Khanversations

Rukhsana’s thoughts on her journey of life, writing and sometimes—when she dares—a bit of politics.
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Underestimating children…

It’s funny how many adults and educators assume that children only want to laugh.

They only want to have fun.

I did too.

When I first began school presentations I assumed that the funny stories would be the ones that would reach the children the best.

That perhaps I’d have to coax them into being interested in more altruistic story lines like The Roses in My Carpets.

I guess it goes back to that teacher I overhead in Cambridge, MA, when I was at the Children’s Literature New England conference back in the summer of 1996.

I had read out an early draft of The Roses in My Carpets and I overheard her saying to another lady, “…yeah but what kind of kids would like it?”

We underestimate the altruistic streak that exists in so many kids. I mean what else are superhero stories about? Except helping other people?

I’ve been doing workshops after school as part of the Toronto Public Library’s Sophie’s Studio. They’re free workshops designed to encourage the creativity and writing skills of the kids who enroll.

About eighteen kids have been coming every Wednesday afternoon from 4-5:30. And it’s tough!

It’s got to be engaging because as an after school program, these kids don’t have to be there!

Well there was one kid who definitely didn’t want to be there!

He spent most of the time, not participating, reading his comic book instead.

Part of the program I do with the kids includes my The Roses in My Carpets presentation because it really illustrates the creative process.

I thought I’d have to trim it for the purpose because the juicy part that applied was really about how I wrote the story, the inspiration behind it, not all the social studies bits.

One of the kids in the group whose story was getting off to a bit of slow start sat for most of the presentation with her hand over her mouth and a look of shock on her face.

And this whole group–very gregarious at times–were totally silent, and the little disengaged kid who was being forced to come, he sat right in front, and for the first time, he had his eyes wide open and was totally engrossed.

At the beginning of the presentation I asked them, “Who wants to do some good with the stories they write?”

ALL of them put up their hands!

All of them!

And that surprised me, and then I thought no, it shouldn’t. Because here I’d been guilty of the same thing.

Underestimating these kids!

Well I only have one more session with them.

I always learn so much from the kids in the workshop! And this time is no exception.

Thing is, kids really do respond to good art.

We might think they won’t get it, but on some deep level they do.

Reminds me of when my son was only two years old and he found Pride & Prejudice very interesting. Pride and Prejudice! With Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy!!!

We need to give the kids access to not only silly humorous stories, but to deeper more profound stories!

Think of it this way, we don’t always like the silly stuff! Sometimes we, as adults yearn for something that will really challenge us, spiritually and intellectually!

Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Captain Underpants and a good fart joke. Just that I also long for something more wholesome.

Our tastes, as well as the tastes of children, run the gamut.

Do not underestimate them!!!

Call backs…

Sometimes I look back over the places I’ve been and the conferences and festivals I’ve had the privilege of attending and I get a bit nostalgic.

Singapore, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan, India, Denmark, Sharjah, Italy! The list goes on! Wow! I’ve really been a LOT of places!

I remember the trips so fondly! Although at the time they were extremely stressful!

As I age, these kinds of trips are taking a bigger toll on my body. And yet, I really had such wonderful times!

And I have come to firmly believe that when you remember someone, there is some sort of psychic connection in the atmosphere, because just as you think of someone, they’re also thinking of you!

It’s happened way too many times to be some sort of coincidence.

I’ll be thinking of someone, and days later I’ll get a call or an email or something where they say they were thinking of me too.

This is out of the blue! When I have absolutely no reason to be thinking of for example, the gentleman I met in Mexico when I went down there for the Universal Forum of Cultures.

It’s so nice when you get re-invited, or even if they just want to bring you back but they don’t have the resources.

There are so many NICE people in the world!!!

And I’ve met so many of them!

But then I’m also getting to the point where nowadays, whenever I’m a little bit too honest or blunt for my own good, and I put my foot in my mouth a bit, or I may have closed a door that was swinging open for me, I can just shrug and think, “C’est la vie.”

And move on, with no regrets.

Part of me thinks, hey, if they can get their nose out of joint just from a little bit of bluntness, then maybe it’s just as well. I’m not talking about saying anything rude. I’m just talking about expressing an opinion that they might disagree with–after I was asked for it!

And part of me thinks that there comes a point when your body of work has to stand for something and you don’t have to pussy foot around people.

I know that kids can relate to the stories I write. They just have to be exposed to them. And I know I’m coming at stories from a completely different mindset so I’m offering something unique. And it’s something of value.

If people aren’t in to that, if they can let an off colour remark offend them so easily, then it’s okay. There are others out there. Not everyone has to like me.

One actress, Jennifer Lawrence, was talking about how women are expected to be so nice, to take a cut in pay compared to male colleagues and not make waves about being paid the same amount. And she was sick of it.

I can certainly understand that.

Maybe it’s only when you get older that you get the courage of being not always nice.

I try never to be mean but hey, don’t ask me a question unless you’re prepared for an answer you might not like. I might just give you a completely honest answer without putting it in proper diplomatic double-speak, and what I’ve learned is that there are MANY people who can’t handle complete honesty.

I’m not trying to be mean. And if the situation were reversed I would definitely not take offense. I would consider the opinion being offered very seriously, and take a personal inventory, and decide whether the opinion was valid or not. It’s just the way I’ve learned to be.

And yet it’s so important to make connections! To be nice to everyone! You never know when such connections can lead to opportunities.

Oh dear, I know I just totally contradicted myself, but then that too is part of dealing with the world out there.

Never mind. Let’s end with that original thought.

La la la la!

Nostalgia and good times and good friends!

Aaahhh!

Over thinking things…

My goodness, it seems pretty hard to recapture the magic of picture books.

They are so deceptively simple!

And yet, I wonder if I haven’t sort of moved on.

I’m looking at most of the picture books I find in libraries and thinking ‘meh’. And I watch my grandchildren’s reaction closely as I read picture books to them, seeing what they respond to, what they laugh at, what makes them want to read a story again.

There is such a discrepancy! The older grandkids (9 and seven) really like the longer picture books! Westlandia is one of their favorites!

It’s a fascinating story about a boy who creates his own little world/ecosystem based on an imaginary fruit that he plants in his backyard as a sort of summer project.

It really is a story that shows the basis of any society–agriculture.

And they like the whimsical picture books that tell real stories.

The younger ones like humor! We’ve read Robert Munsch’s Smelly Socks probably a dozen times! It’s not one of my favorites. I still prefer Stephanie’s Ponytail. I think it’s brilliant! One of his three masterpieces.

I just finished a story I’m quite pleased with. Sent it off thinking ‘ooh maybe!’. But then the doubts creep in.

They always creep in.

And then sometimes like this morning, I was looking through snips I’d written, just dribs and drabs of stories I began in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. And they’re often filled with whimsy but they don’t go anywhere. And I ended up abandoning them.

I really feel like I’m going through a different stage of my career. A floundering period where very little is falling just right and yet the underlying concepts are there.

And yes, I think I’m over thinking things.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a book accepted and I’m starting to regret the fact that I gave away Not Guilty to an educational publisher when I could have expanded it and made it into a full length prose novel.

Right now I’m neck deep in presentations. I’m doing the Sophie’s Studio workshops at the Toronto Public Library. They’re a lot of fun! They have to be because the kids are coming after school. We’ll focus on story creation, emphasis on the fun imaginative stuff.

A new year and a new group of kids. We’ll see how it goes.

And I’m just wrapping up on the mentorship program through TDSBCreates. It’s been fascinating working with a group of four intermediate girls. Their writing is a lot better than I thought it would be! And I’m doing a TDSBCreates residency with two classes of grade three students!

Oh they’re so different from the grade four and five students I’ve worked with for the last couple of years. So enthusiastic, I often have to take time to calm them down!

But they’re cute! I was doing my story creating exercise with them yesterday and oh the exuberance!!! LOL

I just wish I had more time to write!!!!

I know I could have done some writing right now, instead of blogging, but it wasn’t enough time to actually write, get deep into the revisions of the one project (which I have to finish up) and get back into the new project that’s beckoning me!

Oh well, what are these but first world problems?

Sometimes they make me feel guilty because people are really suffering all over the world.

I heard that we’re in for yet another recession, and it will hit globally.

Yikes!

One of my daughters decided to use the picture below of me, as her profile pic. She thought it was absolutely hilarious.

I have to admit that it is.

I have to confess that I can’t stand watching videos of myself because I do make really goofy faces while I’m telling a story.

You have to.

It’s just me being me.

Here’s another one!

LOL.

Omigosh, I can’t even remember which story it’s from. Probably the Hungarian folktale: The Little Rooster. It looks like I’m doing the part about ‘Come my special stomach’ or something.

Thing is, not everyone is comfortable looking silly during a performance.

I remember watching Robert Munsch for the first time and thinking, my goodness, he looks ridiculous. But of course that’s only during the storytelling.

When you storytell, it HAS to involve the risk of making a fool of yourself. You have to be vulnerable.

And the BIGGEST mistake people make is not taking that risk.

If you don’t go for it, if you don’t put  your all out there, then the audience can tell you’re holding back, you’re not COMFORTABLE, and ironically, that is what really makes you look FOOLISH.

Acting silly on stage as part of a story that calls for it, does not make you look foolish.

When I’m storytelling, I don’t worry at all about my personal dignity. I use whatever means necessary (and yes, that’s a conscious reference to Malcolm X!) to tell the story. No holds barred!

Mind you I’m not always goofy! That’s the secret!

I believe that mixing pathos with humor accentuates both! You can have a few moments in a story when things get quiet and thoughtful, and even sad at times, and that makes the funny parts all the more hilarious. They’re moments of comedy relief!

One of my best presentations is The Roses in My Carpets.

The thing is even though the story is sad and serious, the presentation has some very funny moments in it. Moments when I let loose and be ridiculous! And the kids laugh and it’s a relief from the heaviness of the other stuff I’m talking about.

Below I’m looking kind of pensive! This was at the Charlotte Zolotow award ceremony.

Rukhsana Khan – Spinning Stories to Life | Lanterns

And here I am talking to a group of kids:

But thing is that shot is kind of posed so I look more dignified.

I guess what I’m trying so hard to say is that when you’re dealing with children audiences, respect that they love humor (just like adults do) and yet they also like to think. Believe it or not, kids love to discover the world and they really do like to think about deeper things.

Respect your audience.

Give them ALL of yourself! Don’t hold anything back.

If that means, that like me, you tend to be goofy at times, then go for it.

But if that’s NOT your comfort zone, if that’s not the kind of person you are, then speak to them in other ways. Just be truthful and honest.

And above all respect them!

I have dealt with some of the most difficult kids that way.

They’ve been pieces of cake! Really!

It’s always amazing to me how the real impact of what you do as a teacher has very little to do with the day to day remuneration or any sort of ‘recognition’ you receive.

Humanity really comes down to being a big blob of interpersonal connections.

I was having a conversation with a family member recently and we were discussing some negative things that had happened in the past.

Incidents that involved people behaving badly towards others and she asked me if I was angry at any of those people for what they’d done to me.

I’m 54 years old now. The people in question are dead. What’s the point in being angry?

And in fact, if it hadn’t been for what they did, my family wouldn’t be where they are today. Sometimes ‘goodness’ can come out of a reaction to ‘badness’.

Ironically, ‘bad’ people can make us more ‘good’.

Out of great evil, good can come. And I think it has to do with what I call the ‘pool table’ effect.

Imagine we’re all different colored balls on a pool table. Some external force acts upon the white ball so it hits us and sends us in a certain direction, perhaps towards one of the corner pockets.

Most people live their lives like this, guided by nothing but the whim of external forces and then the reaction of their emotions and instincts. They’re little more than animals being prodded forward.

But thing is, unlike pool balls, we humans have a choice. We can decide which direction we want to go in. And even though the white ball has pushed us one way, we can decide to go another.

That’s the difference.

A lot of people underestimate human choice, freedom of will. It’s why sometimes children who have been brutally abused grow up to be some of the nicest human beings because they have decided to reject such behaviour for themselves.

They make a–yes let’s use the word–a MORAL choice NOT to do what was done to them!

I know for myself I made such a choice regarding bullying. I know what that feels like, intimately, so I have chosen never to bully other people. To restrain myself, especially when the power is on my side!

So with regards to the people who did wrong to me, why should I be angry? I’ve looked at it from their point of view, or at least I’ve tried to. And sometimes they were just ignorant, or just wicked human beings. And yet…I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

On a lighter note, I often get reminders of the kind of impact I’ve had on people. Last year when I was doing the residency at Downsview Public Library I met a number or very nice young people, and one of them, a girl who was painfully shy, sent me this email. (She gave me permission to share it.)

Hi I’m Stacey from your public speaking and creative writing classes.

I would like to thank you and tell you that for the first time in my life I made it to the next round of the speech arts competition. Me and my sister Diana, who also went to your classes and is competing in speech arts, will be competing on Monday morning! Thank you for helping us and teaching us! I can’t believe that I’m competing on Monday and I’m really really nervous. Thanks to your help I managed to get up in front of my class and say the part of my speech that I had memorized. I’m not even done memorizing it yet but I know I can do it.

Thank you again

Stacey

I am SO proud of Stacey! And I am so glad I was able to help her!

During that residency I had to really develop my public speaking and writing workshops! Lesson plans! The whole works! It developed me in ways I hadn’t expected because when you have to teach something, you end up figuring out how you’ve made it work for yourself.

It’s changed the way I conduct such workshops, and perhaps it’s even made me more versatile.

I’m really grateful to the Toronto Arts Council for funding me in that way!

And I’m grateful when people I’ve touched in some way, reach out and tell me about it. It’s a good deed to offer encouragement. You never know when the good things you say to someone will give them the lift they needed at just the right moment, to get over a particular hump.

And none of that would have happened, but for the things I endured as a kid.

So…it’s all good.

So all that I’ve written so far is the preamble to the big event, the one that I was actually invited to keynote: Children’s Literature Festival in Karachi.

The Children’s Literature Festival is an initiative begun by two very dedicated ladies: Baela Raza Jamil and Ameena Saiyid (the head of Oxford University Press) trying to uplift the educational standards of the children in Pakistan. Maham Ali is its current CEO.

Currently there are about twenty-four million Pakistani children outside the school system. And even those within the school system seldom complete a full cycle of education.

For example there are thousands of elementary schools, but the number of middle schools and high schools drops significantly.

A vast amount of children never get past grade five!

One of the challenges is that there are apparently about ninety dialects spoken in Pakistan, so finding an official language of education is difficult. The official language is both Urdu and English, but for most children even Urdu is a second language.

It makes it difficult because the children just don’t have the resources to get proficient at it.

The teachers earn a good salary, but it seems they too are not trained in the most modern techniques to educate their students.

The Children’s Literature Festival is an event aimed at creating excitement around learning.

The Karachi event was held at Dawood Public School which is a school for girls and was probably the most beautiful school I saw while in Pakistan!

Its financed by an amazing entrepreneurial lady, Sabrina Dawood, who offered the campus as a venue for the festival.

Thousands of children, parents, teachers and media attended the event!

They had authors, singers and publishers and musicians and scientists!

I began with the keynote.

I had ten minutes to basically launch the festival, and I thought carefully of what was the best message to start with.

I should mention that about three days before the festival I got seriously ill.

It started with an ominous rash that quickly turned into blisters on my hands and the soles of my feet and in my mouth, and resisted all over the counter medications. In fact today, three weeks later, I’m still dealing with the ramifications and trying to get my health back to normal.

Now that I think of it, I wonder that I was able to function as well as I did.

But then you can never discount the effects of adrenaline! Plus, I always feel such a tremendous responsibility when I travel.

People have invested a LOT of money to bring me there! I have to make sure it was worth it!

It’s not about me or my ego. It’s not about anything but doing the absolute best job possible for my hosts!

So I tried not to think about how walking on the blisters on the soles of my feet was like walking on pins and needles. My feet got so swollen in fact that the pretty shoes pinched mercilessly and I had to wear my black running shoes even though they were quite ugly.

Anyway, getting back to the keynote. I thought the best thing to do was to tell them why I, as a Pakistani-Canadian, felt that I had the ability to write books that would appeal not only to Pakistani children, but to ALL children, so I told them a story about something that happened when I was ten years old, in grade five, with a handsome teacher whose name was Mr. Harrison.

It’s a story I tell often.

Short, to the point, it basically illustrates a moment when both Mr. Harrison and I witnessed a scenario unfold, and the thought that occurred to me as a result of it, was verbatim expressed by the handsome Mr. Harrison who I so looked up to!

And in that moment I realized that no matter what we look like on the outside, no matter what color we are or gender or religion we belong to, inside we’re actually not that different. And my goal in writing any story, is to use my imagination to create a scenario where the reader comes to the same conclusions that I have or that I want them to.

I particularly chose this story because having been colonized, Pakistan is still at the mercy of a HUGE inferiority complex towards anything ‘white’ and ‘handsome’. They would get it! And they did!

Oh how the crowd roared when I finished up my keynote address and the lovely Baela Raza Jamil herself told me how excellent my keynote had been.

I had delivered the keynote in a combination of English and Urdu, something I heard someone refer to as ‘kitcheree’. When I heard the term ‘kitcheree’ I had to laugh. I’m not sure if they still call it that, but growing up kitcheree was basically a sort of pot luck rice dish, where you just throw in anything you have leftover to make a meal of it.

And the interesting thing is that nowadays people don’t speak pure Urdu. They speak a mixture of Urdu with English words thrown in, ‘kitcheree’. So with my upside down Urdu, mixed in with English words, I was actually pretty understandable.

But I think one of the most effective things was the fact that here I was, speaking in a North American accent, conveying stories about Pakistani/Muslim/South Asian brown people, stories that were actually constructed with North American tastes in mind, and they could recognize it. Basically they could see in my stories a sort of ‘mainstreaming’ of Pakistani/Muslim/South Asian culture. And I think they found that incredibly cool.

After that I had three other sessions to do, and I tried to focus on different books, and different aspects of the creative process.

My sessions were packed! They were so full that kids and adults were sitting on the ground, filling in the spaces and standing at the back to watch.

And while I was presenting, did I think at all about my physical ailments?

No! Not a bit!

The pain returned after.

And when I was done my sessions, I asked to go back to my hotel room where basically I did my best to rest and recuperate.

Knowing now what I was going through, I’m surprised I managed it.

My only regret is that I didn’t extend my ticket to come home on the 29th because the day I was leaving, the 28th, turned out to be the teachers’ workshop day. I could have done so much for them!

But it was not to be.

And when we looked into changing my airline ticket, it would have cost $700 and no way was that worth it!

The folks have conducted a number of Children’s Literature Festivals all over Pakistan.

I hope and I pray that they have the intended consequence, that they raise the educational aspirations of the children in Pakistan!

It’s such a beautiful country, and the people have so much potential! It would be a shame to see it wasted.

It was funny how some people asked me what it was like to go ‘home’. And I’d look at them blankly and tell them that actually ‘home’ is Canada.

As much as I love Pakistan, my heart belongs to the vast wilderness that is Canada.

I love it in my bones.

And when I found out from the Canadian High Commission, that Canada has a policy towards countries like Pakistan and Haiti and a few others I can’t remember, that these countries who are still in deep deep foreign debt to us, that Canada forgives that debt if and only if, the countries spend the money they would have used to pay us back, on programs that will help educate and uplift children and women and other social infrastructure.

James Clark at the Canadian High Commission was telling me about this with a look of ‘why not’ on his face. And then he added, most practically, “It’s not like Canada needs their money.”

And honestly I could have hugged him!

And I had tears in my eyes, because that’s how much I love Canada!

Between the Canada Arts Council’s travel grant and the Canadian High Commission sponsoring my tour, Canada paid for me, a woman born in Pakistan, to do my best to teach everything I’ve learned to children and teachers in the country I was born!

And I’ll just end with this.

The folks at Children’s Literature Festival sent me an interview questionnaire afterwards and one of the questions was very interesting. It went:

“Would you want to visualize Pakistan a country like Canada or would you prefer to see it a country like Saudi Arabia?”

And I answered this:

Pakistan should be Pakistan and Canada should be Canada. I really believe that you should never try to be anything but what you are.

Pakistan has a rich history, and is a beautiful country. It has many many charming aspects to its personality and character. I love Pakistan.

If it were to take the best ideas from Canada and the best ideas from Saudi Arabia, I think it would become even better.

I really do believe that you should grab wisdom wherever you can find it!

 

February 18th, A private school and the High Commissioner of Canada!

I’ll never forget the presentations on this day!

These kids were a lot older, I’d say close to fourteen and fifteen, and they understood English!!! You could see it on their faces!

I first met this girl, so pretty masha Allah, with such a keen intelligent look on her face as she shook my hand.

The High Commissioner of Canada in Pakistan’s name is Heather Cruden, and she’s a wonderful lady who was a teacher. It was because of her generosity that I was touring Pakistan. The High Commission was paying all expenses.

So while I was setting up the Roses in My Carpets powerpoint, she was talking to the kids all sitting prim and proper waiting for me to begin. And I learned something. The High Commissioner is basically the Canadian Ambassador to Pakistan, but because Pakistan is part of the British Commonwealth as is Canada, we have high commissioners not ambassadors!

As if I wasn’t nervous enough already! Here I was going to be doing my Roses presentation in front of basically the Canadian Ambassador to Pakistan!!! It was a good thing that I had done Roses so many times! Basically I can do it in my sleep!

And I have plenty of confidence in it, I really do think it’s one of my best presentations!

Oh how they laughed in all the right spots! And since the story is set in a refugee camp in Peshawar, it was the perfect choice, alhamdu lillah.

At the end of the presentation the response from the students and teachers was overwhelming, and then I ended up doing an impromptu teachers’ workshop!

It is such a joy to do a workshop to such enthusiastic educators!!!!

Their passion and questions were fantastic! I was probably having as much fun as they! And then I saw Maham Ali, the CEO of the Children’s Literature Festival, my host, come in, and I realized that I had to wrap things up. So I did. We probably could have gone on for another hour!

Later that evening, Maham and I were invited to the Canadian High Commission for a dinner IN MY HONOUR!!!!

Talk about feeling like you’re out of your league!!!

When I told my husband I was leaving for the dinner he told me to remember how to use all the cutlery!!!

LOL.

Start outwards and go in, I reminded myself, and DON’T PUT YOUR ELBOWS ON THE TABLE! (Although I still slipped in that regard once or twice!)

But I needn’t have worried. Ms. Cruden is about as down to earth as they come, and we had a lovely time!

I met her assistant, James Clark, the one I’d been corresponding with, and also a nice gentleman from Italy who works for Unicef and we discussed a possible collaboration.

I was feeling very gregarious which is a symptom of nervousness! I’m one of those who talks a LOT when they’re nervous! And they kept asking me questions so I kept telling them stories about myself, including the one about how my husband I met! That had them laughing really hard!

And then we started talking literature and Heather and I (she asked me to call her Heather) like a number of books in common. We both love L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle and she also loved No Great Mischief by Alistair McLeod!

But I think they all laughed the loudest when I recommended Sherman Alexi’s Diary of a Part-time Indian to the Italian gentleman. He has a couple of nephews for whom he buys books and one of them is eleven and I told him he would be perfect for this book but then I felt I should warn him, in case it would be an issue, that the book does contain masturbation.

Oh how they all laughed! I guess at the casual way I mentioned it. I’m guessing they found it totally hilarious and incongruous that me in my hijab would talk so openly about such a taboo subject.

And yet in the back of my mind I could hear my husband’s voice telling me not to hog the conversation! So I did my best to shut up at times too.

It was actually really nice when the others were talking! I got to eat then although really, for me the food was an afterthought and although it was nice, it didn’t compare to the brilliance of the dinner guests.

I left feeling luminous, my footfalls barely touching the ground.

 

February 25 or 26th, I’m not really sure

The days are a blur.

Been so busy I can hardly think straight.

What with modern technology I’ve been instant messaging my daughters but at one point I forgot to check in with hubby and he emailed asking me, “Are you still alive?”

I replied, “No. I feel like a chicken with my head cut off.”

It’s been a little tough because since I’m stationed here in Karachi for more than five days, I’ve been treating it like ‘home’ and not praying Kasr or Qasr, I’m not really sure what the transliteration would be. It’s basically the travel prayer. When Muslims travel we can combine the prayers and shorten them. It’s SO much easier! During the Islamabad portion of the trip I did just that.

But I’m here in Karachi for close to eight days and no way could I justify it.

So that means I have to pray Zuhr within the Zuhr times and Asr within Asr times, etc. And sometimes it’s a bit awkward. Even though this is a Muslim country we’re basically expected to pray on our own dime, and sometimes other people look at you funny when you ask to go pray.

Karachi is a big, sprawling stinking metropolis with a LOT of charm!

Last time I was in Pakistan I was kind of ‘roughing’ it. When I went places it was often on the back of a motorcycle, no helmet, riding side saddle trying to fit both feet on one foothold, holding on to the middle of some man that was not my mehrem (related male) because that’s just the way they travel here. Other times it was in a rickety rickshaw.

This time it’s hire car, all the way, baby!

But oh, the stops and starts, and the near misses and the beggars at every intersection, tapping at the window, showing a deformity if they have one, or a nursing baby, and a few times they were men in drag, with hideous make up, clapping their hands loudly and sticking their hands through the opening because the ac wasn’t working in this vehicle and I was dumb enough to open the window wide.

One of the girls who accompanies me (is 25 years old still considered a girl? I’d call her a woman but she seems too young) told me that they don’t want food they only want money. And as we came out of a mall and the beggars headed for us, she handed one the leftovers of her lunch but he wouldn’t take it, so I guess she had a point, but I still felt bad for them.

I went to a ‘public school’ and did a program for some young kids, about seven or eight. But in the middle of Ruler of the Courtyard, which they LOVED! Oh how they laughed when they realized it was a drawstring and not a snake! I felt some ominous tummy rumbles. I needed a bathroom but they assured me I didn’t want to use the one they had!

It makes me so sad that the facilities here in the public schools are so poor. The head of the CLF told me that there are hundreds or thousands of elementary schools but only maybe ten per cent of middle schools and even fewer high schools. Most kids drop out by grade five.

Arts education is very rudimentary.

The interesting thing is, that when I do my Roses presentation for example, at a more advanced school, it’s like the kids can recognize the story arc in the presentation. The looks on the girls’ faces, I’ve seen it so many times, in so many audiences, all around the world, masha Allah. It’s like a half grin, like as soon as I start talking, they know they’re in for a ride.

I had a huge group there, probably close to two hundred girls, all from the same grade, in various stages of hijab.

Oh how they loved it!

And the principal positive gushed! She came up to me and hugged me and led me to the staff room where there were samosas and other good things with some tea, and then while talking she said how she’d love it if the other girls could see it too, so we arranged an impromptu workshop for the grades eleven and twelve.

I thought workshop: flip chart and maybe sixty girls, but it turned out to be about two hundred, some of the girls even wore niqab.

Since these girls were older, and I’d already done Roses and I didn’t feel like hooking up the projector again I decided to do Wanting Mor. It touches on Dahling if You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile, and boy alhamdu lillah, it was a hit.

Then my escort came running in and from the look on her face I knew I had to wrap things up but I asked her anyway and she said, yes, we had to go. So I rushed to finish and hurried downstairs. But then we went to the office it turned out we had to wait for the driver to arrive. I felt like I could have finished the presentation properly instead of rushing through it. And as it was prayer time and I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to the office, I thought I’d better pray while I had the chance.

Later we went to a press conference. It was so cool. In a very old, maybe Victorian building called the Press Club with sofas and press kits laid out. I wondered if anyone would show up, but they did! The press corps was substantial!

And they asked ‘controversial’ questions, kind of poking to get some drama out of the situation even though there was none.

And today I did a teachers’ workshop. I thought the best thing I could do was do a writing exercise with the teachers so they could replicate it in the classroom.

I have to confess that I have a bit of a potty mouth, but only when it comes to the word bullsh*t. I just think it’s such a good word. It is perfect for what it’s describing. I apologized to the teachers gathered there but alhamdu lillah they weren’t offended in the least.

I got them writing, and I showed them how to make a found poem. But although they were enthusiastic, they were very shy to open up and the juiciest tidbit I got from them was how one of the teachers was too scared when he was writing one of his exams.

I was hoping for more vulnerability. I told them that real art was very vulnerable. It went deep and if you tried to hold back then people could always tell.

We talked about different strategies to get the students writing but some of the questions surprised me. They asked me about vocabulary. And we came to the conclusion that in some cases it would be helpful if the students wrote in their first languages and then translated them into English. That reminded me that so many of the kids are learning English as a third language, Urdu is their second, and they’ve got some other first language. I think there’s about 90 something dialects and languages in Pakistan! That’s a huge challenge!

But afterwards oh how the teachers mobbed me. First the men, they came up and asked me a bunch of questions on how they could better apply the exercises we’d just done and they wanted pictures with me and then the women came and they wanted me to autograph the back of my business cards, and write something to them, and they wanted selfies and pictures too.

My bits of mild profanity hadn’t bothered them at all and one gentleman who’d driven eight hours all the way from Baluchistan even said that I had such a down to earth style.

It was great!

My tour of Pakistan…

First I must apologize for not blogging for so long. It was due to health issues and circumstances beyond my control.

Here’s what I wrote while on tour:

 

February 16, Islamabad, Pakistan

I think the most singular advantage I might have is the storytelling background.

There’s something about my training as a storyteller that allows me to assess an audience and adjust my presentation accordingly. But even then here in Pakistan, I’ve had to adjust my approach again.

When you’re used to children having at least a basic understanding of arts, coming to Pakistan where arts education is virtually non-existent (and really why would it exist here?) then you’re basically starting from scratch. And I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of students from Pushto children in an NGO school to relatively privileged kids in a competent private school. And the contrast has been fascinating!!!

Subhan Allah, I think it’s a blessing sometimes when the technology doesn’t work.

Okay, so the first school I visited was an NGO school funded by a Muslim charity that’s based in the UK called Muslim Hands. That’s significant because this is not the first time I’ve dealt with this charity. Recently they asked me to adjudicate their writing award in the UK for kids in the junior (grade 4-5) category. So I recognized the name of the NGO as soon as I arrived.

I was presenting to a group of grade fives and sixes, only about eight or nine girls and the rest all boys, looking so cute in their burgundy jacket uniforms!

The girls sat together on my right, wearing hijabs and looking extremely shy!

I was going to do The Roses in My Carpets presentation for them but alhamdu lillah the technology didn’t work. And so I fell back on my Coming to Canada presentation although I modified it to really just be an author talk about how I became published.

And as I spoke to these kids, there was one sitting on the left, with such a look of intense concentration on his face. And after everything I said I could hear him mutter out loud, “Uh huh, yeah, uh huh,” and sometimes he’d even repeat some of the words after me. It was most distracting, but I thought he was doing it because he was so intensely concentrating on everything I said that he probably didn’t even realize he was saying this stuff out loud!

Most of the other kids were just trying to look cool.

It was a presentation full of distractions!! Apparently outside they were rehearsing, some teacher using a loud speaker, for some assembly they were having the next day, and one of the teachers kept coming into the library, opening the loud metal door, so I had to stop and wait for the noise to subside. What that always tells me is that this school doesn’t know how to host an author visit.

And I knew that I shouldn’t take it personally.

So I continued as best as I could, not sure of how well they understood me. There was a translator on the side, and at times I did use her services, but I’m sure I didn’t use them enough. But anyway, the fact is, that these children were being educated in English and they could probably understand me better than they could talk with me in English.

So part of the presentation involved me telling my story Fajr from Muslim Child. It’s a very funny story about a boy who farts during the prayer, and I expected the kids to start laughing. I turned to the translator and asked her to translate ‘fart’ and she just started sputtering about ‘passing wind’ or ‘passing gas’ so I finally said the word in Urdu, (which by the way is about as funny a word as its English equivalent) “Paadh.”

The strangest thing was that although some of the boys at the back snickered, and many of them smiled, they all seemed to resist the urge to laugh.

Oh brother! They couldn’t even laugh at something that was supposed to be embarrassingly funny!

And I realized that these kids were so scared of making any sort of mistake, of presenting themselves in anything but a perfect light, that basically arts education, which necessitates a certain vulnerability, is beyond them.

So when they didn’t laugh I asked them point blank who had ever tried to suppress a fart? I was trying to get to the idea of universality in stories, that the story Fajr works for all sorts of audiences, goodness I’ve told that story all over the world to Muslim and non-Muslim audiences and everyone laughs, because everyone in the world knows what it feels like to suppress a fart! But when I asked if any of them had ever done so, they looked at me with blank expressions like what the heck was I talking about?

So I got the translator to translate it in case they hadn’t understood the question, and this time a few looked away, but again no one stuck up their hands! They were too scared to admit they had *gasp* ever suppressed a fart! They could not appear vulnerable.

Too bad.

I told them flat out they were lying.

Anyway I continued the presentation and when I was done, as usual, I was mobbed for autographs. So funny! They’d sat there like Russian diplomats during the presentation but now that it was over they were pushing their notebooks in front of each others’ trying to get me to sign them!

After every presentation and workshop in Pakistan, it no longer surprises me that the teachers and educators demand that I share a cup of tea and usually some biscuits or cake. Pakistanis and Muslims are some of the most hospitable people in the world!

While I was talking to the principal explaining to her that in order for arts education to work the kids need to be secure enough to risk making mistakes. She nodded and didn’t look like she was listening, poor thing, she was dealing with people coming in and presenting all kinds of situations for her to deal with. So obviously she had more pressing things on her mind, and I thought to myself, okay, I did the best I could.

And then…

Something amazing happened.

That boy, the one who’d been so intensely listening that he’d been repeating my words out loud, came in, so shyly, and he had this look on his face, total terror, as he approached me and he held out a little candy. Like an offering.

It was so cute!!!

I thanked him with all my heart but I have to stay away from sugar—it makes my rosacea flare up so my face looks like a bumpy red tomato, and so he handed the little candy to the translator.

I asked him if he’d liked the presentation in the best Urdu I could manage, and he gulped, and he looked from the translator to me and he nodded. And then a funny thing happened. As I asked him a few more questions, the corners of his mouth turned down and his bottom lip stuck out a bit and I realized he was very close to tears. I think he found me overwhelming. Me! Little old me!

So I smiled a bit more and we let him go. I wasn’t sure though if my perception was correct so I asked the translator what she thought and she agreed that he’d been very close to tears.

And subhan Allah, I thought right then, that sometimes when you do a presentation it’s really only for one child. The rest of them are along for the ride but they’re not open for one reason or another, to benefit from what you have to say. But there’s one child who hears what you have to say at exactly the right time in his life, for it to make a difference, and I wonder if that child wasn’t the reason I was supposed to go that school.

I don’t know. Allahu alim.

I did another school the next day where the kids were very poor, taken off the streets. Most of them were Pushto/Afghan and for them Urdu is even a second language, never mind English.

I had brought in the Roses in my Carpets presentation gear and when I looked at this audience they looked such a mixture of kids from six years old to about twelve, that I thought again, forget the technology.

And this time I didn’t even do my Coming to Canada presentation. Basically I let my translator translate, kind of like when I went to Mexico and Italy and I focused on three of my picture books: Silly Chicken, Ruler of the Courtyard and Big Red Lollipop. Even though, technically these kids were too old for them.

I story told the stories, saying a sentence and letting the translator translate, and since that takes double the time, we were able to cover less material, but we were able to do better justice to it.

You should have seen their faces when I got to the part of the snake in the bathhouse!

They understood immediately the danger that the character was in! And they were so engaged!

Same with Silly Chicken!

These stories were set within their culture, they understood when I said at the end that Rani names the chick in the cupboard “Bibi ki buchi”! And they laughed out loud as soon as I said it, and even before the translator backed me up with the translation.

Oh it was very effective!

All I did to get them think a bit deeper was ask them what the stories really meant. Many of them started summarizing the plots, and I said no, “But what do they really mean?”

And I could just see the little wheels in their head start turning, but then the teachers started interjecting, trying to talk about ‘morals’ and ‘lessons’ when I was talking about themes.

And then I did Big Red Lollipop, and I had them following along.

Oh how I do get loud at times! And when I shouted, “I wanna go too!” I saw some of the older ones look a bit shocked, and look around to see the reaction of other people to my exuberance. When the teachers were fine with it, they relaxed a bit.

Alhamdu lillah, it was the right choice for that group! I found out afterwards their language difficulties.

And I was able to get them to think of stories in deeper terms.

Getting Ready for Pakistan…

I can’t help getting nervous before a big trip!

There’s worrying about the physical toll the travel will have on me! (I’m not getting any younger!)

And then when I arrive, it’s only natural that I’m worried a little about my safety.

Just a few weeks ago there was an attack in the North western part of the country.

I’m not going there, but still…

And yet part of me is super excited!

The Canadian High Commission is sponsoring the trip.

It feels really cool to get travel papers with the Canadian High Commission’s logo at the top, with the crest and the coat of arms and all that, looking all official!

And then there’s the fact that it’s a melding of my birth country and my home country both kind of recognizing me. That’s really cool!

I hope the kids and teachers understand English.

I was contacted by a teacher from a school in Karachi asking me to do a skype session ahead of the festival. When I told her my rate (and they’re not even that much!) she backed out saying that they never paid for skype sessions from authors.

I wasn’t surprised.

I’ve taken a lot of precautions in terms of health: vaccines including typhoid. I’ve already been inoculated against Hepatitis A and B. And then there’s the malaria tablets I’ll have to start taking two days before I leave and a week after I get back.

I was born in Lahore, but this trip I won’t be going there. I’ll be in Karachi and Islamabad, two cities I’ve never seen before.

Last time I went, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was winding down. It was the winter of 1991-1992. My goodness a LOT has happened since then!

I got ideas for: The Roses in My Carpets, Silly Chicken, Ruler of the Courtyard, King of the Skies, King for a Day, Wanting Mor, and some of the stories in Muslim Child. Who knows what will happen this time around?

It should be very exciting!

The trip is being covered by the Canada Arts Council.

Subhan Allah, I’m so fortunate!

I leave on February 13th, which looks to be the coldest day of this winter. And return on February 28th insha Allah.

I plan to blog while there. So stay tuned…

 

It’s very important as an author to keep abreast of what’s coming out: trends in story creation and trends in literature.

But with me, I always tend to read a book or watch a movie that’s received a lot of hype, long after the hype has died down.

Hype is really tricky! It can color the way we read something! And there’s a famous saying that you should never believe your own hype!

Okay, so I watched the roll out of the Inside Out movie with great interest.

It had some really good stars in it! The critical consensus was darn near perfect! I think 97% on Rotten Tomatoes!

And it was Pixar!

What could go wrong?

And yet the opening weekend, it DID NOT dominate the box office. And that shocked me.

Me, I seldom go to a movie in the cinemas.

It’s too expensive and ever since I heard that some movie theaters had bed bugs, I’ve been scared off!

Besides, it’s part of waiting for the hype to die down.

So I watched and waited, patiently. And then when I saw Inside Out available on Netflix, I was both excited and alarmed!

Excited that I could finally get to see it, but alarmed because I thought, “Wow! It really did THAT bad???”

And this comes down to marketing. When you’ve got a real bonafide hit, you don’t put it on Netflix a year after it debuted! You just don’t!

Disney is about the stingiest company around. They hardly put any of their best stuff on Netflix. They let dribs and drabs seep through. I watched Brother Bear and a few other of their movies on Netflix now that they’re there but they keep the ‘good stuff’ close to their chest.

Why did they release Inside Out???

So I confess I started watching it with a bit of a jaded view.

I already knew that the emotion Sadness would play a big role–thanks to some other spoilers. And I knew that the imaginary creature Bing Bong would ‘die’ by sacrificing himself, which I thought was totally cheesy because he’s imaginary, he’s a thought, Riley could always think of him again and bring him back to life!!!!

I felt totally manipulated by that! And even a bit resentful, but yeah, I think kids would find it emotional.

But what really bothered me about the movie, the reason the whole movie felt FLAT was because by the time I finished watching I realized that the brilliant folks at Pixar had missed something! Something pretty obvious!

The danger in creating a movie based on modern understandings of psychology is that we’re still learning about the brain!

And how do you do it without appealing to a HUGE part of the human psyche: FAITH! Religion!

What’s missing is SOUL!!!!

The biggest drawback of the movie is that the MAIN CHARACTER Riley is reduced to her idiosyncrasies and emotions!!!! She’s FLAT!

Ironically Joy and Sadness and the other emotions have more personality than Riley does!

I mean really? Riley has no say in what emotions she feels? She’s just like an avatar for these five emotions in her head???

Really?

It’s nonsense!

And the thing is, it’s so weird to be so critical of such a critically acclaimed PIXAR movie, that at first I thought maybe I’m wrong.

So I watched it again.

And I watched it again with my son, not telling him about the conclusions I’d already come to.

And yup, again, the fact that Riley has no soul is what is missing in the movie.

Who am I to critique a juggernaut like Pixar?

And yet…

I’m wondering if in Pixar’s quest to make a film that would appeal to the widest audience, and because of the natural reticence of Americans to discuss anything as personal as religion and faith in the public sphere, that Pixar didn’t fall short in creating a true masterpiece in Inside Out.

If only Riley could have revealed her ultimate control over her emotions and destiny…

Oh well.

It’s really really sad when something that could have been truly amazing, misses the mark.