Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Subtle Blessings in the Saintly Lives of Al-Mursi and Abul-Hassan

This review is written by a new friend of the BukuProject's, Aslan Uddin*. Enjoy : )

Many people easily get into the trap of saying “there’s no good men/women out there”, but we should avoid falling into that mode of thinking, because often we attract the type of people that we are ourselves, or think of, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The “Subtle Blessings” is a book that reminds readers of the blessings that God has bestowed upon humanity by the continued prevalence of excellent people on this Earth, who though rare, nevertheless exist and serve to guide people towards their higher potentials, and in achieving tranquillity in Allah Most High. This is in contrast to most celebrities these days who pull people to their lower selves.

The Prophet described 3 integral parts of Islam, the legal side, the intellectual side, and the spiritual side. The book focuses primarily on the latter (without diminishing the other aspects), since it improves people and makes a person’s Iman (religious conviction) and its sweetness grow. It contains the teachings of two spiritual masters called “Abul Hasan ash-Shadhili” and “Abul Abbas al-Mursi”. Both strove to embody the outward and inward character traits and practices of the Prophet Muhammed (Peace of Allah be upon him), practically reforming the lives of many.  It explains how they went about it in their own lives, and in the lives of others, and how people can adopt such characteristics in their daily lives and make the world a much better place through humility, preference for others, honesty etc.

The book is split to an introduction to the spiritual and intellectual side of Islam, and then the teachings of the shaykhs based upon the Qur’an, Hadiths, sayings, poetry, and explanations of spiritual and religious matters, thus catering to all types of Muslims.
The author, Ibn Ata, a leading legal scholar of his age, at the start had a strongly negative view of them, but when he actually met them, he was blown away, and started keeping their company.  Abbas was instrumental in removing the doubts of Ibn Ata, and helped to increase his certainty in the Divine. With wisdom in relation to solving peoples’ problems, giving sincere advice, giving profound commentaries on the Qur’an, Hadiths (Prophetic sayings) and poetry, the two shaykhs gained large followings amongst both the higher and lower echelons of society.  It goes to show that if one sincerely searches for great people, he will find them to exceed expectations.

Their influence was also extended by the numerous miracles that the author witnessed through those scholars, such as the ability to see into the hearts of people and cure them. These show the benefits of achieving closeness to Allah Most High, the paltriness of attaching ourselves to the lower world, and the need to avoid modern ideologies of scientism and materialism.
 Abbas’ teachings are summarised by his saying: “When I was a young boy, there was a shadow play being put on beside our house, so I went to see it. When I went the next morning to see the teacher at the Qur’anic school, who was a friend of Allah, he uttered the following lines of poetry when he saw me:

“You who behold shadow images in wonderment,
You yourself are the shadow if only you could perceive it!”

At the end of the day, it is to Allah that we turn; so do aim to be of the best people. If we have sincere intentions and take the proper procedures, the experiences and wisdom discussed in this book are not beyond our reach. 

*Aslan is a recent graduate from Warwick University. His curiosity and need for certainty led him into various subjects of study, especially philosophy, science, Sufism and theology. He now works in Cambridge, UK.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk

Hi everyone. Here's the second and long overdue installment of Pamuk book reviews by a friend of the BukuProject's, Alia Salleh*. (Man, is this blog on fire or what!)

A word of warning: this might not be a balanced review since I had to abandon the book halfway due to a workload and pick it up again between assignments. It is a book that is best enjoyed in one go; perhaps due to its pace and the links between chapters.

The Black Book is a translation by Maureen Freely from the original Turkish by Orhan Pamuk. A simple story of heavy themes that add up to tell the story of Istanbul; his beloved abode. Here we meet Galip - a lawyer - who finds himself tracking down his missing wife, which coincides with the disappearance of his old cousin Celal, a famous columnist. His search brought him all over Istanbul, where he meets various people; discovering his wife’s untold pasts with her previous husband, Galip’s own untold pasts, Celal’s untold stories, and all the while, looking at a different side of Istanbul - the mystical side interwoven with the leftist movement. 

Despite being smitten with Pamuk’s writing, I do not find this work of his something that leaves you awed - perhaps tiring at times, the way something fast-paced never comes to a conclusion, and you forcefully drag yourself along just to meet the inevitable end. The lack of a plot might serve to highlight the deep undercurrents of Istanbul he cleverly present to the readers - mystical sects, alley gangs, urban legends and (as expected) the melancholy; yet I seem to sometimes feel that he’s going too much into it, it feels draining. 

That said, Pamuk’s lyrical writing is as mesmerising as ever - despite the book being a mere translation (Freely did a nice job). He again links the chapters smartly, stringing them in ways you least expect, adding to the book’s mysterious feel. Since Istanbul: Memoirs and The City, I have had a soft spot for his long running sentences that describe almost everything instances after instances, so much so that it leaves you dizzy. In a nice way. 

Dizzying seems like a good word to describe it. The way you are taken into mazes of concepts of dervish sects, the coming of Messiah, the various anecdotes of short tales (that you would be tempted to think about) - either told by the characters or delved in Celal’s columns. It can be confusing, the probable mix of facts and fiction to one who does not know Istanbul. It will require a second read for people like me.

It feels right to share that my two favourite chapters are “We Lost Our Memories in the Movies” and “Can’t You Sleep”. The latter might be due to the fact that I happen to read it while having trouble sleeping. You like to feel that the author is talking to you, and you especially; it leaves one warm.

All in all it is worth a read - and if you feel disheartened by the weight of it try his other books first, maybe My Name is Red to get used to his style. His melancholic writing is still a winner to me.

“The books you read talked of the night’s cruel silence. I know just how cruel silence could be.”

*Alia Salleh is now a management trainee at PNB and just short of being a fully competent cyclist. She now resides in Kuala Lumpur and keeps a Tumblr blog.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire

It's 2 in the morning and by anyone's standard, far too early (or late) for a book review. But I can't seem to sleep so you readers must endure another review up here. Boy, it sure feels strange when this blog is updated regularly, doesn't it? :D

A Streetcar Named Desire is a play written by one of the most famous American playwrights of the 20th century, Tennessee Williams. His other work, The Glass Menagerie, was one of the play options for my A-Level literature several years ago, but Mr Cranwell, my teacher, opted for another play called 'The Rivals'. To this day, I can't remember the reason for the life of me. Anyway, back to A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche DuBois, a southern American belle used to a life of refined luxury, has just arrived in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella, after her family home was lost to a bad mortgage. Blanche, who shows signs of mental instability, almost immediately got on the wrong side of Stella's 'common' and rough husband, Stanley Kowalski, and the play follows their conflicting personalities and the tragedy that it leads up to. 

 This play strikes me as an emotionally violent piece of work, with characters moulded to demand raw performances from the actors. Even before watching the famous 1951 film adaptation starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, the written play's strong language shocks me at times and lends the play an even more shocking tone overall, considering the nature of the two main characters. Blanche is suggested to be quick with verbal replies, something that she utilizes frequently in reasserting her superior upbringing, much to Stanley's chagrin. Stanley, a rough working class man that represents the new generation of New Orleans of 1940s, is forever annoyed by Blanche's efforts to disrupt the power dynamics of the Kowalski household. The climax of the play, which I will not reveal, can be seen as a metaphore of an accumulation of antagonism between two different lifestyles post WW2.

Leigh as Blanche and Brando as Stanley in the film adaptation (1951)

This play reminds me of Shakespeare's King Lear, in that my sympathies are evoked for different characters at different times all through the play. Despite the brutish manners of Stanley's, I cannot help but feel sorry for his desperate cries to keep Stella by his side after beating her up in a drunken stupor, something that the feminist in me can never tolerate. Toward the end of the play, I found myself rooting for Blanche instead, as I see her struggle to keep her sanity in a harsh world, surrounded by 'deliberate cruelty'. And then, of course, there are Stella and Mitch, the two side characters who are trapped in Stanley and Blanche's power play. In the end, I cannot really make up my mind as to whose side it is that I am meant to be on. Perhaps no one and everyone. 

I would recommend this to fellow theater freaks who are interested in the study of human characters. Casual readers might find this play a bit too theatrical in its writing, in which I case I would suggest watching the film instead, as it is very faithful to Williams' play, although the director chose to write a different ending. Besides, plays are meant to be watched, not read. And when you have a young Brando in the lead, you can't really say no to that, can you? ; )

8 stars out of 10.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Flowers for Algernon

"If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time." - Charlie

I came across this marvelous gem of a book in my college library and, intrigued by the subject matter, I decided to borrow it and took it home with me. And that was perhaps the best decision I had made that day. Daniel Keyes' tale of human efforts to change nature is a very poignant one, even more so than Wells' Island of Dr Moreau, in my opinion. It's a science fiction, one of my favourite genre, so I may be a little biased.

The eponymous Algernon is a lab rat that has undergone an experiment to enhance its intelligence by artificial means, ie. surgery, instead of intellectual training. The experiment proved to be a success, and Algernon begins to show signs of increased intelligence. The scientists then decided to extrapolate the success to human subject and Charlie, an adult with a very low IQ of 68, is selected to undergo the surgery. The book deals with Charlie's experience before the surgery, after it, and what he goes through when the effects of the surgery begin to diminish and he regresses back to the way he was before the surgery.

The reader is allowed access to Charlie's innermost thoughts and feelings by compiling Charlie's progress reports for the duration of the experiment. When the story starts, Charlie's writing is unmistakably flawed, like the writing of a six-year-old. What I was most amazed by when I read this book is how I could gradually sense Charlie's transformation from an innocent simpleton to this complicated man with above-average IQ, and subsequently to a cruel and depressed person who is often troubled by too much thinking. It's a powerful narration of a person's descent to complete unhappiness, and by the time I was almost through with the book, I couldn't help but to feel a little afraid of extraordinary cleverness (which does not help when you're a final year student in college).

Charlie's story is powerful, one that forces me to think about what it means to be comfortable in our own skin. In this modern world, I get the feeling that we as a generation have conceived for ourselves this skewed definition of justice and fairness. Now, when we think of fairness, we tend think of equal portions for everyone. When a person is born with less, we are quick to say that it is unfair. I've done that before. When I looked at a physically-handicapped, I couldn't help but to feel sorry, because I felt that he was unfairly born with that handicap.

But Flowers for Algernon makes me rethink that notion. Surely, in a universe as complex as ours, there is a balance in creation, a balance so well-crafted that it is beyond our grasp, most of the time. What one person lacks in one field he has in abundance in another. Charlie, when he was a simpleton, was happy, and that, in itself is a blessing that many intelligent people are cursed without. And yet, the society we live in, with its idolatry of material gains and conquests, would have us believe that there are things more important than internal calm and peace, when in fact those things are but means to what we all unknowingly strive for, happiness. And it's wonderful that sometimes, it takes a fiction to teach us all about what it means to be happy in our own skin.

Highly recommended. Happy new year everyone : )