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A Living Room In Palestine

July 22, 2014

I speak with Palestine on Skype
from a dining table in East London
an Arab friend in Israel
translates a tourism brochure while I type
in Arabic so slow my fingers creak
her living room is brightly lit
a three-month old baby squeals
in another room while we discuss the right word
for pergolas and romantic
the agaves that Lorca called petrified octopi
and lanterns in Granada’s Moroccan quarter

Our sadness flits behind outbursts
of geraniums on balconies
hides in vaults of the Alhambra and hammams
flavours olives, avocados and almond cakes
things brought to Spain by Muslims
who were then crammed into a province
as populous as the rest of Spain put together
and finally exiled, massacred or muted

Now an airplane flies over her village
a fragment of Palestine in the middle of Israel
my heart stops for a second that lasts years
but she goes on looking up words
the dictionary pages lisp
and the adhan goes for ‘isha
loudspeaker overpowering our work
for a minute that I wish
would last an eon

We return to Sacromonte and prickly pears
armoured sweetness loaded with seed shrapnel
Palestine as far away as news reports
and distant as home

Gaza + Motherhood: Invisible Heroism

July 17, 2014

I don’t usually like to write about a poem or a song; there’s an unspoken rule among writers that your work should speak for itself, the way that a joke becomes less and less funny the more you explain it. But I feel that my last poem, The Jihad of English People, could use a little clarifying.

When people talk about jihad, you know what images spring to mind. Arabic speakers know that ‘jihad’ means, first and foremost, a struggle – generally for a noble cause, such as that against harmful desires. In Islam the struggle against the base soul is the greater jihad, while armed combat in the pursuit of freedom from tyranny is the lesser. 

But while every newsfeed is crammed with the horrors of Gaza, the personal uphill struggle of dealing with the uncertainty of staying alive for another day, or losing a loved one in a targeted missile while they play tag on a beach, or having a ten-minute warning to escape (to where?) before your house gets bombed, seems so much more weighty than all of the minor, incidental struggles I wrote about in that poem.

The jihad of a mother who not only has to deal with changing nappies, stopping her kids fighting, and keeping everyone fed and clothed and educated for another day, but also grieves for her nephews and nieces being buried are immeasureable. I cannot begin to fathom it, in my safe First World cocoon.

So I hope that it does not come across as fatuous to talk about the jihad of postal workers, or company CEOs. The logic behind the poem brewed like this.

I was trailing the kids across the park while fasting (me, not them) to collect a bag of borrowed clothes from a kind friend. We stopped for a while, and they played; we stopped in the park on the way home, and they played. When it was getting late, and I was ready to pass out in the sandpit, I realised we’d left the bag of clothes behind and had to go back to her house before crossing the park again to get home.

Not a major issue for adults with ordinary length legs, but for small children who are already worn out it was too much. Cue four-year-old meltdown. Now, my usual reaction to these relatively small annoyances is to throw the toys out of the pram myself (so to speak). ‘Why can’t my kids learn resilience?’ I moan. ‘Why aren’t they more patient?’ I stamp my feet. ‘I’m sure other people’s kids handle this so much better!’ I fume with irrational levels of overreaction.

Everyone, without exception, is driven up the wall regularly by their kids. They have that unique combination of knowing all your weaknesses (and how to exploit them) and being too loved to risk being abandoned in a bus shelter. There are times you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.

When it dawned on me that instead of being offended that my kids weren’t living up to my expectations, and started regarding childrearing as a kind of personal jihad, all my frustrations about not being in a position to battle the great injustices of the world fell into their rightful places. Everyone, ultimately, is battling something.

Some are in a position to do jihad against tyranny, political corruption, institutional abuses (as the famous hadith goes, ‘The greatest jihad is a word of truth in the presence of an oppressor’.) Others have their hands tied by family commitments, dealing with a serious illness, or caring for someone who needs them on a daily basis.

You don’t have to feel useless in the great order of things if you haven’t been able to lie down in front of Israeli tanks or chain yourself to the railings outside Number 10; you are also shouldering a burden that’s making you stronger, soldiering on through bleak landscapes, whether internal or external. Everyone is, whether they know it or not.

A few are enabled to make their heroism public, but that’s not many of us. Rearing a family that will bring benefit rather than harm to the world IS a noble cause. You might have your kids for yourself but you raise them for society’s sake. Mothering consciously is like no work, no responsibility, that any company CEO has ever been prepared for. 

So I salute those struggling everywhere, in personal jihads against addictions, depression, loneliness, fear, despair, existential void, illusion, and the intoxication of ease. It might be a war of contrition (as I’ve heard the battle against head-lice amusingly called) but at least you know you’re in good company. And may God grant respite to all those whose struggles begin by waking up to war.

The Jihad of English People

July 17, 2014

The jihad of English people

is to bear the blankness of grey days

to wade through a million petty gripes

without sinking into sourness

The jihad of mothers is trudging forwards

while a four-year-old tugs their hand backwards

to block out the screeching and the ingratitude

kicks, scratches and cusses and

still see a glow of hope around their kids

The jihad of postal workers is

going unnoticed except when they are absent

to remember how essential they are even when never thanked

The jihad of café workers in train stations

is to still feel life is new after making their

thousandth cappuccino

The jihad of company CEOS is

to tread water in crest and crash and

take the blame when blame is due 

instead of laying off worker bees in swarms

while they escape in a waxed Mercedes

The jihad of wives is to cycle through dozens of functions

- counseller, ironer, reminder of socks’ destiny

in laundry baskets, confidante, financial adviser, alarm clock for

important events, shoulder masseuse, head chef

without a wage, not to mention their jihad as mothers

and company CEOS or postal workers too - 

while staying centred amid the spin

The jihad of husbands is to notice that cycle and compliment them on it

and not be bewildered when their uncomplimented wives bawl

The jihad of doctors is to keep their hearts unglazed 

even when administering their umpteen death sentence 

because the next they hear might be their own

The jihad of ease is to stay unmuffled 

rejoin the whole instead of hiding behind alarmed gates

caressed by blandishments and easy fixes

The jihad of separation is to bear the body’s longing for closeness

without anaesthetising its need or punishing it for its desire

It is all an uphill walk through muddy fields

with the four-year-old of your ego

tugging backwards on your hand

whining for ice-cream or a carry

a jihad that has no killer dimensions

only weariness

and loneliness

and fear that it is all in vain

We patriots of the human nation

wake each day as untagged soldiers

every tiny struggle borne in noble, ordinary causes

an unreported chance for us to be

a hero.

Night Bus To Hackney

July 7, 2014

IMG_0490[1]

Grime hangs in London’s unlit streets
away from the gleam of white stone Aldwych
shy St Martin-in-the-Fields behind
a bridal veil embroidered with plane leaves
the dazzle of downward lines reflected on the Thames
from the blue, red, green South Bank
the baubles of the boats
and the owlish eyes of Big Ben.

I’m scrolling backwards now: I began in a
frantic fruitless race to meet my daughter’s plane
on the worst night of the year. A torrent of
yellow Lycra would be coming through the centre of town
on the morrow; trains were disrupted already,
at midnight on Sunday. Through the liquid flares of light
in my livid tears I hopped from Elephant & Castle
to Westminster (that travelcard bought
from the rosy-eyed skaghead at London Bridge
for 2 quid proved a godsend) and from there I walked
along Embankment, alone and daughter-less,
hunting down a lesser-spotted
Night Bus to Hackney.

(That day I’d been rugby-tackling 12 kids
into doing creative writing; the only thing
that seemed to grab them was the circular poem,
written on one face of a mobius strip.
It was a clever trick but paused thoughts,
the sentence cycling under eye
like a pavement that keeps returning.)

Under the bridge the foothpath was closed for works;
veering into the road a brilliant white coach slowed
as it passed me, just as the yellow LED
ticker tape read: …to GODWARD ST.
I wanted to shout Ya Aziz! I call You and You answer!

Now my feet clicked on merrier, nose picking up an old scent:
there was Savoy Street – I was where I understood.
Rounding Aldwych, a Scottish lass with gushing bloodied knee
staggering and laughing, a flurry of people
wide-eyed and foolish, shoelaces undone
with a sheen of vodka, I was safe
on a very British belvedere among Russians
Bengalis and Koreans with maps.
I took the N26 towards Chingford and from the top deck
we passed Godliman Street, too.
For a city that scorns belief it is Threadneedled into its map,
a Strand of awe stitched through its Petticoat,
a Bishop at one gate, a Moor at the other.

Once the protective shine of tourist attractions
gave way to Cambridge Heath and Columbia Rd,
despite its Decent International store,
the gloom lurked in to leer at the lost.
Tattery fringes hung from mislit lamps;
a man wheeled past an amp, his friend
with blue ink smudged on his cheek wished me
a dreary ‘Bo selecta’.

All the while my company
was a Senegalese dhikr, of Allah and nothing else,
an ever-repeating refrain on mobius lips.

Vast Forests (Poem Written While Fasting)

July 4, 2014

Everything reminds me of absence
the metallic mouthfeel
gurgling plumbing
phone call from my beloved on a
foreign plane
breaths from mouths too dry to talk sense
the dinner we started preparing too early
there is longing even in lost miswaks
displacement in a pair of shoes
clothes that came aboard boats from China
rugs bought in Turkish bazaars
sold by city folk but woven by peasant women
in alternate landscapes
pineapples pressed in Costa Rica
to be consumed in Hackney, E9
everything is gone before it is touched
en route to another place
nothing homely, nothing whole
nothing original, nothing owned
these things are not ours nor ever were
since our hands have never touched anything
only seen sense-pictures created within ourselves
we are sealed
hermits against an outside unreal
always being taken somewhere else
and sold
and altered
and blown into a different form
so nothing is new or alive
only
whatever we live first-hand
within the vast forests within
that no-one else can take
that no-one else can taste unless
they leave their heavy cloaks and fly
into those forests with you
or you do likewise and drop your body-dunes
and roam across their plains.

Three Translucent Fans

July 3, 2014

It might seem, from the digital distance of the internet, that the Cave has been pretty quiet of late. From this side of the screen, however, it’s been a time of intense internal activity, which I have cunningly disguised as laziness.

Various family crises, housing disasters, veterinary emergencies, bureaucratic worries and work woes combined into a whirling maelstrom of angst, which left me fairly convinced that if I’d gone to a doctor I would have been put on some strong medication. Thank God I had no health insurance and therefore didn’t have the choice.

 Big dog, big vet bills.

Thus a month of near-lunacy culminated in a trip up to Alqueria de Los Rosales, a conference centre complete with mosque (designed by my very own padre) and lodgings in a remote, starkly beautiful corner of the Granada province. The attraction was a retreat organised by my favourite fellow Cavepeople, Rumi’s Cave. Sheikh Babikir and Imam ‘Abdul-Lateef Finch were there to blast gibbering wrecks like myself back into shiny shape again through the medium of dhikr. By the time I left I felt free again, impervious to fear and stress; I felt like a ghoul whose hand had been constantly clutching at my throat had now been banished back to the underworld.

‘Adhkurni fa-adhkurkum’, so the Qur’an tells us: ‘Remember Me and I will remember you’. Pretty straightforward it would seem. It’s the antithesis of the current climate of ultra-distractability; you don’t need me to start listing websites – you know the prime culprits. Why are we suckers for it, when FB does such spectacularly insensitive acts as deliberately manipulating the positive or negative content of nearly 700,000 users’ newsfeeds in an experiment to see if they would post more negative or positive posts?

We citizens of the Internetic Republic are dimly aware of the way in which Flabberbook uses our self-created profiles to ‘teach’ advertisers how to market to us better, yet the entertainment value of a Friskies advert in which an older cat introduces the new kitten to the bad monster ‘Vac-cuum’ blots out our outrage, and we’re back to skimming through endless amounts of other peoples’ suggestions (some of which are so good that we keep going back again in the hopes of more). Horror at some story about kids in a refugee camp is swiftly replaced by cooing over a friend’s new baby. The margins of our emotional experience narrow; the world is siphoned into a stream of information that seems ever blander; the highs and lows are cycled through with an ever increasing numbness.

So remembrance – dhikr – works as a kind of unseen Fairy liquid on the congealed fat of our consciousness, biting through it to the clear Pyrex of our souls with unbeatable efficiency (do one get 70,000 rewards free!). You could term it mindfulness, too; either way you are retreating from the illusion on the periphery – of past and future, out there on the antipodes of our horizons – to the centre of the circle, to the present, to reality, that mind-bendingly beautiful Divine space.

Just before leaving for the Rumi’s Retreat, a friend, on hearing for the nth time my sorrows, simply said: ‘It’s just a reminder to stay present in your heart.’ A very Sufi statement one might say, or a New Age one; but labels don’t do justice to the sense of this approach. For a lot of us, it’s easier said than done, though. ‘How do I go back into my heart?!’ the mind wails, banging on the bars of the cage it built for itself. But it isn’t something that can be done mentally. Jabbering thoughts have to stop for a while for you to see that you don’t simply disappear off the map when you stop thinking, as Descartes must have imagined we did. 

Once you quiet the white noise of worry (or nostalgia, or mulling over negative thoughts, or just chattering away to yourself after having a coffee like my brain does), there’s the most exquisite expansiveness. There’s peace. There doesn’t have to be someone taking a selfie of them feeling peaceful – it’s just the peace, that’s all there is.

Poised on the brink of something big.

Poised on the brink of something big.

 

I was reminded of this deep, oceanic calm, and the phenomenally creative potential within in, when facilitating a poetry workshop at the Rumi’s retreat, together with Abbas Zahedi, head honcho of Rumi’s Cave in North London. There is so much to be said about literary form, information I don’t retain well and find myself itching to subvert at the next opportunity. Most classes that ‘teach’ poetry get stuck straight into spondees before you can say ‘iambic pentametre’.

But before the writing begins, there is a kind of pre-poetry that has to be found. It’s the same vast, unpredictable inner space that dhikr generates, that you experience in dreams, that becomes plain in meditation or prayer (at least, when you don’t have your kids hanging off you while you’re trying to pray). You don’t get there by memorising techniques or following arbitrary rules: every person has their own shortcut there, and they need to find their own way to it. (You can find some of my favourite writing prompts to get you off the diving board and into water here.)

It is always extraordinary to see people who regard themselves as beginners, as non-writers, dip their toes into these tremendous waters within, slowly build up confidence, and finally plunge their heads under, coming up with pearls. There is nothing like it for me, and the work produced is of an amazing quality: frank, curious, observant, wise.

Any old thing can be the springboard for this process, but you need confidence to know that it doesn’t matter what you come up with. Sometimes it’ll be nothing but an old boot, a baked bean can, a broken tile, a bicycle wheel, a bone. They’re all specimens of something surprising and somehow meaningful, in the way that dreams often sound like gibberish to anyone else but to the dreamer they tell a story.

Amazing what you might find down there.

Amazing what you might find down there.

And it’s surprising how good the the formal aspect of the writing often is, quite intuitively. But even if it isn’t, no matter. You can spend weeks planning out the design of a dress, but without the raw materials you’ll never get one made. To take another analogy, all the strongest tomato plants in my garden grew by themselves out of a well-tended compost heap. Give your subconscious some oxgyen and you’ll be astounded at what will come out of it

So these three lenses of my world have folded over one another like translucent fans, each one pointing in to the same message: come back to your centre. Anxiety and social media are just significantly more irksome variations on the lesson given by dhikr: come back to your centre. The glitter and drama of the world beyond is alluring but it’s a shimmering screen which dies the moment the plug is pulled on it. Come back! Come back to your core! Nothing else will ever seem so alive again.

I’ll be doing more workshops over the summer, kindling creativity all over the UK (details on workshops to come – stay tuned for more info). If you would like me to do one at your school, community centre or other venue please email me on medinatenourwhiteman (@) gmail (dot) com. Ramadan Kareem!

Back Where the Path Begins

June 13, 2014

Last Rabita in Spain

Some men love the idea of Islam
for its manliness and its femininity
the gendered garb
strokable beards
scarves like petals round a woman’s face
feet marching with a purpose
and heart stirred with beauty
but then the allure of being manlier
kicks a kink in their path
and the lamp shining
on womanhood bashfully admired
disappears behind a brick wall.
The frowns deepen
the march becomes military
the segregation obligatory
no touching hands – don’t break
my wudu – and the beards are now
not thoughtfully stroked but
firmly put in their place.
Chivalry is confused with chauvinism,
gallantry with a glutton’s blind greed.
Man ascends to the position
he feels is owed to him,
a towering throne from which to judge
how well the womenfolk
are keeping their earlobes covered
lest the animal within him wakes
and he grows so comfortable there
it seems this seat of power was
made purposely for them.
Barbed wire goes up to warn off girls
who might think they
could grow learned and give advice
and every passing decade sees
fewer of them sneaking through the palisade
until the lookouts start confirming
the old ones’ belief:
those lady lumps mess up their brains -
they just don’t do intelligence like us.
Meanwhile sunlight dashes
fleetfooted over beardless faces
laughing in private, weeping in private
knowing in private, loving in private
cracking almonds, brewing tea
holding a lost one in their arms
stroking her hair while she finds herself
seeking in dreams and the unseen
for guides whose hands
they are forbidden from kissing
and all this round the crook in the path
where the lamp still flickers
and the watchtower sentries
have forgotten the path begins.

To Kill or Convert You

June 7, 2014

Hatred is a tide
that gnaws away at coastlines
salty teeth so fine you might
mistake it for subtlety.
But bitterness is never mild
just as acid always burns
and bigots pour their poison
into intellectual-sounding words
like ‘civilisation’
‘integration’ and
‘radicalisation’
to stun the seaweed
bobbing idly in the surf
infuse the fear into it
that some vile wave is rising over there
its colour bilious green
and even if it tells you it’s benign
enriched with algae to revive the earth
you mustn’t heed its lies:
it is bloodthirsty, heinous,
risen up from different lands
infested with parasites
designed to leech
your vital organs dry:
to kill or convert you.
Race from it as you would from a shark
fear it
spurn it
vilify it
warn the world about it
kill it before it kills you first.
The biosphere must have its predators and
in this one you are their prey.
This tide’s a spiral
pushing us apart and
driving us down deeper
into the blurring mud.
Once it was Jews
and Gypsies,
Negroes
and Natives,
Commies
and Draft-dodgers,
Gays
and Molesters.
Now it’s us,
the Muslims,
and this fresh wave we swim in
the water soaked into our cells is now
a tsunami threatening
to smash their homes to matchsticks.
Vague outrages that flare up
each time the words are spoken
dump blood into the sea
and choke the wildlife.

Hatred has always been a tide
stooping low at times
or breaking its banks
in the absence of truth.
I am learning to tread water
for the day it hits my roof.

The Culture of My Category

May 12, 2014

It seems the Happy debate is still there, rankling like a pint of milk going mouldy at the back of the fridge. While the fiqh (jurisprudence) debate will probably go on and on forever, as there’s no definitive scriptural prohibition on music, it seems there is a kind of aesthetic irritation present whenever Muslims are seen doing something ‘western’.

Critics of the Happy British Muslims video often cite the fact that Muslims are ‘having to prove that they are human’ by the criteria of a largely white, western mediated hegemony. Apart from the fact that Pharrell Williams in not white, which undermines of whole argument (particularly as there are millions of black American Muslims, and millions more African Muslms), what we have here is a very sticky case of cultural appropiation.

When is it OK for a white person to sing dancehall music in Jamaican patois? Can Japanese women learn to dance flamenco? Are Americans crossing a line when they got o Russia to drink vodka? I’ve met plenty who do it very well. MY alma mater, SOAS, was famous for its ‘trustafarians’, white kids from wealthy backgrounds who liked to hang out with Baye Fall Sufis, wear ethnic clothing and bang on about imperialism with a reefer in their hand.

If you are a Western Muslim, a revert for instance, the situation gets slightly more complicated. It’s not just OK to adopt elements of a different culture, you’re actually kind of expected to. Your clothing isn;t complete without a hijab, kufi, item of jewellery with an Arabic inscription or garment with a ‘foreign’ look to it. Your English-sounding name will very likely be looked at with skepticism, prompting you to take on an Arabic one. Your choice of spouse will very likely reflect your outward-looking gaze, and then there’ll be endless obligatory visits to the other half’s homeland, not to mention intense efforts on the part of your new in-laws to instruct you in the ways of their country.

It is faintly amusing, actually, this nonsensical neurosis surrounding cultural appropriation, when you’re Anglo-American, white as a box of Daz, and have always been Muslim. I’ll listen to Hamza El Din, Celia Cruz or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan just as easily as I would the Isley Brothers, Yuna or Estrella Morente…but hold on a minute…none of them are white, Anglo-American, or Muslim! Am I allowed to like them? Or is it OK to listen to their music but not to sing their songs myself??

If I’m restricted to the culture of my category, then I’m going to end up listening only to my own music, as there really aren’t any others out there whose group I belong to. Not even Adele, who is about the only white British singer I can stand, and even so, I don’t own any of her music. Am I a self-hating Brit? Not really. Brits have always wanted to left this very tiny island and seek their fortunes around the world. That doesn’t take the Brit out of you, though. As much as I want to be true to my roots, this nationalistic pride drummed up by UKIP lunatics makes me reach for the sickbag. Surely there must be some other way of finding an authentic identity?

To me, part of the beauty of Islam is that is encourages us to transcend our boundaries, accept one another as members of a vast, international family that is made richer for its variations, but which is not stingy with them. Everywhere I’ve travelled in the Muslim world, people have expressed not only delight at my own pathetic efforts to absorb elements of their culture, but eager to learn about my own.

There is a kind of mutual admiration across the planet that finds its expression in cultural appropriation, but which has tap roots way down in love for humanity. Muslims who have received a western education, particularly one that emphasises anti-imperialist trends, have a slew of arguments sloshing around inside out heads itching to latch themselves onto this or that issue, and debate it into the ground. We over-think everything, being ourselves over-thought, over-scrutinised and over-noticed. It’s so hard to get back to a simple, intuitive approach to life, in which different cultures can be appreciated and absorbed without flagellating ourselves over it.

Without any further ado, watch this video and marvel at the Iranian-American cultural fusion. Argument over.

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Watch the Dancer

May 12, 2014

She translates longing into leafstorms,
that dancer. She turns the bright sun beak
of a wheeling lark into a swooping hand
calls on the lichen’s listening creep
the golden arches of dry riverbeds
and races them into our quick-lived gaze
so when we watch that dancer’s sweep and stamp
we don’t just see tendons and skin but
algorithms of wind and root
the shooting out of limbs that fruit
sped up halfway to a fly’s life span.
So when we watch that dancer we
might catch the glacier as it glides
the underwater mass collide
the mountain creep over horizons
redwoods burst with rings and ride
breakers too vast to fit inside
a human tide. That dancer, she
gives voiceless forces words
they would still understand,
so watch the dancer
if you can.

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