It’s been a while….

So, I’m embarrassed at the length of time that has elapsed since I’ve posted anything on this site. I have plenty of excuses to offer. The best of which are: I’ve been writing a book. And, I moved from California to Turkey. And now I’m ready to start writing about what that’s been like. Stay tuned….

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The Sound Behind the Writing

When I’m writing, songs pop into my head. One of my favorite forms of procrastination entails spending inordinate amounts of time tracking down the tunes and putting together a play list—sort of like a “soundtrack” for whatever I’m writing. This is helpful, too, for keeping track of the emotional threads running through the story. Certain songs get tied to certain moods, characters, or scenes that I’m working on. Just listening to them helps me find my place again, like opening the page of a book I’m reading to a favorite bookmark I’ve tucked into the pages.

The play list for The Sweetness of Tears was ridiculously extensive. In chronological order (in terms of the way the plot of The Sweetness of Tears unfolds) the songs I listened to included:

The Mission, Ennio Morricone
On Earth As It Is In Heaven, Ennio Morricone
Paradise City, Guns N’ Roses
Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, Crystal Gayle
Brown Eyed Girl, Van Morrison
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Guns N’ Roses
What Am I To You?, Norah Jones
Sweet Child O’ Mine, Guns N’ Roses
Love Me Tender, Elvis Presley
Ya Hussain Ya Hussain, (Oh Hussain, Oh Hussain) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Ali Da Malang, (Disciple of Ali) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Dil-e-Naadaan, (Naïve Heart) Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh, based on a poem by Ghalib
Boys Don’t Cry, The Cure
Superman, Five for Fighting
Hairaan Hua, (I was shaken) Abida Parveen
The Long Way Home, Norah Jones
Where The Streets Have No Name, U2
People Are Strange, The Doors
Seven Years, Norah Jones
Come Away With Me, Norah Jones
Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, Nina Simone
America the Beautiful, Buffy Sainte-Marie
I Am A Patriot, The Burns Sisters’ version
My Country Tis of Thy People, Buffy Sainte-Marie
The General, Dispatch
Ave Maria Guarani, Ennio Morricone
People Like Me, K’naan
Wavin’ Flag, K’naan
Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley
Hound Dog, Elvis Presley
Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis Presley
Teddy Bear, Elvis Presley
Wooden Heart, Elvis Presley
All Shook Up, Elvis Presley
Can’t Be Still, Booker T. and The MG’s
Until It’s Time For You To Go, Buffy Sainte-Marie
Dil Hi To Hai, Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh
(It’s only a heart)
Aree Logo, Abida Parveen
(Oh People)
Bazeecha-e-Atfaal, (Children’s Playground) Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh, based on a poem by Ghalib
I Am A Patriot, Jackson Browne version
Yeh Jafa e Gham ka chara, (The solution for this oppression of grief) Abida Parveen, based on a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Allah Hoo, (The Divine is!) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Illahi Aansoo Bhari Zindagi Kisi Ko Na De, (Lord, please give no one a life full of tears) Mehdi Hassan
19 Miles To Bagdad, Lizzie West & The White Buffalo
Ya Illahi, (Oh Lord) Shaam
Universal Soldier, Buffy Sainte-Marie
Rock the Casbah, The Clash
Killing An Arab, The Cure
Rivers of Babylon, Boney M.
100 Years, Five For Fighting

In addition, on my play list was a selection of nohas and marsias, religious dirges about the tragedy of Karbala, which is described in detail in The Sweetness of Tears.

Shabbir Ka Pursa, recited by Asad Jahan
(Condolence for Shabbir—a title for Husain )
Ghabraye Gi Zainab, recited by Nasir Jahan
(Zainab will be distraught)
Salaam e Akhir, recited by Nasir Jahan
(The final salutation)
Hussain Hai Hussain, recited by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
(Hussain, oh Hussain)
Husain, Husain, recited by Noor Jahan

The biggest surprise was finding a scratchy old recording of a Mir Anees marsia recited by the world famous Lata Mangeshkar.

You can sample the nohas and marsias on by clicking on the titles above.

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My What’s Next? Chat at Author Exposure

The Sweetness of Tears is out today! The day The Writing On My Forehead came out, I remember coming home from a Board meeting of a nonprofit where I volunteer to find that my husband and son had gone to all the bookstores within a 20 mile radius, camera in hand, to take pictures of the book….usually located way back in the stacks. Wonder if the bookstore employees might have guessed that they weren’t exactly disinterested customers as my guys pulled the books out of the shelves and rearranged them so that the covers would show?
Check out my chat with Author Exposure….

What’s Next? at Author Exposure

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Favorite Words and Phrases from around the World

In my second novel, The Sweetness of Tears, (now at a bookstore near you!) one of the main characters, Jo, has a collection of words in different languages that she’s kept since she was a child, words taught her by her missionary grandmother, Faith. Jo’s list, and the fact that I did a wee bit of translating of couplets by the Urdu poet, Ghalib, got me thinking about words and phrases I love from around the world. Below, you’ll see a list of some of my favorites…words and phrases I love because of how they sound, what they mean, or because they’re so embedded in the culture they come from that they are hard to translate. In honor of Jo and The Sweetness of Tears, I invite you to help make my list longer. If you have a word or a phrase, in any language, that you love, please email or tweet me so I can add it to my list. Don’t forget to let me know what language it’s in, how to pronounce it and why you love it.

International Word and Phrase Collection

chutzpah: (Hebrew) audacity. Love the way the word sounds like what it means.
habibi (habibti in feminine form): (Arabic) beloved. Term of endearment used casually between friends, like buddy, and also between lovers, the tone it’s used in gives away the intended meaning.
hurriyah: (Arabic) freedom. I love the way it sounds like “hurry” in English, true to the spirit of the Arab Spring, the hurry that young people in the Arab world are suddenly in for the struggle for freedom long denied.
yalla: (Arabic) let’s go, come on! Seems like an exclamation point is built into the sound and feel of this word.
jaan: (Hindi/Urdu/Farsi) life. Term of endearment, like darling or dear.
chalo: (Hindi/Urdu) let’s go.
masala: (Hindi/Urdu) mix of spices. A lip-smacking, mouth-watering word that has became global…and the spiciness implied isn’t just about food. (Remember Denzel in Mississippi Masala?)
daal cheenie (Hindi/Urdu): cinnamon….this word translates literally to sugar for daal or lentils. I love this word for so many reasons. Daal is a spicy dish, so I love the contradictory taste buds activated on saying this word, and the fact that cinnamon, which is a spice for sweet dishes in European based cooking is used (often) in savory/spicy dishes on the Indian subcontinent.
jambo: (Swahili) hello/how are you. I visited Kenya years ago and the charm of this word is the broad smile you always see when you hear it used.
hindi bale: (Tagalog) never mind, it doesn’t matter. I lived in the Philippines for a couple of years as a child and never forgot how the tune used in speaking this phrase conveys it’s meaning.
oo: (Tagalog) yes. Pronounced in two syllables, oh-oh, it’s the nicest sound of yes I’ve ever heard.
scoundrel: (English) a dishonest or unscrupulous person. Love the sound of it….makes me think of Harrison Ford as Han Solo.
y’all: (English) contraction for you all. I know this is a typically Southern term, but can someone explain how it migrated into the Indian Subcontinent??
m’ijo, m’ija: (Spanish) contraction for mi hijo or mi hija, my son or my daughter. Used when addressing children, even when they’re not yours, the contracted form carries all the affection that all children deserve in the tradition of “it takes a village.”
shireen: (Urdu/Farsi) sweetness. Just the sound of it activates my sweet tooth and makes my mouth water.
oy vey: (Yiddish) oh woe.  Who doesn’t love this one? Suggested by @AuthorCrush
nachas: (Yiddish) taking joy in someone’s joy. So much lovelier than its baser opposite, shadenfreude, isn’t it? Suggested by @AuthorCrush
uff da: (Norwegian) expression of disgruntlement of all kinds, like oy vey. Often used as a substitute for swear words, I’m adding this one to my suitably censored, delicate, maternally conscious vocabulary. Suggested by @AuthorCrush
kushi: (Kichwa) happiness. Sounds like khushi in Urdu/Hindi, which means the same thing. I love it when words from totally different parts of the world mirror each other. Suggested by Altaf
sumak kawsay: (Kichwa) good living. A word loaded with wonderful, harmonious connotations and a whole philosophy of ethics to boot. Suggested by Altaf

You can email me at or tweet me @nafisahaji

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Mother’s Day Reflections

My mom and my son staring out at the sea

The picture above is the wallpaper on my phone, one I like to look at every day.  It is the beginning and end of what Mother’s day means to me.  I’m in it, too–the one watching them watch the waves come in, my past and my future all rolled into one.

I wish mothers around the world a day of peace, security, justice, love, and hope for the life they have sent out as gifts into the world. I also take a moment to reflect on the forgotten history of Mother’s Day in America….a day when Julia Ward Howe called on mothers everywhere, the source of life, to take a stand for peace, which is the only way to sustain it.  Thank you, Julia.


Mothers’ Day Proclamation: Julia Ward Howe, Boston, 1870

Mother’s Day was originally started after the Civil War, as a protest to the carnage of that war, by women who had lost their
sons. Here is the original Mother’s Day Proclamation from 1870.


Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts,
whether our baptism be that of water or of fears!

Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by
irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking
with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be
taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach
them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another
country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From
the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance
of justice.”

Blood does not wipe our dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons
of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a
great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women,
to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the
means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each
bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a
general congress of women without limit of nationality may be
appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at
the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the
alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement
of international questions, the great and general interests of

Julia Ward Howe

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Bin Laden Death Celebration Shows Desire for Peace

Check out this column I wrote at Bloomberg about what the celebrations that erupted at the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death may have symbolized.

Bin Laden Death Celebration Shows Desire for Peace by Nafisa Haji

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The Countdown for the Second Time Around

I am very excited to be on the two week countdown to the release of my second novel, The Sweetness of Tears, due out in stores on May 17, 2011. Getting published for the second time is like what I imagine it must be like to have a second child…at least that’s what I’m guessing, since I have only one child. At first, it felt far more routine than the first time around, more ho hum. And then suddenly the date is upon me and the baby has descended into the birth canal and I realize that there’s no going back, no more vitamins or broccoli I can consume to make sure those bones and tissue are perfectly knitted together. It is what it is. So, two weeks left of anticipation, of sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, and wondering how the world will receive the characters my imagination has offered up to be known. Now, it’s all about the breathing–hee, hee, hee, ho, ho, ho.

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Story-Telling: The Allure and the Danger

I was recently asked to write a piece about writing The Writing On My Forehead for What follows is what I submitted…

Story-Telling: The Allure and the Danger

When I was a child, I remember listening in on my mother and her sisters as they reminisced about their childhoods, interrupting each other frequently to point out details that one or the other of them might have forgotten. Together, right before my eyes, they were writing and editing the history of their family and mine. As I grew older, I understood why they interrupted one another. My brother, sister and I didn’t always remember things the same way. Even specific events we had all experienced together shifted in meaning for each of us. None of us retaining all of the details, we relied on each other to fill in the gaps.

As an adult, I saw the same dynamic play out among married couples recounting their favorite travel anecdotes, or sharing the girl-meets-boy tales of how they met. Again, interruptions were par for the course, sometimes gentle, sometimes downright nagging; though these interruptions sounded rehearsed, as if the details that one spouse remembered to add in were part of the officially authorized script. With more than several years of marriage behind me, I myself became a part of such seemingly scripted dinner party performances of memory.

That is the allure and the danger of story-telling—the solidification of memories, the construction of truths that we agree, together, to believe in. I always wondered about the role of those interruptions and of other details that might have gotten left out of the shared process of remembering. I reflected on the dynamics of story-telling because who we are—as individuals, as family members, as parts of our communities, and as citizens of our nation and the world—is not only a result of the stories we tell, but also the stories and the parts of stories that we don’t recall.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I saw the same process play out on a national scale; some stories were told over and over again so that they became a permanent part of the record of our collective memory, while others were laid aside, forgotten in the shadow of the mass, incomprehensible tragedy unfolding before us. Certain questions, too, were asked over and over again—why? why?—and the answers that eventually emerged as dominant would determine who we became as a nation, but not more so than the other answers, the ones that were submerged and silenced.

After 9/11 the short stories I had been working on were suddenly not enough. I came to regard all stories with a wary suspicion, seeing them as the result of meticulous pruning and weeding. I wondered what had been consciously or unconsciously left out of each story. Then, I found the voice of a character, a young girl, who constantly interrupted the stories her mother instructed her with to tease out inconvenient details which she would grow up to live her life by. Story-telling itself became one of the themes I tried to explore in the novel that would come from that voice. The Writing On My Forehead follows the journey of an Indo-Pakistani Muslim family whose members are scattered after Partition, from India to Pakistan, England and the United States. I traveled back in time though the eyes of the youngest daughter, Saira Qader. Living in America, Saira attempts to understand the tragedies of her family’s present by uncovering the secret and forgotten details of the stories of her family’s past. Saira’s older sister, Ameena, is satisfied with the official, authorized version of their history. Saira is not. By the time she is an adult, Saira herself has become a part of the game, a story-teller/journalist, constructing a history for herself that leaves out important details she would rather not confront.

On one hand, in writing this book, I wanted to tell a story about one family only, without trying to write a commentary on the state of the world. On another, more personal note, I was trying to come to terms with being an American Muslim in post 9/11 America. I used to think I had resolved the question of who I was, a hyphenated American comfortable in my own skin and at ease with the complexity of my heritage. I felt I was neither defined by the past and no longer twisting and contorting my sense of self in order to escape it. Now, that carefully cultivated complexity was being reduced before my very eyes. Stereotypes of Muslims—of Muslim women in particular—were nothing new. But those old caricatures were being imposed with renewed fervor and virulence, forcing me to revisit the old question all over again.

How does the individual quest to define oneself play out in the larger narrative of family history, social development, and political upheaval? What does the individual owe the group and at what cost should the debt be paid? These are universally human questions, played out again and again from one generation to another. In the end, heritage, duty, and the tension between family and individual all came into play when I began writing The Writing On My Forehead.

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