Tag Archives: Muslim

Jhulelal in Jhulelal Mandir situated in Nadiad (Image from Wikimedia Commons and Under Creative Commons License)

Pallo: Sindhi Poetry to Discover Oral History

Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

For five years now, I have hosted monthly poetry readings in my living room, which, starting in March 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, transitioned to weekly online meetings by popular request. It has proven to be a sanctuary for us regulars. We read poems in different languages, with impromptu translations, to find shelter in poems. We have read poems to process the major public tragedies in these unusual times, be it the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and protests in its aftermath, California’s largest wildfires with darkness at noon over San Francisco and ash raining down from the skies, India’s major floods and the largest migration of daily workers who walked from all major Indian cities to their villages, the very divisive presidential election with the prolonged wait for the results, to the history-making Biden-Harris team winning the White House from Trump, and beyond. Thanks to the patient listening and open minds, we have grown closer and our personal experiences are also shared through the poems we read.

In July 2020, I suffered a personal tragedy, as my mother passed away in India. As an only child, it was especially hard to not be near her as she bid farewell to this life. The strong independent woman she was, she had made plans for her mortal remains to be donated to the local hospital for the cause of science. Due to COVID restrictions, the hospitals were no longer accepting cadavers. My maasi’s daughter and her son, and their spouses, took care of the last rites. My grief was expressed in the poetry circle as I sang an old Sindhi prayer that I first heard as a child from my grandmother. It is an aarti, sung at the end of most prayer rituals in Sindhi households. We call it pallo as we sing it while holding open a scarf or end of a saree or hands open in front of the body, in supplication. The ‘pallo starts with…

Pallo payan ti maan Zinda-Pir te

Muhenji bedi athayee vich seer te  

Pallo payan ti maan Zinda-Pir te

Baasiyu baasan ti maan Zinda-Pir te

 

Jyotin-wara Lal-Odera

Kayee kan ta, to dar phera

Tuhenje meher ameer fakir te

 

I am seeking at Zinda-Pir

My boat is mid-stream

I am seeking at Zinda-Pir

Wishing for my wishes at Zinda-Pir

 

O enlighted Lal-Odera

Many come seeking at your door

For your blessings, the rich and the poor

Sindhi is spoken mostly by Sindhis living in Sindh, Pakistan. The majority of them are Muslims as the Hindu Sindhis, like all four of my grandparents, migrated to India in 1947, due to the partition of the country. My parents were about ten years old as they became child refugees in India. Their generation assimilated by adopting the local languages and customs, and by inter-marrying people of different faiths and languages. The partition destroyed the rich cultural and literary heritage of Sindhis as we became displaced people. My mother was the only person I could speak in Sindhi with. With her passing the reality of Sindhi as a dying language hits home personally. Most of my cousins can’t even speak it, and I never learned to read or write it. It is written in the Arabic script and growing up in Delhi, there was no access to learning it in school or elsewhere. 

As I sang the pallo, one of the poets in our circle, who reads extensively in Urdu, another language written in Arabic script, told me about Shah Latif, the best-known poet of Sindh. A classic book of his poems, Latif-jo-Rassolo, was published in 1866, almost 100 years after he passed away. With curiosity aroused and information a few clicks away, I discovered so much about the land of my ancestors and Sindhi culture that I might never have otherwise.

For example, I always knew that we Sindhis worship Jhulelal, the river god, who is depicted sitting on a fish. That seemed fitting for a people named after the river Sindhu, called Indus in English, that flows through Sindh. Sindhis have been global traders from the times when rivers were the highways and boats were planes. The typical Sindhi greeting ‘bedo paar’ literally means ‘may your boat land safely’. 

What I never knew was that Jhulelal is a poet who lived in the mid-tenth century. He is called by many other names, such as Lal Sai (because he wore red robes), Odero Lal (Flying one, as he traveled a lot), Zinda-Pir (Living Saint), Sheikh Tahir, Shahbaz Kalandar, amongst them. He is part of the rich Sufi tradition, that originated in Sindh. The richness of the culture is hinted at in the fact that India is named after a bastardization of Indus, the land of the ancient Indus Valley civilization.

One of the major archeological sites of that ancient civilization, called Mohan-jo-Daro, is simply Sindhi for Mound-of-the-Dead. The locals knew of it always, way before the British engineers trying to lay the railroad through the soft sand of Sindh were led to it, to steal and reuse the 5000+ year old bricks from the Great Wall of Sindh, to stabilize the sand for 90 miles of railroad tracks to be laid on it. To this day, the shrine of Odero Lal in Sindh is one of the few places where Hindus and Muslims continue to pray together under the same roof.

I have sung the pallo many times in my life, but only now deciphered the coded message in it. Today Zinda-Pir would be considered a Muslim name and Odero-Lal a Hindu name, but in the song, we seek blessings from the same poet, best known as Jhulelal, the Sindhi God. The most popular song that every qwaali concert ends with, when everyone dances, is an ode to Jhulelal, Dum-a-dum Mast Qalandar, made popular in the 70s by Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila, but also sung by Abida Parveen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Fareed Ayaz, and many others that continues to build bridges of love as iconic singers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India continue to sing it to appreciative audiences. Breathing life into poetry by reading it out loud to patient listeners revives this almost-extinct message of love, much needed in these troubled times. 


Dr. Jyoti Bachani is a poetry-loving business professor as sanctuary is a monthly column curated by me, written by different poets and poetry lovers who meet weekly to read poems to each other in a group that organizes itself using the Facebook page Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley group. 


 

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer's swearing-in for her first term as Mayor (Image provided by Fatima Naqvi)

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer is the First Muslim Woman to Serve as Mayor in the US

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer became the first South Asian woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in New Jersey, and the first Muslim woman to serve as a mayor of a municipality in the United States. Jaffer is a Postdoctoral Research Associate of South Asian Studies at Princeton University where she teaches courses on South Asian, Islamic, and Asian American studies. She got her start in politics when she ran for local office in 2017 and won, becoming the first and only Democrat on the local government in Montgomery, NJ, in many years. In the following year, the Democratic Party won two more seats and Jaffer became the Mayor. She is now running for New Jersey State Assembly in Legislative District 16. 

Mayor Sadaf F. Jaffar (Image provided by Fatima Naqvi)

Can you tell me a little bit about your background: where you were born and raised? 

SJ: I was born and raised in Chicago. My parents had immigrated from Pakistan and Yemen. I went to college in Washington D.C. at Georgetown University, and then I lived in India for two years studying Urdu in Lucknow. I did a Ph.D. at Harvard University in South Asian Studies. Later, I moved to New Jersey after I met my husband and we both ended up getting a position at Princeton University. We have a 6-year-old daughter. 

As a South Asian Muslim woman in politics who belongs to an immigrant family, how do you define your identity? How has that translated into your work as Mayor so far? 

SJ: My goal is to try to make a positive change and be a caring member of my family and my community. I want to advocate for people to have the rights that they deserve. That drives me in all of the work that I do, whether it’s teaching my students about Islam in South Asia or South Asian American literature and film; leading my community during a pandemic; leading them by having conversations and discussions about racial injustice, and how we can address it; or by serving as a candidate and trying to learn about what people in my district want. I would definitely say that my South Asian identity is very important to me and it manifests itself in lots of different ways. A really important thing to me is that we see South Asian American culture as an integral part of American culture – that there isn’t necessarily a dichotomy. If I want to wear a Saari to my swearing-in – which is what I did for my second term as mayor – that should just be me representing a part of my identity that is important to me. 

You recently completed two terms as mayor of Montgomery Township, New Jersey. What was it that made you want to get into politics? 

SJ: I had considered myself an activist for many years and specifically as someone who cared deeply about human rights issues. Over time, I started to feel like advocacy was having its limits. I felt like ultimately the elected officials were making the decisions that they thought were the right ones. That’s when I started thinking that I should advocate for people who shared my values to be in those elected roles, or that I should eventually run myself.

I participated in a candidate training program for women from the Democratic Party who are interested in running for office, called Emerge New Jersey. It was through that program that I learned about the nitty-gritty of connecting with the State Party, County Party, and the Municipal Party. After that, I was campaigning for someone who was running for Congress when I was asked to run for office. In Emerge, I learned that the United States ranked 75th in the world in terms of women’s representation in politics and if I want other women to participate then I believed that I should also step up and do it myself. Ultimately, it was because I wanted to see the values that I hold dear reflected in the policies of my government. 

What has your experience as a representational figure in politics been like so far? Has it been what you expected it to be? 

SJ: I don’t think I really knew what to expect. Being thrust into a role as a representational figure, I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to speak to the broader community, and to be the example that there’s such a hunger to see political engagement from our communities. It mostly comes down to mentoring and advising people on how to get involved – that is also one of the reasons why I got into politics. I had never known anyone who had run for office before. I want to open up the process to more people. I want them to feel empowered, so I’m very happy to help encourage individuals from diverse communities to get involved in the political process. I see that as a responsibility that I am very proud to fulfill. 

You are now seeking a Democratic nomination for the NJ General Assembly. If elected, what are some key issues you plan to focus on as a legislator? 

SJ: My platform is basically focused on prosperity and justice for all. I believe that the government can be a source of good. The first thing that I would want to focus on is investing in green jobs and sustainable recovery. Our economy has shifted dramatically over the course of the pandemic and now we have an opportunity, as we get things restarted, to do so in a sustainable manner. 

The second would be civil and human rights which is a passion of mine and is really why I got involved in activism to begin with. There are a lot of things that can be put in place to ensure that we are diversifying our police department; that we’re acknowledging indigenous rights; that we are providing maternal healthcare. Those are some of the things that I would be very passionate about advocating for when I get into the State Assembly. 

Lastly, what is the one factor you feel is necessary for anyone to run and get elected to office? 

SJ: Go for it. Women and minorities win elections at the same rate as white men, but we just don’t run as often. So, you’ll just have to jump in and you’ll learn as you go. If you’re interested in politics, I would say the best thing for you to do is to connect with your party and start campaigning for candidates you believe in. Through their experience, you will learn. There is a hunger and a need for people with new perspectives, dynamics, ideas, and a strong work ethic. 


Fatima Naqvi is a Rutgers University graduate who currently works as a Legislative Liaison at the New Jersey Department of Education.


 

After 370: Glimmers of Hope

Amrita Kar who was only four years when she became a refugee, now lives in Philadelphia and carries vivid memories of flying a kite with her sister and vignettes of her lost house. Ruchi Kolla from the Bay Area still remembers her childhood, the dolls she left behind in their mad flight in 1990 and nurtures a dream to take her children back to their home. Shakun Mallik, who lost her childhood home when her family was forced to leave Kashmir, now lives in Washington DC but wishes to go back. 

Since being forcefully evicted 30 years ago, the Kashmiri Hindu community has had to make a new life for itself. Today they can be found scattered in towns and cities all over India and the world. Thousands live in USA and Canada. While many years have elapsed, the pain for some is as raw today, as it was in those dark times three decades ago, when they witnessed their long time neighbors and friends turn on them.

For Kashmiri Hindus who have been exiled from their homes for decades, the one-year anniversary of the nullification of Article 370, is a poignantly political and personal milestone.

Women carry especially painful memories of those nights that echoed with slogans demanding Kashmiri Hindus leave the valley but leave their women behind. I caught up with three Kashmiri women who had been forced to leave their homes, now living in USA, to find out how the repeal of Article 370 has influenced their hopes for the future.

Last few remaining Hindu temples in Kashmir.

During their 30-year exile, Kashmiri Hindus have seen two generations of senior family members pass away with unfulfilled desires to return home. A new generation of kids has grown up cut off from their roots. Yet hope persists and got a fresh boost as they watched the Indian government finally abolish article 370 and take steps to redress some basic inequities.

The ladies interviewed were delighted at the change in J&K’s residency laws which are already showing results – just a few months in. With the grant of domicile certificates to long-time residents of the state, Dalits in Kashmir (also known as Valmikis) now have a chance to get access to better education and employment instead of being held as semi-bonded labor in janitorial jobs.

Homosexuality is not illegal anymore, removing a Damocles sword that hung over the LGBTQ community. They are also seeing Kashmiri citizens now finally protected by the many progressive laws that had been kept in abeyance by Article 370—everything from restrictions on child marriage and instant divorce to labor protections, affirmative action, and anti-corruption laws.

Part of the Kashmir Overseas Association’s executive team, Shakun and Amrita visited Kashmir in February 2020 and spent a week traveling through the state including Srinagar, Tulmul, Gulmarg and more. Shakun has been a regular visitor to the state since 2012, even when terrorism was rampant, because she felt that it was her right. It was, however, Amrita’s first time in Kashmir since she had fled. Growing up, Amrita had evinced little desire to visit her former home as a tourist – the memories would have been just too painful.

Shakun and Amrita in Kashmir Feb 2020.

“When I got out of the airport, I was really scared,” Amrita said. To make things worse, the women had chosen to visit right around the time the state was more than normally tense, observing the anniversary of both Afzal Guru’s execution and Burhan Wani’s death. Despite warnings, they pressed ahead. “While shops on the main thoroughfares were shuttered, life seemed normal on the smaller streets. Folks we talked to were tired of the turmoil they had lived through. There seemed to be a strong craving for peace-for more tourists and a chance to make a better living for their families.”

According to Shakun, “while it’s too soon to expect too much change, repealing Article 370 was important to integrating Kashmir more fully into India.  Really no place should have special rights purely due to religion to begin with, especially in a secular country,” she said.  “I feel the emotional pull of my homeland. I want to go back. I hope more steps are taken so I can feel safe 

ID card only valid till marriage for women in Kashmir.

“As women we now feel more empowered,” said Ruchi, celebrating the demise of the unequal laws that stripped Kashmiri women (but not men) of their rights to residency or property in the state if they married outside the community. “I have heard of girls who are struggling financially after divorce, but since they had married outside the community, they could not return to live or work in Kashmir, or even claim their parental property.” Kashmiri men, of course, were always allowed to marry as they pleased, without consequence.  

“As someone who has married a non-Kashmiri, abrogation of 370 impacts me very personally. It’s a restoration of my rights and my very identity,’’ added Ruchi. She is also heartened to see family members, who have found new jobs in the past year and now live and work in Kashmir.

Aside from positive changes on the ground, the repeal of Article 370 has led to structural change, giving a new lease of life and renewal to the dispossessed refugees who have languished in silence for 30 years. There is a glimmer of hope – it is now possible to envision a path to going back home.

It’s also been a cathartic experience for the community. “I think many people who were forced out, had suppressed their pain and not shared their stories – even with their own children,” said Amrita.  “Speaking for myself, it was only after August 5, 2019, that for the first time, I heard my parents open up about their harrowing experiences at length. I cried. We talked at length with a psychiatrist who said it was a critical step to coping with our grief and loss.”

The future has hope. “I want to visit again. I want to live there. I want to maybe even die in Kashmir,” says Shakun.

Pushpita Prasad has a passion for storytelling and Indic causes. She lives and works in the Bay Area.

Kashmir in Pain Before Article 370

Featured Image: Wailing mother of Faizan Fayaz hugs the best friend of her slain son. Faizan was killed in a firing by security forces on a polling day for Srinagar Lok Sabha Constituency in  Budgam district on April 9, 2017. PC: Bilal Ahmad

Bilal Ahmad, a freelance photojournalist from Kashmir, scrolls down the screen full of images he has clicked so far as part of his work. In his fourth-floor flat in Delhi’s Noor Nagar, he opens an image and looks at it for quite a while, as if reminded of the scene and the story behind it.

Taking his eyes off the screen, the 24-year-old photojournalist from Kashmir says, “My aim is to acquaint people around the world with the ground realities of Kashmir, most importantly, the hopelessness of a common man.”

However, Bilal’s aim hit a dead end when Narendra Modi-led government in New Delhi imposed a blanket ban on Internet and telecom services in Kashmir a night before it revoked its special status on August 5, 2019, one year ago. The state was divided into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Article 370, which the central government scrapped on August 5, granted the state some autonomy. The erstwhile state had its own constitution, flag, and could make its own laws.

“I lower my head in disappointment when I see the people whose stories I had captured with my camera but couldn’t publish,” Bilal laments.  

Out of thousands of pictures on his laptop, Bilal has kept six of them in a separate folder named ‘Best’. He agrees to share these pictures, how he clicked them, the stories in them.

“It was after Faizan’s funeral I clicked this picture,” Bilal tells me. “There was a huge crowd of people gathered outside slain Faizan’s house. I saw women and children crying and sobbing. Amid those mourning voices, one particular voice was louder and longer,” he pauses. “It was that of Faizan’s mother in the house. I made my way into the room, though with difficulty, and found her surrounded by other women weeping and trying to console the bereaved mother. She felt suffocated and was escorted out in the open. A couple of women held her and helped her walk round in the garden. But she was still sighing and sobbing. Soon, she saw her son’s best friend coming in. She rushed to him, hugged him tightly, and cried even louder. She kept repeatedly asking him, ‘Bring back my son. You left together in the morning after coming back from Madrassa. Why have you returned alone?’ I was already in tears and did not want to click any pictures. However, I ended up channelizing my emotions into bringing her pain in my frame and do my job,” concluded the photojournalist about the picture.

The next click brings us to a group of people attending the funeral prayers of Adil Ahmad at Eidgah, Srinagar. Adil was an eighteen-year-old boy, who was mowed down by an armed forces vehicle in Chattabal area of Srinagar during intense clashes between protesters and government forces on May 5, 2018.

“It is very intriguing,” says Bilal, “to see children take part in the funerals, which sometimes erupt in fierce clashes with the government forces. They easily become targets of tear gas canisters, pellets and sometimes even get killed by bullets fired by the men in uniform. This isn’t what a child should experience. These things have a long-lasting effect on one’s psyche and take shape of nightmares as you come of age.”

C:\Users\Bilal Ahmad\Desktop\Best\3.jpeg
Funeral prayers of Adil Ahmad. PC: Bilal Ahmad

Amongst the turmoil, Bilal tried to capture moments of calm in Kashmir.

“It was getting chaotic after Friday prayers in Srinagar’s Soura area as youth and paramilitary forces were about to clash with each other,” recalls Bilal.

“The man in the photo was playing with his son inside his shop until he heard a loud bang of tear-gas canister fired at the protesting youth a few hundred meters away. He started panicking, grabbed his son, and came outside.”

C:\Users\Bilal Ahmad\Desktop\Best\5.jpeg
A father fixedly looks at his son, who enjoys a packet of snacks outside a shuttered shop in Soura on the outskirts of Srinagar. PC: Bilal Ahmad

“His son, however, proved to be stubborn and was refusing to leave the shop. The father hurriedly tore off a packet of snacks from a rope of many hanging inside the shop and brought down the shutter. The clashes were yet to turn violent and the shopkeeper let go his son sit on the other end of the shop, while he kept a close eye on him and around.”

C:\Users\Bilal Ahmad\Desktop\Best\6.JPG
Nusrat reflecting on losing her eyesight. PC: Bilal Ahmad

Nusrat Jan, a 32-year-old mother of a two-year-old daughter lost her sight in the right eye after she was hit by pellets fired by government forces during intense clashes October 17, 2018 near Srinagar.

The pellet injury left a void in my heart. Now, I can see my daughter only with my left eye,” recants Nusrat.

“It seemed a tough battle for the two-year-old baby girl to see glasses on her mother’s eyes,” Bilal tells me with a heavy heart. “She tried repeatedly to remove them, probably, to see her eyes, but her mother would not let her as she kept feeding her,” he says and is reminded of what the woman in the picture told him then.

Present Day

Here in Kashmir, I caught up with Bilal again after almost 8 months since our meeting in Delhi. During this time, Bilal says, Journalists in Kashmir have been through a lot. “One is scared to work under these circumstances, especially when you see your colleagues being questioned, beaten, detained, and booked under draconian laws such as UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act). See, what happened with photojournalist Masarat Zahra,” says Bilal.

Masrat, a Kashmir-based freelance photojournalist was booked under UAPA by J and K Police for allegedly sharing “anti-national posts”. Masrat, however, denied such charges and said that these posts were part of her professional work, some of which had already been published.

Bilal is also worried about the new Media Policy which the Jammu and Kashmir administration unveiled on June 2. “It has added to the difficulties that we as journalists were already facing,” informs Bilal, resigned to his circumstance. He hopes change will come soon…

Younis Ahmad Kaloo is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir. Previously, he was a correspondent at Force Newsmagazine, a monthly magazine on national security and aerospace.

“As a Small Brown Woman With an Arabic Name” – Ramiza Koya

The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya. 

Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?

Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony.  The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.

Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir. 

Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se.  There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls!  And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.   

Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there? 

Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well.  There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical.  His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!

Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race. 

Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny.  To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down.  I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue.  I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.

Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you? 

Ramiza: Books that influenced me when I was younger were by Richard Wright, Malcolm X, James Baldwin: coming of age stories by African-American writers moved me deeply.  I related to them; they made me feel like I had a story too. Then I was all about Indian literature: Midnight’s Children and Sacred Games and books by Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh; these helped me understand my own identity, my origins a bit more, and inspired me to travel in India.  More recently, I have loved Elena Ferrante, Min Jin Lee, Jesmyn Ward, Ruth Ozeki, Julie Otsuka, William Dalrymple, Hillary Mantel. The poets Ocean Vuong and Ilya Kaminsky have deeply influenced me this year. 

Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.

Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis!  It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.   

Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?

Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily.  It does need an editor, however.

Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?

Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. The Atlas of Reds and Blueswinner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize—is her first novel. A former newspaper reporter, Laskar is now a poet, photographer, essayist, and novelist. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


KOYA, RAMIZA SHAMOUN. ROYAL ABDULS. FOREST AVENUE PR, 2020.

Immigrant Rights Activists See Turning Point For All Americans

By Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services

Warning that the country is heading down a white nationalist, nativist path, four immigrant rights advocates issued a call to action just hours before the U.S. Senate rejected all four proposals to change U.S. immigration policy, and a second federal court found the president’s “Muslim ban” unconstitutional.

The advocates spoke at a national telebriefing for ethnic media sponsored by Ready California, a collaborative cross-sector effort led by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

“We’ve all learned to expect the unexpected,” said Sameera Hafiz, an attorney and senior policy strategist for the ILRC in Washington, DC.  “The reason we’re here is because of Trump’s decision in September to rescind the DACA program and throw the lives of close to 800,000 young people into chaos and uncertainty.

“But while the Senate was ostensibly debating the future of the DACA program,” Hafiz argued,  “the reality is that any (proposed) DACA proposals go hand in hand with eliminating the diversity visa program, severely curtailing the family immigration program and expansive border enforcement measures – far beyond what we think about when we think about border security.”

“And while we’ve been focused in DC on the legislative side, we’ve been distracted from what the administration is already doing.” Hafiz cited attacks on jurisdictions with sanctuary policies and other enforcement actions against Dreamers, mothers and activists.

Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), agreed that what is underway is an attack on legal immigration itself which she called “a white nationalist agenda (whereby) certain individuals are not qualified to come into the United States based on their country of birth and their religion.”

On average, Salas noted, “our clients being deported from Los Angeles had been in the country more than 25 years. With the crippling of various legal channels like the Central American minors program, the separation of children from parents, the ending of diversity vistas, “the list goes on,” she said –“we’re destroying people’s lives.”

“This is not just about the immigrant community any more. It’s about what kind of country we want and who we are, as Americans.”

Zahra Billoo,  executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and a civil rights attorney, hailed the decision by the Fourth Circuit which joined a chorus of courts across the country who have said that the Muslim ban is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, she noted, “Whether you are from Iran or Somalia, it does not matter what your story is, you cannot come to the US.”   Billoo quoted a Georgetown University estimate that 60000 people had been impacted in their efforts to get an education or see their families.

“We’re optimistic,” she said, but cautioned that what’s legal doesn’t always align with what’s moral.  “The court in the past has allowed many unjust things, such as the Japanese internment.”

Adoubou Traore, director of the African Advocacy Network which provides legal counsel for immigrants of the African diaspora, highlighted the dramatic growth of the African immigrant community, from 816,000 in 1980 to more than 4 million in 2016,  Largely faceless and voiceless, this population has borne the brunt of every new restrictive immigration measure, from the Muslim ban to the removal of Temporary Protective Status (TPS).   As immigrants and as Blacks, “we are the only group that has been named racially, and coming from countries that have been named in ways that I don’t even want to repeat, but we all heard it.”

Asked about the future of the immigrant rights movement, Salas noted the “tremendous mobilization by immigrant youth and this will only increase as people mobilize around the March 5 Congressional deadline for a solution on DACA.  

“But this is a call to the broader immigrant community and Americans in general,” Salas emphasized.

“We need to stand up not just to be in solidarity with immigrants and refugees, and our brothers and sisters from the Muslim community. We need to stand up as Americans, as a country saying this is not who we are or what our values are.  I think this is what’s missing.”