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An Addiction to Storms

April 3, 2014

  The wind is talking. There’s a thundering around, whistling in low, confiding tones between the orange trees and knocking a shower of fragrant petals to the floor. Of all the imaginary vehicles we’d devised over dinner – to escape a tantrum more than anything else – the wings on this wind seem the most powerful means of transport available: it is a brutal angel, muscular and singing unseen.
  There were no stories tonight, only bitter sobs, and meek children not understanding, stroking my shoulders and seeking peace. The peace came a minute before they dropped off, clinging to my hand and shoulder; it was so exquisite after the exasperation and outrage and despair that I had to turn the light off to savour it.
  I scoured my remembered psychology notes for what it added up to: with every petulant fit my inner parent raged, looking for vindication and respect, while my inner child threw toys out of the pram, causing my inner parent in turn to scold it for doing so. The correct terminology might be: ‘What’s the root cause of my own imbalance that’s playing itself out in our family dynamic?’
 Then I gave up trying to auto-analyse and worked instead on the practical means of handling two kids who’d been whipped into a giddy pair of hurricanes, fighting and flinging makeshift weapons, giggling and howling by turns, and giving me the most unbelievable lip. This time the jargon would have read: ‘What am I doing to spark this conflict, and what can I do to pull the rug on it once it’s already in motion?’

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  And then, hours after the crisis had been lulled into post-storm calm, my husband tells me, “Don’t try to analyse it, either what you’re doing or where it’s coming from. Just love your children, say ‘alhamdulillah’ that they’re healthy and well, give them a hug and a kiss when he gets angry. That’s all they need. The anger is coming from that need.”
  I am beginning to wonder if I don’t have an addiction to storms. The build-up, all excitement and nerves, then the physical lift off the ground as the gale builds up into a towering column of fury, and then the hollowing-out as the reason for its continuation is forgotten or falls through, and finally the crashing of all the chairs and trees and cars that had been lifted up into the arms of this torrent as they drop to the ground.
  Nothing seems stiller or more balmy than right at this moment, once the storm has blown itself out. The mental imbroglio that a brain with a reading habit gets itself into over any problem that surfaces suddenly falls quiet, like the sea at low tide. You look out at where the seagulls wheel and lurch without troubling yourself as to why they are doing it.
  These personal thunderstorms can have the rug pulled out from under them, if it is done by expert hands that are not shaking with a sympathetic rage. The guns that anger pulls all melt with the white heat of unconditional acceptance.
  All kinds of analyses run through my mind regarding Islam. It’s impossible to avoid it when you read the news, or have a Facebook newsfeed brimming with Muslim commenters. At every moment we seem to be stepping out of our shoes and assessing ourselves, our ‘community’, with an outsider’s eye.
  It’s an entertaining pastime, but when it comes down to it, the only way I can explain it is that Islam has a direct effect on a person’s heart. It’s like an adaptogen*: it will do whatever your heart needs. If it is rigid, it will shake it up. If it is lonely, it will give it solace. If it is wounded, it will heal. If it is hard, it will melt it. If it is to open, it will give it protection.
  So there is a kind of extreme optimism at work within a Muslim’s heart. ‘Alhamdulillah ‘ala kulli hal’ was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w.s.) favourite sayings. It means ‘Halleluyah in all conditions’, ‘May God be praised for every state’. It means streaking right past the raised fists and embracing the fighter with more than love – with gratitude. It is not merely saying ‘I forgive you’ but ‘I thank God for you’.
  What can outrage do with that kind of reaction but drop its weapon in surprise?

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*Adaptogen: a medicinal plant that will return the body to homeostasis, i.e. do whatever the body needs in order to regain balance

On the Boot of Ukraine

March 6, 2014

The standoff is startling
pale-faced, clean-shaven
as patient as snow
on the boot of Ukraine

Meanwhile, bones grow in babies
floors dirty themselves
muttered grumbles repeat
between broomstick and brain

Men are ranged in steep banks
as though cliffs ploughing on
to raise slow-cresting mountains
against foreign terrain

But at home, the plates sit
crusted with rice and cheese
the washing needs taking in
safely out of the rain

Whispered terrors of war
thread through emails and towns
ignite testosterone
fan a wildfire chain

But the people still pee
move their bowels most days
dead leaves, soap and hair
still encumber good drains

That momentous decision
of conflict or peace
raises all of our stakes
queries what is humane

Yet food and clean water
still need to be sought
foraged, stolen or bought
hunted, fished, caught and slain

Ambulances are readied
tanks and great submarines
great causes flush hot
in the president’s vein

While his mistress is ironing
silk slips that he gave,
asks the housewife next-door
what works best on wine stains

Rallied shouts float above roof-
tops: “Fight for your rights!”
though the war’s still a theory,
immanent the campaign

Housewives beat their rugs
water aubergine plants
beetles creep inside bottles
herds of goats block the lane

The diplomats clinch it:
troops retire to barracks
blank and brotherless for bread
and soup to soften pride’s pain

Cotton sheets heave and snap
tangled children’s hair is brushed
trumpets polished, glasses too
doors opened and closed
cats, dogs, rabbits fed
compost bins evacuated
trees and roses are still pruned
bowls of oranges arranged
the Names of God mentioned as stars
set into violet dawns
planets drift the way they always do
deaf to all of mankind’s bluffs

while here on earth the grass grows green
and green it will remain

Tripping the Writerhood Switch

March 3, 2014

With 87 kph winds currently howling through our valley, telephone and internet connections are intermittent. All of us who depend on the web for work are thrown back and forth between a flurry of activity while the connection lasts, and a kind of restless lethargy when it goes off again. Something doesn’t feel right; it’s as though our world comes in and out of focus without our own volition.

And it’s true that something isn’t quite right when work determines the day so powerfully. A prolonged bout of poor health recently obliged me to lie on the sofa for a full day with a fever, devouring the entire Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin.

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Turning the last page I was almost completely recovered. I had become ill because of working too hard, rushing about without achieving very much, but it was more the speed with which I was working – not unlike a squirrel frantically storing hazelnuts for a winter that is always immanent – that brought on the illness.

So, taking off a glorious week to lie in bed, read novels again after what seems like eons, crochet water bottle carriers, and potter about in my garden with cuttings and seeds, I’ve been reflecting on how I can square my desire to achieve with my need for a sane pace.

One of the less stressful things I’ve been working on is a writing group for mums, complete with breastfeeding babies, scattered popcorn, felt pens and potties. We get a surprising amount done in the space of an hour and a half, despite all the interruptions; my theory is that mothers have such a compressed urge to write that when they get half the chance it explodes out, filling a very limited period of time as well as an ordinary writer would struggle to fill a whole morning.

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The output is pithy, full of ideas that could later be explored and extended…once the last load of laundry is done and the kids are asleep and the dishes…oh, never mind.

This is the knot I’ve always got myself into with my writerly commitments: I add up all the ‘work’ I do – paid, house, garden, shopping, ferrying around kids, remedying ailments, conflict resolution, advising on deep philosophical dilemmas for small children such as how the sky stays up, etc. – and the time left over for anything I wish to do by myself is as small as a microchip in the neck of the hulking St. Bernard of my day.

So I think: “Well, I can always sleep another time! Like, when I’m dead!” And I stay up until 3am writing at a pace I’d usually reserve for fleeiing dangerous criminals chasing me with nunchucks. Then the predictable results the next day of rattiness, poor communication, conflict creation instead of resolution, bad answers to philosophical dilemmas (such as “You’re giving me a headache”), no laundry done for days, no clean dishes, cat food casserole after food was chosen badly in the supermarket due to eyes being half-open, etc. etc. etc.

There are a few ways to deal with this equation, as far as I can see.

1) Don’t write anything until the children have left home. By this time you may be rocking in a padded cell in Belmarsh, but this will only make your magnus opus more sellable after your death. Everyone loves an insane, dead writer.

2) Miraculously get a publisher to pay you to write, thus converting your funnest activity into your paid work and inserting it into the list of daily jobs, rather than adding to it. (This is the part I am stuck on. Most publishers want to see a finished piece, which is currently impossible to achieve – see above.)

3) Trickle along, catching half an hour here and there to write something which you have no time to edit, which is incidentally great training for writing well the first time around. This process is MUCH easier in company; it’s as if you are in a hall of mirrors and the luminosity generated by focusing your attention on a creative stream is reflected back, multiplied. Thus the benefits of a writing group (see my previous post Creativity Catalysts).

There is another possibility, which is tied to b), that of winning a short story competition, and thus bringing your talent to the attention of readers and publishers and judges, hopefully facilitating the book deal. But first prizes don’t always respond to genuinely great stories; often it has more to do with trends (ugh, the word alone makes me cringe) and the internal politics of publishing, i.e. what will sell.

But the point of writing isn’t to win anything, if we really come down to it. It’s about being right there in the writing, in the moment, lost to everything else for a while. The day I spent reading about the wizard of Earthsea I realised that my ego had been out on a long, fine rope all that time, while I was engrossed in the story. I wasn’t analysing the metanarrative or memorising facts, as I would be with non-fiction or news. I wasn’t planning, or remembering, or critiquing. There was nothing but the story playing out in my consciousness.

And the experience isn’t so different with writing. While the editorial, critical mind is out of the way, and the subconscious blooms out of its usual hiding places, none of the trivial worries of the world matter – for a time.

Lost in Scribblation

Lost in Scribblation

Two things have come out of these past weeks for me. One is that reading fiction is not some idle luxury for people who don’t have anything else to do. It can be a genuine healing for people who have a hard time making time to rest, and whose minds are usually chattering too hard and too loud to listen to the need to do so.

The other is that work itself is not a mode we switch into at will, switching it off at the end of the day, the way my internet is doing at the moment. We don’t put our minds into suspended animation when we clock off, nor do we put our souls on ice when we clock on. Work and living are enmeshed so deeply that it turns us into temporary automata to try and separate them. As Khalil Gibran once said, ‘Work is love made visible’.

We can work restfully, and live purposefully, and the seams between the two can fade to faint topographical lines on the maps we live on. And we can try, if at all possible, not devote any of our creative energy to the fantasy of that miracle occurring, the one with the book deal, and the cleaner, and the entire day to write…for if it did happen, would the writing be such a sweet release?

On One Line

February 18, 2014

Books have become my butterflies
alive for just one day or less
before the surf of routine comes
crashing down overhead
raising my feet
from ocean bed
helterskeltering along
the pages soaked
and distant.

These beings are reincarnated
every time I snatch
a moment’s
breath
released from their oceanic
suspension
open, new again
the plots and connections
different this time.

Books have become a bus stop
scratched with teenage loves
willing the passerby to want
to flee their own lives for an hour
a day, a night journey
to foreign towns, a round trip
when the back page flips shut –
but I always miss
the transport.

Books have become my hoopoes
trilling some way off, a
flash of black and white
too fluttersome to stay whenever
I approach.
Gone!
Perhaps I’ll catch a feather.

And on one feather I can fly
hit thermals so high even one line
would make me a kite and glide
over terrains no-one will ever see but I.

On just one letter I could ride to
caverns, canyons, cascades
altitude lakes blue as eyes
dry, red-streaked rocks and corporeal dunes
spruce forests so dense sounds
would fight to reach our ears
clearings where stand in moonlight
roundhouses of polished wood
in which I find circles of lovers
of the Word.

They must exist!
And I am going
by any vehicle
necessary
to find them.

Tasbih*

February 1, 2014

crickets

http://www.whydontyoutrythis.com/2013/12/someone-recorded-crickets-then-slowed-down-the-track-and-it-sounds-like-people-singing.html?m=1

It seemed a hiss

the drone of mating call

of insects lost in long grass

grating on short nerves

white noise on a muggy August eve

but that is just the speed

we think at. That’s the pace

we expect all else to race to

and when their mindless buzz

is heard with their ears

it becomes
 song

for no reason but to sing

because that is the thing that must

be done

in ecstasy at being small before the One

How many more songs are being sung

by entities so small and fast-lived

that their chorus doesn’t register for us?

Too fine

cat’s purr five thousand hertz wide

distant whirr of planetary slide

a jive when played apace with human lives

and now I hear sense in my daughter’s cries

as tantrum slows to feverish high

I hear the words she tried to croon

the Mama, listen, Mama, pick me up –

it was a tune that spun on faster wheels
than mine, mismatching my headbeats

but that was the song her fever sang
the exultation it expressed
while I was too depressed
with longing for a quiet night
the silence of the stars as they creak past or
gentle buzz of crickets on a lawn
the white noise Nature gives the
world-worn so they’ll find peace there
in music they can’t hear

All things are in tasbih
for One who is to all these things
Listening.

(* Tasbih is an Arabic word meaning glorification – i.e. of Allah, of God. It is said in Qur’an that every thing in creation has its own unique way of singing its ‘tasbih’ to God.)

Zende Creative Retreat, April 2014

January 7, 2014

Most of you are more used to reading my rambles about spooning porridge out of my kids’ hair or a flash of insight had whilst shearing sheep…but I would just like to take a moment to mention a beautiful new project I’m currently working on.

For many years I have toyed with the idea of running a retreat in Spain, aimed at (but not exclusive to) Muslims of a spiritual bent who wish to explore their creative depths in an open-minded, relaxing and enjoyable way.

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A few months ago, a dear sister, poet, writer and photographer Ni’mah Nawwab came to a town near where I live for a writing retreat, and came to stay for a few days afterwards. As well as her beautiful company, her enthusiasm for a poetry retreat in Órgiva got me making some moves on this dream…

…and Zende Creative Retreats was born!

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For a small town, there is an absurd amount of untapped artistic talent here. Two master calligraphers, musicians, artists, poets…and in this setting of outstanding natural beauty, where a walk can take you to natural springs, waterfalls, ruined Moorish castles and watchtowers, through gnarled cork oak forests or up green slopes with views of the sea, it is understandable that many people might find this place the scene of great inspiration.

Drawn by the abundance of the natural surroundings, the good food and (very importantly for us Brits) the sunshine, this valley is blessed with seekers from all different walks of life. And as Muslims we find a connection here to a Western Islamic civilisation that brings us a new understanding of who we are. The footprints of Spanish Muslims who lived here barely 500 years ago seem only just beneath the surface of the soil. In the language, the food, the customs, the agricultural traditions – there is still a subtle but tangible presence of Islam here in the south of Spain. Perhaps this is the closest we come to a homeland.

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Yet it is so easy to get lost in nostalgia, in grieving for golden times past. It is clear that this spirit needs to be maintained in something contemporary, something we can relate to, something alive…

Zende, meaning ‘alive’ in Persian, is the gathering that so many of us have been longing for. Zende Creative Retreats are unique in the field of study-abroad holidays, as a primarily creative experience designed to cater to Muslim interests while maintaining a universal and open attitude to all guests, from all backgrounds.

Pommes de Granada

Pommes de Granada

What is it that makes us feel alive? For many of us it can be felt through our spirituality, our search for (and discovery of) meaning in the strange, at times incomprehensible world we live in. When events fall into some sort of order, when we perceive harmony even through our difficulties, a light opens up through the darkness.

But these moments of insight often seem rarer than a pearl in a Big Mac. Surely there’s something we can do, some activity to calm our minds while we dive within to find to pearl we’re looking for?

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In our experience, writing calligraphy and poetry do just that, filling us with peace and reminding us of the beauty inherent in nature, in life, in our own selves. So much confusion and pain can be transmuted into a work of art or literature that not only gives tremendous enjoyment to the artist but also to those receiving it.

To complement the brief but packed programme of calligraphy and poetry, led by facilitators Asghar Alkaei Behjat, Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, Ni’mah Nawwab and myself, we have scheduled yoga at dawn, led by highly experienced instructor Monica Poyato, and walks in the mountains with Ahmad Zaruq Summers of the Granada-based tour company Al-Andalus Experience. This offers us a way to leave the classroom and incorporate our physical selves into the creative experience, as well as providing a great deal of inspiration for our work.

Abdal Hayy bio pic

We are blessed to have the poet ‘Abd al-Hayy Moore coming all the way from Philadelphia to speak about poetry and give us a performance of his work. Ebullient, funny and inspiring, ‘Abd al-Hayy comes from the Beat generation of poets from 1960s California, and has been something of a pioneer in the field of contemporary Western Sufi poetry.

There will also be a chance for retreat guests to perform a few of the pieces they have worked on in the course of the weekend on the last day alongside the phenomenal Ali Keeler and Firdaus Ensemble and some of the workshop facilitators.

To put our landscape into perspective we’ll have a talk on Andalusi history, with particular focus on the great writers and thinkers who have contributed to classical and even modern thought, by Tahira Larmore, who is currently working on a travel guide to Muslim Spain for Turath Publishing. And if you thought that Persian calligraphy was out of place in Spain, this is when you’ll discover just how much Persian influence there was in Andalusi culture!

We’ll also have a Qasida singing workshop given by ‘Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, giving us a rare opportunity to take the ecstatic poems we’ve worked on in calligraphy and learn to sing them.

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The weekend comes to a climax with a visit to the Alhambra palace, one of the great wonders of the world and the site and inspiration of many a poem. Guests who wish to extend their trip can also choose to visit Cordoba before the retreat and/or extend their stay in Granada afterwards.

The programme, bios of the facilitators and details on booking your place on the retreat can all be found by clicking here to visit the website.

From all the Zende Creative team, we wish you a beautiful start to 2014 and hope to see you for some artistic adventure!

Performance at Rumi’s Cave Live Lounge End of Year special

January 5, 2014

This is a video of a short performance I did on the 21st of December 2013 for the wonderful people at Rumi’s Cave, a collective of artists, spoken word poets and musicians with the loveliest vibe I’ve ever come across. The visuals are a little blurry but the sound quality is great.

The two songs I played were Water (Carry the World in My Paper Cup) and Poor Man’s Prayer. The first is my own composition while the second is composed of lyrics by my dad Abd al-Lateef Whiteman which I picked up one day and put music to without knowing that he’d already put it to a traditional Andalusi tune.

Many thanks to Nura Tarmann who shot the video and shared it!

Lyrics

Water (Carry the World in My Paper Cup)

Running, come on keep up
carry the world in my paper cup
I’m on the phone since the moment I’m up
being important

I’m fully booked til mid-July
I don’t have time to wonder why
got to keep the pace up

But my boss doesn’t notice me
(it’s OK, he’s in a hurry)
I need approval you see
(it’ll come your way, don’t worry)
I can’t take it any more
working myself into the floor
and I never seem to get rewarded
tomorrow I’ll just work harder

Water flows, it
never slows, you
don’t miss yours
until your well runs dry

Just try to find some
peace of mind, you
can’t rewind
all the hours gone

And were you even for them, at…

All the time I waste
keeping up appearances in cyberspace
you know it feels so real

I’m just one click away
from the tranquility I crave
to numb the way I feel

But when the screen’s off I’m alone
(befriend the quiet and you’ll see)
I’m a stranger in my own home
(befriend yourself and you’ll be free)
is the future dark or bright,
is this blindness or insight
they said that I was born to play
but am I pawn or player in this game?

Water flows, it
never slows, you
don’t miss yours
until your well runs dry

Just try to find some
peace of mind, you
can’t rewind
all the hours lost

And were you even there for them
were you there for them
were you there…

at all

Poor Man’s Prayer (lyrics AL Whiteman)

When the dawn breaks
and the sky shakes
and the stories all unfold
when the earth gives up its secrets
the truth can be now told

You will stand there right before Him
and your voice will seem so small
Lord forgive me, I’m just a
poor man who
tried to hear Your call.

Why’s your heart in such confusion
when this water is so pure?
It’s this doubt that is illusion
and this drink is just the cure
Thirty years I have been calling
don’t You hear my cry at all?

Lord forgive me, I’m just a
poor man who
tried to hear Your call.

When I stood here empty-handed
You sufficed my every need
I didn’t dare to ask for more
in case you thought it greed
What is heaven? What is bliss?
Can I ask for any more than this?

Lord forgive me, I’m just a
poor man who
tried to hear your call.

Why’s your heart in such confusion
when this water is so pure?
It’s this doubt that is illusion
and this drink is just the cure
Thirty years I have been calling
don’t you hear my cry at all?

Lord forgive me
I’m just a poor man
who tried to hear Your call

Lord forgive me
Lord forgive us all
We tried to hear Your call

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