The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human

The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human: Multifaceted true tales from many Muslim worlds
5 min read
14 April, 2021
Book Club: Marguerite Richards' anthology of global Muslim voices is a honest recollection of the human experience. From chaos to peace, subjugation to freedom, the 34 personal essays reveal all.
The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human contains personal essays from several writers
Anthologies highlighting Muslim voices are not anomalies in the literary spaces, but rarely do we see an anthology that attempts to compile stories across several Muslim worlds; The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human is one that manages to achieve this goal.

Edited by Marguerite Richards, The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human contains personal essays from several writers, new and renowned alike, from countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria, India, Iraq, Oman, Sudan, South Africa, Jordan, Turkey, Sri Lanka and many other Muslim worlds.

To avoid the common mistake of summing up everyone with ties to countries and heritages that are considered "Islamic", the anthology carries a byline 'Tales from many Muslim worlds'. This byline is vindicated by the myriad of perspectives displayed in the entries.

The collection of 34 essays opens with a foreword by Pakistani author and columnist, Bina Shah and an introduction by the anthology's editor.

The entries range from acknowledgement and praise of Islam to indifference and finally, criticism of Islam. This, according to the foreword, is a recognition of Islam's own diversity of thought, belief and action.

The absence of a specific theme beyond being from a 'Muslim world' is a blessing in that it allows the contributors to write stories that resonated with them, with or without a relationship with Islam.

Some entries like Those Eyes of Hers by Samina Hadi-Tabassum – which emphasises the importance of not desiring what others possess – have a direct end that is visible from the opening paragraph, while others took more abstract and seemingly ambiguous themes. However, this seems like an ode to the title, as the human experience can be direct as much as it can be vague.  

The essays that show a type of indifference towards Islam – like A Summer's Rain by Hisham Bustani, which gives a good glimpse into the author's interests and thoughts on issues like the effect of Western intervention in MENA affairs; and The Sufi and the Architect by H. Masud Taj, which teaches the reader that life can take unexpected turns – only mention Islam when referring to their Muslim-majority home countries.

However, their entries emit the universal human experience that seems to be the central aim of this anthology – beyond the 'Muslim worlds' that the entries have in common.

War in the Muslim world and its effects are explored by many of the entries, but each touched on different aspects of these effects, thereby providing different outlooks.

For example, Khaleh Mina by Kamin Mohammadi chooses to focus on the effects of war on women, through the story of the author's aunt.

The author takes the reader on a journey of changes experienced during wars and the beauty of a close-knitted family that remains so even under those traumatic conditions.

In Forty Days of War, Wasan Qasim describes how her family clung to a shaky sense of normalcy as a coping mechanism to get them through the early days of the war in Iraq.

Similarly, in Siren Songs, Barrak Alzaid shows the reader how despite the distant but gloomy halo of war, Kuwaitis continued their daily lives – enough to fall in and out of love and experience teenage angst – with less intense anxiety than described in Forty Days of War.

It is interesting to see the effects of similar wars on different countries from varied perspectives, and that despite varying degrees of devastation, the impacts of war on human lives cannot be pitted against one another.

  While it might not be a perfect anthology, its imperfection is a manifestation of one of the many chaoses of the human existence  

Staying true to its byline, essays like From Sule, a Farewell to Dad by Criselda Yabes and Meeting in a Minaret by Tharik Hussain shed light on parts of the world that are not considered Muslim but that have a rich Muslim heritage and history.

The former brought to life a Muslim majority Island in the Philippines called Sulu, where the author's dad had thrived emotionally.

The essay also explores the grief caused by immigrating from a place one loves – a feeling that is not alien to many immigrants. The latter entry takes us through the Romanian city of Constanta as the author explores the ancient mosque, Mahmudiye, that is still central to the lives of Muslims in Constanta.

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Love and the complexities of relationships are also explored by some of the authors.

In Radical Muslim in Love, Wardah Abbas describes how she finds fulfilment in her identity as a Nigerian Yoruba Muslim woman. She also details how she achieved this by filling the gaps of female rights in her culture with Islamic teachings. This reconciliation then aided her hunt and discovery of fairytale love.

Conversely, Neymat Raboobee in For Love Not Duty, describes how a yearning for her father's love held her down. The reader is also privy to the steps she took to free herself from those emotional shackles.  

The reader also sees two different extremities of humanity displayed in the collection – in Sepideh Zamani's The Unfinished Report a Muslim family openly welcomed and pledged their allegiance to a non-Muslim family during religious cleansing discriminations against non-Muslims in Iran, despite the possible dangers.

In contrast, Main Hoon Junaid by Samia Ahmed highlights the story of Junaid, a young Muslim Indian boy that was beaten to death under the unflinching gaze of a crowd that did not intervene.

With notable contributions from well-known writers like Leila Aboulela, Hanan al-Shaykh and Erdağ Gőknar, The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human is an interesting introduction to the writing styles of different authors with ties to the Muslim world.

While it might not be a perfect anthology, its imperfection is a manifestation of one of the many chaoses of the human existence – our actions, decision and experiences do not always make sense, but our collective humanity is forever evident in said missense.

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha