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Introducing “Ray Of Light, A Blog”: Experiencing and Learning by “Talking to Myself”

Talking to Myself

Punish me for I’ve written the significance of the dream

in my own blood written a book ridden with an obsession

Punish me for I have spent my life sanctifying the dream of the future

spent it enduring the tribulations of the night

Punish me for I have imparted knowledge and the skills of the sword to the murderer and demonstrated the power of the pen to the mind

Punish me for I have been the challenger of the crucifix of hatred

I’m the glow of torches which burn against the wind

Punish me for I have freed womanhood from the insanity of the deluded night

Punish me for if I live you might lose face

Punish for if my sons raise their hands you will meet your end

If only one sword unsheathes itself to speak you will meet your end

Punish me for I love the new life with every breath

I shall live my life and shall doubly live beyond my life

Punish me for then the sentence of your punishment will end.

-Kishwar Naheed (trans. Rukhsana Ahmed)


Kishwar Naheed’s (a Pakistani poetess whom we studied in class, see blog V below) poem, Talking to Myself, is talking about violence, but she talks about it with an eye to the significance of rhetoric, of art in experience, of knowledge-power and the creation of symbols, societies, and resonant social action and stories. She points to a few of the quintessential intents of a class taught through a cultural studies approach, an arguably contentious affair and a risk in the world of academia. Welcome to Ray of Light. This blog is a series of six posts in which I, Kirin, am reflecting, as a student in Professor Ali Asani’s AIU 54/HDS 3627: For the Love of God and his Prophet: Religion, Literature, and Arts in Muslim Cultures this Spring 2014. This blog is a series of moments of talking to myself: of challenging what I have been taught, imparting my favorite lessons, of reading too much into a single moment in a text or experience.

The course title says much of what my reader should know about my blog – this course was a journey through different Muslim cultures that took many shapes. My feminism is a part of my understanding of Islam and it’s different manifestations and arts, and understanding the experience of a religion or attempting to express its meaning through gendered lenses was an important way of seeing in this course that I hope is imparted in my writing and in some of the ensuing posts. Gender and the ways it is poetically enshrined, politically handled, relegated to being understood only through certain symbolic repertoires are all questions I found it important to ask and will raise again here, for the sake of clarity, and in hopes that I haven’t oversimplified in the following posts. It is impossible to do justice in any kind of teaching or learning (or even reflection, which I do find so valuable and which is the theme) – sometimes the only way of delivering a way of knowing is to offer up an experience, as this course often did. Experiential learning can mean sitting back and closing one’s eyes, letting the qawwali music wash over you. It can mean reaching forward and feeling your way through the simulated construction of a mosque, for which you must come up with your own generative design principles. It can mean painting with brushes, or your fingers, and shaping the contours of pottery into the vessel you imagine. It can mean the ink bleeding over your fingertips until it appears to flow from underneath your nails as you illustrate a love letter or practice your new calligraphy.

The blog includes a few such experiences.

This series of entries runs in the order of creation, as follows:

I. Re-conceptualizing Jihad (re: Week 2)

II. Traditions of Muhammad (re: Week 4)

III. The Strength of Silence (re: Week 3)

IV. Cupbearer, fill… Connecting human & divine love (re: Week 10)

V. The grass is also like me: multiple “natural” truths (re: Week 12)

VI. A Rain of Pearls, Cascade of Wine (re: Week 9)

This blog became such a salient part of my learning in this class because it enabled me to engage with the concepts from the reading on a personal level, in a way that went beyond the initial reading of a poetic form or an artistic symbolic repertoire. The blog was a space to connect those symbols, forms and patterns to actual lived experiences and the trains of thought that regularly run through my head. A blog forces you to ask: How does this concept connect to my identity? Where have I learned the things I think I know? What is it that I think I know?

A blog forces you to look around you and at the current news and history from a multiplicity of places, and to think twice about the modern manifestations of these forms, patterns, and symbols that resonate through the different cultural art-styles that we studied. When I wrote my first blog entry, Re-conceptualizing Jihad, and designed the presentation, I did it with the intent that my form of “teaching presentation” would convey my sentiment of learning when I myself read about the political origins of the term “jihad” (see blog/video for further philological discussion). I was shocked and surprised to finally get a sense of the history of the term “jihad,” and immediately wanted to share that lesson – or at least my sensation of shock (and embarrassment that I hadn’t known) with others. I was immediately driven to share in a way that would convey that I thought it was an important lesson. It was so relevant to our lives – all of us – and I hadn’t known the first thing about it.

The shared aspect of blogging is a way of connecting not only your own personal experiences and identities with the material you pick up in class, but also of engaging with the reactions of others. Engagement with others as a way of learning further calls to mind the famous maxim, “you never know something until you teach it.” Blogs, I believe, are a way for us to imagine or practice our own teaching. What would I want someone else to know about this?, we have to ask, to distill what is most salient to issues that affect more people than just each of the bloggers on a personal level. Who is affected by the way I perform my identity?, we must know, in order to play directly to the audience we think is out there to absorb our content. Thinking about audience is also a large part of shaping the actual content we produce.

What kinds of art are accessible and post-able? With the Internet as the mediating force between the content producer and consumer, one must ask the inevitable question of how art comes to be seen and which forms of art we choose to transmit which messages. After the video and the card, I found myself gravitating to the more compact photocompositions, because I felt they conveyed my message and yet maintained an aesthetic that was appealing and easy to consume. It is a bittersweet irony to reflect on making this decision. I hope the viewer will take time to think about the different mediums I used, and the progress that the messaging takes through the different posts. The media we to which we are accustomed does indeed produce bite-size images, consumable stories, and flattened, legible concepts. This is what we use to organize our thoughts and this is what I myself was drawn to produce because I felt that in presenting this to my audience, I would be giving something in a form they would not have to grapple with too much and yet would hopefully be able to still learn from. This plays directly into our pervasive societal conception that the best-presented ideas are simple-but-appealing. I would argue that gone are the days of glorified academic papers that spoke loftily through citational hierarchies and presumed a canon or three of knowledge. What is admirable today is the ability to package a statement and make it easily consumable – in fact, so easily consumable that it is infectious and instantaneous: what does the word viral mean if not this?

I took this course because I wanted the complicated version. I think this blog has its strengths and its limitations. It is strong in its ability to talk to itself, in its reflective qualities and its willingness to admit ignorance and try and impart new lessons. The way that this course challenged me to explore art through the culturally/historically variable edicts of different forms of Islam, I want to challenge my viewer/reader. I think the blog does some of that – it issues certain challenges, but in some ways, it works too hard to creatively produce an “easily consumable” summation of the lessons that are multi-layered and complex. This is a complexity that is difficult to convey in a blog post – and perhaps the nature of the beast is the medium with which we are working, in the same way that language bounds my ability to articulate my sentiment now, as I retroactively compose a preface to these artistic interludes, interacting with the text. Here I am again, hoping to gain some insight, grateful for these moments of learning through self-reflexivity – and encouraging my readers, my friends, and my future self to keep in dialogue with all the ideas we are presented with. Writing means re-thinking, even if indeed bounded by categories and language. And we never connect with ideas so well as when they are deeply connected to that which we can identify with. Islam is a part of my history – it is a part of my disjointed clan in Pakistan and India, a part of my culture and my own history as that which is passed down – in hate and prejudice, in love and faith, and in boundary-building and breaking enabled by artistic reflection and rejuvenation of religious ideas. Thank you, reader, for joining me in this ephemeral posting, which I hope reflects some of my (always incomplete) conversations with myself.

~ by kirin on May 2, 2014.

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