Indo-Pakistani American Author Nafisa Haji discusses her best selling book “The Writing on My Forehead” at the Annual IAS Fundraising Dinner


Nafisa HajiThe program began with Rev. Paul Chaffee, the Executive Director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio who was the Master of Ceremony. He led us in an opening prayers and then introduced the IAS with these kind words: IAS has a deep commitment to social justice, peacemaking, women’s rights issues. It offers educational programs on these matters that reach into the interfaith community in a collaborative way. Dominican University has been a partner. The “building bridges of understanding” series began eight years ago with IAS in the lead. He continued that Dr. Nahid Angha has contributed to the interfaith movement , she was president of the Presidio interfaith council, and that the Annual Sufism Symposium is an “intra-faith” ecumenical Muslim event. It gives witness to the possibility that we can talk to each other in peace.

Beth Ashley, retired IJ Journalist introduced the speaker: I interviewed Nafisa Haji for the Marin Independent Journal. The theme was reconciling being an American and an Indo-Pakistani. Nafis is a wonderful translator of the two cultures, a bridge between them. Civilizations don’t clash. They are fluid; they blend. Moreover, Muslims in America are free to worship in a much more authentic way than in countries where there is compulsion.

Nafisa Haji, the speaker of the evening, whose book was on the SF Chronicle best selling novels, began with this introduction: “The Writing on My Forehead” was the first novel I completed. Why did I get stuck before? Somewhere along the line I feel something authentic is missing – a spark, a coming to life. The characters at that point become unruly and want to take over the story. We go to war over who is in control – me or them.

Finishing the story from that point requires surrender, letting the story flow through me rather than from me. This is a good spiritual metaphor – actively doing while submitting.

It is an interesting time to be a writer, especially across cultures. “The Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel P. Huntington leaves no room for life as I’ve experienced it. The book suggests cultures are solid objects that collide and crash. But the real essence of a culture is found in songs and stories that are fluid.

Putting words together in a story enables us to own many cultures and experiences. A well-told story is about opening up the boxes and sharing what’s inside them. It goes beyond translation to transference. It expands “us” to the point where there is no “them.” In Urdu, a major language of Pakistan, the word “empathy is a compound made of “us” and “pain” that reveals separateness to be false.

Writing on the forehead is a sign of destiny, of qismet. The Quranic verse of The Throne is often used as a prayer of protection that creates an expanding circle of safety and peace. This is how I define my spiritual journey. The outer circle gets bigger as my inner circle gets more finely tuned. Readers claim my characters as their own. This proves the fluidity of cultures. Diversity belongs to no one but to everyone.

For me, writing is instinctual. The best way to learn how to write is to read and find what you like and don’t like. Writer’s workshops and Ph.D’s in literature are not necessary.

Her talk continued with question and answer.

Seido Lee DeBarros, a Zen Buddhist Priest from Green Gulch, lead us in a closing prayers.

He said: In the Qur’an, Allah says, “Had We wished, We could have made you one people. But you are many, and you can strive with one another for doing good works.”

Why are we here together tonight? We each have our own reasons. But there is a shared deeper motive, a universal intention, an energy. It has no hands or feet, and needs ours. Every day, all the time, we manifest this universal vow. We could make it a meditation in order to be more aware of it. But regardless, there is joy in this. It is a blessing to be helpful. With regard to IAS, the universe must be pleased at such an excellent manifestation.

All faith traditions have a meditative and contemplative component. I was asked to be part of an interfaith group that wanted to do something constructive in the world. I wasn’t that interested until I learned how reflection and action are connected, and how we can enrich each other’s practices through interfaith awareness.

IAS and Dominican provided the follow-through for interfaith initiatives that keep us awake and loving forward. There is a multiplier effect through supporting any part of interfaith through IAS, which has global reach. Can you feel the prayer written on the palm of your hand, or on the soles of your feet as you walk upon the earth? The prayer spreads, and our life becomes that prayer. The activities of IAS illuminate that prayer with the message, “peace, peace, peace…”

 

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