Two states compete
for my longing:
one, a room for living in with wood fire
burning behind smudged glass
a heap of books, some open
wet socks hung on the back of a chair
a bowl of fruit, some cut and not yet brown
shoes toed off and left at irreverent angles
something humming in a corner,
processing dried fruit or data and
even when the room is empty of people
it is thrumming with the echo of them.
The other is wall to wall cabinets
neatly closed, dust-free,
windows freshly Windexed
a bank of new steel iMacs
leather seats arranged to look casual
but there are no crescents of coffee
on the coffee table or
crumbs on the geometric rug
no scratches on the wooden floor
or piles of dry clothes to fold
no glasses waiting smearily
to be washed up.
A fug of central heating
closes throats to a polite silence. No ash!
Double glazing drowns out
the noise of the neighbour’s dog;
here one can concentrate
there are no cobwebs to sigh over
or interruptions by small children
thumping each other over felt tip pens
behind the cabinet doors are
stationery supplies to last
’til kingdom come
fresh orders of necessities
have been made weeks in advance
for there is no chaos here to hinder
business, no boring list of frets
to get on top of before projects
can fructify. This orchard
only yields polished apples
red and round
without pockmark or warp
grown under supervision
under daylight lamps
to industry standards.
The latter is where a half a million
is small change, where minds
boil and brew great schemes
reach nebular heights
dynamic people drop in
to ping ideas about
and everything occurs on time.
The former, though, is the only place
my mind will sink its toes
into soft soil, send down
taproots that drink from
and while my hands are
cutting paper snowflakes
making tea stains on the table
the real business is happening
on another schedule, one that
sees a calendar like any other piece of
and gives misshapen fruits
that fall and lie embedded in nettles
the ore of that ground called home.
The only guarantee
it gives me is that
nothing will be perfect
(at least I can’t be disappointed);
here the products hug me back
leave me love notes in scrambled English
and the day they leave
and my rug goes for weeks with
no hint of a crumb
I might finally get something done
if I can only stop myself
from spending all day blinking
in surprise at the quiet
and missing the mess.
I’m a dangerous lady right now.
After 32 years of being very British and smiling and nodding when irritating people want to pry into my state of mind and offer unwanted advice, I have reached cracking point. This is a formal warning: anyone who sees me around and exclaims “Oh my gosh! Your belly’s grown!! It’s enormous!!! Are you sure it’s not twins??!!!” will get short shrift, or possibly a black eye. My better nature would like to apologise in advance, but something is happening as I hit the 6 month gestation mark and my animal instincts are taking over. (What did they think, that my belly was going to start shrinking?)
Even worse is the daily question:
“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“Ah, isn’t that nice, you’ve chosen not to find out, it’ll be a surprise…but what does your intuition tell you?”
“That I’m carrying the non-gendered child of Godzilla who will be my bodyguard wherever I go, biting off the limbs of anyone who PRIES INTO WHAT MY INTUITION TELLS ME.”
I must be surrounded by lots of genuinely empathetic people who want to offer advice on how to deal with life, who may well have amazingly useful things to add, but I’m starting to feel that when people offer advice it is really for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the one they’re giving it to. Rushing up to someone with an expression of intense concern and telling them “You look like you’re in terrible distress! You need my help!” is more likely to produce the effect of being pushed off the nearest cliff (or ought to). If you really want to help me, why don’t you come to my house and do some dishes?
The trouble is that many of us are so well trained in problem-solving, in everything from maths to mindfulness, that we probably do have a lot of helpful advice to give, if only we could find someone to give it to. The number of times that I’ve thought, “They really should try…”, I could become an agony aunt. In fact, if I charged for my services it might actually be of some use; of all the advice I’ve been given, only about 1% has stuck – the 1% I actually asked for.
But problem-solving only works on non-human problems. Humans are far too troublesome to be able to come along and fix as though we were a crack in the road. Cracks in the road don’t have egos that bristle at the idea of being patronised or belittled. Giving advice is as good as belittling: you’re effectively telling a person that 1) they have a problem (which they might not have been aware of before; “I have a problem? Oh no!”) and 2) that they can’t possibly sort it out on their own. THEY NEED YOUR HELP.
People such as these need to read that all-time classic of psychology literature, Little Miss Helpful by Roger Hargreaves. Really. It has cured me of the existential disease of wanting to help people who don’t want be helped. I can now quite calmly watch people walk into ditches without feeling the urge to set them straight.
Perhaps I am also having a hint of apprehension at the fact that when another baby appears in the house, all of a sudden I will have thousands of well-meaning relatives bombarding me with tips on getting them to sleep well, how to deal with wind, what laundry detergent to use, which early educational tools will teach them six languages and calculus before they’re at kindergarten, and how to get back into pre-baby shape. The temptation is almost irresistible, especially when the target is a first-time mum, and I’ve fallen into its gaping jaws many a time myself.
But one of the reasons I started this blog was because I realised how little advice I had to offer anyone, how pointless it is to try to preach, how the only way I would ever connect with anyone is to be frank about my own failings. With the added benefit of making me laugh at them. It’s what you might call a ‘desahogo’ in Spanish: a place to ‘undrown’ myself.
The only time that problem-solving works on people is when you are left to your own devices and you come up with a solution yourself. Those are almost always the best solutions, custom-designed to your own situation, and they make you feel capable of dealing with the next problem that comes up. That’s the essence of creativity. Unless you need professional help, in which case, don’t ask advice from me.
Eventually this hormonal phase shall too pass and I’ll go back to offering a strained, patient smile whenever people tell me “Why are you so pale/thin/tall/female/English? You need X, then a course of Y, and finally Z at dawn every day for a week. I used to be like you, and now look at me!” But for now I am in blunt mode, and since no-one is sparing my ego, I shall spare none myself.
Remember, I’m carrying the child of Godzilla and I KNOW YOUR IP ADDRESS.
Grief is a cascade of shattering glass
waves glide beamingly overhead
opening light through their million edges
in ways that make sunshine new
(I am not used to this parasol)
and the premonition of pain is blurred by the beauty
we’re walking chest-deep in fracture
the heat rushes up to heal hairline cuts
that fray hearts to a halo
but legs that appear to be shredded keep walking
mind takes note of extraneous things
– the cats have ran out of biscuits;
today breakfast was leftover rice -
yet mid-morning the thought of her friends and twin sister
washing her, as though asleep in their arms,
perfuming the long hair that once hung in a braid
from a white Astrakhan hat, dressing her
still-warm limbs lovingly,
and the silence of her song forever stilled
returns and aches into my corners
knocks the voice out of me.
Now again the brilliance rises:
the way she could call up an ocean of harmony
from a fidgeting room
turn strangers into heart-mates
and awe at her fearless direction,
blunt honesty when things sounded wrong,
sets a lamp beneath this ceiling of glass
and makes the inside more dazzling than all of the
stars crowding down at us
peering in through the clear roof of the moment
and wishing that they too could know grief.
In memory of a beloved friend, choir mistress and seeker Charlie Radha Spearing, who will be buried today. To donate to a ‘Joy Fund’ so that her 2 year old daughter and 12 year old son can visit their families and go on adventurous as their mother would have liked to have done with them, please visit this link: http://www.gofundme.com/ha6ilc
Workout videos always amuse me. This afternoon I was trawling through YouTube to find a good pregnancy yoga video, my 4 1/2 daughter beside me. First we found one of your classic vids, an unusually slick production for the UK, complete with a wood fire in the background, random Zen-like objects on the shelves and French windows onto a tranquil patio (though we could still see the cameraman in the glass of the woodburner).
Warmed up by now, I keep searching and find an American prenatal pilates workout, which exceeded all my expectations (not to mention my fitness levels). The glowingly tanned instructor sashayed onto the screen like a starlet, the tracking shots zoomed in dizzyingly from all over (even the ceiling), and she kept talking about buns. Where I’m from buns are something you eat. Can’t you just call them buttocks and get it over with?
The music was energetic enough to send me into early labour, in fact I had to turn it off after a couple of minutes thinking I was having a kind of cultural heart attack (and I’m half American).
Still looking for decent exercise vids, we then found another British yoga clip that brought things back down to a manageable level of reality. The instructor wore an old tracksuit, the handheld camera jiggled about, there was a terrible glaring light in the background, and after every line the instructor pursed her lips in an apologetic sort of grimace. Ah, that’s more like it! A healthy dose of British realism.
While chuckling to myself over this transatlantic comparison during my familiar pregnancy-induced insomnia, I realised that this isn’t a million miles away from where Muslims are – in the global, cultural digisphere – from the kind of slick PR values currently steering the zeitgeist. For years we’ve heard people saying things like, ‘When are Muslims going to start making decent magazines, TV stations, films? Where are the Spielbergs of the Muslim world? Why can’t we get it together and make things just as well as what’s made in the West?’ And of course there’s the political gripe, which comes just as often (with a self-gratified sneer) from the Islamophobia corner, ‘Where are the Martin Luther Kings, the Gandhis, the Mandelas of the Islamic world? Where are those voices that make the whole world stop and listen?’
The answer to the former question is one that is changing rapidly right now. Navid Akhtar, a regular documentary maker for the BBC, is currently looking for ‘founder members’ to subscribe to (i.e crowdfund) a wonderful digital TV platform called Alchemiya, clearly a cut above the rest in terms of production values, and with the ethos of presenting the most beautiful and fascinating content from the Muslim World today – as often as not emerging from among Western Muslims. People like Canadian-born film-maker Adam Shamash, whose recent video for Californian hip-hop artist and poet Baraka Blue’s song Love and Light was filmed in Fez and London, are upping the stakes with great passion and verve. (If you’re careful you might see me in that clip too…)
In the vanguard of any movement you’ll always find artists. Speaking plain truth and down-to-earth wisdom is the quiet but constant Peter Sanders, whose photography career started with the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix (he took the last shots of Jimi onstage before his death) and now meanders over the Islamic world capturing faces of saints and schoolkids, worlds inaccessible to the average blogger or newsreader.
Another Muslim Peter is that of the ever-dynamic Gould variety, whose Sydney-based design company pulls a lot of punches and whose Facebook page has over 100,000 followers. His Creative Ummah project, which is likewise looking for support at the moment on LaunchGood (another interesting Muslim enterprise), would create an online learning platform for everything from art to zoology (well, maybe the zoology is going a bit far), highlighting all the talent currently out there in the Muslim World.
Islam is back in the saddle with a new album, this time collaborating with an old friend from the Sufi 70s, Richard Thompson, and co-produced by Rick Rubin. One of few Muslim artists who have known serious limelight, Yusuf masterfully injects listenable, well-turned-out tunes with arresting philosophical thoughts.
You get the idea. I’d love to highlight all the Muslims currently putting immense efforts into raising the standards across the board, bringing beauty back into art and design (check out Lateefa Spiker, Iona Fournier-Tombs, Soraya Syed, and my very own dad for inspiring, bar-raising work) but there isn’t the space here and they might unfriend me for writing something embarrassing about them by accident. The point is that as the generations of Western Muslims move into second and even third, the production quality we expect is filtering down into the work we produce. No more cheap books printed in Lahore with text slipping off the page and spines that come undone after one reading.
My problem is that there’s something I quite like about the rubbishy productions we’re growing out of. Sure, the book-lover in me balks at poorly designed covers and pages so thin you can read the whole book just by holding it up to the light, but there’s something kind of honest about it nonetheless.
There is a tipping point at which content begins to be eclipsed by form. For many Muslims, this is exactly what we’re reacting against in the western sphere, an artistic and political stage in which looks mean everything, in which a US president can speak movingly about freedom and justice and the fight against terror while STILL not closing Guantanamo Bay, killing untold numbers of Pakistani and Syrian civilians using drones, or continuing to use cluster bombs even though they are known to kill children who think they’re toys.
We expect politics to be devious, but there has to be honesty in art or all is lost. I would much rather watch an Iranian film with poor film quality on YouTube for its awesome cinematography, brilliant script and effortlessly realistic acting than a Hollywood blockbuster in HD replete with clever jokes, jaw-dropping CGI effects and score sung by some chart-topping megababe. I suppose it’s the frustrated traveller in me that is riveted by ruins, prefers crummy worker’s restaurants with good eats over five-star places, and seeks out people selling food from trays on their head in the street to find out about the meaning of life.
The answer to the second question is not so dissimilar, either. Full marks if you’ve heard of Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former judge awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless campaigns for women’s rights. Or Samira Saleh al-Nuaimi, an Iraqi lawyer and political activist who criticised ISIS aka Da’esh, on a Facebook page and was tortured and executed for it. (It did appear in a few newspapers, with some photo credits even spelling her name wrong). Meanwhile there are people like the affable Sudanese London-based Sheikh Babikir, who never ceases to preach peace and love and hugging trees, as well as thousands of other ‘good’ teachers with the same message; surely Abdallah Bin Bayyah’s plea for a ‘war on war for a peace upon peace’ is a quote worthy of Gandhi. But love and compassion doesn’t hit the news quite like a beheading.
The voices do exist: they just don’t have full make-up, excellent English and a retinue that keeps the red carpet rolling. ‘Neither did Gandhi or Martin Luther King’, you say. That’s true; but things have changed immeasurably since then. To make your voice heard now in the galaxy of user-generated content online, you have to drown everyone else out. You need a YouTube channel, a manager, a lawyer, a dozen advisers to keep your career on track, a personal trainer, some sort of bizarre diet involving immortality mushrooms, lots of famous friends who will invite you to their shows so you can be photographed there, and the expectation that you are worth it, dammit.
So while I applaud those people who are creating higher quality art and design, more functional websites, better translations, more beautiful gifts, and films to knock your socks off, I’d like to spare some time for the jumble sale rejects, the people with good hearts and great words whose suits aren’t snappy and whose colour schemes suck. May we never get so cool that we forget the dust and decay of the real world. In the great, metaphorical landscape of the internet, I’d rather be in downtown Zanzibar in a pair of flipflops eating a mango than shopping for Prada in a Dubai mall any day.
Poison thoughts seed poison stalks
that fork and double their toxic talk
breed bushes glistening with baubles red
and deadly, the kind of fruit
children reach out for first
to test on unknowing’s litmus strip
and crush for fairy puddings on rocks
while the juice sinks into fingers,
stains best frocks.
Thus superiority claims early addicts,
taught by poison words laid down like crumbs
thought to lead out of dark woods.
Those adult charms are so ripe, so
appealing in the velvet green of their
intelligence, but even one drop
of that sap will turn a person sour
will turn their heads to power
give them electric turns of phrase
make them quick to humiliate
to make it seem their state
is ever-calm, sedate, more rational
than all these blurting twerps
whose hearts are always turning
who cannot help but shake during a
simple conversation on
that morning’s train strikes
when the thought of eternal cessation
strikes them dumb. The pretty jewels
fed to them while young
clot their bellies with glinting cold
broken down now to subatomic
size and crossed the semipermeable
membranes round their hearts, which is why
they make small smiles
and cry “Why, that appears to be our train!
On time!” and stride away to more
where people do not turn pale
tremble their berryless leaves
when the canopy is parted by rays of
an overpowering light
at awkward times.
No: standards must be maintained.
So long as the clever quotes, quick wits
and anecdotes remain acceptable
the results determinable
the course unswervable
the mind unperturbable
it will seem to the lovers of this fruit
that nothing can prove them wrong
that they are at the pinnacle of rightness
and everyone else must therefore be
But those berries are not food:
they are baubles made of glass
that will cut your tongue
if you try to make them feed you.
Thoroughly enjoying having a guitar about the house again, with new strings and all, so it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one who would gladly twiddle and sing instead of switching on the music ting.
Originally posted on Ian Whiteman:
This post is on a musical subject, so for those whom music is proscribed then look away now. Or maybe not, as you might learn something.
I was recently on the west coast of the USA and was invited by an old friend to give a short lecture to a Community College class on the subject of Music and Islam. She had been teaching a course on Islam to a group of about fifty students, mostly white, in Livermore, a prosperous neighbourhood inland from San Francisco’s Bay Area, the world’s rich crucible of American technology and lifestyle. Teachers like Sh. Hamza Yusuf had also contributed to the course so I could hardly refuse.
These students were average Americans between 18 and 25, not from the super wealthy but from the middle classes who had all driven to college in their own cars. Much of the…
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Recently I picked up a copy of Dr. Christiane Northrup’s classic (and colossal) book, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, and haven’t been able to put it down. If you know any hippie women, you will almost certainly have seen it on their homes, alongside Healing With Whole Foods, B.S.K. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, and an amethyst geode propping up the shelf above.
Far more useful than a piece of furniture, however, this book has revived my appreciation of the feminine principle, a principle so easily suppressed or chased away in a city where everything is judged on how it scores in the masculinity charts.
An OB/GYN, Northrup shows the relationship between women’s negative attitudes towards their bodies, especially when it relates to sexual abuse or trauma, translates very clearly into their sexual health. Positive changes in these attitudes often have immediate effects on their physical symptoms. But I am shocked at how deeply the negativity runs for so many women. So many who attended her practice manifested signs of loathing or being ashamed of their bodies, and of giving up responsibility for its health by expected a paternalistic doctor to ‘take charge’ and ‘do something’. It made me so thankful not to have absorbed that thinking – at least, not enough to have ended up in her surgery.
The Gulf of Mixed Metaphors
It is clear that for thousands of years, qualities we think of as being ‘masculine’, such as winning by brute force or imposing authority on others deemed to be inferior have trumped such delicate, ‘feminine’ qualities as understanding, nurture, patience, and sharing in responsibility and success equally. Yet few women embody these qualities fully; one of the failings of western feminism is that in order for women to be considered as successful or empowered they must prove themselves by ‘masculine’ criteria by reaching the top of their profession (even if it be by hook or by crook), imposing authority on others, or winning accolades that distinguish them as being superior. Between Mother Teresa and Maggie Thatcher there’s a awfully big gulf.
Another aspect of this ‘patriarchy’ – which Northrup calls the ‘Addictive System’ coined by Anne Wilson Shaef as an alternative to the negative, man-bashing term ‘patriarchy’ – is that of hierarchies. A tribal chief, so the theory goes, must impose authority on elders, who in turn impose it on the ordinary men of the tribe, who in turn impose it on the women, who in turn impose it on the children. Everyone has their place in the pecking order. Thus patriarchal (or addictive) thinking instills the idea that some men are born more equal than others.
I’ve noticed how hard it is to convince women (and often men) that they are able to write something beautiful, or do something creative. Why is that? I think it’s because we’ve learned that experts do these things, experts whom we’ve placed above ourselves in the hierarchy of creativeness, whose work we happily consume but wouldn’t dare try to rival. The opposite approach is to see all people as being essentially equal and all people’s subjective experiences as being equally valuable. Coming from this angle, workshop participants can relax into the idea that they don’t have to compete with others to produce something ‘good’, and in the fact that the whole criteria for quality needn’t come from others in the first place. No-one need judge themselves higher or lower than others because of their creative output.
Birth: the Ultimate Oscar
There is a creative power in pregnancy, birth and childrearing that trumps all of the worldly trophies that a culture obsessed with masculinity can offer. Women giving birth experience more pain than any man is capable of experiencing without passing out, and also the highest levels of endorphins that any human being can experience (immediately after a drug-free, non-interventionist birth – and the baby shares the same high). After the birth of Caveboy, I came back from having a bath feeling ready to deliver an acceptance speech for an Oscar: “I’d like to thank my mum for making me tea, my midwife for not hurrying me along, my birthing pool for being so floatatious…”
While there are men who witness this awesome process, and male midwives are privy to it on a regular basis, men can’t fully understand it because they can’t live it themselves. It occurs to me that God shares a secret with women – both those giving birth and those witnessing it – that men have to strive through a lifetime of personal and/or religious efforts to learn. Nevertheless, if we start crowing about how amazing we are for going through this process, we’ll get sucked into the same story of competition and hierarchy that we’re trying to escape. Unfortunately, even having a ‘natural’ birth can end up a kind of competition, with women blaming themselves when things don’t go according to plan or envying mothers for whom things did.
Blaming patriarchy is part of the very patriarchal values that divide people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, encouraging some to assert their superiority over others, and leading to a perpetual cycle of reaction and aggression that has left most of the Middle East now (not to mention DRC, Sri Lanka, Burma, and countless other places) in bloodied shreds. Of course Muslim societies have become patriarchal; so have all societies around the globe. That’s not because patriarchy is superior all round, only that it’s physically stronger, and the more powerfully destructive military technology becomes, the more difficult it is to stand up against it.
The rhetorical expression ‘fighting fire with fire’ doesn’t work if you’re a firefighter. You calm fire with water. Hatred cannot neutralise hatred; you have to practise its opposite.
Of Men and Mercy
When Islam first emerged, it was in an Arabia so deeply entrenched in a vicious form of patriarchy that not only would internecine wars go on for decades and claim the lives of tens of thousands of people, but quite literally baby girls would be buried alive in the desert. A Bedouin man once bragged to the Prophet Muhammad (s.): “I have ten children and I have never kissed any of them,” to which the Prophet replied, “He who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.”
Attitudes towards masculinity at the time were that men had to be tough, brutal warriors who didn’t just stand up for themselves but would fight aggressively to defend their ‘honour’ (whatever that meant to them). Muhammad (s.), on the other hand, refused to fight the Quraysh of Makkah, who responded to his early attempts to talk them out of their oppressive economic and cultural practices by throwing stones at him, boycotting him and his followers and drowning out his voice with jeers.
At the time he lived in the house his wife Khadijah (r.) built for them. She, incidentally, was 40 when she cajoled him into marrying her when he was 25; was a wealthy, respected, educated, literate noblewomen, as well as his boss; and was twice widowed with three children when they married, upon which she bore six children! Even years after she died, whenever her name was mentioned Muhammad (s.) would turn pale and tremble from missing her so much.
In the courtyard of this house was a stone shelf under which he would hide under when the neighbours threw stones at him in his own home. He didn’t move house, or throw stones back, or even complain. There was also an elderly woman who would leave thorny branches outside his door each day; when one morning he saw that the thorns weren’t there, he went to her house and asked after her health. He even send his own daughter together with a number of the Companions to Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) to live under the Christian Emperor Nabash, where they could live in peace under a just ruler.
All of this was utterly astonishing to the Quraysh. What kind of a man would refuse to stand up for himself with violence, telling his followers to return evil with good, to forgive your oppressors when they ask for forgiveness, and prefer emigration over retribution? Mercy was considered a feminine quality, and therefore something that represented weakness and inferiority. The word rahma, or mercy, is related not only to the two most oft-repeated Names of God, Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim, the Merciful and the Compassionate, it is also related to the word rihm, meaning womb.
All of the battles between the Muslims and their opponents occurred not in or around Makkah, but around Madinah, once the Quraysh and their allies came to the doorstep of the new Muslim community seeking bloodshed, and it became clear to Muhammad (s.) that they would have to defend themselves or die. When the Muslims wanted to return to Makkah to perform the annual Hajj – a ritual that dated back to Abrahamic times, but which had been monopolised by the Quraysh, who had filled the Ka’abah with effigies of their deities – the Muslims came to Hudhaibiyah, a village outside Makkah, and signed a treaty with the Quraysh effectively rendering them second-class citizens, simply in exchange for being able to perform the pilgrimage. They entered Makkah unarmed, performed Hajj, and a flabbergasted Makkah surrendered without a drop of blood being spilled.
This might all sound like a rose-tinted picture of the history of Islam, and certainly there are narrations that seem to tell a different story. What is clear is that when under duress, including starvation and threats of murder from his own clansmen, the Prophetic example was to remain kind, tolerant, and forgiving. He taught that patience, service, humility and gentleness were qualities elevated far above forcefulness, egotism and aggression. Restoring family ties, helping enemies to make peace, and being on the same level as even the most lowly and vulnerable of society were praised in the highest terms.
Referring specifically to childbirth, a man once came to the Companion Ibn ‘Umar (r. – some narrations say it was the Prophet, s.) and said: “I have carried my mother on my back all the way from Iran. Have I done enough to repay her?” to which he replied: “Not even for one contraction.” More recently, a Sufi master called Muhammad Ibn al-Habib (rahimahu Allah) told a bunch of English converts who visited him in the 1970s: “Don’t argue with your wives. Just tickle them until you both fall to the floor laughing.”
Feminism Free From Finger-Pointing
All this seems a far cry from the misogyny that is now endemic, whether in the Muslim world or the planet at large. Yet I can’t point fingers at patriarchy, or men in general; men have excellent qualities that women also benefit from. If I were giving birth in a real life cave I’d feel quite safe with a big burly bloke stationed at the mouth of the cave with a burning brand to scare away the sabre-toothed tigers.
I recently dreamed of a friend being pregnant and going to see a male healer, who gave her what I can only describe as an incredibly feminine, loving, nurturing kind of healing. It made me realise that I dismiss the idea of men having this depth of love and care – despite being married to one who does!
Abandoning our internalised patriarchy means rejecting blame, dualism, competition, envy, and judging self and others based on a hierarchical criteria of superiority. It means taking stock of ourselves from the inside out, addressing our relationships from our own failings and projections before blaming others, taking responsibility for our own problems instead of expecting Big Daddio to come and rescue us or bring out the big guns.
This may or may not be ‘feminine’ thinking, but it certainly links up our emotional intelligence with our rational minds in a much more rounded way, just as the female brain connects right and left hemispheres with a thicker bundle of nerves. Patriarchy might be nothing more than lopsided thinking after all.
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
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.