The same eternal newborn returns each time
to different arms, does the same belch
(in various tongues)
deposits the same spit-up
on T-shirt shoulders,
saris, kurtas, kimonos
striped sweaters and batik robes
reeling back through its
tireless trajectory it
did the same on togas, Celtic cloaks
bare skin and button-neck Victorian blouses.
This is a well-practised baby
educated in how to curl its toes
when the sole is stroked
expert at rounding its lips towards
a touch on the cheek
it snuffles politely when hungry
– eyes closed to smell better –
or howls with gum ridges exposed
face the same outraged knot
no matter the colour of the cloth
and there is the same hiss as it feeds
same gulping, same satisfied silence
fists arrayed in sleep
as though a triumphant boxer.
I could be an Aztec and
the same rhythm would ensue:
change, feed, burp, feed, burp, sleep.
They cooed as I do,
kissed noses, tickled bellies
squished rolls of fat on arms
made up silly, fond names
walked about at night to calm a gassy gut.
All arms understand rocking
knees recall being half-crossed
to form a triangular bed
and bounced in regional variations of a horse
eyes find these delicate fingers familiar
rush to trace the extraordinary
tiny face, to meet the old, old gaze
so knowing it makes you bashful
lips always returning the refrain
“How amazing! So tiny! You forget…”
They intend it as parents of grown-older kids
who keep speed with their growth
so they never seem small
but inside that meaning is another:
they too were that ancient child once
fresh from the other world,
then the ancientness seeps out and
solidity creeps in
and you forget.
Go to sleep, little baby:
in sleep you are
Can’t heft my waddling self to town
because my abdomen’s too round
the exclamation will resound
“She’s – got – to – pop!”
The thing no shrill onlooker knows
the way a peaceful labour goes
you melt like snow, tectonic slow
ain’t – no – “chop – chop”.
External forms are softened, blurred
colours blotch, sounds get misheard
and a string of clever words
stum – bles – head – long;
By now the pressure on the flesh
is causing twinges something spec-
ial and you lumber like a fresh-
ly – beached – du – gong.
Still this baby’s so serene
warming his toes against my spleen
upside-down he is, it seems,
le – vi – ta – ting;
And so I’ll tell those who opine
that my girth is saturnine
“I’m not post-date – we are just fine
me – di – ta – ting!”
(Three hours after writing this poem and posting it to my FB page I was in labour…and at 9am on March 11th Cavebaby the Third made his appearance!)
– sigh –
when you appear on TV
or write your editorials
or seize a woman’s hijab and deafen her
with a tirade on her lack of British values
– how very British of you! –
dear bigot, don’t you see?
The more strenuous your conviction
of Islam’s threat to humanity
the more your knowledge is shown to be phony,
your intellect imprisoned.
We can see it flailing about in there
behind a stiff, dyspeptic exterior
that flushes green at overt expressions of
How many times a week do you have
falafels and batata harra
at the home of your Muslim neighbour?
When was the last time you popped into
Abdul’s Islamic Supplies
– undaunted by the white manniquins
in their sequin-encrusted abayas –
and stayed for a chai and a chat?
When you complain that Muslims aren’t
outraged enough about Isis,
count how many Muslims
you have befriended who might
litter your newsfeed with their grief.
We’re not just good for driving your buses,
for amalgaming your cavities
and selling you fags.
There’s a whole world
behind the undifferentiated
and for all you crow about
how deeply you’ve studied the subject
read those editorials
watched those war zone clips
tell me if you’ve ever asked
a flesh-and-blood Muslim what they think,
how they live, who they are.
Without those voices
your condemnations are
a drone strike on an unseen village
by a 19-year-old video game junkie
with a lethal excess of patriotism.
What does your myopia make you?
An ostrich, or a mole?
Look how your heart has been papier-mâchéd
with pages of The Telegraph!
Break out, dear bigot!
You aren’t so monstrous under all that crust,
and nor are we. See us:
we are human.
Allow room for our failings
and we can forgive your blindness, too.
We are only trying
to make things better.
(A poem prompted by this article by Juan Cole in The Nation.)
You don’t find Islam with the big guys
who have their own logos and facebook pages
they are only purveyors of ‘ilm,
kettles for the tea.
The taste is brewed into you
by the grandmothers’ sweets trayed out
at dhikrs cramped and heaving
with singers pink-cheeked on love
by the vapour their breaths
make on the dark windowpanes
the impressions their sitting leaves on the rug
the lingering on way after midnight
hummingbirds drinking their fill
for the long journey out across
cold joyless plains.
The tea leaves grow
in the soil of the everyday, anyday,
mothers putting down bags of shopping
to breastfeed under a scarf on a park bench
breadmen bringing out their khubs
on muscular, burn-scarred arms
keeping aside your favourite plus
a lollipop for the kids they refuse to take money for
smiles from faces unexpected and familiar
doors sweeping open to the smell of ‘oud
heaps of shoes cluttering doorways
hands clapping to a Sudanese song
back teeth – gold, or missing – seen.
This is how Islam grows into you,
not in the words of a teacher, but in the
reality they blossom into.
You learn Islam from the small people
the open-handed nobodies
the beauties who shy away from lenses:
that is why it is incompatible with fame.
Be a witness to it.
Be aware they witness you.
While London suffocates under a horrific quarter-inch of snow, here the worst part of an Alpujarran winter has kicked in for the second time: wind so forceful it’s upended our wheelbarrow full of firewood, and almost made it impossible to close the front door. It drives rain through the gaps in the not-very-energy-efficient window frames, leaving puddles amid the Lego on the kids’ bedroom floor. The children are up and down like the FTSE all night, while a mysteriously clanging pipe by our bedroom window chimes the hour.
As usual, I have been unprepared for the effect that all this has on my overall degree of bonkersness. I start entertaining wild notions that my skull is actually made up of millions of hairline fractures, invisible even to an MRI (not that I’ve had one) into which the wind miraculously creeps – bypassing the masonry entirely – rendering me significantly more irritable, depressed, argumentative, critical, and – to use the scientific term for it – unbearable. Under the influence of this stinker of a bad mood which no amount of essential oils, chamomile tea, dark chocolate or videos on YouTube of babies being scared by farts could subdue, I finally had one of those moments in which bloggers
go into an italicised bold indent for effect.
I started asking myself, ‘if I include a stock photo of models wrestling with deep and meaningful thoughts, will it help me finally become the life-coaching guru I’d always dreamed of being? Will I finally be able to sell an e-book explaining the meaning of everything that will pay for my early retirement? Will my words be printed in mock typewriter font over evocative photos and shared virally on Facebook? Could this even be – dare I think it – Oprah-worthy?’
At this point I laugh heartily, then have to stop when my belly hurts so much I worry I’ll go into labour a month early.
This was the actual thought: that there is nothing so tremendous, elemental, powerful or terrifying as the wind. Rain you can avoid with gumboots and an umbrella. Sun you can revel in, or escape under shade if it gets too much. Heat can be beaten with A/C or a plunge into cold water. Thunder and lightning? Electrifying when experienced from the inside of a house.
But you can’t just avoid the wind. Even inside a building it makes its existence known. And if allowed to come to its logical conclusion, it can turn into a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami…Meteorological caprice might make it a soft and refreshing zephyr one moment, or a landscape-changing titan the next.
It also struck me, as my mind went on its habitual meander into hypothesis, that for people whose landscape is dominated by desert, the wind must be even more unavoidable. Imagine being in a tent, or a small, cramped stone building with a palm-leaf roof, as the ancient Arabs would have lived – and indeed some still do – when a sandstorm hits. The word for wind in Arabic is ريح, rih, with a hard, pharyngeal h that even sounds like wind thundering through a crack in a wall.
Interestingly, the word for spirit in Arabic is from the same root: روح, ruh. The linguistic relationship reflects a semantic one: both are invisible forces only discernible by way of their effects – the things they drag along in their wake, the trees they tousle and uproot, the resistance they put up when you try to drive against them with hard, flat surfaces such as egos. It is a foreshadowing (you could cal it a ‘fore-shuddering’) of the powerlessness we feel at the unavoidable approach of death.
It’s quite a different picture to the classic Western notion of ‘spirit’, which has always conjured up images for me of dull conferences on esoteric themes, and women (or men) with long floaty hair who don’t say ‘hello': they simply gaze meaningfully into your eyes, burning their greeting into your psyche like they’re tearing open a portal for you to comprehend what ‘hello’ really means.
When the early Arabs considered Allah breathing His ruh into each human being it must have seemed more like an inexorable power racing through every atom of their beings; for the average English person I imagine it feeling more like a pleasant summer breeze, carrying the scent of bluebells. Perhaps a song by Enya plays softly in the background.
Yet our word ‘spirit’ is also derived from the Latin ‘spiritus’, meaning ‘breathing or breath (respiration, or of the wind); breath of a god’. It appears in English referring to a supernatural entity from the mid 14th century on, and from the late 14th century to mean ‘state of mind’, ‘Divine substance’, ‘Divine mind’, ‘God’, and so on. The 4th century Latin Vulgate Bible used the term to translate the Greek psykhe (sound familiar?) and the Hebrew ruah (a not-so-distant cousin of ‘ruh‘).
In my home town, which swirls with thousands of people with long floaty hair and penetrating gazes who will talk to you at great length about the awesome power of raw food, coffee enemas and ayahuasca detoxes, there is an undercurrent of belief in the New Age notion of ‘manifestation’. That is, that whatever you are going through has arisen because of your mental state, your negative emotions, your attachments, traumas, toxic thoughts etc. etc.
Which can generate, on the one hand, a kind of god-complex in which people think they are capable of anything, and on the other a great deal of blame and guilt when someone is suffering from some major affliction, which must have been caused by their un-enlightened thoughts. As my mum said, “Whoever it is who cured themselves of Stage 3 terminal cancer by eating a macrobiotic diet, I’d like to meet them;” they’ve spawned an entire industry, one that is often trailed by stories of failure as desperate people pin their hopes on repeating someone else’s miracle cure.
While it’s certainly true that stress and anxiety contributes to ill health, and I’m sure we do have far greater power than we are aware of, there is a point at which things go beyond our control. We aren’t the centre of our own personal universes; we aren’t the masters of our destinies. That idea is so terrifying to the five-year-old narcissist in us that we block it out with the delusion that if we build up enough money, a glorious enough reputation, a beautiful enough body/wardrobe/home, we’ll be safe. There’s even a longevity diet for people who want to eat their way to immortality.
Surrendering into the knowledge that you are in far better hands than your own ends the deep argument that your mind is engaged in when it tries to be in charge. We need need, just as we need illness to make us stop and rest, or disasters to make us take stock of our blessings, or annoying people in our lives to teach us how to deal with them in a more mature way than clocking them on the head with a chair. When there’s a giant great hole in or lives, there’s the chance that extraordinary things might fall into it. When you’re stuck you start looking for openings; when you’re down you start to look up.
If Oprah calls, I’ll be outside double-pegging my washing.
(I don’t want to start writing on the topic of Charlie Hebdo right now…it’s being written about so much that there’s nothing more I can add. Plus I am 7+ months pregnant and sort of incoherent. But I’ll point you in the direction of a few interesting links:
And the hilarious Aziz Ansari ripping into Murdoch on Twitter with some spot-on satire of his own
…Oh alright, I can’t help it…here’s a poem.)
Freedom from Expression
Break out into a dance if that’s your urge
or rock weeping in a corner of the shower
let out what needs to be let out
the caged ocelot pacing in circles
longing for the zookeeper
to leave the door open a moment too long
– that is freedom of expression.
It’s singing when the song billows out
in your lungs before you have a chance
to shut yourself up.
It’s grabbing a pen – anyone’s –
and scribbling a torrent of thoughts
that blur everything else
until your mind runs clear again.
There is no violence to it,
no evil intents; even the ocelot
only wants to race to the nearest forest
to pad his giant paws through rustling leaves
and catch a bird the way his nature longs to.
There is no hatred in it.
But when the doors of art open
and out pours a wave of bile
unwitting passersby are swept up in it
lose their handbags and footings
and if it seeps into the streets,
trickles through windows and soaks into sofas
it starts to appear like normality.
That is not freedom of expression;
it is abuse of the onlooker’s innocence.
Give me freedom from that expression.
I’ll take my chances
with the ocelot.
I recently went to the celebration of a friend’s life, who passed away not long ago at the tender age of 38 from cancer, leaving behind a two year old daughter and a twelve year old son.
It was, as you might expect, a heart-rending memorial, but she had been keen for people to enjoy it as a joyful reliving of the many marvels her life had brought. About a hundred of us gathered on a field above the river near her home and sang some of the songs that she as choir mistress had taught us, shared a few memories, and read some poems (one of which was the poem posted here). And, surprising as it might sound, it was joyful, not just in remembering all our funny adventures with this colourful being who we could not stop loving now, but also in recalling that life is insensitive to our clinging: it keeps moving on without looking back in anguish, only racing towards its meeting with the ocean.
Two things occurred to me on that field: one, that death is so utterly real that it renders everything else frivolous and temporary in comparison. It was the first time I had ‘lost’ someone close to me; all the funerals I had ever attended had been of nonagenarians who lay in their coffins with an expression of deliverance on their static faces, while family members happily ate strawberry and cream on scones in the sunshine. These were people who had watched the door every day for decades in anticipation of the Angel of Death. For those saying goodbye to them, bereavement doesn’t sound like the right word: bereliefment might be a better term for it.
The other thought was this: “When the sky weeps, the earth rejoices. Don’t be sore that your sheets get wet.”*
It’s not much solace to those of her family mourning her, for whom their sheets are not just wet through but fairly ripped to shreds. But seeing her twin sister since then, and other relatives and friends who held her in a cocoon of reassurance and round-the-clock care for the last months of her life, the refrain that keeps returning is of the exquisiteness of the atmosphere surrounding her, utterly peaceful and loving in every way. Some likened it to the atmosphere around a birth; others said it reminded them of a saint’s tomb.
So many golden filaments of love being sent from hearts dilated in waiting and hoping that it wove a light, permeable, glowing cloud around her bedside, impossible to reproach or hate, unless you only saw the facts from the frosty distance of a medical report. Everyone who passed through those doors felt this coalescence of sadness and wonder, the way a parent watching their first child leave home gazes after the receding train through eyes blurry with borrowed anxiety, and a heart blown open by the realisation that they were not their property in the first place. This is the path they take alone, threatened by trials and yet free.
I wonder how we can find it so easy to forget – or ignore – that everything we think we possess, including our bodies, families, health, homes, wealth, kudos, career – will eventually be no more than a few words in a historical document, at the most. (And if that’s all digitised, how permanent would it be?) Yet those very things occupy so much of our mental space that we allow them to outscream the wisdom of our better nature, which is to hold them lightly in the palm of the hand, instead of clinging to them like a drowning sailor to a rope.
But death always seems to put a sour note into things. It never happens the way we want it to; it’s never fair. Rowan Williams observes in a recent book review of old German and Arab fairy tales that these archetypal stories offer an antidote to the cotton-candy world of Disney’s logical conclusions and pop psychology morals. They portray (more accurately, I think) the way in which our chaotic world can bring ‘bad’ things to innocent people, and yet assistance also comes from unexpected, wondrous sources. The protagonists reach a point at which they can only really throw themselves on the mercy of the Divine and accept whatever may come. The interesting part of it is trying to work out what it all means, the state of questioning itself.
Rewind to the very beginning of life and you’re faced with the other end of that spectrum, that spiked threshold of life on which the most astonishing pain gives way to the most astonishing bliss. Once the sharpness of a contraction ends, there is an endorphin rush to balance out the suffering. But – and here’s the stinger – if you’ve anaesthetised the pain of the contractions, the hormones that bring on the bliss afterwards are inhibited. Hence decades of screen births involving buckets of blood, screams of agony and women pinned down to hospital beds like they were having a Gremlin surgically removed from their bowels. Virtually every woman who’s had a non-intervention birth would tell you that it could not be more different (though her mother-in-law might still have a few scare stories up her sleeve).
Perhaps it seems strange to begin the year with this post, especially as Cavebabe the Third is due in barely two months. But I get a strange sort of satisfaction in the reminder that everything is passing. It makes it much less stressful knowing that it’s not ultimately in my hands, and that the only wealth to delight over is the appreciation of what is here now. How many people regret not telling someone they love them once it becomes too late for them to hear? How would your life be if you loved people as though they might be gone from your life tomorrow?
In conclusion, life is peppered with insults to our idea of what it should be like, and isn’t it all the more wondrous for that. May this year be filled with good stuff for you, and if that’s not the way the dice roll, then at least you can be safe in the knowledge that it’s made you wiser. Or, with all that good material, a writer.
(* To be included in a forthcoming collection called the Aphorisms of Cavemum, available very exclusively hand-written in saffron dye on antique gazelle skin from a bloke called Abu on a street corner in Marrakesh.)
Each woman is a jumble sale
a riotous clash of
that hold nostalgic value
holey socks and too-small
suede jackets that would look good
if only…if her body were…
(still, the thought of looking fly in it
was worth every penny.)
And you, male browser,
scanning through her
chipped gravy boats
retro plastic sunglasses
that still make her grin to wear them
– but really, how much cargo
can this camel lug around? –
you, oh male peruser,
have the choice whether to scorn
her history of bad taste and saunter
off in search of more impressive tat
to riffle patiently through her EPs
and cheesy paperbacks
(remembering that this is just the junk
she’s willing to show the public)
and chance upon that rare 1880s
engraved silver compass
she was always looking for
someone to give to
and the glow in your eyes
turns all the trinkets into treasure
at the feet of a queen.
Don’t you see, oh male desirer?
It is your admiration
that draws out her beauty.
She see your delight
and opens the box
hidden under the foldout table
full of more wondrous things
the ones she didn’t want to muddle up
with the broken fake Rolexes.
Don’t you see, oh male
seeker of the sublime?
She embodies it
when she feels your awed gaze
lighting her up in a corona.
Just as He said,
“I am in the opinion of My servant”,
want only this Beauty
and she will dazzle you with it.
and she will give you
In the past 5 years of blogging, directing my thoughts world-wards through this silent megaphone on a screen, I’ve almost always been blissfully ignored by the self-appointed wardens of Islamic values that skulk the internet. Either this means I’m not being inflammatory enough, or (and this is a vain hope of mine) they are put off by the prospect of an online verbal evisceration. I’m quite happy not to be on their radar, though; anything for a quiet life.
Unfortunately, however, every time it seems that Muslims might be doing something interesting on the world stage, the condemnations start pouring in.
In a behind-the-scenes video she shot for the new film American Sharia, Yaz the Spaz (I’m guessing she doesn’t know what this means in the UK, unless she’s trying to wrong-foot her detractors by insulting herself first) receives a few brave hurrahs in the comments section, before a whole barrage of strangers inform her in various tones of indignation that she was “too close to the men”, that the film did not represent true Islam, and – that classic put-down written by people on their iPads while on the Tube on their way to work in a merchant bank – “this isn’t what the Sahabah would have been doing”.
Whilst silently suppressing the screams of frustration, it is important that we avoid responding with the same kind of blinkered reactions, and instead endeavour to understand that human psychology is, much like our DNA, 90% identical to that of a carrot. The other 10% depends on whether anyone ever allowed you to play with dangerous implements as a child.
This is the memo that it seems the trolls missed: Moralising, judging, attacking, or condemning to the most scorching regions of hell DOES NOT ACHIEVE THE DESIRED EFFECT of changing a person’s ways any more than telling elephants to stop being large and wrinkly turns them into mice.
People are too stubborn for that. We have good reason to be. Can you imagine if you changed your entire direction in life, your approach to God, humanity and the universe, every time someone told you the way you were meant to think? We’d be bouncing back and forth across the squash court of spirituality all our lives.
Much as it’s annoying to be a parent to intractable children when you’re trying to get them to sit in their car seat and put their belt on for the fifth time in a day, if you put yourself in their position, you’d kick up a fuss yourself. They’re only practising for being a teenager and having to stick up for themselves; you’ll appreciate their wilfulness when they refuse to obey whatever the alpha (fe)male of their class tells them to do.
There is the even more annoying possibility that the person doing the reprimanding might be absolutely right. The point, however, is that shoving their rightness down another person’s throat won’t make them swallow it. (Much more problematic is when it isn’t certain that they are right, only that their conviction makes them feel horribly offended when you don’t collapse at their feet with sobs of gratitude for their kind advice.)
This might just be a case of culture shock: being brought up in Britain among people who shudder at the idea of being thought bossy or rude, when I travelled to places such as Morocco, Kenya and Saudi Arabia it became clear that a lot of people had an opinion on how I should dress, eat, talk, pray, chew gum, wear flip-flops etc., and that they took it as a moral duty, like a doctor travelling to Sierra Leone to fight ebola, to stamp out my silly foreign tendencies.
I smiled and nodded so much I almost wore my face and neck muscles right through. Then I went back to England and revelled in being able to wear whatever I liked much more than before.
How might those well-meaning bossypants have transmitted their pearls of wisdom in a way that would have stuck? Taking time to become friends, being an example of what they believe is right, educating through humour, thoughtfully exploring why certain behaviours are better (and we need to ask ourselves what ‘better’ means – more in line with the status quo, or more conducive to happiness?)…all these might have been helpful, and shown a good deal more adab (the Islamic concept of good manners).
But in extreme cases of obstinacy, like my own, I have come to the conclusion that the only remedy is unconditional acceptance. Compassion melts away defenses like ice before fire. You don’t need an itemised list of your sins read out to you: all you need is to feel accepted despite them. The Muslims I met who taught me more about Islam than anyone else were the ones who did no preaching whatsoever, but instead welcomed me with open arms, showed trust and generosity and care without even knowing how to speak my language, and forgave whatever breaches of their cultural codes I made.
That is merely a reflection of my experience of Allah: an all-encompassing embrace of care and kindness, even though I’ll never be up to scratch. And that is why, despite the trolls and the fundamentalists, despite Da’esh and lone wolf attacks, this feeling of being heard and held casts everything else into the shadows. The only way I can bear those shadows is by remembering the warmth of the light.
If the Ummah is one body
then we are all brittle bones
skins grown armoured
out of fear of speared looks.
Meanwhile collapsing organs
leave lacunae in their wake
hollows that cringe and cramp
and invite hauntings.
Our veins have dried to desert rivers
joints arthritically creak
only so far, shaking at the idea
of stretching any more.
Between the mummified exterior
and the limping core
there is an emptiness
that reaches for union
sighs for solidity
whistles like hilltop pines
for sense or silence.
My voice is called to sing into this void
this fantastic concert hall denied of concerts
stifled by a plaster casing
created to protect
but the wounds need air;
our bandages are soaked through now –
to keep them on we risk
a gangrene on our souls.
Listen quietly as you unwind them:
there is music in the rattling of our bones
in the weeping of our tissues
in the way we scrape our heels
along the ground.
It joins the leaves’ percussion in the wind
the insects’ string section out on the lawn
the whispering of oranges as they grow juice
the sparrows chittering coded melodies and the
deep heaving of planets
drawing harmonies out of space –
that is a song to get us up and dancing again.
Quivering brings vibrato
to our parched throats – trembling
makes the timbre believable
and words that rise
unwritten in that loss
score our hymn.
In memory of the lives lost in Peshawar and with heartfelt prayers for a peaceful holiday season for all.