Limestone Genre Expo, 2017

20170603_135856.jpgThe Limestone Genre Expo, which brought together Canadian authors of genre fiction, took place in Kingston Ontario, from June 3 to 4, 2017. The event involved panel discussions, workshops, readings, pitch sessions, and a large sales event on books written by both indie and traditionally published authors. Among guests and presenters were Alyssa Cooper, Nancy Kilpatrik, Laura Baumbach, Kris Jacen, Kim McDougal, and Eve Langlais. Attendees included some of my colleagues from the editing industry, whom I met back in Toronto through various professional membership events.

Most panels focused on specific literary genres, such as fantasy, mystery, horror, and romance. Authors, editors, and other industry professionals shared their insight on what it takes to be a successful writer. Nowadays, writing high-quality fiction is only half the battle. In order to be discovered by the readers, a book needs to have an outstanding cover (and yes, people do judge books by their covers) and be available through various social media platforms for discovery. Building readership was one of the workshops offered during the Expo. Other workshops included story development, world building, self editing, and writing in a particular genre.

murney-tower-2006-300
Murney Tower

I greatly benefited from this event. Not only did I get to learn about some of the latest trends and developments in the industry, but also I got to enjoy the beautiful town of Kingston together with my husband. Founded in 1838, Kingston is known for a number of historical sites, including Fort Frontenac, Fort Henry, Murney Tower, Kingston City Hall and Market Square, and the infamous Kingston Penitentiary. 1000 islands is a famous sightseeing destination that attracts visitors from across Canada and, broadly speaking, from across the globe.

Although we didn’t have the time to see all the points of interest, we were still able to take a short walk in the downtown, take photos of the historic architecture, and enjoy the breeze of St. Lawrence River. On the first evening of the Expo, our group dined at the Merchant Tap House, a downtown pub that offers a finest selection of food and drink items. It was nice to sit together, discuss our recent and upcoming works, and pass along occasional jokes.

I am grateful to the organizing team for the opportunity to attend the Limestone Genre Expo as one of the authors. It was truly a fun and educational event!

The AIA Annual Meeting in Toronto

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) is the oldest organization in North America devoted to the studying and disseminating knowledge about archaeology. In many ways, it’s similar to the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) and American School of Oriental Research (ASOR). All three pursue relatively similar goals, release beautiful magazines, and organize annual meetings that include poster sessions and book sales. The major difference between the three organizations is that ASOR and BAS tend to focus mainly on the archaeology of ancient Near East, whereas AIA is inclusive of all times and regions from around the world. Articles on modern sites from Europe and the US aren’t uncommon for the AIA’s popular Archaeology magazine.

I first learned about AIA back in grad school, which was roughly five years ago. I was researching different conference opportunities when I accidentally came across the name and found out that it would have the annual meeting in Toronto in 2017. Back then, it seemed so far away, only that the time went by so quickly.

Like most people, I wanted to start off this year on the right foot. One of my new year’s resolutions was to start attending more lectures and cultural events. There was no better way for me to begin 2017 than by attending the AIA Annual Meeting that was held at Sheraton Center Toronto Hotel between January 5 and 8.

Naturally, I couldn’t attend all the lectures, as many of them ran simultaneously.  However, I was fortunate  hear talks about the sites of Omri and Huqoq in northern Israel, a few Persian and Mesopotamian sites, and the site of Tel Tayinat in southern Turkey.  I also met Dr. Jodi Magness, a distinguished professor specializing in early Judaism who is also the principal director of the Huqoq Excavation Project.  She had published a number of articles and books on archaeology of the Holy Land.

The book sale and poster session that ran throughout the meeting were awesome. Even though I didn’t end up buying too many items, it felt nice to just walk through rows and rows of beautifully designed books published by the world’s leading academic presses like Oxford, Princeton, and Cambridge. While roaming through the hall, I ran into Dr. Andrew Vaughan, the director of the ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI), an organization where I currently volunteer as an indexer.  He was very happy to see me, and after a brief conversation, I was allowed to take sample journals from the ASOR.  Now I have a pile of articles to read on topics, ranging from archaeology of Cyprus to issues surrounding heritage preservation.  I’m hoping to start reading them soon.

On the very last day of the meeting, I attended a pottery drawing workshop by Tina Ross, a Canadian archaeology illustrator. Although I don’t plan to pursue archaeology any time soon, I found the session fun and informative. Sometimes, you just have to allow yourself immerse yourself into things you enjoy the most. For me it’s the study of our past with all its discoveries and enigmas that I find inspiring. I use archaeology in my writing extensively, and as a member of the CHI, I’ll never stop believing in a brighter future for the field.

Don’t Forget to Slow Down this Holiday Season!

This Christmas eve, while I was doing some last-minute gift wrapping, my phone buzzed. It was an editing opportunity through one of the companies for which I work. The rate wasn’t bad, but the problem was, the assignment would be due at six a.m. in the next morning. I decided to turn it down. After spending the last few months working on several big projects simultaneously, I realized that I cannot live in a racing mode forever. And so shouldn’t you. Sometimes, slowing down is the best thing you can do for yourself.

The holiday season can conjure a variety of emotions. In the ideal world, it should be the time of pure joy and happiness. For many, however, it’s a very stressful time. Searching for the perfect gifts, juggling family gatherings, and even spending hours in a traffic jam just to get to some major mall during Boxing Week can easily leave you feeling overwhelmed. For students, freelancers, and, broadly speaking, people of many occupations/life paths, the time before the holiday week is often the busiest time of the year, when deadlines, exams, and other commitments can take toll on one’s health and emotional well being. No wonder that the feeling of depletion often sets in once the initial hustle and bustle of holiday preparations is over. The good news is that this feeling is fully preventable.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or any other religious/secular holiday, most likely, you’re spending lots of time with your family members and friends. And this is great! Connecting with people you care about the most is vital. No matter how busy we are, we all strive to make time for those who matter to us the most. However, it’s equally important to make time for yourself. So don’t feel guilty about picking your favorite book, taking a solo walk, or just chilling down on the couch.

Barring some world events and celebrity deaths, 2016 has been a great year for me. After several years of doing gigs on a side, I finally launched my editing business. The journey to freelancing was far from an easy one. I had to learn the ins and outs of web design, social media management, and self-marketing. I also ran into a lot of projects that led nowhere and even had to deal with a few clients who refused to pay. When something isn’t working quite right, it’s easy to allow self-doubt to take over. In the end, I found courage to continue trying, and my efforts paid off. I found lots of wonderful clients, both in my local community and outside. In addition to freelancing, I also published my first book and began working on another (More details are coming soon!).

Wherever you are in your life journey, I’m sure you’ve had some ups and downs as well.  If you fulfilled all your resolutions for 2016, it’s awesome! If you didn’t, don’t be hard on yourself. There’s always another year and another opportunity for growth waiting for you around the corner. Remember to slow down and simply enjoy this special time of the year.

This year’s holiday season is particularly special because two major religious holidays, Christmas and Hanukah, fall on the same date. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the history behind these festivities, I highly recommend an article by James Tabor, a renowned Biblical scholar. You can read it here.

Wishing everyone a happy 2017!

Let’s Help Syrian Children: A Fundraising Event

In light of the recent events happening in Aleppo and elsewhere throughout Syria, I decided to create a special event to help families who need our help. Starting tomorrow, December 14, and ending on the Chistmas Day, December 25, my book will be sold for fundraising purposes. Any royalties made during this period will go to Syrian Children’s Relief Fund. If you are interested in participating, you can purchase the book (either in digital or paperback format) through Amazon or Createspace.

https://www.createspace.com/6337560

https://www.amazon.com/My-Journey-Amalie-Coles/dp/1534623876/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1481681940&sr=8-1&keywords=amalie+coles

My novel is a light romance read that involves a great deal of travel and archaeology. If you like women’s fiction and self-discovery stories, you shouldn’t be disappointed.You can learn more about the book and how it came into being here.

A Few Words about My Book

A young happily-married woman who is stuck with a boring job travels to Israel to participate in an archaeological dig. As time passes by, she learns more about the world around her, develops a new crush, and discovers her true calling in academia while toiling for hours under the sun, organizing shards of ancient pottery, and translating an article on the Neanderthals. When tensions in her marriage rise, she must decide if she’s ready to sacrifice the comfortable and familiar path for the sake of her dream. In the end, she’ll learn that it is possible to have the best of both worlds, but not until she’ll nearly lose everything. That’s the short summary of my newly-released novel. Although written in a light style, this piece of chick lit explores many important themes, including self-discovery, sacrifice, loyalty, and quest for personal happiness.

The Background Story

The idea of writing a full-length novel came to me back in grad school. Many things happened that year, and winning a scholarship to travel to Ashkelon for a dig was one of them. I applied for a bursary through Biblical Archaeology Review—a magazine that gets mentioned in the novel several times—in hopes of gaining fieldwork experience for my master’s program. Well, I ended up turning it down because of a huge renovation project that was meant to happen during the weeks of my purported travel.

So instead of chasing adventures on the other side of the globe, I ended up scrubbing the old paint from the walls of our newly-bought condo and priming them for a new layer of paint. And although learning the ins and outs of a successful home renovation was fun (no pun intended), I often felt bouts of regret about having missed this opportunity. That’s how the idea for my novel was born.

It took me two years to produce the first draft. A lot of changes happened during this period. I enrolled in a teachers’ college but dropped out after realizing that managing a group of thirty teenagers was making me miserable, got a new job, traveled to Bethsaida the following summer (also on a grant but this time from the ASOR), enrolled in a Publishing program, lost my job, and stepped on the path to motherhood. Sometime around July of 2014, when the Operation Protective Edge was raging through that very part of the world where my story was meant to take place, I got the first draft jotted down.

The story of My Journey revolves around the inner world of Rebecca O’Connor-Smith, a married twenty-six year old, who travels through various parts of Israel, struggles with an illicit crush, and ultimately discovers that her true passion lies in studying ancient civilizations. Although the book is heavily-based on my travels to Israel, especially on my experience in Bethsaida, the story is by no means autobiographical. The parts about the protagonist’s marital woes are pure fiction and were used merely to illustrate the challenges one may face when making major life choices.

Why Self-Publishing?

I chose this option for a variety of reasons, and sometimes, I did doubt my decision. Up to today, I wonder if I should’ve gone through two hundred rejections first when I chose to stop at nine. During the submissions process, however, I realized that my novel is somewhat different from the mainstream chick lit.

As I said, most of the story takes place in several parts of Israel, some of which are awe-inspiring and others are wrought with conflict. The characters often engage in scholarly debates about different topics surrounding archaeology of Southern Levant. Various artifacts and sightseeing destinations are described with the same zeal as shoes and bags are described in the Shopaholic series. So the story I wrote is hardly the right material for mass-market fiction.

However, it didn’t stop me from taking the chance, and I hope it won’t stop potential readers either. If you’re a traveler at heart, an archaeology geek, or simply a twenty-something-year-old who is still figuring out the future, I strongly recommend My Journey to you. It will take you through thousands of years of human history, make you fall in love with the colorful sceneries of Israel, and, hopefully, inspire you to go after something you love the most in your life.

An Afternoon with Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim

Last Sunday, which happened to be October 16, the next day after the International Archaeology Day, I was honored to meet an extraordinary man, Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, the chief of the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) of Syria. It was also the same day when a new exhibition, “Syria: a Living History,” opened at the Aga Khan Museum.

I’d known about this upcoming exhibit for quite a while and had been really looking forward to it. My level of enthusiasm for seeing this gallery has been pretty high partly because of my involvement with the Cultural Heritage Initiatives and partly because of life-long passion for all things Near East. During the weeks preceding the gallery opening, new event ads started popping on social media. A few concerts came up, and so did a couple of archaeology-related events. As soon as I found out about the lecture by Dr. Abdulkarim, I knew it would become part of my weekend plans.

On Sunday morning, I dropped off my daughter at my parents’ place and set off on a mission to meet one of the most important people in Near Eastern archaeology. The road was quite long, as I had to drive all the way from the west end to the Don Mills area. Moreover, the rain wouldn’t stop falling. A few panoramic scenes later, my car was parked safely in the Aga Khan Museum’s underground lot, and I was out, walking through a long tunnel towards the main elevator.

The atmosphere inside the museum was charged with anticipation. Visitors kept coming from all directions, and a huge lineup in front of the coffee booth was a clear evidence for willingness of many to be part of this new gallery opening.

The lecture began with welcoming messages by Henry Kim, CEO of the museum, and Christina Cameron, President of Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Then we got to see a video of a brief but very powerful message by Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General. She spoke on how cultural heritage represents achievements of the entire humanity and how its tragic demise can affect all of us. At last, he was on the stage.

Maamoun Abdulkarim briefly touched upon the dark events of the last five years and his difficult decision to stay in Damascus. The tone of his voice was very emotional, and yet he sounded determined. The Power Point images included those of the key sites, such as the Aleppo Citadel, Crac des Chevaliers, and several mosques throughout the country. Issues of looting, combat damage, and deliberate destruction for ideological reasons were raised. When he mentioned the large number of statues his team was able relocate from Palmyra to safer areas, the entire auditorium clapped. I was relieved to find out that, contrary to what most of the sources state, the statue of Al-Lat from Palmyra was not completely destroyed, but was simply damaged and can be restored. The fact that the restoration has already began for some areas gave me and many others sitting in the auditorium a glimmer of hope for a better future.

After the end of the lecture, the audience had a chance to meet Dr. Abdulkarim in the lobby. When my turn came, we exchanged a few words on the current situation and the role of the global effort in combating heritage destruction. In the end, shook hands and wished each other to meet in Damascus on day when there’ll be peace.

Afterwards, I proceeded upstairs to the exhibit, where I got to see artifacts from different historical and archaeological periods, ranging from Sumerian and Hittite to late Islamic and contemporary. Among them, I recognized a few pieces from the ROM and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many others were from famous European museums, such as Louvre and Museum of Berlin.

“Syria: a Living History” evokes a whole range of feelings, from awe for thousands years of cultural and artistic diversity, to the feeling of sadness and regret over the current situation. It’s amazing that despite anything, there are still people who are willing to risk their lives to help the humanity in saving our collective heritage.

 

The Aga Khan Museum of Art, Toronto’s Gem

If you live in Toronto and are passionate about Middle Eastern culture, you should definitely visit the Aga Khan Museum. Located in the city’s east end, it houses some of the finest artifacts representing Islamic art. Such include manuscripts, architectural pieces, metalwork, glass work, and pottery from various regions, including North African and Middle Eastern countries, as well as India and China.

Despite the unifying conventions of Islamic art that usually favors geometric and floral forms over human representation, differences between different regions are still noticeable. Calligraphic works from China look very different from those of Spain and Arabic countries and are closer to local art. Indian rugs are very different from the Persian ones. Certain things are hard to describe and can only be experienced. Once inside the building, a visitor feels overbearing presence of harmony and orderliness in everything, from the building’s design to minuscule details in calligraphy that is a part of so many pieces displayed inside the galleries.

History

The museum’s history goes all the way back to 2002, when Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of non-denominational development agencies related to the Ismaili Islam, announced the establishment of the museum, the Ismaili Center, and a park in the area of Don Mills and Eglinton. However, it was not until 2010 that the cornerstone had been laid by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. After several years of hard work by multiple award-winning designers, the museum opened in September of 2014.[1]

I had first visited the museum back in 2015 in hopes of getting my then ten-month-old interested in world cultures. Although my attempts weren’t terribly successful (as my little one was more interested in her rattle than anything else), we had fun as a family. I later came back on my own to spend more time exploring the artifacts in a greater detail (and to take advantage of the free Wednesdays). Someday, I’ll bring my kids to the museum again, when they’re a bit older.

Galleries

Qar’an, Indonesia, 1804

The permanent gallery of the first level is organized geographically, according to various regions including North Africa, Near Eastern countries, India, Afghanistan, and Far East. At the very entrance to the gallery is a gigantic wall map depicting all the major Islamic regions and explaining historic periods, such early Islamic, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, and others. Across from the map are stands with illuminated Qur’ans, scientific manuscripts written by world-famous sages, including Ibn-Sina, manuscripts of Mathnavi and Rumi, and numerous manuscripts depicting daily life in the Islamic world through the ages (courts, bazaars, sailing expeditions, etc.). The most memorable architecture pieces include a beautiful fountain from Egypt, a few items from the Medieval Spain, and the Mihrab panel from Syria.

The upper floor houses temporary collections. The two most recent ones are dedicated to depictions of animals in Islam and to drawings and photographs of Alhambra by Álvaro Siza, a Portuguese architect. “Marvelous Creatures: Animals in Islamic Art” explores fables, myths, and legends involving real and mythical animals. Among such, one can find stories of aquatic monsters threatening sailors; heroes defeating dragons; and stories involving mighty creatures, such as horses, gazelles, foxes, and lions. The reconstruction of Al Buraq skeleton and anatomy of chimera, along with a few texts on and engravings of animals with malformations, conclude the “Marvelous Creatures” gallery.

“Álvaro Siza: Gateway to Alhambra” explores art and architecture of the World Heritage Site through sketches, models, and photographs. Although I haven’t visited this particular gallery yet, I’m looking forward it, as Alhambra is one of the places I’d visited in the past.

Prior to this exhibit, photos of Istanbul showing how the city has changed over the years used to occupy the space. Many of them depicted landmarks, including Haggia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Hyppodrome, the Byzantine walls, and the Galata tower. A few palace albums and portraits of historical figures were also included into the collection. The exhibit was concluded with modern photography and included a couple of colorful panoramic photos of modern Istanbul.

The upcoming exhibits will focus on Syria’s cultural legacy and works of Canadian-Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli, “a pioneer of the Saqqakhaneh movement of the 1960s.” [2] Throughout the next few months, various sculpture works including Horizontal Lovers and Poet in Love will be on display. Starting on October 15, 2016, “Syria: A Living History “will bring together artwork and artifacts that will tell a story of “cultural diversity, historical continuity, resourcefulness, and resilience.”[3]

Exploring artworks from the some of the world’s most troubled countries always conjures up a mixture of different emotions—awe and admiration for art in itself; relief that artifacts from places like Raqqa had made it safely (and legally) to the North American continent; and sadness over the current situation in the Middle Eastern region.

With so many conflicts and security threats being replayed by the media, it’s easy to develop negative stereotypes about the Islamic religion and its people. There is no better way to counter these not-so-positive associations than through art, architecture, and music.  According to His Highness the Aga Khan, the museum was founded with a purpose to “act as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance.”[4] I think the gallery curators, together with visiting music bands and academics, are doing a great job at educating the public about the true face of the Islamic civilizations.