Writing for the right reasons

Originally written Gulf News ‘Off the Cuff’ http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/writing-for-the-right-reasons-1.1481146

Published: 21:03 March 28, 2015


If I were to pick a single reason as to why I worked extra hard in essay writing class back in school, I wouldn’t be able to. Maybe it was the fact that writing was pretty much the only thing I could do well in in school without extra help, or perhaps it was the fact that my teacher inspired me. It could even be the simple reason that every week, my marks were put on the soft board because I had topped — again.

Writing had always been a hobby. Sometimes I scribbled into my diary late into the night because life was unfair, and at times I couldn’t stop writing because life inspired me. I wanted to write my heart out. And like all those who are in the creative field, I desperately wanted to be out there. More than anything I wanted to be read.

Validation came a few years later when I was 19, and one editor back home in Pakistan finally published me. The byline. Oh God, the byline. My name in print. And under it were my words neatly paragraphed in black and white, out there for everyone to see! One thing led to another, and when the wonderful editor at Gulf News agreed to read my work, I couldn’t stop smiling for days.

Liberating experience

I remember not being able to sleep at night because I knew the paper would carry my article the following day, and I remember pouncing on the paper early next morning when the delivery guy left it at the door, opening it at the right section and almost dancing in excitement at finding myself inside. It’s been nine years since I wrote my first column for this section and I can’t help but marvel at how greatly my motivation has changed over the years.

From the hopeful writer eagerly seeking substantiation and recognition from the world, I have matured into a woman who realises just how much power the written word can have. Writing can be painfully narcissistic and self-centred if it is not done with the right intentions. When you’re only writing for likes and comments, the absence of those — as will often happen — can punch a hole through your heart. But when you write for the right reasons, it becomes a whole new liberating experience.

I’m not sure when the byline thrill was replaced by a deep sense of social responsibility, a realisation that I needed to make a meaningful contribution no matter how minuscule it may be. From the careless blogger who put up anything online and revelled with every like, comment and share, I’ve changed into someone who thinks long and hard before publishing anything even on my free online blog.

How many times does it happen that you read about something in the paper or online and begin thinking differently about it? I for one have often come across an article on a certain topic and altered my thinking and actions according to it. We don’t realise it, but anything that gets ‘published’ whether online or in print can have a great impact on people.

Sense of accountability

As a writer, that just doubles the sense of accountability you feel. You don’t want to let your readers down; you want to write something useful and/or profound. As the years go by, you also begin to wonder what your children would think if they read your work. My older one is a voracious reader and devours just about anything she can get her hands on. One day I might not be around anymore, but thanks to the web, my work will be. Would the girls read it after I’m gone and think I messed up? Or that I said something I shouldn’t have? And if I have nearly 800 words at my disposal, do I not have an unspoken trust to use that space to the best of my ability, and write something that brings about a change for the better? Sure, I can’t change the world with my writing, but every drop in the ocean counts, right?

With these powerful emotions rampaging around in my brain, the flair and ease of old times deserts me. That, dear readers, would explain my absence from this column for the past few months. For someone who thrives on writing like fish thrive on water, the experience has been extremely frustrating but it has certainly helped me refresh my intentions. And as I sign off after having written this with some kind of flow, dare I hope the flair is back?

Smell the roses


Note: Wrote this a while back, somehow it just got ignored.

Sometimes I like constructing unusual sentences, and I try to use the finest words I can possibly find. At other times though, I feel the need to use the simplest of words to convey the strongest of messages. So here goes: Life is tough.


It’s an obvious thing, isn’t it? But I write it so because with every problem that comes my way, I worry as though the entire world is collapsing, as if life being tough is something out of the ordinary. I worry like a professional worrier – it’s almost as though someone were paying me for worrying by the hour. (The current state of my bank account reflects that worrying does not pay very well, sadly).


To begin my day, I worry we’ll all get late and no one will reach school, college or work on time. Then I fret because the younger one refuses to swallow a bite of her egg or wear the clothes I selected for her. Then we finally leave and as I sit in the car and drive myself to class, worry envelops me again. And this time it’s diverse worry – apparently I excel in all kinds!


I worry about the little disagreement he and I had in the morning, I worry if the kids are safe and having a good time. I worry about my incomplete assignment and I worry about the family abroad and about the friend whose husband passed away. And then when I get to class, I let the wisdom and knowledge imparted take me away just for a little while. For a few precious hours I try to ignore the million little things on my mind and just learn; absorb. Sometimes a phone call or a text puts me in the zone again and in any case, it’s whilst driving back that I think about problems most easily. Indeed, I have been known to burst into tears at the steering wheel and still manage to ferry everyone across safely.


I’ll spare you the tedious details of my worrying from hereon, because I suppose you get a fair idea that I worry a lot. I haven’t written this down for anything except serious chiding to my own self. Yes, everyone has issues. I do and I’m sure you do. In fact, if I ask you to name one thing that’s troubling you right now, you’d be hard pressed to name just one! But does that mean we constantly fret and are forever anxious?


It’s a given that things won’t always be pleasant. As everyday passes, we get older and sometimes we get sick and we get the odd white hair and someday we’ll have a full head of snow white hair, and people will hurt us, judge us in the worst way possible, loved ones will die and there Will. Be. Problems. So?


Is that something so unique or unwarranted? We constantly fear the future and bemoan the past. And the present slides by all too quickly. My children grow up in front of my eyes and I refuse to enjoy their childhood, their innocent little words, and their unconditional love, their sloppy kisses and their middle of the night hugs. All I worry about is that their room is a mess, that they’re not dressed right and of course, that they haven’t eaten their perfect balanced diet and that they’re not doing well enough at school.


I worry about assignments and I overlook the fact that I am doing something as important as learning? I crib about everything and forget to enjoy the company of the beautiful people God placed in my life? Why? I treat chores at home as though they were designed to exhaust – nay annihilate me, ignoring the fact I am making a difference in the lives of those that I care about?


Like I said, worrying doesn’t pay (well or otherwise) at all. I don’t know about you, but I seriously need to take a breather from the manic pace of life, just sit still, give thanks and smile from within, smell the forgotten roses and count my blessings.

Revisited: Baker Street

(image credit: google images)

There is something about the musty smell of a book, its dog-eared pages – something about the book being in your hand that suddenly makes everything right in the world again. Problems don’t seem quite so drastic anymore; heartaches can be forgotten, and worries flung aside as one is effectively transported into a whole new world.

For me, I’ve always found pleasure in reading a proper physical book, rather than, say an e-book that you peruse peering into your computer with tiring eyes, scrolling down as you read ahead. I was quite surprised then, when the iBooks application on the iPad bowled me over completely.

It’s as large as a book in your hand, feels right, there is a dictionary at hand when you come across difficult words and most importantly, you can read in pitch darkness even as your significant other snoozes away peacefully. Determined to give the much-hyped software a try, I began searching the free ebooks and stumbled upon Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on it. The magic is still the same as it was when I was a teenager eagerly devouring each detail of Holmes’ world.

Holmes’ precise art of deduction and Dr Watson’s eternal amazement of it, Sherlock’s wry humour, his remarkable disguises and his indomitable, supremely competitive spirit all combine to create some timeless classics. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s words flow with a beautiful coherence and are not tedious or complicated, and are in fact quite lucid.

The thing I find most enjoyable about the books is the fact that as a person they elevate you, further the frontiers of your thought. What I mean to say is – how many fictional novels will explain to you how the finer details of a person’s hat can point to significant lifestyle habits? How often can you learn so much from a fictional book? To be honest, I find it fascinating, mentally stimulating. Holmes’ mind is like a finely-honed computer with the human capacity to handle danger and risk and pure adventure. And for this insider’s peek into that genius mind, I am ever grateful.

Good writers have their own distinctive style and sometimes, you don’t need to see the byline of the author to know who they are; just reading their work is enough. Holmes’ adventures carry many such characteristic one-liners. You often come across a beginning like, “A narrative which promises to be the most singular which I have listened to for some time,” said by Holmes or Dr Watson on the latest case, immediately sparking reader-interest.

Holmes, although brilliant and gifted, is an eccentric man. He snorts cocaine, has the stiffest upper lip in all of Britain, is proud and arrogant and can wrong-foot anyone with his clever and cutting remarks. And women – he doesn’t care for them either – apparently he is way above them. And yet, readers across generations from each corner of the world have loved Holmes, loved his aura and loved his peculiarities.

Sometimes I wish I had Sherlock Holmes’ great insight into the human mind, and his expert understanding of clues that he so passionately unearthed. For there is a mystery I’m trying to solve – it’s called ‘Life’ and sometimes, I just don’t have a clue! Singular, is it not, Dr Watson?

Greg Mortenson in hot water

Still can’t believe this piece of news I read on Dawn.com, by AFP.


plus this link as well


America’s bestselling author of “Three Cups of Tea,” an inspiring account of building schools in Afghanistan, fought for his reputation Monday after reports said he’d made up much of the story.

Celebrating the written word

First published @ dawn.com

DUBAI: I have always wondered whether writers who write proficiently could also speak that well. My curiosity was quelled when I got a chance to listen to Greg Mortensen give a talk at the Emirates Literature Festival earlier this month.

The co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Three Cups of Tea, Mortensen walked out to a thunderous ovation from a packed audience in traditional Pakistani garb, a shalwar kurta. Mortenson, who started building schools in the northern areas of Pakistan after a failed attempt at reaching the summit of K2, talked about how important it is to educate girls to bring about change in society. “You can drop bombs, build roads or put up electricity wires, but unless the girls are educated, a society won’t change,” he insisted.  Currently, the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s brainchild, has built and operates 178 schools in the rural and generally unstable areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Around 68,000 children are enrolled in the numerous schools and close to 54,000 are girls. In his talk Mortenson pointed out that the real fear of terrorists is not a bullet, but the pen, because education can empower people and give them courage.

Mortenson’s second book, Stones into Schools has been described by the New York Times as well as the Washington Post as a timely narrative, though not quite as compelling or as well-written as Three Cups of Tea. Coincidentally, I realised that his talk, although informative (and interspersed with self-deprecating humour), wasn’t quite as riveting as Three Cups, but then the book had been a hard act to follow, especially with David Oliver Relin’s expert wordplay.

Another attraction at the Literature Festival was a cooking demonstration by well-known Indian actress and food writer, Madhur Jaffrey. Even at 77 years of age, Jaffrey, a prolific writer, continues to come up with new recipes (as her latest effort‘Curry Easy’ showcases) and had the audience salivating at her ‘Bhuni jhinga’ and ‘Salmon in a Bengali mustard sauce’. An interesting tip that Jaffrey gave during her demonstration was that for an excellent tomato puree, one can simply grate a tomato with a grater.

After weaving through a throng of people waiting for book-signings by Madhur Jaffrey and Greg Mortenson, I found myself looking at the collection of books for sale at discounted prices at the Intercontinental Hotel (the venue for the festival). I picked up The Messenger – The Meanings of the Life of Muhammed by Tariq Ramadan, a professor at Oxford University, who is a renowned Islamic scholar and writer, and is originally from Switzerland. The first few pages of the book are beautifully written, with a depth and spirituality impossible to ignore. And when Tariq Ramadan spoke at the festival the following day, his talk was every bit as eloquent as his written word. An incredibly open-minded and often controversial Islamic scholar, Ramadan said that after reading his most recent book The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism, a French journalist asked him, ‘Are you still a Muslim?’ to which Ramadan quipped, ‘Your question speaks far more about yourself and how open-minded you are than it does about me.’ He also outlined the importance of intellectual humility and said that one must always be willing to learn from others and not have a tunnel-vision in one’s beliefs.

I also got a chance to listen to Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Coleman recently wrote ParadiseBeneath Her Feet – a book that talks about how women are transforming the Middle East. She revealed that over the last few decades, there has been a remarkable change in the role of women in the Arab society. In Saudi Arabia for instance, at one time, girls were not allowed to attend school. In 1962, in an agreement with the United States, the then king allowed females to get formal educated at school. Now, nearly half a century later, in the Kingdom, 63 per cent of all college graduates are women. Another remarkable fact she revealed was that a study by the Harvard Business Review found that women make up an increasingly high number of the most talented professionals, and that the ambition index of the women from UAE was much higher than that of the average female American professional. Coleman’s session was full of statistics and somewhat eye-opening, but the paltry attendance was a little disappointing.

When I scanned the list for a Pakistani author, I found that apart from Sadruddin Hashwani, chairman of the Hashoo Group, who spoke about his upcoming autobiography, Pakistan had no representation at the LitFest. One hopes that will change next year as the country is a burgeoning ground for extremely talented writers who have already made their mark at various international festivals.

The Festival hosted talks from many noteworthy writers such as Karen Armstrong, Lynn Truss, Michael Palin as well as many regional Arab writers, including Khalid Al Khamissi, Maha Gargash and Sara Al-Alewi. Workshops for children, and aspiring writers were also held. For a lot of booklovers (myself included), it felt like being a child in a candy store – you wanted buy all the books and attend all the talks too. But I don’t think attending more than three completely absorbing sessions in a day (the festival was over three days) is a very good idea, because by the end of a long day, I was exhausted (mentally and physically) as well as famished, and was indignantly wondering why the audience wasn’t offered Madhur Jaffrey’s (presumably scrumptious) stir-fried shrimps.

Lost art of penmanship

Note: This article first appeared in the print and online version of Gulf News.


Lost art of penmanship

There is something special about a pen in your hand, a beautiful notebook to write in, and a hot mug of coffee on a peaceful winter night — an inexplicable dreamy, almost sublime feeling that beckons you to fill the pages with your innermost thoughts.

By Mehmudah Rehman, Special to Gulf News

Published: 00:00 December 6, 2010

There is something special about a pen in your hand, a beautiful notebook to write in, and a hot mug of coffee on a peaceful winter night — an inexplicable dreamy, almost sublime feeling that beckons you to fill the pages with your innermost thoughts.

What compelled me to write this piece (type it actually — ironically so!) is the fact that I recently rediscovered the pleasure of writing on paper. I stumbled upon dad’s old pen which he’d forgotten at my place and began doodling with it. Soon I began writing in earnest with it for I found it vibrant and flowing as it kept pace with my thoughts.

In the present day and age, we hardly write anything with the pen (save the grocery list) at all. One reason of course is that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Co have taken over our lives completely. Also, I presume mothers of young children (like me) would be hard-pressed to write anything on paper at all.

Consider the mind of a two year old that has just perfected the pincer grip. What could be more fun than striking a line across a page? There are times when you win the ‘pen-battle’ and after re-establishing ownership of the pen, you meticulously write everything down in your book — only to find your handwriting struck through by a creative two year old who knows that your notebook can be attacked whenever she feels artistically inclined. Colouring books and the likes do not have much appeal when compared to something that a grown-up (you) would find worth writing in.

Thus my habit of recording anything noteworthy through the pen was fast replaced by the usage of technology and passwords and the general convenience of typing. My mind travels back to the bygone era, when penmanship was perceived as being aristocratic, and people wrote with a flourish of their feather quills or beautiful pens.

The legendary romance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning is timelessly preserved through some classic love letters and poems. This wouldn’t have been the case had Elizabeth been on iPhone and Robert on BlackBerry!

Kills the romance, doesn’t it? What I have always perceived to be a beautiful love story somehow loses all of its charm and magic when I imagine her tapping the touchscreen and him typing on the little black Qwerty. Elizabeth who said Robert’s letter “threw her into ecstasies” was reading the handwriting of Robert, which was intimate, with attention to every little detail, written specially for her.

It is no wonder that their relationship blossomed into one of the most famous courtships in literature history. I have a feeling she wouldn’t have responded the same way to, say: ttys gtg now, ILY 4evr!

That said, reliance on technology does not mean we, or our next generations, are by any means less capable than our predecessors. The human mind is complex and beautiful and has exceptional, even unexplored abilities, and no matter which century we belong to, we can create masterpieces if we let our minds, and our hearts, take flight.

– Mehmudah Rehman is a Dubai-based freelance writer.