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



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?

The children are watching

The children are watching

The conflagration of fact and fiction,

And wandering without comprehending,

About the dereliction of truth’s benediction.


In a world with no secrets,

Why are adults filled with so many regrets?

Why is nothing as it appears

And success built on lies and smears?

Why does every catechism

Bear little resemblance to realism?

Is perpetual pretense

The price adults exact for lost innocence?


The children are watching.

What do they see?

Hollow imitations of you or me?

Do they long for what is in the neighbor’s yard,

Even as the world tears itself apart?

Do they yearn for gold faintly gleaming,

On the fifth-tier of a video game?

At least avatars with scimitars

Can forego a world where people hate and maim,

For a cyber-Eden where they can find treasure and fame.

A need for borders

In a post-religious world,

The principle of singularity,

Of universal transparency,

To enhance human solidarity,

To amplify a common core of decency,

And dispel hatred and violence through technology,

Has run into the head winds of human psychology.


Aggression is more likely to leave a lasting impression.

Vulnerability is silenced by the cacophony of a righteous crowd.

Who would notice the Messiah voicing compassion out loud?

Maybe the borders needed in this new global order are not of the physical kind,

But rather spiritual fences to protect the heart and mind.

Black men

Excerpt from my book, Mist over peace: A prelude to MLK day in the USA

Shaka Zulu, son of Nandi and Senzangakona,

Empire-builder from the Tugela to the Pongola

Warrior king, like Caesar or Alexander the Great

Ruthless conqueror of tribes until Dingaan settled his fate.

King Mansa Musa of Mali

Guardian of North Africa’s commerce and educational quality

He established the world’s first university

A place where creative minds could thrive and express individuality.

Akhenaton, pharaoh and husband of Queen Nefertiti

A believer in love, brotherhood, truth, and divinity

Centuries before Darwin, Christ, and Muhammad spread evolution and monotheism

He taught the gospel of one God until his successors decreed a return to henotheism.

General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery

The first black leader of Tuskegee Airmen contributing to the Allied victory

In the face of racism and hostility

He overcame hardships with courage, intelligence, and tenacity.

Thurgood Marshall, grandson of a slave

Blessed with a father who instilled appreciation for law into the young knave

Chief dismantler of the “separate but equal” doctrine in public education

The first African-American Supreme Court Justice should be mentioned with jubilation.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

The man we once knew as Cassius Clay and now Muhammad Ali

Vietnam war-protestor, legendary heavyweight

Parkinson’s sufferer and a fighting spirit to emulate

Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, unsung fathers and sons,

Just a few of the extraordinary men who toiled among us

In the middle of madness and sadness

You are reminders of perseverance and prowess.

Poetry excerpt from Mist over Peace: Self-organizing learning environments

Zeena Nackerdien
Zeena Nackerdien








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A child’s sense of wonder and cooperation

Should not be stifled by anger, nihilism and annihilation.

Even in a slum, even in the middle of war,

Self-education will flow from curiosity at a child’s core.

In the absence of teachers and brick-and-mortar schools

Children are able to use computers and an Internet connection as learning tools

Sugata Mitra has shown young ones Skyping with mentors in a “Granny Cloud”

And their skills and answers should make all adults proud.

The panopticon

Eye of Providence
Eye of Providence

Syzygy predicted by prophecy

Will unite animus and anima

In mutually-reinforcing mimicry.

Instinct will transcend edict.

What was once spiritual anathema

Would be revealed for crowd scrutiny

By non-believers and clergy,

Who would cull heresy and abscond with creativity,

Thanks to the lexicon

Of the panopticon.

Controlled by invisible scions

Manipulating the evolutionary game,

The proletariat would acquiesce through their subservience

And technological singularity would amplify instant fame,

Dissolving physical and psychic boundaries

And giving rise to hitherto unknown quandaries.

The flies in the ointment,

Threatening the fabric of humanity

By being such a disappointment,

Always eluding secular anointment,

Are truth and individuality,

Repulsive forces failing to simplify human complexity,

Genetic morality modulated by epigenetic technology.

What are these foreboding tendrils threatening crowd-sourced certainty?

Could it be “the other”?

Could it be a softer psyche seeking common ground

When none is to be found

In the glare of warfare?

Could it be the rejection of love’s profound union

In favor of anarchy and the destruction of femininity?




Lasting peace

Hatred’s miasma

Permeates Satan’s apocrypha,

Smothering innocence and humanity.

Nourished by vengeance and desperation,

Feeding on guilt and fear

To maximize sensation.

Civilians are fodder in a Doomsday cult’s celebration.


Innocuous symbols of everyday life,

A rock concert in Paris, Muslim girls educated in Mecca,

Are kindling for the demonic wrecker.

“Give peace a chance” rings hollow,

In the face of a scorched earth policy’s sorrow.


Wars may eventually be won

By those more proficient at hacking or using a gun,

But the battle for lasting peace has only just begun.

The wanderer

The tragic events in Paris inspired my latest ruminations about peace.

The Wanderer

The wanderer stumbled through the looking glass,

Shattering silence with the physical reality of violence.

Burnt by hatred,

Dazed by profane inversion of the sacred,

He encountered his virtual alter ego, the slanderer.

Ensconced in luxury ─ the gain from others’ pain,

Surrounded by sycophants who primp and feign,

He beckoned with a manicured hand,

Luring the wanderer into a pixelated promised land.

Caught between the old and the new,

The wanderer did not know which one to eschew,

Embrace hatred from bygone wars,

Or mindlessly succumb to crowd-sourced lores?

Meeting his nemesis was the apogee of insanity

For the refugee from the duplicity of transparency’s theocracy.

Fear lent wings to his feet,

As he broke from the slanderer’s death grip.

Biting on a bloodied lip,

To underscore that he could triumph over an avatar’s deceipt,

He stumbled over human destruction’s flotsam.

No longer held in Becket’s prison, awaiting release after paying an impossible ransom.

The refrain,”never again,” echoed in his ears.

A Gregorian chant wiping away his fears.

Pogroms. Auschwitz. Babi Yar. Never again.

Barcelona. London. 9/11. Never again.

Beslan. Boston. Never again.

Columbine. Newtown. Ferguson. Baltimore. Never again.

Libya, Syria, Sabra, Shatilla,

Denigration of education, pilgrims squashed to death in Mecca,

Patricide, matricide, fratricide, suicide, femicide, genocide,

Charlie Hebdo, 2014; Paris, 2015.

Never again.

Zig-zagging through a global morass,

Balkanized by encrypted apps,

He slalomed in and out of the ego’s impasse.

Beaten down by life’s mishaps,

The wanderer almost drowned in pond scum.

As he came up for air,

He was transformed by a sight most fair.

A lotus flower bloomed, untouched by the environment.

Finally, he stopped his meaningless struggle and floated with ease,

For even in surroundings drenched in the stench of defilement,

He could at last recognize peace.


Adorn Hera’s peacock with the eyes of a cyber-Argus.

Guard a new technological order.

Record local violence and global slaughter.

Freeze-frame nations on the brink of an abyss.

Transiently capture the dissolution of every psychological border.

Prepare for the possibility and the uncertainty of the new singularity,

When your conviction becomes my restriction,

And breaking societal benediction results in eviction,

Or digital crucifixion

Immortalized in zeta-bytes of enmity and anonymity.


Tailor your façade to each environment’s unseen eyes.

Focus your lens on the enemy and mimic his maneuvers to win a coveted prize.

Change your behavior to project yourself as the crowd’s savior.

Sacrifice your individuality for the sake of the community.

Shine a beacon on human torment and inequality.

Feign ignorance and do nothing in the face of tragedy.

Is transparency worth the destruction of honesty?