung which matches her baju kurung. It was during Eid at my late grandfather’s house. I immediately tugged my mom’s hand and told her that I wanted to wear the tudung too.”

And that’s it really. Nothing interesting. It wasn’t exactly a deliberate, contemplative, momentous point in my life when it happened. I was simply an innocent 5-year-old who wanted to wear that piece of cloth over my head because I thought it looked so pretty on my cousin, and I wanted to look just as pretty. Nobody forced it on me. I was still really young so I wasn’t obliged to, and I wasn’t even aware that it’s a command by God to wear the hijab. I can’t remember what my mom’s reaction was, but I kind of sensed she was happy since there wouldn’t be any need for coaxing later on her part. She gladly bought me several instant, ‘Madrasah’ hijabs in different colours, teehee. And I was proud of my collection.

But that was only the beginning of my struggle.

I remember that my parents wanted to enrol me in a Madrasah. But they were late for the registration, and there were no more vacancies. Hence, I was enrolled into a secular school for the next 17 years of my education. (But Alhamdulillah nevertheless, He knows best, perhaps this was a test for me for there’s always a reason behind everything).

As a kid who’s used to wearing the hijab, growing up in a secular school environment was pretty challenging. It was a constant battle between standing up for what you know is right and peer pressure. I felt like I was alone. Strange. Odd. Outnumbered.

But I kept these feelings to myself. I didn’t tell anyone about it. Not even to my late mom. I didn’t want her to feel burdened by my tiny inner conflict.

Challenges I faced were aplenty. This happened more than a decade ago, pre-hana-tajima-yuna-modest-fashion-era (lol) when the hijab was still pretty much unseen and ‘unfashionable’ (unlike now, where more youngsters are more confident in it because it is relatively more visible I believe). I still remember some of the comments my friends hurled at me, and it hurt me even more when my friends were fellow Muslims themselves. I got things like:

“Humairah, why are you so old-fashioned?”

“Can you take off your tudung, please? No one will be wearing the hijab at the party, and… I just don’t want you to wear it.”

“I think you look prettier without the hijab. You should take it off.”

And other unpleasant comments. People would assume that I wanted to be an ustadzah (which means ‘religious teacher’ in arabic) (just because I wear the hijab?) (but ameen to that I guess?), made fun of the style of my tudung, and more. I pretended to not be affected by it… but deep down it certainly did.

Outside my uniform, my friends would basically find me strange and uncool. I received these comments while I was still young. The peer pressure was strong and I just couldn’t understand WHY. What’s the issue with this cloth I wear on my head? What I thought of as a pretty piece of scarf, is viewed as ugly? I’d be lying if I say these comments did not affect me, and I did have moments when I felt like taking off the hijab altogether. I wanted to “dress normally” too. I wanted to be “fashionable”, “cool”, I wanted to belong. and I was at a young, highly impressionable age, who like many other people my age, just wanted to fit in. As a result, I began to think that wearing the hijab wasn’t compulsory at all. I tried to convince myself that the act of wearing the hijab isn’t necessary. I let society have an influence on me. I thought to myself,

“I want to take off my hijab.”

One day, when I accompanied my mom to the market, I decided to not wear my hijab. I thought, I’m still thirteen. It’s okay. Just this once. To be honest, I did feel a pinch of guilt, but I was too lazy that day to change to my long pants and don my tudung. Something in my heart stopped me for a while. It just didn’t feel right. My palms were sweaty, and I was afraid of what my mom would say. But when I emerged from my room without my hijab on, she looked at me different. She frowned.

“Where’s your tudung?

I just shrugged and gave her a look that said, “Just this once, please?”

She kept quiet but I could sense that she did not approve of what I did. Later, when we got home, she simply advised me.

“My dear, if you want to wear the tudung, you must wear it constantly and never take it out okay? You must practise. Allah nampak tau. (Allah sees). So next time when you go out, don’t forget to wear your tudung okay?”

I nodded silently.

I never dared to leave my house without the hijab on ever again. What started out as fear, developed into love, what started out as a discomfort, grew into a comfort. Going out without wearing my hijab now is out of the question for I’ll never want to displease my Lord – it’s so integral to my being, it’s become part of my identity, it’s what makes me, me.

Looking back now, I know that it was my iman (faith), which my mom and dad have sowed in me, which prevented me from taking my hijab off, as I was growing up. I realise now that the little voice nagging at the back of my head, that innate guilt I felt back when I was young, was an in-built warning, His sign, His guidance, that directs me towards the right path.

The challenges did not end when I grow older. In tertiary schools, friends who did not understand would give me the same disapproving comments, when I applied for a particular job, they turned me down because of the hijab on my head, and so on. The hijab will always be seen as something strange, but dear sisters, never think that you are alone, and that for every test, He has promised a reward, if we remain steadfast and patient.

This hadith narrated by Muslim (145) from Abu Hurayrah reassures and comforts me:

The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers.”

Now that I have learnt and am more cognisant of the wisdom behind the hijab as prescribed by our Creator, as a protection and as a golden status bestowed on us believing women, I realise how blessed I am to have had a mom who guided me, became my role model and advisor, and who never failed to tell me that I look my prettiest when I dress modestly in my hijab, even when I got older. I have learnt that hijab is a Muslim woman’s crown, a valuable gift by our Lord to us, and I can never thank my mom enough for telling me to never take away my crown.

I am writing this to you, young sisters, and anyone who needs an assurance, that you are not alone. That donning the hijab is a part of worship, and the path towards attaining His pleasure and mercy is always full of hardships. This life is full of struggles, let’s embrace it. What’s the point of Jannah if life in this Dunya is a breeze, yes? 🙂

May we remain steadfast and improve ourselves in practising our beautiful deen. This modesty is a gift – let us wear our crowns proudly like the queens He have created us to be.

Singapore Writers Festival 2016

It’s that time of the year again when my weekends and days are book-ed at the Singapore Writers Festival! The theme this year? Sayang – an untranslatable Malay word capturing pragmatically both love and loss in a single expression. I missed out on some interesting programmes due to many overlapping schedules. Nonetheless, here are the notable panels I managed to catch:

Story of My Life

To kick start the event, I attended a panel which discussed the process of writing personal stories. Alan John, a veteran ST journalist, Angjolie Mae, a funeral director, and Aleksander Duric, a former international footballer, were on the panel. They shared about what they do, and what inspired them to write their own biographies/ personal stories into a book. The panelists gave us a glimpse into the necessary process of choosing what to tell in their stories, and make their personal observations about their life and career as relatable as they could.

Unwritten Country

Boey Kim Cheng and Gwee Li Sui fronts this segment where they shed some light on the trends of Singapore literature past and present, and forecasting its fate in the future.

Interesting to note, Gwee posited that the gradual loss of literature as a school subject is actually healthier and better for writing. He mentioned that literature used to be too boring and academic, but recently, with such pressures lifted, it’s becoming more and more accessible, and as he puts it so amusingly,

Literature has now exploded like a shaken can of coca-cola.

This brings rise to multiple concepts of Singapore literature. As a result, writing, as Gwee predicts, will get weirder, bolder, and more exciting. However, he highlighted that much of Singapore literature still draws from institutionalized support. Our literary climate still lives under these conditions; where our national attention is typically channeled relatively more to sports, science, etc.

Without adequate support, poetry will become a permanent casualty, quality of writing will dwindle, scope of exploration narrows, and literature will thrive sensationally but emptily.

He further reiterated that in order to witness a burgeoning landscape of Singapore literature, the state and the people must have a common goal – to manifest and sustain the magic and power of writing. We should read Singapore literature not to “support Singapore literature, everyone!”, but because “I love reading [insert Singapore author’s name]’s books, they are truly gripping!” We don’t support just because. We must support because we believe in it, because we treasure and we feel the work that has been done. He emphasized how the true future of writing does not lie in award winning writing, instead, it lies in a conducive and supportive place of writing. Our Singapore Writers Festival must be careful to not let itself become another tourist trap in the future – a literary festival must essentially support the writer’s struggles, and motivates writers to struggle on endlessly.

While Gwee analyzes the literature climate in Singapore, Boey talks about writing, and what Home means to him, as a Singaporean-born poet who then migrated to Australia. A few years ago, I have had the honour to be under his tutelage back in university when I was doing one of my creative writing modules. He is a pensive, driven, quiet ‘father figure’ I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from, and whose oeuvre I have much respect for.

Fynn Jamal: Choice to Adopt

Fynn Jamal is a breath of fresh air. Such a feisty and endearing personality. In this session, she shared about her choice to adopt a child and encouraged parents who are having doubts in adopting to not hesitate and just do it out of love. She mentioned this: women have too much love. They tend to make more sacrifices than men and are exceedingly giving in their nature. Something I agree with wholeheartedly.

Inculcating Reading Habits: Lessons From Around the World

When I saw this programme in the booklet, I bookmarked it without any hesitation. This is an extremely relevant and helpful discourse to have in discussing the right ways of instilling the habit of reading in every child.

What I took away from this discussion with Mamle Kabu, Pooja Nansi and Roland Kelts, was that the argument of whether e-books or physical books are better should be the least of our concerns. What matters is that reading is still a habit being practiced, no matter the mediums. Forms of reading have adapted greatly to the rapidly changing times, hence, these devices are inevitably vying for the attention of an increasing number of readers with shorter attention spans. However, the panel still does believe in the persistence of paper – printed word enthusiasts like I, will still be obsessively devoted to paper books (I still bring physical books when I’m traveling, because I am traditional like that). In my honest opinion, it’s not a crime to read from a device, for any form of reading is greatly encouraged, but I’d like to think that books are to Kindle what stairs are to escalators – the former requires more effort, but the result is healthier, satisfying, and much more fulfilling one. The panel were collectively positive about the future of reading – that the transition of digital reading and writing would not lead to a decline in literature.

So when it comes to inculcating reading habits – start somewhere. Start with something your kid likes. Don’t get him to read Harry Potter if Spiderman is more of his thing. Don’t force her to read Aesop Fables if comics is up her street. Entry points are important for young readers – every child has a different interest.

And typically, everyone becomes a reader before they become a writer. Recently, there is an emerging trend amongst many young, digital age writers of this love for brevity, which presumably stems from a lack of time dedicated to read and also shorter attention spans. What does this then do for the fate of literature? Nansi expressed her concern with the lack of revision, something that is not placed much importance to these days. People draft so quickly and do not bother to revise what has been written.

Good writing is rewriting.

She also noticed the steadily growing hype for poetry amongst the young audience which is encouraging. However, the quality of these popular works are questionable. But looking at the bright side, if a certain writing captures one’s attention, if it encourages reading and writing in otherwise uninterested teens who do not typically engage themselves in either, then how can it be bad? In writing, it really does boil down to one’s exposure. Like what Haruki Murakami said,

If you only read books that everyone else is reading, then you can only think what every one else is thinking.

And so, you can only write what everyone else is writing. The sense of ingenuity, creativity, its depth and soul, will not be achieved, if our input from various sources of knowledge remains narrow and restricted.

For The Love of The Written Word

In this panel, these advocates of homegrown literature, Chan Wai Han from Ethos Books, William Phuan from Select Centre, and Kenny Leck, owner of BooksActually, talk about Singapore’s literary scene, and what keeps their passion for the written word going.

Wai Han emphasized how we Singaporeans need to clamour to learn literature, and how more often than not, what kills our love for writing is our fear of not being good enough.

Fear of failure causes the death of our love for writing.

William speaks out about the lack of readers for translated literature, and that greater awareness with regards to this should be raised, not only nationally, but regionally too.

Similar to the issues brought forward at the Unwritten Country panel, there is a concern for the shrinking pool of good literature students in Singapore. Must national policy then be revised?

If we keep on harping on science and technology instead of words, then how do we make a difference?

Wai Han continued to talk about how English writers and poets are respected and revered in their own country, even if their books do not sell well. It is ultimately the nation that brings the value and status to the writers. We need to build a supportive society of active readers and writers.

When asked about what is lacking in local publishing, the panelists agreed that there is a need for more material about political realism and memoirs from the older generation. National narrative must be more colourful, diverse, and not streamlined.

Love, Loss, And Everything in Between

This is one of my favourite panels because the topic resonated with me deeply.

Featured were Alan John, Heng Siok Tian and David Wong. David started off by saying that love and loss does not exist in a continuum, thus, literature is meant to explore the in-betweens – what matters isn’t the love, or the loss, but what happens in the middle. If you are writing a poem about love, essentially you are also writing a poem about loss.

Siok Tian mentioned that as a writer, you need to have faith that if the words you write can move you, then they will do the same to another person, but most importantly, you have to be authentic and sincere in your writing. Yes, certain details will be embellished and edited, but the essence of the story will always stay true.

Alan pointed out a fact: We don’t sit around to talk about what we feel about things. When we meet, we tend to talk more about our work, our life, our family, anything other than how we honestly feel. So in writing, we reflect and write about what we feel, hoping that this is what others would feel as well. There are people out there who don’t quite know how to articulate their thoughts and feelings, so when they see a line or two that they resonate with, they will like what they read.

Alan mentioned that if one has experienced loss, as opposed to happiness, everything becomes different but also easier. He acknowledges that human beings respond to loss differently. How does one walk out of it and live after an unimaginable loss? His answer resonated with me for I share the exact sentiment. We simply have to look at those who have it worse, and be grateful. Be grateful. Be patient. Your own loss will drastically pale in comparison when you read about other more tragic losses, like hearing the news about loved ones dying in an airplane crash, or loved ones being shot to death in front of their eyes. We read inspirational stories of those who have gone through what we are going through, igniting our resolve to look up and say, “If they can do it, so can I. If they have lived through it, so will I.” 

Some of us crash and crumble at the smallest loss, some of us stand and go through life with strength despite facing a tremendous loss. What will help us is fixing our focus on our purpose, and to be acquainted again and again to the reality of this fleeting life, and to soldier on stronger, braver, yet softer. Strong enough to move, yet staying soft to dispel numbness in the heart till we forget we are supposed to feel and turn our loss and pain into a lamp to light the way for others. Life goes on and we just have to keep moving.

How are we all so brave as to take step after step? Day after day? How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then get up and say O.K. Why do I feel so sorry for everyone and so proud?

I was reminded of this quote by Maira Kalman. We all possess the inherent capability to be strong and weather the toughest times. We just don’t know it yet – until we are being tested. Until we are being pushed to the periphery and then forced to jump. We underestimate our capacity to feel and gradually heal. Imagine if we are not removed from our situation of loss – how do we carry on living? We all have it. It’s God’s gift to us – He knows we need to move, and let nothing deter our spirit to live, to love, & to lose again. This is what keeps us going.

You only feel a loss so keenly because you have had felt that happiness once.

Siok Tian summarizes the reality of loss and love succinctly above, and it reminded me of one of Rumi’s beautiful sayings:

God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches by means of opposites so that youwill have two wings to fly, not one.

When love happens, loss is sure to happen. You can’t have one without another.

Bahasa in the Archipelago: A Language Imperilled

This panel was so necessary, and the #linguistgeek in me was zealously agreeing to many of the points surfaced in this discussion. It features three different personalities – Eka Kurniawan, ZF Zamir, and Azhar Ibrahim – representing the three neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore respectively, to give different perspectives on this topic. This discussion sheds light on the fate of our mother tongue, the Malay language in the SEA region and its declining use.

Dr Azhar dished out strong, valid points about the reality of our national language in Singapore. He mentioned that the hegemony of English language causes the failure of our national language. Does the language provide value for the community, when the national language is not developed as a vital language?

Post-independent years was when language planning began taking effect, and a very dictionary, formalized type of effort were emphasized for a standardised language. In the intellectual and social dimension, the Malay language gradually grew into a language that sadly fails to capture an increasing vocabulary.

Once critical concepts cannot enter into the localsphere, into the lexicon, the value of the language will continue to spiral downwards, as most would not find it helpful, and lacking in its ability to capture cerebral thought processes. The academics and scholars have a vital part to play. Just look around us – almost all the Malay intelligentsia speak English 90% of the time, as if the Malay language cannot be used to articulate these important ideas.

We usually associate those who can speak English as the ones who are more educated. Almost all the elites are able to converse in English. If there is no strong philosophical commitment to speak that particular language, it would lead to a decline in its use and efficiency –  something that is worryingly a trend, causing a half-baked command of both the English and Malay language.

So does the Malay language hold a significant value, if at all? Do we live the ‘native Malay stereotype’? Does our stereotype of ‘lazy, easily satisfied, and refusal to advance and develop further’ reflect our language’s usefulness? These were just some of the language attitude questions put forward by Dr Azhar for us to ponder.

In the case of Indonesia, the use and value of its Bahasa is comparatively stronger to that of its neighbours. Eka asserted that it is not the problem of the language itself – the preservation of its language lies in the power and pride of its people. Majority of Indonesians are resistant to the government’s attempts to formalize the language, as they avoid using the ‘Englishization’ of certain terms in their Bahasa.

Personally, I feel that Bahasa Indo is less imperilled because the language is a practised national language that is not tied to any ethnicity, unlike Singapore. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the lingua franca of this island, Malay, slowly dwindled to extinction. The value did not continue to be upheld. Our national language, Malay, is merely on paper. A statue. It only retains in our national anthem and drill commands. Our national language isn’t used by every single citizen, regardless of race or religion, which is a trait we lack that keeps a country’s identity strong (eg. the use of Bahasa in Indonesia, French in France, Korean in Korea, etc.)

What we gather thus far is that the colonialization of language is largely to blame for the decline of our mother tongue’s value and use, a factor that is largely irreversible. But what can be done now to turn things around? Can the educators still defend and do justice to our mother tongue, in instilling the love and subsequently, pride in conversing in Bahasa? The panelists discussed that the onus still lies in policy makers.

A language cannot thrive in a politically conservative society.

Political conservatism largely controls language formalization. The way out? The language of criticism and alternative must come in. Space for discourse with regards to this issue is much needed. There is a lot of work to do in our language and policy department. Our children are bombarded with English every day, and the amount of time and money spent on Malay is not enough. We organize the annual ‘Bulan Bahasa’ where intensive activities and exciting programmes are carried out to promote the use of Malay language, but what really matters is what comes after. The question of whether we can sustain the use of our national language and inculcate within us the pride of our mother tongue still remains.

Piety in Consumerism: Peddling Religious Products in South East Asia

This is another panel I truly resonated with.

Fronted by Imran Taib, Okky Madasari, and Raja Ahmad Aminullah, the panel discussed about the escalating trend of ‘Islamisizing’ products and services, especially in this region. Where crowds flock towards goods that are halal, or ‘syariah-compliant’. Case in point, Air Anugerah, which is a typical mineral water sold for a dollar at 7-Eleven stores, is sold for three times its price due to some prayers chanted upon it. And people still buy it because of their naivety in its perceived spiritual benefits. There are many other products branded as ‘Islamic’ that are gaining great commercial value, like Islamic films, books, cosmetics, etc. There is an increasing demand for this lifestyle consumption which mainly afflicts the middle class. This begs the question of whether these ‘piously’ sanctioned products are getting popular because more people are turning to faith, or because of a result of capitalism?

Imran closed the discussion with something to think about:

Who do we blame for the rise of capitalism when the center of Islam (Makkah) itself is burgeoning with consumerism and familiar household names of globalization?

The SWF panels I’ve attended were insightful and timely, and the crowds attending the various programmes were encouraging as compared to previous years. I guess we could all see SWF coming back bigger and better for the next. SWF 2016 has been that spark of inspiration I, and I’m sure many others, so needed. Till 2017!

Seoul

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In the distance, Namsan tower pierces the cloudless skies,
sentinelled against the misty skyline, overlooking
the quintessential Hanok village rooftops
snaking in an organized fashion –
a postcard-perfect juxtaposition of the old and new,
while the streets of Myeongdong and Dongdaemun
are choked with a flood of university students in procession,
stall sellers ready to jump at the next wandering customer,
and a steady stream of goggle-eyed tourists
bargaining in a foreign tongue they embrace like their own.
I weave through the crowd, looking up to the sight of tangled power lines
redolent of dreams half-chased, hanging on to a future
gleaned from resilient yesterdays, my gaze then interrupted by
a genial man in his thirties who speaks in an accented Malay
as he eagerly chirps an Assalamualaikum, apa khabar?
when he sees me sauntering past his pushcart in hijab,
and I smile, as he pulls me to witness an impressive show
of his gloved hands kneading and unspooling a fascinating
lump of doughy, chalky sweet, once enjoyed only by royalty
now commonplace, delicacies so accessible like language,
when one makes the effort to learn, unlocking doors of another’s home.
There are stares, mostly out of unfamiliarity than contempt,
with lingering smiles and annyeongs and cafes
punctuating every corner, and conversations lasting for hours
strung in a clumsy syntax of laughter and gestures.
I observe the ahjumma with a youthful bob cut at the subway
talking on her cellphone, her lilting tone at every “yes” and “no”
as I listen to her voice like strange music to my ears,
their Ls and Rs roll into one while landscapes dissolve,
rapidly blurring in a timelapse from time immemorial,
while I stand privy to the secrets carried in signals
through travel lines stretching miles into the night
that envelopes the looming tower, the august silhouette of a mountain
and lights in distant buildings flickering like stars in the cold summer wind,
the city wafting its soul through fields stripped off
its cosmetic beauty, remaining a prized antique,
a souvenir in my mind.

Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur

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Her name is a letter different from the great Persian poet, and her magic too lies in stringing poems that touch hearts.

Rupi Kaur. The first time I heard about her was through this empowering piece of writing I had the pleasure of stumbling upon on Instagram.

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Milk & Honey is a book of poems that addresses abuse, feminism, love & loss. It’s divided into 4 sections – hurting, loving, breaking, healing. Her ability to turn hurt into honeyed words which hint at these universal themes has gained her legions of fans – young and old – across the globe.

Her style of writing is fragmented and rule-breaking – brief, no capital letters (which lends it a certain soft, quiet way of delivering the message), and a deliberate lack of punctuation. I’d classify her work as part of this new wave, contemporary, minimal, ‘tumblr’ poetry you see popping up these days that you either hate or love. Think Lang Leav, Nayyirah Waheed, Nikita Gill, and the likes.

There were a few poems that wow-ed me, some I bookmarked, and some others that were pretty underwhelming I think. But I’d still recommend it as the sort of good, quick read you grab to accompany you on your daily commute, or whenever you need to take a break from all the noise and complexities of life, and have someone tell you the kind of uplifting words you need to hear to make you feel better.

I’ll leave you with one of the poems I have bookmarked. Get a copy for yourselves if Rupi’s poetry is your cup of milk & honey.

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Author:
Rupi Kaur
Title: Milk & Honey
Published: 2014
Format: Paperback