The Heroine Next Door (2016 update)

Imagine a world where a Muslim girl could grow up to be anyone she wanted to be in the world. Imagine a world where her religion is a private expression of spirituality and her contributions measured by dedication to family and/or being able to express her talents. One might be taken to task for these flights of fancy, especially since the fifteen years since 9/11 has seared the apocalyptic vision of terrorists into global consciousness. The fog of death and war enveloping the real-time and digital worlds – alternatively labeled a “Mist over Peace” – has obscured the fact that more than a billion Muslim men and women live peaceful lives across the globe. One-fifth of Muslims (300 million people), according to the Pew Research Center, live in countries where Islam is not the majority religion.

One such country is South Africa – the land of Nelson Mandela and a “rainbow nation” that took to the streets in order to shed the yoke of apartheid. As in any other country, children dreamt of opportunities to better themselves, often in the absence of mentors and the necessary finances that could positively alter their lives. I have chosen to focus “The Heroine Next Door” on one fictitious character, Leila, who represents a character caught at several crossroads. She came of age as South Africa transitioned into a democracy. She is a Muslim woman who emigrated to another country and experienced the 9/11 aftermath of heightened security. She had very few shoulders of female giants to stand on in pursuing a career in the sciences. She is also a practical person seeking to tackle health issues such as HIV, tuberculosis and diabetes that plague many parts of the world, especially South Africa.

It is easy for this trailblazer to get lost in a cacophony of stereotypes about sexuality and spirituality. If fiction mirrors current international attitudes, she would be depicted as a jihadi bride drowning in black hijab or a virulent anti-Islamist. However, I have chosen to humanize her with anecdotes of daily life punctuated with historical context. The plot is described here.

Her story differs radically from that of a Syrian refugee struggling to survive or a Pakistani-born female doctor or an Indonesian female astronomer or an Iranian female math whiz or a Saudi female mountaineer who conquered Mount Everest or a functionally illiterate Afghan woman. And yet they all adhere to a faith based on five pillars: faith, prayer, alms (zakat), fasting, and pilgrimage. Imagine if their talents could be fully harnessed beyond the family to help tackle some of the most pressing global issues ie, food security, income inequality, unemployment, climate change, weaknesses in the global financial system, the impact of the Internet, the gender gap, global trade, long-term investment, and healthcare challenges. None of these topics will inflame passions on the scale of a war or the heady thrill that comes from vanquishing a foe. It is the boring work of governance. It represents the quiet resilience of life. Shaping the 21st century will require the collective input of all men and women. All the Leilas of this world want is to be part of the solution.

My other books


Perspectives on Type 2 diabetes


Google the word, “diabetes,” and at least 268 million hits appear to describe various features and management of a chronic condition that alters the body’s ability to metabolize blood sugar. I have chosen to focus on Type 2 diabetes in four countries/regions, the United States of America (USA), China, MENA, and South Africa, as a matter of personal preference and for the sake of brevity. Tips about Type 2 diabetes are interspersed with information on patient education and personal stories.


HIV/TB/Diabetes resource kit

This educational aid aims to fill an unmet need in providing patient-friendly information that would aid frontline healthcare workers in resource-poor settings to devise personalized treatment plans for individuals who have multiple chronic conditions eg, HIV, TB, and diabetes. South Africa is used as a case study to illustrate challenges and opportunities.


A few good women

Isaac Newton once said: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” This quote holds especially true for women seeking to advance in technical careers traditionally viewed as male endeavors eg, science and engineering. The female giants described in this book range from Emily Roebling’s tireless contribution to the building of the Brooklyn Bridge to the joint discovery of the brain’s GPS by May-Brit Moser and her husband.

Mist over peace

Capricious weather in Africa served as the perfect metaphor for the temporal nature of relationships, illnesses, and other societal issues that may obscure the eternal quest of human beings to find meaning (synonymous with happiness) in their lives. Mist would roll over sun-kissed, emerald-green vistas dotted with homes, only to clear within an hour and repeat Nature’s mysterious dance. I have synthesized relationships, headlines, mythology, history, science, religion, and sports through my mental prism into a collection of poems. Scientific discoveries and rational thought take center stage in poems such as Inflammatory bowel disease, On microbes and Man, and Yarumel’s curse. The latter poem refers to an ongoing study currently being conducted in Colombia to assess factors contributing to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in a population predisposed to this condition. In addition, Aging describes memory loss accompanying advancing years. I have also used the often-overworked metaphor of a bridge in The Brooklyn Bridge and Question Bridge to recall heroic engineering feats and to riff on a chasm of misunderstanding that may exist within a community. In the latter case, I chose the same title as a transmedia project aimed at facilitating discussions among black men. Headlines detailing violent events in South Africa, notably the Marikana miners’ strike, and shootings in the USA formed the basis for poems such as A miner’s voice and Gun control.



In this collection of poetry, I have continued the approach of filtering news headlines reflecting ongoing issues such as crime, immigration, family disintegration, and diseases through the prism of normal experiences. I have divided the poems into four categories: family, immigration, society, and diseases. With Mother’s Day fast approaching and in remembrance of a woman who embodied the positive aspects of a Jungian archetype, I have paid homage to mothers in a series of poems in Chapter 2 (Family). Migrants escaping war-torn regions into Europe and South Africa appear prominently in Chapter 3 (Immigration). Their plight is juxtaposed with the positive memories of a Russian immigrant to America, Vladimir Nabokov (Butterflies, Chapter 3), and the success of an anonymous, first-generation Chinese immigrant family (A robin’s nest, Chapter 2). While most of these stereotypes are instantly recognizable, readers may have to refresh their memories to appreciate allusions to the German pilot, Andreas Lubitz, in Chapter 4 (Alienation) or to the exploits of famed journalist, Nellie Bly (Asylum; Chapter 5). The theme in Chapter 5, is largely focused on an underappreciated component of health i.e., mental illness



Sometimes we need lies

Nonsense rhymes are fun. Enjoy!

Once upon a time there was a town crier,

Who was an inveterate liar,

And landed the citizens of Dyre,

In a quagmire.

The people revolted,

And the scoundrel bolted,

Causing everyone to shout “hooray.”

“We are in for a brighter day.

Let’s celebrate with an ostentatious display.

And declare that we shall triumph, come what may.”

Unfortunately, the return of truth,

Failed to heal or sooth.

Instead, reality’s steadfast glare,

Turned each life into a nightmare,

Leaving the people longing,

For veiled untruths and less fear-mongering,

And causing them to petition,

To bring the town crier back if he expressed contrition.

Prime a beautiful mind

Watch the YouTube video of 40-year old UCLA professor, Terence Tao, and you will gain an understanding of how the math prodigy took the scientific world by storm. A photo from the Australian-American’s early years shows a diminutive seven-year old, appearing an article with the hometown headline: “TINY TERENCE, 7, IS HIGH-SCHOOL WHIZ.” At age two he had taught himself to read and by age, 10, he became the youngest person in history to win a medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad. In a 2015 New York Times article he is quoted as saying:” When I was growing up, I knew I wanted to be a mathematician, but I had no idea what that entailed.” Today he counts the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics ie, the Fields Medal, and the MacArthur “genius” grant among his accolades.

By contrast to mathematicians portrayed on the silver screen such as John Nash, tormented by schizophrenia or Srinivasa Ramanujan, who had to overcome incredible hardship to make his mark in the field, Tao seems refreshingly normal for a genius raised in a typical family.   Tao, the eldest of three boys, was born in 1975 and recollects inventing board games in his youth with his siblings using a Scrabble board for a basic grid and then bringing in Scrabble tiles, chess pieces, Chinese checkers, mah-jongg tiles and Dungeons & Dragons dice. They turned to video games for storylines and to help invent their own sets of rules. Tao also had a vivid imagination, consuming fantasy books like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and doodling intricate maps of imaginary lands when becoming bored in his high school class.

Terence Tao (Credit: Babenson at English Wikipedia)
Terence Tao (Credit: Babenson at English Wikipedia)his school classes.

By age 17, Tao had completed a Master’s degree and he moved to Princeton University to enroll as a PhD student. While Tao’s research years were dotted with the familiar frustrations of mathematicians seeking elegant proofs for different theorems, this prolific mathematician stood head and shoulders above the crowd with his contributions to a number of categories ranging from nonlinear equations to number theory. His best-known work involves patterns of prime numbers (numbers divisible only by one and themselves). Lest mere mortals think that he sticks to theoretical studies, the rest of us can breathe a sigh of relief that he has also advanced compressed sensing research, thus enabling engineers to develop sharper, more efficient imaging technology for MRIs, astronomical instruments, and digital cameras. Here is another one of his quotes that appeared in a 2008 Discover magazine article: “If there is something that I should know how to do but don’t, it bugs me,” he says. “I feel like I have to sit down and work out exactly what the problem is.”

Copernicus Rediscovered?

What are the chances of digging up the remains of the man who revolutionized astronomy in your local church? Doubts have swirled around the 2005 claim of a Polish archaelogical team that they had unearthed skeletal remains of the 16th century astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) [1]. A team of forensic experts, including the Central Forensic Laboratory of the Warsaw Police, examined the claims by investigating the bones and teeth of a 60 to 70-year old man found in Frombork Cathedral, Poland.

The task at hand was daunting, as outlined in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal article [2]. Copernicus died in 1543, at age 70, and was interred at Frombork Cathedral, which unfortunately has a large percentage of unnamed tombs. Scientists used facial reconstruction and comparisons with paintings, including a self-portrait, to narrow down the list of skeletons to one individual. They struck gold with the discovery of a seeming match. There was a forehead scar and evidence of a broken nose between one cranium and a key portrait. The next step involved DNA analysis. Here, the team was aided by Swedish researchers who retrieved hairs from a book annotated by Copernicus (on exhibit at Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala, Sweden). Genetic detective work enabled them to match two of the hairs to DNA segments from a well-preserved cranial tooth, thereby adding to the notion that the remains of Copernicus had finally been discovered.


Interestingly, the authors point out that Copernicus may have had blue eyes, even though early portraits of the astronomer show him with dark eyes. The authors explain their findings by noting that the painting technique, chalcography, used during the lifetime of Copernicus, does not reflect actual color. Therefore it is possible that science has now corrected an artistic impression reproduced in the ensuing centuries of dark eye color by showing that Copernicus, in fact, had light-colored eyes. The editorial commentary accompanying the article was favorable, with doubts mainly centering on the number of hairs and books tested before zeroing in on the Calendarium, the book which contained the jackpot hairs; however, the debate over different interpretations of the data continues in academic corridors.


Clearing up the mystery of the astronomer’s remains may eventually put him to rest, but he will remain immortal in our minds. Like Darwin, he ushered in the modern scientific era with the heliocentric theory, i.e. placing the sun at the center of our solar system and relegating the Earth to the position of another planet orbiting the sun. His findings did not endear him to contemporary critics, e.g. Scaliger, who noted the name of Copernicus next to the recommendation that “certain writings should be expunged or their authors whipped” [3]. Nowadays scholars and laymen applaud his discoveries.

Helping to feed the hungry with Big Data

Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, American computer scientist and serial entrepreneur, Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, American computer scientist and serial entrepreneur, holds the view that human nature thrives through interaction and trading with trusted others – an idea that he wants to incorporate into sustaining our digital ecology. What does this mean in a world where every phone call, credit card transaction, idle thought posted on social media leave hackable imprints mirroring the best and worst in human nature. Our physical selves may become numb to the zettabytes of information streamed and stored for 24/7 consumption, to the point that wars and natural disasters become pixelated noise on a slowly-buffering YouTube video. For those of us suffering from post-Orwellian fatigue over the many ways in which Big Data cataloging our lives can be misused, it comes as heartening news that visionaries at the intersection of information science, humanitarian aid, and Big Data analytics are stepping up with concrete plans to provide humanitarian aid to poor countries.

One example is Chamutal Afek-Eitam, the thirtysomething founding CEO of the 3 Million Club, a non-profit startup cut from a different cloth. Her LinkedIn profile cites “15 years of work in the international aid sector with 10 years working in development and emergency practice for a variety of INGOs and UN bodies while living in Kosovo, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic Congo and, six years in specialist consultancy services and academic research in disaster, dev and innovation management.” The academic research refers to her work at the cusp of information and the social sciences at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands eg, The Humanitarian Genome Project. Think of humanitarian aid as the building blocks of effective giving to others. By analogy, the segments of DNA that form genes encoding specific proteins, are the regions of the world where aid will be delivered to fulfill a specific need. What are the dominant patterns that may streamline effective delivery of aid from a charity’s headquarters to the field? Are there recessive traits that could be enhanced to improve the local economy at the individual and community levels? The project aims to develop open-source technology in which such behavioral evaluations will be made easily and widely accessible to the humanitarian community.

Drawing upon her academic and humanitarian aid background, Eitam, formed the 3 Million Club, possibly a reference to the fact that an estimated 3 million children across the globe die due to hunger each year. She has already started a campaign drive to raise money for food packages that would be used to feed starving children. In an interview with the Israeli press, Eitam, says that, for $60, donors can purchase ready-to-use therapeutic food (RTUF) that may feed malnourished children for three months – possibly enough time for many kids to recover from severe malnutrition.

Her business model is to cut out the middle man and international bureaucracy and keep everything local. The only fee her organization takes is a $3 bank transfer fee for every $60 donation. Food is purchased locally, thus helping to support the local economy, and donors or “humanitarian shareholders” receive word when ‘their’ child gets the food. The investment opportunity lies in providing field workers with devices to record information about the socioeconomic status of each child and community member in the RUTF distribution areas. The sale of data providing governments and companies with real-time snapshots about the needs of communities and effectiveness of humanitarian aid, will provide donors with short- and long-term returns on their investments. This no-frills and no-waste donation program differs from the well-meaning top-down approaches of the past and may impact a sector where many people may be sick of seeing how much money goes to waste.

Once word of this project spreads, one can only hope that it inspires others to similar actions. Beyond telling governments or corporations whether you are likely to repay your loans or get diabetes, Big Data may become part of the digital conversation lifting millions of people out of poverty.

A teacher’s retirement speech

My late brother’s retirement speech (worth revisiting after all these years):

May all the teachings of those you admire become a part of you so that you may call upon them. Remember those whose lives you have touched and who have touched yours. They are always a part of you, even if those encounters were less than you would have wished. It is the content of the encounter that is more important than its form. May you not become too concerned with status, but instead place immeasurable value on the goodness in your heart. Find time in each day to see beauty and love in the world around you. Realize that each person has limitless possibilities, that each of us is different in our own way. What you may feel you lack in one regard may be more than compensated for in each other. What you feel you lack in the present may become a strength in the future. May you see your future as filled with promise and possibility. May you find enough inner strength to determine your own worth by yourself and not be dependent upon another’s judgment of your accomplishments. May you always feel loved.

The Heroine Next Door: Status Update

HIVAIDS_infographicTuberculosis_2016 Diabetes_infographicIt has been a few years since I first thought about a series of books about Islam and chronic diseases. What would such disparate topics have in common, one might ask? Part of the impetus has been to try and interpret complex events that hog the news headlines and impact my life in a direct and indirect way. As someone who experienced apartheid in South Africa and the 9/11 aftermath, my writing journey started as another twist on familiar themes. The start of the project was simple. Join some Muslims together in a loosely-fitting collage of immigrant experiences and show that a positive spirit can endure all manner of problems to solve, in one instance, the burgeoning triple epidemic of HIV/TB/diabetes epidemic in South Africa. Combine those books with some non-fiction tips and poems about the diseases, relationships, and life.

Since “The Heroine Next Door” and subsequent books appeared in print over the last 24 months, I have realized how difficult it is to transmit the message that good people can help one another if they choose to apply themselves to solutions. My naïveté has been tempered, but I have also been heartened by the positive responses from fans and the fact that some people have expressed that their eyes have been opened to new ways of doing things.

So, in the spirit of continuing to spread positive energy and basic information of the top infectious killers and the diabetes epidemic, I have put together some infographics. Please feel free to visit Amazon to check out the books and Facebook/LinkedIn for the infographics (high-res versions are available upon request).

Less means more for this scientist

You have more opportunity and time to create when you have less. This is the You have more opportunity and time to create when you have less.  This is the

(Credit: Ann Makosinski)
(Credit: Ann Makosinski)

take-home message of a TED talk given by eighteen-year old inventor and entrepreneur, Ann (Andini) Makosinski. Makosinski, born to a Filipino mother and Polish father, has a string of scientific accolades, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and was named TIME magazine’s 30 under 30. Creativity for Ann was born out of necessity because she was not showered the number of toys people tend to give their children today. So she needed to find creative ways to entertain herself and never felt FOMO, which is the teenage acronym for fear of missing out.

Influenced by her parents, her idols include Ravi Shankar, the well-known Indian composer and sitar virtuoso who influenced the likes of violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, and Beatles guitarist, George Harrison. She was also influenced by the poverty she saw in Shankar’s home country, India, as well as the poverty she encountered in her father’s home country, the Philippines. Building on her talent as a tinkerer, she entered science fairs and tried to nurture her innate sense of wanting to help others. One night she listened to a friend from the Philippines who told her that she had failed a grade simply because she lacked electricity in order to study at home. So she invented a flashlight that runs off the heat of a human hand- a feat that earned her the 2013 Google Science Fair for the 15-16 age category. As she relates her story:” Using four Peltier tiles and the temperature difference between the palm of the hand and ambient air, I designed a flashlight that provides bright light without batteries or moving parts. My design is ergonomic, thermodynamically efficient, and only needs a five degree temperature difference to work and produce up to 5.4 mW at 5 foot candles of brightness.”

Her latest invention is the edrink – a coffee mug that converts the excess heat from your cup of coffee into electricity – useful if you wish to recharge your iPod or phone and there are no electricity outlets to meet your needs. She won 24,000 Canadian dollars for her invention from Shell Canada. One can imagine this gadget finding a market in poorer countries where electricity comes at a premium cost.

The smartphone-shy teen’s favorite pastime, according to a Guardian article, is to watch vloggers – Zoella or Tyler Oakley, say – on her laptop. One of her tips to parents is to nurture inventors by limiting lots of activities eg, she was allowed half-an hour over the weekend for TV.


My country

In the Fertile Crescent’s crucible,

Well-meaning military decimated the lives of citizenry.

In the bowels of an Arab nationalist and socialist Babel,

Stepped young patriots tasked to achieve instant victory,

Only to watch euphoria decay into obfuscation and local misery.

Thanks to the comforting distance of technology,

Who bothers to keep up with death’s daily tally?

Was this happenstance? How did this come to be?


Once upon a time, a shepherd’s son from Tikrit,

Oblivious to a cleric’s sermon delivered in a masjid,

Rose to become a dictator wrapped in a delusion,

To bypass a colonial past and religious fervor,

And expand his reach beyond the Euphrates river.

Ba’athism equaled renaissance equaled a unified Arab state.

Alas! War further fractured The Fertile Crescent into tribes separated by hate.


A quiet Sunni son of Samarrah,

Home of a Shiah Muslim holy site,

Purportedly the Prophet’s descendant driven by his version of valor,

Saw the invasion as an opportunity for a larger union of the pious and those who believe in what is right.

Once slammed by others as illegitimate,

War’s chaos was the perfect climate,

To enroll ex-Ba’athists in the quest for a perfect caliphate,

Devoid of non-believers’ hegemony and hypocrisy.

Instead, history bore witness to the decay of a vision,

Now twisted to cleanse the earth of the Kufar or ‘the other,’

Whose ignorance is inferred to have destroyed the purity of every sister or brother.

Humanity continues to watch in silence

As competing narratives of tragedy

Numb souls to endless violence.

What a travesty

That a burning pilot’s cries

And subsequent bottomless grief of parents’ relating a soldier’s demise

Blur into a nihilistic canvas.

Is that really us?

At our very core,

How willing are we to end this war?