Spring in my neighbourhood

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[book] Kafka on the shore

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Kafka on the shore

I’m still not really sure what exactly is the point of Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore”, a novel that I have recently finished. The story follows 2 characters: Kafka Tamura, a fifteen year old running away from his home, and Nakata, an old man who can talk to cats after an accident. They don’t know each other, but a string of events connect their lives in a mysterious and mythic way. Until the end, their lives do not cross, and there are many questions that are still left unanswered. That may be why I find the ending kinda disappointing. 

 However, what I appreciate about “Kafka on the shore” is the way it gives us a sense of timelessness – what it is like to be stuck in a world where time does not matter. Muramaki once again shows how talented and powerful he is as a writer. He knows how to make mundane moments become poignant and how to make readers feel like they are floating in an unending stream of dream and time. So, even if I can’t make sense of the plot, I can feel its essence, which is perhaps what Murakami plans to engrave in his readers’ heart and mind. 

“Time weighs down on you like an old, ambiguous stream. You keep on moving, trying to slip through it. But even if you go to the end of the earth, you won’t be able to escape it. Still, you have to go there, to the edge of the world. There’s something you can’t do unless you get there”

_Kafka on the shore – Haruki Murakami_

[thoughts] loneliness

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Photo: Mai Nguyen

Many things have changed this year: friends get married, friends have babies, friend move to another city/country/continent. But for me, things don’t change much, and that’s probably why I feel like I have been left behind.

“Who should I call?” I ask myself when staring at the contact lists on my phone. I realise that everybody around me is busy and occupied with their life. Unfortunately I might not be a part of it.

A few days ago I saw the sunset. As the sunlight receded into the distance and left me in darkness, I burst into tears, wondering if I die, how long it would take for people to discover my body. A stream of negative thoughts attacked me: my friends have moved away, have forgotten about me, or at least put me at the last of their priority lists.  I can’t blame anyone; it is just a part of life that people move on with life; it is just a part of life we are occupied with new things. Yet, even when my brain understands this fact, my heart finds it hard to accept it.

In that vulnerable stage, I remember the story of prophet Ibrahim gazing at the sun setting and claiming: ‘I love not those that set‘ (The Qu’ran, Surah Al An’am). I decided to do the same thing, and it soothed my heart gradually. Instead of seeing people, bad memories and my solitude, I see myself as a tiny human who is connected to God’s majesty and mercy through prayers.

Even though there’s really nobody with me, I am not alone, because my Creator is still there.

Even though the strings I have to the world are loosened, the rope of faith is still there, and I feel the need to hold on it more tightly.

Loneliness is a medicine. It’s bitter so much that it makes me cry nonstop. But through that bitterness, I can understand my utter impotence and poverty as well as my desire to attach to something lasting and stable.

Loneliness is a test, too. It attacks you constantly: just because I feel better one time, it doesn’t mean it will disappear. It comes back to you, depresses you, isolates you and makes you want to stop trying. Thus, I always feel like I’m on borderline of depression these days. I’m struggling against the dark/negative thoughts coming from my nafs (instintual soul) and Satan who try to persuade me that I’m worthless and forgotten. I’m struggling through supplication and prayers. I want my ego and Satan to know that although they are charismatic and powerful,  my base of support is God, the Most Powerful to whom everything is subjugated. And I know God is pleased when I strive against them to become better.

Mai N

 

 

 

[film] MIFF 2016: International shorts 1

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I did not enjoy MIFF international shorts 1 as much as i did with the international shorts 1. I think the international shorts 2 are more balanced in terms of content and emotion.

But here are my two favorites in this selection:

Seide (2015) – 14 minutes

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(Image: courtesy of MIFF 2016)

The International Shorts 1 screening starts with “Seide”, a Kyrgyzstan film directed by Elnura Osmonalieva. In the secluded region of Kyrgyzstan lives a girl named Seide and her closest friend, a horse. As she comes home one day, she discovers that her parents have arranged her to marry their friends’ son without even asking her permission. The film deals with Seide’s struggle with the situation, thereby condemns forced marriage that still exists in some traditions.

There is not much dialogue in the film. Seide’s emotion is rather shown through her interaction with her horse. I love the scene when Seide leaves her horse in the field, wanting it to seek freedom and happiness, something she will not be able to do. Seide’s helplessness is further reinforced by the use of wide shots, making her look extremely tiny among the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

 

The Simple Things (2015) – 26 minutes

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(Image: Courtesy of MIFF 2016)

The Simple Things, a Chilean film directed by Álvaro Anguita, narrates the story of a civil servant who kidnaps a lost old man and make him pretend to be her husband’s mother (her mother has Alzheimer).  Drama unfolds as the old man’s children come to the area to look for him. The film is hilarious, sweet and entertaining. The image quality is not the best, and i’m not sure if it’s deliberate or not. But the storytelling is definitely the most impressive thing about this film.

 

[film] MIFF 2016: International shorts 2

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Watching the shorts at Melbourne International Film Festival International Shorts 2 is like going through a roller coaster of emotion. There are films that would make us laugh hysterically; there are those that leave us confused and unsure about how to feel; there are those that make us question the nature of human being whilst there are those that give us hope about the power of humanity. Refugees and migrants’ experiences are the dominant themes of the selection, but one can also find warm, cheesy topics about love, brotherhood and family.

Timecode (15 minutes)

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[Images: Courtesy of MIFF 2016]

The first film of the selection is a bright, comedic short titled Timecode, directed by Juanjo Giménez. The film revolves around the two guards, who use the CCTV to communicate to each other. Every time they leave their shifts, they put a sticky note on the computer to inform each other what part of the CCTV tape to watch, which often features footage of them dancing by themselves. The short is lovely and funny, making it a cheerful start for the screening that would then deal with some darker, heavier topics.

Balcony (17 minutes)

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[Images: Courtesy of MIFF 2016]

The second film is the drama, Balcony, directed by Toby Fell-Holden. It follows the friendship between a local British and a Muslim migrant amidst the racial tension in the neighbourhood. The film starts with the scene in the football court where Tina, the British girl, looks up at a balcony and sees Fatima, a Muslim student from her school, emerge in her headscarf. Tina tries to imagine what Fatima’s life is like, and in her imaginations, we see images of a timid Fatima being sexually abused by a group of slothful, alcoholic men. As the film unfolds, it is revealed that Tina’s exotic imaginative episodes about Fatima is shaped not only by the stereotypes about Muslims, but also by her own experience of being abused by her own family members. As the shots of Tina’s exotic imagination about Fatima dissolve into reality – in which Tina is actually the victim of rape, the message of the film becomes apparent: the way we perceive others says less about them and more about ourselves as an individual or as a society. It’s also interesting that although Tina and Fatima have become friends, Tina still somehow persists with the thinking that behind the door of her apartment, Fatima would be oppressed and abused. This demonstrates that that people can still hold on their white supremacist views even when they have Muslim friends/colleagues/students. As Fatima once tells Tina, people sometimes just want to hear what they have already known. The film ends on a sombre note and compels us to confront the double standards, white privilege and entrenched racism in Britain. It’s a thought-provoking film about a topical issue, hence a powerful one.

The Return of Erkin (29 minutes)

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[Images: Courtesy of MIFF 2016]

Following The Balcony, The Return of Erkin, directed by Maria Guskova, continues to carry the solemn and reflective tone. After being released from prison where he has spent 14 years for his murder, Erkin returns to his rural hometown in Kyrgyzstan only to realise that the people here, including his own family, do not welcome him. As he lives day by day trying to make amends, we get a glimpse of rural Kyrgyzstan: the dawn prayer that marks the start of a day, the cotton farms, the rusty and bumpy roads and the women taking their time for daily routines. The film’s saturated look, accompanied by its slow pace, accentuates the sluggishness of rural life and reminds us that for the wound to be healed, for a person to be able to forgive and to be forgiven, a great deal of time would be needed.

The Silence (15 minutes)

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[Images: Courtesy of MIFF 2016]

The Silence, directed by Asli Sagari and Farnoosh Samadi, is my most favourite film in the selection. It beautifully captures the difficulties refugees face as they settle in a country where they don’t know the language. The central character is a young Kurdish girl, who has to interpret what the Italian doctor says to her mother. When the doctor informs the girl that her mother has breast cancer, she remains silent.

What I love about the short is  the way the relationship between the mother and the girl is depicted. When they are conversing with the doctor, the mother looks so small, vulnerable and clueless, while the girl acts strong and stern, trying to suppress her worry and pain. But when they are alone, the mother becomes the mother again, and the young girl, on her mother’s shoulder, eventually feels safe to put down the mask, breaks down the silence and burst into tears. The juxtaposition of these two scenes highlights the burdens that refugee children carry as they are forced to take on adults’ roles. It’s painful already for a child to know that her mum is sick, but it’s heartbreaking when she has to know about the news first and break it to her mom. Thus, the girl’s silence is her way of denying the truth, of resisting fate, and of crying for help. 

One reason I like this film so much is that I can relate to it. I am not a refugee, but I am studying in Melbourne  and when my parents come to visit me here, I often need to accompany them to shops and restaurants, help them order and pay and do the interpretation. Suddenly it hits me that my parents look so fragile and tiny, and I feel the urge to protect and help them as much as I can. It’s strange to see my parents – whom I have always perceived as the most capable and dependable people I have ever known – that way. Although this allows me to sympathise with my parents and increases my love for them, it does hurt a little.  Watching this film reminded me of those times with my parents; hence, for me, it was beautiful, emotional watch 🙂

The Call (11 minutes)

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[Images: Courtesy of MIFF 2016]

The Call is a South African film by director Zamo Mkhwanazi. It revolves around a taxi driver and his confrontation with his own feelings for a sex worker, who appears to carry his child. I’m impressed with the soundtrack and the editing, but for some reasons I was not very emotionally engaged with the film.

The Bathtub (13 minutes)

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[Images: Courtesy of MIFF 2016]

The film screening ends with The Bathtub, a German-Austrian short directed by Tim Ellrich. 3 grown-up brothers decide to celebrate their mom’s 60th birthday by recreating a childhood photo. As they do so, there are some conflicts, drama but generally a lot of hilarious, cheesy moments. The film contains only one shot showing the angle from the camera the brothers use to take the photo. It creates the authentic, amateurish feel for the film, as I feel like I’m watching a raw footage straight from the brothers’ camera. A lot of audience laughed while watching The Bathtub, and I appreciate that it’s placed as the last film of the screening. After depressing films on heavy topics, it is a relief to see simple, joyful every day life moments again!

[thoughts]Being an auntie

Being an auntie

On the chilly day of 10 July 2015, my niece, Ayah, was born. I officially became an auntie. It was such an honour and a blessing. There is nothing more joyful than holding Ayah in my laps and seeing her smile at me. There is nothing more painful than seeing Ayah in the hospital bed, tired and sick.  And there is nothing more amazing than watching Ayah looking at the world around her with such excitement and curiosity. Just as her name suggests, Ayah is really a sign of God. Through her, I understand how Allah has always bestowed us with mercy and sustenance  since the days we are born. He prepares us a package of food and milk from the mother’s breasts; He gradually gives us the capacity to watch, absorb information, make sense of things and learn. Watching Ayah learn to crawl and stand up makes me realise how I have taken simple actions like walking, smiling or clapping hands for granted. Oh Allah, you are indeed the Most Powerful, The Most Wise!

However, I don’t think I have fulfilled the duties of an auntie properly. What should aunties do? My parents keep telling me to help my sister, but to be honest, I do not have much free time. I’m also struggling with several things, including my jobs, ,my constant failures with the English test, my messy application for permanent residency, my thesis, my low-self esteem and depression. I do not even feel like I can look after myself or anyone, nor do I know what I should do to look after a baby.

In sum, I am a useless auntie. But I have and will always keep Ayah in my prayers. May she always be healthy, active and lovely. Ayah, you parents have so much hope in you. I have lots of hope, too.

[Thoughts] articulate the heart’s thoughts

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my heart has been whispering these lines to my brain for a while. So I decide to write them down.

#1

There are moments I feel like I have had too much. God grants me a good part-time job, a free ticket to Paris, a good place to stay, loving parents and a group of friends that cherish and treasure me. And above all, He gives me the faith that I never feel like I deserve.

Do you know the story of when prophet Moses came to meet Pharaoh and inform him of God’s message? Pharaoh was enraged and asked the magicians from all over Egypt to come and compete with Moses and his God’s power. After Moses turned his staff into a snake, the magicians prostrated and proclaimed their belief in God despite Pharaoh’s fury.

When people analyse this story, the focus is often on Moses (pbuh) and Pharaoh. Little is discussed on the magicians and the effect of prophet Moses’s message and action in transforming their heart. They are those that nobody expects to have faith; they are the symbols of a society that are engaging in practices against God’s wish, and they do not appear to be significant characters of this story

And yet, for me, these magicians are those I relate to most. Like them, I used to engage in polytheistic practices that God dislikes. Like them, I was not somebody who ‘naturally’ has the qualities of a believing person. In contrast, I was spoiled, selfish, and wasteful and My teenage years were filled with stress, anger and angst, and at one point I saw the world with a nihilistic stance.

Yet, Allah is so merciful that He showed me Islam and granted me this beautiful thing called faith.

Faith has transformed the way I think, the way I perceive my life and what I want to do with it. A few days ago I looked at photos of myself a few years ago and tried to remember how I was at the time.

I used to be so ambitious and career-oriented. I used to think that pursuing your dream is my everything, that I would achieve happiness by acquiring what I desire. And what did I want most? I guess it was recognition – that I was capable, that I was special, that I should be loved.

However, that desire has somehow gone. I have accepted that I am ordinary, weak and limited in many senses. But as opposed to feeling miserable because of this, I am actually happy, as I  understand that God does not need me to be the most successful and most prosperous human being on earth. What He wants to see is how I use the faculties that He gives me to worship Him and improve myself.

Thus, I no longer have that ambitious long-term goal of being successful. Rather, everyday I wake up and think about what I can do today, this week and this month so that I can become a better servant of God.

They can be ‘worldly’ projects like trying to make a short film about Islam/Muslims, getting involved in projects to help other Muslims, or completing my thesis on textbooks’ representation of Muslims in order to make some changes in the ways history of Islam is taught (hopefully).

But mainly they are small things like praying on time, making a dua consistently, trying not to waste things, helping the less fortunate, making dua for them, or simply not cursing when an obstacle hits me.

Sometimes, it can just be reflecting and saying alhamdulilah when seeing the mercies and wisdom of God manifested in the world around me.

The more I try, the more I fail, the more I see my deficiencies, the more I realise that disciplining one’s soul and holding to faith is indeed a lifetime project, as any struggle can reach a conclusion or on hold, but the struggle with your own soul will never come to an end.

I’m still faulty, impatient, emotional and selfish. I still expect too much from others to the point I’m left disappointed and unable to forgive.  I still hold onto this world and have not yet tasted the pure sweetness of ‘La ilaha illallah.

But I tried, have tried and will try. Because I really want to meet God one day and be the ones He will be pleased with. Because if He is not pleased with me, everything is meaningless.

Oh God, what have I done that you have given me so much? Thinking of the bounties you bestowed on me makes me cry like a baby. I wish I could articulate what my heart wants to say

Then the word comes to my mind. Alhamdulilah. Yes, that’s what my heart utters: Alhamdulilah.

 

[Thoughts] To Mum & Dad

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To Mum,

  1. When I was at the airport to pick you up, I wanted to be the one recognising you and dad first. But it surprised me when you came out and was able to spot me sitting at a bench even before I could recognise you. This small thing touched my heart so much. How could you do that, mum? How could you find your own daughter even more quickly than she found you? How could you manage to make me feel so special?
  2. When you fixed my eyebrows yesterday, I felt like all I needed was a mom. Do you know that I have always wanted my eyebrows fixed, and you’re the only one noticing that? Do you know that when I saw you and me reflected in the mirror, my heart is filled with gratitude? I thanked God because He showed me His great compassion through you, Mum.
  3. When I walked around with you in the department store, you told me your skin had worsened and thus you needed more cosmetics to improve it. First, I want to assert that you look beautiful no matter what. Second, can I just make a prayer that I know will never come true? That you will be with me forever?
  4. When I saw a message that I should not have seen today, the world collapsed in front of me for a moment. But a few minutes later, I decided to forget and forgive. Mum, you’re a human being and you’re not perfect. Because you have forgiven me so many times, I want to do the same. Humans have selective memory for a reason: we can choose what we want to remember about the people we love.

To Dad,

  1. When you constantly chastised my way of dressing this time, I was deeply annoyed. But at the same time I felt happy, too. I guess it has been a long time since I heard your complaints about me. I miss them.
  2. When you kept asking me “Where’s Mai?”, I felt loved. I thought when you came here this time, your focus would be the niece and I would recede to the background. Yet, you always kept track of where I was, how I was feeling, and how I enjoyed the food. Nobody has done that to me for quite a long time. I miss it, Dad.
  3. When you looked at me, I could see lots of love in your eyes. I’m not usually sensitive to these things, you know. But for some reasons, when it came to you, I can see the overwhelming love you have for me so clearly and evidently.
  4. When you asked me to open the luggage for you because you could not read the key numbers clearly,  my chest hurt. I know you’re still healthy, active and energitic. But I am also aware that you’re aging, and you are no longer the daddy who can totally do anything.  Now, you also need me, too. It’s fine. It’s just a bit depressing as suddenly the fleetingness of this world becomes so apparent.

To both Mum and Dad,

  1. I know that to you, I am the centre of the universe, onto whom you put your love, hope and trust. I really wonder if there will be anyone who can love me that much in this world.
  2. But I am not the centre of the universe. I’m a mortal human being who still tries to figure out this life. I can’t be indulged forever. Please let me decide my life, stand on my own feet, make decisions, both right and wrong, and learn from them.
  3. I know that you are living a quite comfortable life, and trust me, I’m really happy for you. However, I also pray that you would not be lost in the material deceits of the world. I pray that you could find God.
  4. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you billions of times.

 

 

[Thoughts] Not yet sincere

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When my uncle asked me what the film (Nur) that I made and won the mokhtar award was about, I just told her that it was a film about a Muslim girl that tried to dispel the stereotypes about Muslims. But it was not really the truth. Nur was made with the intention to glorify God and share my love for God with those feeling the same.

When my dad asked me what my research thesis was about, I said it was an examination of the ways Australia history textbooks taught Asian history. It was not a lie, but at the same time it was not particularly specific. My thesis was not just about Asian history in general; it had a focus, and that was Islamic civilisation.

When somebody asked me what the mokhtar was about, I replied: “it’s a film festival in France.” Again, it’s not a lie. But it’s not the exact depiction of this festival. Mokhtar is special because it’s a festival organised by Muslims with the intention to use visual arts, especially films, to discuss Islam. It’s one of a kind and comes from the sincere love for God of a group of young people in France.

As I reflected on the way I responded to questions about what I was doing, I felt upset at myself. There was nothing wrong with what I did, but for some reasons, I made deliberate attempts to conceal the fact that what I have been doing is often related to Islam or Muslims. It was as if my passion for Islam were a shame.

Why did I respond that way? Probably because I feared that my parents and relatives, who still did not fully accept my Islamic identity, would be enraged and depressed by the topic “Islam”. Probably because I did not want people to make judgement of me – that I’m a religious extremist/fanatic. After all, loving a religion – or living for the sake of God –  in a this secular age makes you sound like an idiot.

However, the truth is that my passion is really Islam and Muslims. I love reading books on Islam; I love contemplating on the teachings of prophet Muhammad (pbuh); I love exploring the long lost Muslim civilisations that I have never had the chance to study. My dream is also to make films about Islam and Muslims. As much as I want these films to be able to reach people’s heart, I want to create films because for me, that is how I consolidate and manifest what I have learned and be inspired by the Books of God, which include the Qu’ran, the Universe and prophet Muhammad (the living Qu’ran).

Yet, it’s disheartening to see myself trying to avoid sharing my passion with other people. It makes me realise how I still try to seek approval and acceptance from the world, and in doing so, I become apologetic and miserable. My religion, as a result, appears shameful, too.

It was not how prophet Muhammed talked about Islam when confronting adversities. It was also not how his Companions reacted to the unbelievers’ mockery of the Prophet and His message. Rather, regardless of whoever or whatever affronted them, they still expressed their pride in the fact that they were struggling for the sake of their faith and for God’s pleasures.

Not only their bravery touched my heart, but also their sincerity made me feel ashamed of my own self. How could I say I love God if I hesitate to express it? How could I say I love God when I treat Him and His beautiful message as something to be hidden? How could I say I love Islam when I even look down at myself?

I could make thousands of excuses about why I hesitated to tell people about my religion. But ultimately, the core reason was that I still crave for this world – the acceptance of people, the status and the security. And because of that love, i have done injustice to the most beautiful religion in the world.

In this modern world, many people laugh at the notion of “living for God’s pleasure”, while some use this notion for their ideological and political agendas. Ordinary Muslims also talk about it, even though several times it is limited to praying and attending mosques. But for me, living for God’s pleasures is the highest purpose of life and something I want to direct my heart to. Laugh at me if you’d like; call me stupid if you’d like, but I pray that I can taste that sincerity (Ikhlas)- the pure sincerity to do things for God and earn His pleasure.

For now, I know I am not sincere. My love for God is compromised by my attachment to this world although I know its transitory and fleeting nature. After all, knowing is one thing; understanding is another matter.

InshaAllah, one day, I can gain sincerity to proudly say to my parents and my friends: “I am a Muslim. I am making films and doing a thesis about Islam, because I love it. I hope you watch it and can see its beauty, too”.

Surely We have revealed to you the Book with the truth, therefore serve God, being sincere to Him in obedience. (Holy Qur’an, 39:2)

 

 

[Thoughts] Paradise

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When I was a kid, I thought of paradise as a fantastical, cloudy land. It was where I could fly, swim in candies, and talk with my favorite fantasy characters like Doraemon. In short, paradise in my head was sort of like Disneyland.

Now, at the age of 22, paradise means …

  1. a place where things would be preserved in a much better form.  A place where everything beautiful in this world is resurrected and persists forever, where things and people that I loved, have loved and will love would return and never leave me again.
  2. A place where pain stops. A place where my heart can stop aching because of separation, betrayal and disappointment
  3. A place where justice is manifested. A place where oppression, corruption and hypocrisy no longer exists. A place where weak,  disaster-stricken and oppressed people are compensated, where oppressors and unjust people are justly  punished. A place where words like ‘war’, ‘refugee’, ‘crisis’ would become alien and obsolete
  4. A place where my heart can (fully) embrace the joy and happiness of God’s mercies without being disturbed by the pain of the past and the anxieties of the future.
  5. A place where I can continue to learn and be amazed by God’s Infinite Knowledge, Wisdom and Power.
  6. A place where veils are removed, and I can directly ‘see’ and ‘experience’ all the attributes of God.

I have read somewhere that this world gives us some glimpses of both Paradise and Hell.  Thus, Paradise is neither white limbo nor unnatural, unfamiliar place. It’s similar to this world, only thousands or millions or billions or zillions of times better. It’s infinite and always flourishing, just like the incessant blessings and artworks God has displayed in this world.

Even belief in Paradise brings sweetness. Thanks to this belief, I want to strive and stand up again no matter how many times I’ve failed. Thanks to this belief, my heart feels a sense of solace when feeling overwhelmed and despaired by the news. And because of this belief, I know that I need forgiveness more than anything.

The existence of Paradise (as well as Hell) makes known my Creator. I find it hard to even entertain the thought that there’s a God, but there’s no hereafter, no place for God to fully manifest His names of Mercy, Justice, and Power.

**

When it comes to the topic of the Hereafter, Said Nursi’s explanation of it in “A summary of the Eight Topic” (The Staff of Moses) is still my most favorite. Read it online here if you’re interested