Monday 30 July 2018

Book Review: Alice by Christina Henry

In a mental asylum there lives a young woman committed by her family.  The screams of the inmates echo around her and her daily life is by turns brutal and monotonous. Her name is Alice and she is not sure why she is there, except for various flashbacks: of someone assaulting her, of her stabbing someone, of someone menacing with long rabbit ears.  When the asylum catches fire, Alice has the chance of escape and finding out what happened to her and how she got there.

Alice is a curious take on the Alice in Wonderland story: dark, disturbing and strange.  The world created in this book is split into the New City where Alices family lives and the Old City where she runs to find answers.  The New City is prosperous, comfortable, orderly and no one asks too many questions about the world. The Old City is full of crime and brutality and no woman is safe.  Every neighbourhood of the Old City is ruled by gangs and thugs will grab any girl or woman they can to sell to the highest bidder. There is no law, no government and no help or justice.

The book features all the famous characters from the Lewis Carroll's famous original story: the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, the Walrus and the Caterpillar, but not in a guise that will be familiar to anyone.  The characters are cruel and unredeemable in their nastiness, murdering and pimping their way through the book.

Alice’s character is both terrified of the situation she finds herself in and fuelled by the anger that erupts from her at witnessing the brutality that is visited on women and girls in the Old City. She grows in strength and courage throughout the book as she makes her way through the Old City, facing her tormentors and recovering her memories. One interesting element of the story is the idea of suppressed magic, with magicians being a thing of the past but magic surviving in strange places and in people.

Although the author spends some time revealing the back stories of the main characters as we move through the story, I would have loved to have found out how the Old City and New City came about and what the history of the banished magicians was in relation to the cities’ creation.  One of my favourite elements about fantasy and alternative worlds is the effort the author puts into their world-building and the detail and believability of this.  The dual world in Alice is believable but remains mysterious to the end of the book. 

Alice ends on an adventure as much as it brings another to a close.  I enjoyed the book and would probably read the next instalment. An entertaining, fast-paced if unchallenging read.

Pakistan Election 2018: High Hopes

I first wrote about Imran Khan in 2011, here, when I came across one of his speeches, unfortunately I can’t find it now, but it was unlike anything I had heard from a Pakistani politician and just blew me away. 

I wrote again in 2013 of my disappointment when IK lost the elections in Pakistan, reflecting on what a tough decade Pakistan has seen – both the nation (terrorism, sectarian violence, no electricity, limited gas and petrol meaning industry and business has shut down, unprecedented inflation and high crime) and my family (a kidnapping and violence and extortion).

The massive changes I experienced as an outsider between one trip where Pakistan was secure, comfortable and becoming affluent and a second a few years later where life had become a struggle between electricity shortages and the unsustainable and devastatingly high cost of living.

In between I came across articles and think pieces describing Pakistan as a failed state with glee (like this one ).  Every time I would think: but if you knew how beautiful it was… if you knew how beautiful and generous the people are…if you knew how wonderful Lahore was…you would never say such a thing.

That doesn’t belie that Pakistan has serious problems.  I have always watched Pakistani politics, including my family’s various low-level involvements in campaigning or standing at a local level with utter confusion.  How do they vote in people who do nothing for their country and who oversee the suffering of the poor get worse?  How do they stand as candidates for parties that are clearly not going to deliver?  I used to be convinced that if any of those candidates stood in the West they would get their marching orders, although in recent times, having seen the state of Western politics, I have had to rethink that view.

So after all that, when election day rolled round and the people went to the polls, once more everyone was on tenterhooks.  Could IK get in, would this time be the election that makes the difference?  Dad-in-law sat up all night watching the news and refusing to move. He served in the Pak army and fought in two wars against India (in 1965 and 1971) and still remembers warmly how the returning soldiers were showered with rose petals on their return to Lahore.  He and his family are true patriots if ever I have met any.

Finally, the count started coming in and it looked pretty sure that IK’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement) had won the election.  Hubby, dad-in-law and the boys were out celebrating on the main street outside out house until midnight with the dhol players, car honkers and various overjoyed Pakistani’s. 

I was very happy for Pakistan and I am very hopeful.  But I didn’t feel too much like celebrating.  I prayed two nawafil prayers with tears in my eyes.  The task ahead for Pakistan feels insurmountable.  The change not only required from the top-down in every echelon of government and the country, but also in the culture of a country that has had to live with injustice for such a long time.

The hopes placed on IK are so very high, perhaps unreasonably high for one man.  I pray he can shoulder this burden and that Pakistan can start to see the prosperity, security and justice this beautiful country and its wonderful people deserve.  I hope my family can feel secure, can feel that they have a future and that their children thrive and find success insh’Allah.  I pray I get the chance to visit Pakistan next year and start to see good things insh’Allah.

Monday 9 July 2018

Muslim Women Role Models

I might have mentioned (about half a dozen times) that I have really been enjoying my new job.  I have been working across a wide variety of disciplines: strategy, policy, business planning, community engagement and cohesion, equality and diversity, project management, data analysis and research.  It has been a good six months of learning new things and being upskilled, with a little blagging going on (fake it till you make it right? 😊).

Last week I started working with a new manager who wanted to know what I was working on and how he could support me.  He asked me where I saw myself in five years.  His questions stumped me.  I didn’t really want to say doing his job, but to be honest, doing this job felt like it had opened lots of doors for me and I couldn’t decide which one to go through and which road to follow.

I explained that although my family and husband especially supported me, I had no support from my peers or community.  As a very religious community of Muslims, I didn’t really know another religious Muslim woman in my personal circle that worked or put any emphasis on a career, I did know quite a few who frowned on my working and had tried to discourage me (with the best of intentions I assume).  I also explained that I didn’t really know anyone who had pursued a career in my area of work and done well, I didn’t really have role models or examples of religious Muslim women who balanced home, family and work, without compromising their faith.  I think my answer surprised him.  He encouraged me to look into options for further study (I mentioned I have been thinking about doing a Masters for some time) and to let him know what I was interested in and he would find me work and literature that would be of interest.

I left the meeting no clearer on what I wanted.  But it did make me think about who around me inspired, challenged or encouraged me.  Alhamdulillah my greatest role models are the Mothers of the Believers, the blessed wives of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and their beautiful characters and actions.  These are followed by the women amongst the Prophet’s Companions (may Allah be pleased with them) and the amazing lives they led.

In modern times I admire people like Sarah Joseph, Salma Yaqub, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Dalia and Yasmin Mogahed, Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, Yvonne Ridley, Ingrid Mattson, Linda Sarsour…and to be honest I struggled to think of any more.

I intend to be open minded, to keep working on different things and see what resonates the most, maybe that’s what I’ll do my Masters in, who knows.  If I get half  a moment, I might sign up for a mentoring programme or who knows, even offer to be a mentor.

I am curious, for sisters who were the first in their family, community or chosen field to study, work, start a business or serve their community in some way: who were your role models?  Were there none?  Did you feel like a trail blazer? Did you open the door for others? Did you feel isolated or held back in some way?

Sunday 8 July 2018

Picture of the Day 08.07.18: Sugar Frenzy

Fashionista was visiting London for the weekend with my sweetheart of a niece, so we decided to take my mum and the kids out for ice cream.  It’s an interesting effect on kids whose parents try to limit sugar intake, the subsequent effect of liberal consumption of sugary foods.  I don’t recall eating sugar as a kid and my behaviour changing, but I suspect there was always so much in my blood stream that I was permanently a bit hyper.

The youngest three of the group (my lovely niece, Darling and Baby) are firm friends (along with my brother’s cheeky daughter and my little girl cousin – a group of five diva’s).  They held hands on the walk there, all had the same dessert (in different flavours) and held hands on the way home.  Except on the way there they were fairly sane. In the dessert place, once they had had some ice cream, they were zooming around the shop and cackling like little lunatics.  The played up on the way home and my two got home only to start jumping off furniture, my uncle came to visit and baby threw herself at him and hugged him enthusiastically much to his surprise and laughter.  I could almost have timed it: the sugar wore off, there was a slightly stunned look about Darling for a little while before she dozed off.  Baby doesn’t do subtle or slow, so she went straight from hugging my uncle to putting her head on a cushion and falling flat asleep.

Which was all nice for some peaceful time for me to chat to my uncle about grown up things (politics, local and Pakistani) and get my chores done, but now I am starting to feel stunned and zoned out.

Picture of the Day 07.07.18: World Chocolate Day

I spent yesterday evening hanging out with my sisters, talking, laughing, eating and nagging kids.  As it was World Chocolate Day, we bought some of our fave chocs to share.  I’m not sure who’s idea it was to hold World Chocolate Day during July, but chocolate and hot weather are not the best mix.  We managed to have a bit each before feeling queasy and shoving the rest in the fridge.

We seems to have built up a bit of a reputation for scoffing chocolate, when Fashionista told her husband about World Chocolate Day, he remarked who else would be celebrating it but the ambassadors for chocolate, the Ahmed Sisters 😊

Serene Evening

I spent a lovely evening with my sisters at my mums home yesterday, good food, lots of laughter and some much-appreciated rest.  I spent a little bit of the evening sitting alone on her battered old swing in the garden, not doing or thinking anything.  Just being still and present in the moment for once and taking pleasure in the colour and abundance of her garden,

I was anxious and lacking direction regarding work for a very long time.  Now that I have a job I enjoy and which I can see myself in for the near future at least insh’Allah, I can leave the office and leave work behind.  This means the weekends are for me and the kids to enjoy and the evenings are for my home and children.  I have been feeling a need to spend some down time in nature and mums garden is not quite the mountains or beach, but being surrounded by greenery and quiet was reviving 

Saturday 7 July 2018

Recipe: Apple, Grape and Celery Salad

I first tasted this salad on Eid day at my brother’s house.  My sister-in-law’s brother and sister had made a salad each and asked us which was best.  Her brothers salad was the winner and we liked it so much I have made it twice since.  Once for a healthy potluck at work and again for our Eid party last week.

It’s sweet and slightly spicy, it has celery which I don’t normally like the taste of but works fine in this.  A few of the ingredients I added myself, but as always with salad if you add a few or leave a few elements out it still usually works.

- liberal handful of greens – I use spinach, rocket, lettuce or a mix of these
- two handfuls of grapes, washed and sliced into circles
- half cucumber peeled and diced.
- one apple, diced thinly, I leave the peel on as the colour looks nice
- 4-5 sticks of small thin/mini celery cut into slices
- 1-2 spring onions, sliced  
- 2-3 small radishes sliced into rounds, if large, then half or quarter and slice
- handful of pine nuts (optional)

- Two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
- tablespoon of olive oil
- tablespoon of honey
- quarter teaspoon of salt
- half teaspoon of coarse pepper
- one to half teaspoon of chilli flakes (optional)

Mix all of the salad ingredient in a bowl
Mix the ingredients for the dressing and add to the salad ingredients, give it a good mix.
Allow it to sit in the fridge for the flavours to mix and to chill for at least ten minutes.

Friday 6 July 2018

Recipe: Easy Cheats Virgin Mojito Mocktail

Whenever I try to make mocktails or milkshakes, they never seem to come out quite like they are supposed to.  This Cheats Virgin Mojito mocktail seems to be the exception.  We played around with the ingredients of this a few times until we got it right and now it is a staple at our parties and very much well loved.  We made it for our Eid party last weekend and had to top up three times as everyone was tasting it and then going back for more glassfuls.

It is very simple, very refreshing and the longer it sits the better it tastes.

- Generous handful mint leaves  - washed
- Two limes and one lemon, sliced into medium sized circles.
- Lots of ice
- R Whites lemonade (or other preferred brand)

Place the mint leaves and lemon and lime slices in your jug, add half of the lemonade and let sit so that the lemonade infuses with the mint and citrus fruits.  Before serving, add the rest of the lemonade and the ice so that the drink retains its fizziness and is nice and cold.

Thursday 5 July 2018

Eid-ul-Fitr 2018/1439: Rainbow Pastel Eid Party

Last weekend was the date of our annual Eid party.  This year I kept it small to make life easier, with family and neighbours invited. I had my decorations from Eid which let me indulge shamelessly in my love for colour and rainbows:

I found some rainbow roses and mixed them with these creatively named “bubblegum chrysanthemums”

This unicorn piñata was a hit. I didn’t manage to get it back home without bending the horn, but it was very strong and no amount of whacking it with a wooden spoon by little girls seemed to make a dent in it.  I also learned that giving little girls free reign with a wooden spoon is equal to taking your life in your hands, I had to grab the spoon off at least one who I thought was going to hit me with it.  In the end I had to rip it apart and shower the girls with sweets.

Harlequin Sister did the work of wrapping all the prizes and gifts including two for pass-the-parcel, one for adults and one for children.  If I had realised that she had wrapped the ladies pass-the-parcel in about 12 layers I might have stopped her at some point.

We added a traditional touch with henna and these little packs of Pakistani snacks called “Shahi Meva” which I really like (it’s basically a small handful of chopped almond, dry dates, fennel, coconut & sugar).

As it was a hot day, I put out drinks, strawberries and cubes of watermelon beforehand alongside this little drink dispenser full of cheats mojito mocktail (recipe to follow).  I had to top up three times because everyone was chugging it down and asking for refills.

I had asked guests to bring a dish (less work for me and I get to taste other peoples amazing cooking). My neighbour bought this amazing channa chaat that was full of flavour and a good solid kick from the spice.

Alhamdullilah there was a lot of food: chicken pilau rice, lamb kebabs, lamb seekh kebabs, chicken tikka, tandoori chicken with roast potatoes, channa chaat, mousakka, potato wedges, lamb chops, two types of salad and chicken sandwiches which got polished off very quickly.  It all tasted good and everyone was full of praise and satisfied bellies.

My aunt (mum’s younger sister) made the moussaka and the dish was enormous – the layers of aubergine, potato and yoghurt were really very refreshing.

The kids got free reign on the sweet stuff while I was distracted.  I saw baby going past with a cup brim full of water more than once, until I realised she was helping herself to the mojito and put a stop to it.

There were lots of party games and in time-honoured fashion there was very loud howling going on at losing, followed by some not-so-subtle engineering of games by the adults so that all of the little ones got a prize for something.

After the food and games, everyone relaxed, chatted and nibbled on fruits and sweets while my very talented neighbour put henna on everyone.

My neighbours equally awesome mum made short work of all the dishes in no time despite our protests.  You can always tell when you have had a good party by the aftermath.  I made the babies pick this up off the trampoline:

This year’s party was so easy and relaxed, that I am almost tempted to do another after Eid-ul-Adha – we shall see. 

My thanks to Harlequin and Shutterbug for helping with photos and to set things up for the party, there is a very pretty photo from the party on Harlequins blog here.

Book Review: Zak and His Little Lies by J Samia Mair

Zak has been warned by his parents not to tell lies.  Any more fibs and he won’t be allowed to go to the park.  When faced with difficult situations, what will he do.  The book follows throughout his day as he finds himself at various junctions faced with a choice – tell the truth about a situation and face the consequences or lie and avoid getting into trouble.

On telling a lie he finds himself getting caught out, making his situation worse or backfiring and causing even bigger problems for him.  Eventually his sister gets the blame for his mischief and he has to decide whether he wants to own up or let her get into trouble.

The illustrations are simple and in muted colours with the focus on expressive faces.
The family portrayed in the book are a lovely, wholesome family with positive role models in the parents.  Zak is mischievous and at times very silly, he reminded me a little of my younger son.  My three and five-year-olds enjoyed having this book read to them, my 11 year old son whizzed through it himself, curious to see what it was about.

The book focuses on some beautiful hadith and ayah from the Quran about truthfulness including: “Nothing in the earth and in the heavens is hidden from Allah” (Quran 3:5), I liked that all of the Quran and hadith mentioned are summarised at the end of the book with sources.

An entertaining read, I hope that children pick up the message about truthfulness woven throughout the story.

Picture of the Day 01.07.18: Learning to Skate

Hubby's job as a removal man means he comes home with all sorts of things; some valuable, beautiful or useful and others random junk I have to decide what to do with or lug down to the charity shop.

This week he came home with an ironing board, a TV stand, a big bag full of really lovely baby toys and some new roller skates.  All of the other items went to neighbours who had either asked for them or were happy to take something for free.  Darling got the roller skates.  Being the biggest chicken ever, she isn’t one to fall over and try again, so her dad helped her practice:

It wasn’t long before Baby wanted her turn and being a daredevil spent the whole time falling over and trying to get up again with Darling’s help.