Knowing Thy Self

by Mohammed Shamma

I’m not big on the whole selfie thing. Don’t get me wrong. I like taking pictures.  I just feel super awkward taking ones of my self and then posting them online. I guess I’m more of a loner bookworm than denizen of the many social-media sites dedicated to self-celebration. I tend to talk about what I “like” rather than share the results of the latest BuzzFeed quiz describing what cheese or bathroom I am.  But I’m also willing to give it a try.  So if taking a BuzzFeed survey is grounds for self-celebration, then here comes the narcissism.  If I were a contemporary artist, I’d be Bansky and my favorite classic author soul mate would be Virginia Woolf.  I guess BuzzFeed was right, because I’m not here to grace the walls of your favorite site with hyped up pictures of my ordinary self.  I’d much rather post my favorite books and art all over the Internet because I think we’re all as beautiful as the paintings we love and the books we read.

Think of me as one who loves Camus, Bowles and Durrell or as one who appreciates Kandinsky, Magritte and Renoir.  Don’t think of me as the guy who posted yet another self-portrait.  Do think of me as the guy who might ramble on about what Virginia Woolf’s might say in a tweet or how Magritte could possibly take a selfie with that damn green apple in front of his face.  It’s complicated.  I know.  I will, however, meet all you selfie supporters halfway and pay homage to a different meme: the shelfie.

If you’ve ever taken a selfie in front of books, then you’ve posted a shelfie, but I’m guessing you knew that already.  For those that don’t, the shelfie is a selfie of you (optional) and your books on a shelf (also optional).  The elegance of the shelfie is that your bookshelves are literary extensions of you.  It can be more revealing than the selfie.  Ever wonder how tidy the librarian bookshelves are at home?  Or what about your designer friends that color coordinate the books in their shelves?  Did you hear about that grandmother who just posted her first profile pic and forgot to remove the copy of Sweet Savage Love on the shelf in the background?  Or what about that guy you just started dating who just Instagrammed his shelfie and placed Fifty Shades of Grey next to Relationships for Dummies!  What’s up with that?

But seriously, the shelfie is more than that.  It’s about showing off the physical books you own – no e-books (full disclosure: I own a Kindle and love it) – the good books that never go out of style – the ones with hardback covers and crisp warm book jackets – first editions of books that you didn’t buy online.  Getting a new book is like getting a work of art that you can carry with you.

So here comes another confession.  I also like to draw and paint.  I carry a sketchbook with me all the time.  The college campus where I work has many historic structures.  My lunch break is often a time for sustenance and sketching in front of my favorite buildings, sculptures or gardens.  And by the way, anyone can keep a sketchbook.  A sketch is just a quick freehand drawing that should not look complete or polished.  Here’s a sketch of one of my favorite buildings on campus, the main library.

As you can see, I’ve crudely rendered shape of the building and its surroundings.  The perspective is clearly skewed and the people, well, I won’t even go there.  But that’s not the point.  No photo filter can dress up what your eyes and hands have created.  Check out the UrbanSketchers movement online and you’ll see that many people have put down their smart phones and taken up pens, pencils and brushes.  They’re opening their sketchbooks and illustrating their travel diaries, daily activities, seasons of the year, meals and moods.  Sketching outdoors is also a great way to meet people and share stories.  And when you can’t go outdoors, sketch indoor, your living room, office or workspace.


So, as a supporter of this movement, I can’t just snap a pic my bookshelf and share it.  I have to sketch it.  What do you think?


In doing so, I like to think I’ve created my own fictional literary still life – a work of art that I can carry with me.  All the elements of that powerful and yet simple genre of painting can be transferred to books – the flowers, fruit, and dead animals, what have you.  If you take a look at my sketch, you can see that I’ve replaced the inanimate fruits and vegetables with stories of agrarian struggle as told by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawy in Egyptian Earth.  I’ve removed the brightly colored roses and lilies in the soil and offered up sweet stories of love, both real (Salaam Love) and fictional (The Map of Love, Tales from the Arabian Nights and Love in the Western World).  Van Gogh painted many flowers in his still life pieces, but did you know he also painted a Bible?  In that spirit, but with my own twist, I sketched a few books that focus on the presence of Islam in Western culture (Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, Painted Hands and Alif the Unseen).  The Dutch masters loved to incorporate “exotic” (e.g. relics of colonialism) into their paintings, which is why I’ve included some of my own colonial references (The Native Americans and Black Athena).  All in all, there’s a little bit of me in each of these books.

So what have I done here? Have I benefitted your life in any way?  Maybe.  Is my sketched shelfie just as narcissistic as a two-second selfie in front of the library?  Yes.  Why didn’t I just snap a pic of myself and move on with my life?  Because it’s what I love.  It makes me who I am.  I can’t stress that enough.  Find that something inside of you, that work of art that you can carry with you.  You are beautiful and you deserve the memories you create.


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Mohammed Shamma is a writer/illustrator living in Berkeley, California with his wife and two kids. His story, “Echoes” was published in Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy. Read more about his work at: or connect with him on Twitter at @mohammed_shamma.


Latest Comments

  1. Zame Khan says:

    Salaam Mohammed,

    I enjoy the graphics as much as the writing on this website. The color and design both stand out. Thanks for sharing the words and the graphics that complement each other very nicely in this “Knowing Thy Self” essay.



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