Duff Eid Trauma

It all starts so well: the night before the celebration, everyone is excitedly ringing family members with their Eid Mubaraks, kids are fantasising about presents (if they haven’t persuaded their parents to open them already), mums are making cakes and shampooing kids ready for the next day.
Come morning, we’re in a red alert state of ironing and preparations (the only time I remember curling my hair is as a kid on Eid), putting on fancy frocks and unusual amounts of make-up, even cracking out the special perfume that never sees the light of day. On the way there everyone’s singing the Eid song, feeling a bit naughty for having the day off school/work, watching for others who are similarly garbed for a party.
The mosque slowly packs out; women start fanning their faces; the general buzz of talking and kissing long-unseen friends abates as the adhan goes for the prayer. There’s a brief moment when the build-up reaches its climax…then, two short rak’ahs later, everyone starts filtering out again, to eat (in our case a curious mish-mash of tortilla de patatas, pretzels and cake – ‘Eid tapas’).

Spanish tortilla, that classic Eid dish.

Spanish tortilla, that classic Eid dish.

And then…the togetherness fizzles out. Everyone drifts off to who knows where, confused by the too-early party preparations, strange mixtures of food and the mad rush of salaams. Some men disappear to slaughter sheep; a few conscientious vegetarians go to distribute cheese sandwiches to the homeless, and others go back to work in this dazed, showered-with-holy-water state.
Those who don’t have huge extended families to celebrate with, i.e. converts, exiles, parents whose children live elsewhere, find themselves adrift, either tagging along like the high school gooseberry to other people’s family gatherings (where they are of course welcomed as brethren, although that might mean they have to peel some potatoes), or clump together in twos and threes and go to cafés where they feel slightly giddy and unnecessarily sequinned. (I’m talking about being in the west, of course, where life goes on as usual around these islands of Islamic celebration.) Then they go home. And then there’s some meat.
This year, living among a vibrant, eclectic, if at times a little bonkers-around-the-edges Sufi community, Eid was eventually a blast. Someone had set up a tent and a generator making ‘Potato Tornadoes’ (fried potato cut into a spiral, on a stick. Yes these things exist.) There were also pony rides for the kids and a Ka’aba making craft workshop and I showed a few kids how to make origami animals, which was also fun, especially as Cavebaby mercifully slept the whole way through. Ali Keeler of Firdaus Ensemble also came down and sang some songs, which some of us managed to join in with, qasida jam style, while Cavebaby sat happily on a friend’s lap. So it was overall a fine time had by all.

Jumping frogs, cranes, and foxes...those classic Eid icons

Jumping frogs, cranes, and foxes…those classic Eid icons.

But that initial blip brought back many of these alienating moments from my youth, coined as ‘Duff Eid Trauma’ by a friend. The scenario reminded her of many a duff Christmas, where too many people got too drunk and argued, and the kids’ presents weren’t quite was they wanted, and the turkey got burnt, and the tree shed needles into the sofa, and the dog ate the Christmas pudding and was sick on the pantry floor, and you ended up watching Mary Poppins for the fiftieth time in an atmosphere of tense obligatory cohabitation. It’s the same feeling of anti-climax, only you’re smelling of ‘oud and have too much kohl on for 10 o’clock in the morning. I don’t think anyone’s been quite so depressed from it as after a Duff Christmas, but there’s still this feeling that a wonderful time is being had by someone, in a family home with a halo of warmth and authenticity: the real Eid celebration.
It’s probably poppycock (I’m sure their kids were whining too), but living in a non-Muslim country certainly dims the glow of an Eid celebration. It feels like such an effort to raise an Islamic culture from where there is none that at times I wonder if we’re letting the meaning of it slip through our fingers. Even as a lifelong Muslim I still sometimes get a lingering sense that we’re in fancy dress, doing this ‘Islamic’ thing, that someone will sniff out our secret (that we’re culturally pretty European, actually) and the edifice of our outward religion will turn to mouse droppings.
Thankfully, these are also those times when we have the opportunity to wonder what our inward religion is about. If it’s not in the silver lurex jelabiyahs, or the prominently hanging tasbihs, the frankincense and bukhur or the miswaks, the scarves and turbans and embroidered hats, the prayer mats and the prayer domes and even the Arabic of the prayers we recite, what is it in?

Pomegranate season

Pomegranates: fruits of Paradise, symbols of multiplicity

When we look for the centre of this faith it reveals itself to be a fractal, spiralling in ever more fascinating ways the deeper it pulls us, but with ever fewer details. Cultural forms, interesting as they might be, fall off the edges. This country does this; that country does that. But it’s all peripheral, like the cupboards in the walls of the rabbit hole that Alice falls down on her way to Wonderland.
Before the words had shapes and sounds there were meanings that called them out of the darkness; before the meanings, a primordial call, a homing signal, a desire to work our way back to our source. Each time we rest our wandering feet on things and call them Islam they take us further away, not closer, from the end of this path, the heart of the spiral: Home.

Cleaning the Jungle


One of the most thoughtful frontline accounts of the Calais Jungle.

Originally posted on rosbayeswriting:

jungle waste

Photograph courtesy of Viv Dawes, http://vivdawes.wix.com/vividpictures

From the first day I heard about the terrible plight of the refugees in Calais (their real plight, that is, not the media myth of economic migrants desperate to come and sponge off what’s left of our benefits system) I knew I had to do something to help. I had some ideas of what would help, and discussed them with a like-minded friend. But it became apparent, from reports from volunteers at what has become known as the Calais Jungle, most of the things I had thought of were no longer needed. However, what was needed was a huge waste removal operation.

We appealed for help, and had enough volunteers to fill two seven-seater people carriers. We begged, borrowed and bought shovels, garden forks, rakes, litter pickers (lots of litter pickers), industrial quantities of anti-bacterial hand wipes, gallons of disinfectant and thousands of rubbish…

View original 1,669 more words

Hidden Under the Things They Grasped


They carried a plague on their fingers

when they went to seek gold and sell guns

took a ruler and pen to a map

birthed nations by caesarean

sliced human terrain in hot places where

their germs settled into the hot skin

and they returned thinking

their hands were clean

only the sores on their palms were

hidden under the things they grasped

They took back their queen and flag but

the disease was marrow-deep

fed by fictions of our happiness

ads for things they cannot possess

because they are working in the factories that make them

films with white heroes and brown villains

until some took the bait offered

by canapé waitresses at arms fairs

grinning bankers offering loans to pay for it all

and one surgically created side

was pitted against another

so the wound never heals

And the sickness we gave them never left us

the pockmarks on our diseased body

are hollows in the wet sand

along the outline of our nation on the map

And we decry their assault on our fortress

calling their desperation


€1,500 to board a lethally overcrowded boat


the desire for a safe home and enough food


And while the borders grow metal spikes

develop a rash of guard dogs

ossify into concrete walls

a man and his wife

hold hands each night

and try to leap onto a train

travelling fast underwater

until they reach the promised land

or die

Update: if you are London today (September 10th) head down to ExCel (Custom House or Prince Regent on the DLR) to join the Stop the Arms Fairs’s Conference at the Gates, aimed at disrupting as much as possible the world largest arms fair:




The carob seedling that took two years
to grow two feet was planted over
half of the placenta that took
nine months and eleven days to develop
and forty minutes to birth
into a bucket, so dense with my blood
it looked like crushed raspberries.

There are pieces of me buried all over,
one beneath a pomegranate tree
in a nearby Andalusian garden;
another under an apple tree in a
Norfolk farm – the only one in the orchard
to fruit the first year.

The goodness of meat
that once nourished my babies
before they opened their mouths to eat
the meat that died in the act of birth
now feeds those stalks and leaves,
sipped thoughtfully by xylem and phloem
(words I learned eighteen and a half
years ago, the only ones that have
travelled forward from Science GCSE)
and plumps out fruit that I
shrink from eating lest it be
my flesh into theirs,
vegan victuals from viscera.

Parts of me are already underground.
The backward-rolling echo of tombs
reaches me half-asleep, feeding
a dozing baby, not knowing if an hour or
ten minutes have passed, the way
the mind dashes forward during prayer
and a third rak’ah feels like a fourth.

Time is plastic when one has already put
an organ into a tiny grave, when one’s footprint there
roots the soul to the soil. It owns me now
in three segments, yearning for the last piece
(currently in my freezer) to join them underneath
an avocado sapling, followed one day
by the rest. Like taproots busy seeking
low lying aquifers there are unseen ligaments
that tie me to the world
so that the hot air balloon of my thoughts
– straining against its ropes –
does not spiral off and be vaporised
by the sharp edge of the atmosphere.

There are parts of me
all over, buried too deep
for dogs and foxes to despoil
deep as the bones of an ‘aqiqah lamb
must be buried too.

Andalusi Calligraphy: Here’s How You Learn More

The first time I saw Andalusi calligraphy I was hooked on the exaggerated curve of the ‘ayn, the large swooping nuun like a crane dipping down to a river for water, the zigzag kaf, the boxes and semicircles that variously made up the saads, daads, taas and zaas. It was like a cartoonist had made up this extraordinary script for fun, yet it also has a seriousness borne of practicality. There’s an air of the desert, too, a sense of spontaneity hiding behind its pragmatism.


Qur’an copied in Córdoba on 1657, currently conserved at the Escuela de Estudios Arabes

This is a script that reached its apex in al-Andalus, the 800 year period of Islamic Spain that bore witness to the most incredible explosion of learning and sophistication Europe had ever seen, and whose scholarship eventually travelled north to spark the Enlightenment.

Quick to learn, easy to write well due to its rounded nib that provides an even line (anyone who’s tried mastering angled nib calligraphy such as thuluth will confirm it takes years of practice to perfect), and easy to read, Andalusi was the vehicle for this massive boom in manuscript copying; in Córdoba around 1000 CE, there were hundreds of copy studios, one of which was staffed entirely by women.

Literally millions of books were copied out by hand and circulated in Andalusi society,religious trees that  not merely confined to libraries but also found in ordinary homes. Education was obligatory for all Cordoban children of any religion, pushing literacy higher than it had ever been in Europe. and for Western Muslims today, it bears resonances of a time when Islam was not something alien to Europe, but a natural element, just one of the many religious trees with roots in this soil.

You might be wondering at this point, ‘Why haven’t I heard of this script before?’ It’s a question we asked ourselves earlier this year, when my brother Zak Whiteman, who directs the Travelling Light on Imam al-Ghazali for Mishkat Media, decided to make a documentary on the subject and asked me on board. (You’ll be hearing the sultry sounds of my voice narrating the story.)

The Centro de Estudios Arabes, set in an old Moorish building, Granada. Featured in the Beginners's Guide to Andalusi Calligraphy

The Centro de Estudios Arabes, set in an old Moorish building, Granada. Featured in the Beginners’s Guide to Andalusi Calligraphy

It’s an exciting project and one we’re really looking forward to finishing…but we need help to make it a reality. Filmmaking doesn’t come cheap, and since one of our early sponsors fell through, we’ve been looking to crowdfunding to be able to complete the film.

You can watch the trailer here (yes that is our dad doing calligraphy, it’s Brand Whiteman!), and read more about the project on our LaunchGood page. We really appreciate any help towards our funding goal, as well as shares via email or social media. A huge thankyou to everyone who’s contributed already! We look forward to sharing this amazing story with the world.


Poetry is shamanism
for people who have lost the hang of it
whose bond has been severed
by the glass-shard-sharp
edge of brutality
or lost in
the muddle of
abandoned in a frenzy of updating
running as horses do beside a train
never able to keep up, always exhausted
while the metal caterpillar
never gets out of breath.

Poetry is a shamanism
that requires no psychotropic
but curiosity
no bloody sacrifice
but your lacerated heart
no ritual but the rhythmic
scratching of pen or
tap-tapping of keys;
bodypaint is optional.

Poetry could be shamanism
for everyone ashamed of shamans
afraid of soothsayers and dreamings
unnerved by foreign words with
untranslatable meanings
whose minds fight feelings
discard them as they do
vegetable peelings
people for whom the unseen is a
room with a bust lightbulb
who fumble around in it
aching for a light.

But a poem – a poem
gives you ten more hands
a billion more nerve endings
feline eyes that see in the dark
the sure-pawed tread of a lion
certainty that although you do not know the way
it will become clear as you go
and you’ll see glimmering blue eyes
the nightmare scars of horrors
those lived and those handed down
and the poem will name them
give them the recognition they seek
and let them slip away into the
soft, enfolding gloom
that no longer seems a pincushion
of fearful unknowns
but the solace of a mother’s arms:
here, baby, let me take your pain
and absorb it ’til your pen runs dry.

Post-Ramadan Ramblings

Between long fasts and temperatures that hit 50 degrees Celsius here, its been an intense month. Although I haven’t been able to fast (Cavebaby is only just four months old and is fully breastfed), so many of my friends and family have been fasting that I’ve managed to share something of the fasting vibe. In any case, breastfeeding makes one pretty thirsty and absent-minded.

People who’ve never fasted wonder what the point is. A few days, fine, but a whole month? And – that ubiquitous response – ‘Not even water?!’ Is it an endurance exercise, a health jag, a way to recognise your blessings, an exercise in camaraderie or just an excuse to party every night? 

The faster’s response is that it’s all of these things and then some. Realizing you’re capable of a other hour, another day, another week, refreshes your faith in your own willpower, while research into fasting shows that it switches the body to clean-up mode (‘if there’s nothing to eat we’d better be in the best shape possible!’). It’s easy to say that we consume more than we need, but there’s no better way to test that out than by consuming nothing for 17 hours and still not keeling over.

The last few years I spent most of Ramadan staying at the home of my best friend in London, and I really miss those goony suhoors giggling over strange smoothies, and then the wild, creative exuberance of the first coffee of the evening. And if you’re in a Muslim country, prepare yourselves to spend all night feasting, strolling about towns that come to life, visiting family, even getting your hair cut at 3 am (Ramadan in Saudi was a hoot).

But if there’s no extra focus on one’s inner life it can feel like nothing more than hunger and thirst by day and binge eating by night. The extra focus that fasting gives (when it’s not making you bleary) supercharges Quran recitation and dhikr. But it is a test, and the test isn’t just about not eating and drinking: for Muslims living in the West, where work schedules continue as usual and most people aren’t getting up at 5am to have breakfast, there’s a sense of alienation that mitigates the togetherness of a shared Iftar. I remember one winter Ramadan when I was at university and Iftar fell during classes, and I didn’t eat once with anyone all month. It was about the most depressing month of my life.

When Ramadan falls in summer, there is all the attendant awkwardness around not being able to share beach picnics, barbecues and cold drinks with all the non-fasters. Social and sleep schedules get turned upside-down. Kids (the only ones who don’t feel like napping) complain because they can’t get taken to friends’ houses in the daytime whenever they feel like it. By the end of Ramadan you can easily feel like you haven’t seen half your friends for a month.

It’s worse for people whose work timetable has to continue as usual. Although being active helps to pass the time, the intense heat we’ve been having this year makes all the fasters flop out at a certain point in the afternoon, especially if they’ve been at tarawih prayers with barely any sleep before breakfast, if at all.

But it’s made me reflect on how there is a time for being active and a time for being still. Post-industrial Revolution life has gradually ramped up the pressure on human beings to work harder, and even rest means rushing about doing things. Nobody just sits and stares at clouds passing with a grass stalk in their mouth any more. I have struggled with the guilt of ‘taking time off work’ to have children (as if mothers spend their days gazing at clouds passing!), but in recent years I’ve started to see just how important rest is to health. With all three babies I’ve been prone to mastitis, the classic illness for mothers who aren’t resting enough. Rest before illness forces you to!

Even harder to get our heads around is weakness, and choosing to feel it, if only temporarily. Strength is so ubiquitously seen as a benefit that you’d be forgiven for thinking it an axiom. But weakness is only the flip side of strength, just as hunger is the flip side of satiety, sleep the flip side of wakefulness. You wouldn’t keep drinking coffee to avoid sleep without expecting a serious comedown afterwards, so why do we expect ourselves always to be strong? Feeling weak is a reminder that we aren’t the ultimate power in our lives, perhaps the bitterest pill for an ego to swallow. 

Women have monthly bouts of feeling tired and low, and there is wisdom in that too, as I wrote about in my blog post The Old Moon in the Arms of the New. Depending on others for help encourages mutual assistance, thankfulness and humility. It sound horribly sanctimonious but there is so much to be learned from weakness that it makes sense for everyone to have a taste of it once in a while.

Weakness isn’t just physical, either; my husband just arrived home after almost a month away working, and as soon as he got back I realized how much I had been tensing under the strain of carrying the family, the house, and watering a large piece of land on my own. I relaxed my grip on the whole outfit (a little prematurely – he gets back exhausted) and immediately felt tearful and sorry for myself for a couple of days. 

But it’s as necessary to hang up the armour and be vulnerable sometimes as it is to put your weary feet up and rest. Let it build up and it won’t be a couple of days of filthy mood to deal with but a full-blown crisis. So what’s stronger, being brave enough to admit to weakness and give the tough guy/gal act a rest, or trying to keep treading water when you’ve had enough? Everyone needs a life ring sometimes. 

Eid Mubarak, a blessed rest to all!

Muslimah at a Public Pool

This is where your invisibility stands out at its starkest. Where teenagers snog in bikinis with recently-inked tattoos in styles that will go out before the summer does, fitness fanatics show off their moves, and even middle-aged couples smooch over the cooler with flesh rolling out of optimistic swimwear, there you are, nervously twitching a sarong over your shoulders because you feel exposed in a one-piece.

The justifications are clear: it’s a heat wave, neither your house nor your car has A/C and driving three kids including a baby who cries every minute of every hot car journey makes it impossible to get any further than the campsite a few minutes’ walk away. Your sanity thus stretched, getting into cold water is not just necessary, it is un-do-without-able. And with this many buttocks on display, modesty is surely relative.

But then there are those who know you are Muslim, and there are questions in their faces and at the edges of their comments. Ah, you must be one of those ‘liberal’ Muslims. You’re a free thinker – you don’t stand for all those poxy old-fashioned chauvinistic rules. You’re one of us!

A shudder goes through me at this thought, at the assumptions carried so blithely through so many minds. To paraphrase Ali G, ‘Is it cos I is white?’ There are priviledges that white Muslims have that most of us aren’t even aware of. I can’t imagine some of my Moroccan friends daring to go to a public swimming pool when their parents would hit the roof if they did. But there’s this creepy camaraderie that you get with white non-Muslims when you aren’t hijab’ed to the eyeballs. It’s as if they are saying, ‘You’re OK. They haven’t got you completely. You’ve still got one foot in our territory.’

It makes me laugh to think how infuriating it is to have to scroll down the list of countries on one of those countless petition websites to find United Kingdom (or United States, for that matter). What are we doing down there, after Afghanistan, Barbados, Togo and all those random islands in the South Pacific no-one has even heard of? Shouldn’t they just put us at the top, so we don’t have to spend all those nano-seconds scrolling down, reminding ourselves that the rest of the world exists? Good grief, our thumbs get tired!

Tangent over. This is a just a late-night snapshot of my two-cultured brain, on the one hand glad that I can pop to the shops without covering my head and worrying that Muslims will think less of me (I live in a very open-minded community), and yet cringing when I do cover my head and people stop me to ask questions, or corner me into describing where my faith lies on the liberal-conservative spectrum. If I’m hijab-less because I’m pressured into not wearing it, does that really mean I am free?

What strikes me as being on of Islam’s greatest strengths is that when it really comes down to it, no-one can judge anyone else on their faith at all. ‘Allahu ‘Alim’; only Allah knows. And how are the people of Paradise described in Qur’an, over and over? ‘Alladhina amanu wa ‘amilu salihat’: those who believe and do good works. It doesn’t even qualify them as Muslims, or having a religion at all. Is that not the most progressive, out-there kind of religion there is?

You wouldn’t believe it if you read the news (and I am boycotting it: I don’t want to feed horror stories into my baby’s mouth though my milk). But the news has never been an accurate reflection of the way the world is, only pinpricks of horror in the vast fabric of normality that are gathered together to make us see nothing but a fistful of blood. It’s isn’t reality at all, only shock waves filtered through journalists’ lenses, managed by editors whose salaries are paid by advertisers who want readers to be kept agog by more and more horror. We have to keep reminding ourselves to lift our heads from our newsfeeds and stay present: no website will represent reality to you better than your own eyes.

And in the same way I have to remind myself that onlookers don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface of me, veiled or otherwise, and I don’t know what going on under theirs, either. Good people still carry prejudices unawares: people with prejudices can still be good people. My ideas of what they ought to think are still only my ideas, and may well be wrong anyway. God guide us. Amin.

Water, Music Video in HD

It was a clear, cool day in October last year when I hoiked my six-month pregnant belly up a gazillion steps to Cuevas de Sacromonte, a kind of open-air museum in the old gypsy quarter of Granada, to film my first ever music video (I mean a proper video, not just something recorded on an iPod while the baby was asleep. Although those are cool too.)

The percussionist, Muhammad Domínguez, and I had performed this song months before with almost no preparation, and we hadn’t rehearsed it at all until that morning, but it all came good on the fifth take. He’s a pro alright!

Props to my awesome brother Zakariyya Whiteman for filming, directing and editing and Pablo Garcia Lastra for the sound recording and mastering, as well as my parents for babysitting, Mounzer Sarraf of The Great Game for very kindly loaning me the electroacoustic guitar, and last but definitely not least, my wonderful husband for accompanying me and keeping cool so I didn’t have a diva strop. Not that I would or anything. Ahem.

Inshallah it’ll be the first of many more…and if I can get together the energy for a crowdfunding campaign to make an album you’ll be the first to hear about it!

To The Rejected

An estimated 6,000 Rohingya Muslims have spent the last 3 months drifting in boats between Thailand and Malaysia, abandoned by smugglers, escaping ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

An estimated 6,000 Rohingya Muslims have spent the last 3 months drifting in boats between Thailand and Malaysia, abandoned by smugglers, escaping ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

There is an island
edged by razor blade reefs
sharks with butcher’s knife teeth
mines that bob so innocent but sweet
they ain’t. “The Boat
Of Starving Refugees That No
Country Will Take In.”
Bangladeshi or Burmese?
Ambiguities such as these
made you flee the enemy none
can imagine – lethally violent
Buddhist Monks – and
board ships crammed 3,000 full
paid traffickers to save you
but they fled, too. Now
Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand
all kick your craft back out
to open sea where you eddy
so hungry a hundred die
in a fight over dwindling food.
You, Rohingya, Muslims
even other Muslims reject,
have drifted for three months
thin as nails in a box
yet you are still an island
a strange foreign word
rolled around in foreign mouths
so on this side of the planet
few repeat it.
Around you spins a ring of roses
a halo of ambassadorial poses
that slice apart your visible ribs
whenever you try to escape your isle
but Rohingya, there are people
who wish themselves swimming
taking off their buckles
to bring you broth
who wish themselves winged
to drop bread and meat
over your heads
who wish themselves winds
that can push you homewards
who wish themselves land
that rises up through the waves
to form a new island
a home no-one will contest
all your tests have been directed
vertically, payment before the debts
and all the wishers and the yearners
are there with you
building shelters
planting trees
hives for bees
sowing flowers because you need
not only food and water
space to sleep
but colours
arms to rest in
arms to feel blessed in
arms that accept
the rejected.

(Read more: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32776647)

A slightly more cheerful postscript: South America to the rescue! http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Latin-America-and-Caribbean-to-Assist-Stranded-Migrants-in-Asia-20150517-0001.html