Words With Power

CHS alum Carla Power is a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in nonfiction


Photo from Carla Power

Sheik Akram (left) and Carla Power (right).

Camille Respess, Editor-in-Chief

The cover of the book by Carla Power.
The cover of the book by Carla Power.

When Carla Power was just 4  years old, she and her family packed their bags and headed off to Iran, leaving their life in Clayton behind to live in this Islamic country for two years. Power, a CHS graduate of the class of 1984, would continue to take extended trips like this one throughout her adolescence.
“Half of my childhood was spent in Clayton, but every two or three years my dad would take us out of school and we would set up shop, usually in an Islamic country,” Power said. “We lived in Iran, India, Afghanistan, Egypt and Rome. But we would always come back to Clayton.”
Power found these experiences to be very rewarding, but living back and forth between the US and foreign lands did have its downsides.
“It was sort of this weird split existence between suburban Missouri and living in the Islamic world. My parents were really interested in Islamic cultures,” Power said.
Power’s father was a law professor at Saint Louis University. Through the various grants he received to educate abroad, including the Fulbright, he was able to explore his love for the Islamic world and also instill this same adoration in his daughter.
Over 40 years after her first time leaving the US for an Islamic country, Power published her first book, a reflection upon her experiences with Islamic cultures. If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran was published in April 2015 and is a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in nonfiction.
“My book is about a friendship between two very different people. It is trying to look at where our views converge and where they diverge,” Power said. “It’s also a memoir. It’s about my life growing up and what it was like to live in Islamic societies in the 70s, when I was growing up, which was a really pivotal time in Islamic society’s history because all these things were changing.”
The friendship that Power writes of is that of her and Sheik Akram, a Muslim man with whom she spent one year while studying the Quran under his guidance. The inspiration behind her exploration of the Quran and Islamic cultures stemmed from her aspiration to show Islam in a different light than the one that it is commonly viewed in.
“I had known that I had wanted to write a book for a long time, trying to show another slide of Islam than what is predominantly reported in the news,” Power said.
Power’s decision to take on this task was also based upon her desire to challenge the stereotypes existing about Muslims that dominate society today.
“[He is a] Muslim man that has very different beliefs from the stereotypes that we know of which is the violent, extremist man or the quiet, muffled woman,” Power said. “Sheik Akram, who taught me the Quran, explodes every stereotype we have about what the Muslim world is about.”
In her studies, Power not only gained a greater understanding of the Quran and Islamic societies, but also a greater understanding of herself.
“I had always thought of myself as really cosmopolitan and liberal. I thought that I was so well-traveled, so well-educated, that I had so many friends from different walks of life,”  Power said. “But when I really drilled down, I realized that I don’t have many friends that think profoundly differently than me.”
Power spent many hours with the Sheik over the course of her one year study. In doing so, she was able to form a bond with this man that, on the exterior, is very different from her.
“Here’s this Muslim guy from a tiny, tiny town in India, a very conservative Muslim in many ways. And here I am – my mom was Jewish and my dad was Quaker, and I was raised secular, and I’m a feminist and an American,” Power said. “We found, surprisingly, many places where we absolutely agreed on so many things. To me, that was incredibly exciting.”
In spite of the fact that Power went in and out the Clayton School District while growing up, she was still an active member of the student body, especially during her time at CHS.
“I wrote reviews for the newspaper, which was called Clamo then. I wrote a couple of pieces for them,” Power said. “I was mostly into drama, that was sort of my big extra-curricular deal back then.”
The ambition of Power’s classmates at CHS and the impact that had on her was one of the greatest factors that sculpted Power into a skilled writer.
“I just remember my fellow students were so smart. We really raised each other’s games. It’s a fairly competitive school. It had a really healthy, friendly competition and some of the teachers were really fabulous,” Power said.
Power’s journalistic work continued into her professional career as she was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek before leaving that position to become a freelance writer for Time Newsmagazine.
When she first began in journalism, Power became attracted to writing about slower moving social issues in society.
“Rather than telling what happened yesterday, [I liked] explaining much more glacier-like movements that we all know about. I wanted to unpack those and see how they happen,” Power said.
One of the most profound stories that Power worked on at Newsweek was a cover story in 1998 about women living under the Taliban. In her investigation, she went to Afghanistan, something, according to Power, very few reporters were doing at the time.
“It was a very unpleasant situation, especially in Kabul, where I went. It involved lots of sneaking around and trying not to get in trouble with the Taliban,” Power said.
Although Power is currently turning more towards writing books and less on journalistic works, she is grateful for the experiences journalism has given her.
“The ability to see the world and tell people stories and meet people who are totally different from you and try to understand the world and explain it to people, that’s a huge privilege. I pinch myself that I am able to do that,” Power said.
Power credits her achievements in writing not to her own abilities, but rather the circumstances that allowed her to pursue her passions.
“The older I get, the more I am sure that success is a matter of luck,” Power said. “Anybody who doesn’t acknowledge that is pretty arrogant.”
Power is eager to deepen and complicate people’s notion of what Islam is, with her book, If the Oceans Were Ink, she is hopeful that will occur.
“There’s sort of a dangerous simplification going on because of the headlines, because of ISIS. There are really dangerous stereotypes that are being used,” Power said. “There is a lot of hatred out there and unnecessary Islamophobia. I am really proud when people read this book and find out something new about Islam.”