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
companions
schools
gardens
employment
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

Home Birth Hat Trick

Whenever I mention to people that I gave birth at home, the usual response is ‘¡Qué valiente!’ – or ‘That’s brave!’

The truth is less glorious: not being too fond of hospitals, especially labour wards with their somewhat notorious reputations, it was as much out of an aversion to going to hospital as bravery that kept me home.

With my third home birth under my (considerably loosened) belt, I have to admit that none of them would have happened were it not for a few key factors:

1) Excellent care from an independent midwife – an endangered species these days. Having a warm, grounded, experienced person who believes in your ability to birth naturally is a huge help. In a way, the less she interferes, the better a job she’s doing. It’s an expensive option (in the UK even more so than in Spain) but well worth it for the peace of mind and sense of confidence she conveys.

2) Having straightforward, healthy pregnancies. This I can’t claim any credit for. All my babies were head down, back to front (which is a lot less weird than it sounds), I had low blood pressure, and apart from minor complaints was generally OK throughout each pregnancy, thank God. Although I do know two women with chronic fatigue as well as one with severe Crohn’s disease, all of whom gave birth naturally at home, if you have complications in pregnancy it’s always wise to consult your doctor and midwife when considering a home birth.

3) Being born at home myself, and growing up hearing nostalgic stories of how my mum went into labour (unable to locate my dad, with no food in the house), and having ice cubes put in her mouth (it was mid-August in Granada, before the era of A/C) while she gazed at the Alhambra…alright, so only the last part sounds romantic. But I’m still convinced that hearing affirmations all my life that home birth was quite normal, safe, and actually filled with wonder programmed me to believe the same would be true for my own births. Even the weird stories were evocative somehow, like an ex-boyfriend who was born onto a picture of Ronald Reagan’s face in a newspaper. Come on, you don’t get that in a hospital.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse. (Imagine if it was Ed Miliband!)

Then there are all the other elements that helped along the way: a crowd of home birth aficionados living in my town who enthusiastically supported my decision; having my parents nearby to look after my older kids while I gave birth; being well nourished (very important); having the kind of house that I actually wanted to give birth in; not sitting in an office chair for long hours or commuting during pregnancy (apart from being exhausting, sitting in a chair for long hours tends to misalign the uterus and contributes to more breech births); living in a hilly area where I had to do a lot of walking up and down steep slopes (apparently the best preparation for labour); and so on.

As you can see, none of this is really my own doing. I was incredibly lucky, or blessed, however you want to look at it. The only thing that I have to own up to is my stubbornness. I just never imagined myself giving birth in hospital. Some people say it is the naïvety of inexperience that makes women decide to have a baby at all first time around, let alone give birth at home, but second or third time – well, that’s just plain obstinacy.

To be sure, I am more aware now of things ‘going wrong’ (you’ve already heard the horror stories so I won’t drum them in). In these – rare – cases being in a hospital is preferable, but any midwife worth her/his spurs would get you there as soon as things started going pear-shaped. Another way to look at it, of course, is that things didn’t go pear-shaped at all: it’s just the way they went.

Still, in less dramatic cases, being at home with a sensitive, skilled caregiver is still preferable to being in an impersonal place where staff changes when shifts end and the itch to free up a bed might cause them to hurry things up (the classic ‘Pitocin – epidural – foetal monitor – obstetric delivery’ pattern). If you choose to give birth at home you won’t have a queue of students coming into the delivery room while you’ve got your legs in stirrups, that’s for sure.

Description      English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

Description
English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

I can’t knock hospitals, though, for those times when they are necessary. Many a woman has had an excellent hospital birth, some angel of a midwife who appears at a crucial moment, or next-generation equipment that saved a baby’s life. The few times I’ve been treated for anything at a hospital, I’ve been immensely grateful particularly to the nurses, who used all the subtlety at their command to make light conversation to distract from a needle or other sharp proddy thing going in somewhere.

This kind of caregiver provides not just a service but also warmth, candour and intimacy at a time when you are vulnerable. However, this is also what a good home birth midwife will offer: she will help you trust that your body knows what it’s doing, with a little bag of kit to keep an eye on things just in case.

While I would encourage any woman who is of sound body and mind to go for a home birth if she wants one, the reasons for doing so must be more because of the benefits of birthing at home rather than the fear of going into hospital. The benefits are not just the lazy girl’s prime motivation, i.e. not having to get out of bed, but also being able to make your space as comfortable and familiar as you like. Third time around I actually managed to have the nice tea lights, essential oils burning, best friend massaging acupressure points with Neroli oil, and Calendula flowers floating in the birth pool (previous times I was focussing so much on the contractions I didn’t care two hoots about environment).

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

All three of my children were born into water, in a birth pool like the one pictured above. This meant I didn’t need to use drugs: the warm water is a natural pain reliever and is really quite blissful. You need to be at least 5 cm dilated (some midwives will wait for more) to get into it as it can slow the labour down otherwise. But overall, drug-free labours tend to be shorter; epidurals, for instance, blind you to when your body is contracting and make it hard to push, slowing the process down and raising the likelihood of an assisted delivery.

Speaking of pain, I was recently told by a first-time mum-to-be that she wished her mother would stop telling her she wouldn’t be able to handle it. Really, you CAN handle it. A man would pass out, but you won’t. Women who claim to feel less or no pain in labour just recategorise the feeling mentally, describing it as ‘discomfort’ or some other sensation. In Ina May Gaskin’s game-changing Spiritual Midwifery (after reading which I was pregnant with Caveboy the 1st within about twenty seconds) contractions are described throughout as ‘rushes’.

Highly recommended if you aren't freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals.

Highly recommended if you aren’t freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals having their nipples tweaked by their equally hirsute menfolk.

I would say that only about a hour in each of my births was actually painful, and this time goes very fast. Breathing into it, embracing the feeling as one step closer to meeting your baby, riding this primordial, volcanic wave of a feeling will make it seem less like something to be fought, reducing the amount of adrenaline (produced by fear) in your body. Tensing up during the contractions creates lactic acid around your muscles, which is what causes cramp and increases the sensation of pain, hence relaxation being everything in labour .

And so much of giving birth, perhaps all of it, is just allowing something the deepest recesses of your brain already knows how to do. There have been cases of women in comas who have given birth. I thought of that as my midwife told my friend that my pushing was ‘involuntary’. That’s exactly how it felt: not forced in the slightest, just allowing this innately instinctual movement to take place (and despite having a 4.130 kilo baby I didn’t tear).

The greatest bonus to not using anaesthetics is that I was fully conscious all the way through the labour. All sorts of interesting insights drop into your brain between rushes. At one point it occurred to me that while it might not seem very spiritual while you’re going through it, what is spiritual about birth is that perhaps for the first time in your life, you willingly submit to going through fairly extreme levels of discomfort, purely out of love for another. Love is so huge, so brilliant, that it makes pain look transient and insignificant beside it.

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens this morning. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens recently. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

This alertness continued afterwards; I remember being positively chatty with number 3 when he showed his head above the water. He was pretty perky as well – another benefit of not using drugs (babies born this way breastfeed better, too). Despite a day of some pretty heavy post-partum pains I was high as a kite for pretty much a month off the endorphins provided by a natural delivery.

But it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about these wonderful birth experiences, knowing that for so many women birth is traumatic. It breaks my heart that my experiences place me well into the minority among my peers. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can reclaim the beauty of birth, the empowerment it offers us (We did it! We brought another person into the world! That was us!). Part of this change is physical (the postmodern lifestyle, in which everything takes place virtually, is a disaster for birth preparation) but a larger part of it is psychological.

Both women and men need to turn our conditioning around and deliberately erase the negative messages seen in movies, or told to us by thoughtless older women whose own births didn’t go smoothly. A non-interventionist birth paves the way for the most intense endorphin high ever experienced in the human body – both for the mother and the baby – and creates the ideal conditions for bonding while protecting the mother from post-natal depression.

Rather than the question “Why make a woman experience pain in labour when she can have drugs?”, we can ask ourselves, “Why prevent women from having such a blissful connection to her body and her child?” Childbirth is a leap into the unknown: even women with dozen children say that every birth was different. What makes it amazing is seeing it not as falling, but as flying.

Rewild the Child (no Rewiring Required)

A quick thought while the baby is asleep in the sling…

It’s an ongoing thing for most of the mothers I know, the complaint that ‘my kids just don’t know how to play’. The blame usually gets put at the feet of gadgets, things that can be used to while away long hours on planes (those rubbery iPad covers with alien-like protuberances so kids can play car games spring to mind) or car journeys, or sitting in dentist’s waiting rooms, or just hanging out at home. The 3 month Spanish summer holidays are looming and the thought is troubling me as to what my kids will get up to all that time.

When there’s no toys or electronics to play with, any length of time seems unbearable; one friend recounted how her son (9 y.o.) had a tantrum at the thought of a 40-minute wait in an office yesterday, but once he’d finally accepted the reality of it he calmed down and waited patiently. It was the idea of having ‘nothing to do’ in all that time that freaked him out initially. “We used to be able to wait for much longer!” she recalled, “We didn’t need stuff to play with…we’d just play.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/apr/08/time-to-rewild-your-child-george-monbiot-video?CMP=fb_gu

Another contact, a city planner, gave a great resumé of how kids aren’t really able to play ‘wild’ as most of us used to do when we were kids: ‘Urbanist Enrique Peñelosa once said “The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere. If a city is good for children, it will be good for everyone else. Over the last 80 years we have been making cities much more for car mobility than for children’s happiness.” And that’s the crux of it, cities are built for cars, not kids/people.’

Although I get a lot of ‘Muuuum…I’m bored” at our house, I’m relieved and delighted whenever I see my kids playing (always with other kids, or at the very least with each other) without anything in the way, not even a swing or a roundabout. Creative types often comment that boredom was essential to the development of their art when they were children. I’ll rehash an old theme by saying the same’s true for me: I grew up in a couple of small villages where I did a lot of reading, making up stories, fiddling about on the guitar and just daydreaming.

Visiting my son’s old Waldorf school recently, which has moved (strangely enough) to my parent’s old house, I noticed a breeze block with a large piece of wood on top in the garden. The teacher commented that they don’t put anything to play on in the yard so that the kids will invent things: the wood and brick were put there by the kids to balance on. In another corner was a teepee made of bamboo. Kind of cool, don’t you think?

What it really comes down to, and what makes me sad when my kids pester me for Lego et al (it’s been birthday week…always the cue for weeks of pre-emptive materialistic preoccupation) is that we’ve become so accustomed to seeking happiness outside of ourselves, in an object, a phone, a toy…even another person. Playing with friends isn’t deriving happiness exclusively from them – it’s finding it emerges spontaenously from the alchemy of toegtherness.

We were at the plaza yesterday for a reading of Don Quixote in 30 languages (the most exotic being Mongolian), Cavegirl buddied up with some English kids who were playing by some rocks, pretending it was a kitchen, and I was warmed by the thought that imaginaton isn’t dead, and kids’ society is still capable of pulling out fantastical games from the ether. Innocence isn’t dead; we just need to have the space sans gizmos, to remember it. That’s a comfort.

Folding Laundry

I write while folding laundry
the words rarely escaping my head
to fall onto a page like windfall tomatoes
in furtive moments between feeds
when that bit of stored milk
quenches a thirst but the pull of a hungry mouth
coaxes, conjures more.

I write wrongs while folding laundry
counsel emotionally disturbed
teenagers who only exist in theory
bring down the IMF
champion immigrants’ rights
give various world leaders a talking-to
make permaculture gardens in slums
all this is done by extendible arms
that stretch out tentacle-like
– how much good I could do if
I had a machine to fold laundry for me!

But I like folding laundry
the soothing sense of order
skyscrapers of clean dry fabric
repetitive motions that set thoughts straight
the ambiguity of whether it is
totally meaningless
– it’s only going to get dirty again
and nobody even notices –
or full of meaning
– this is a life of service
that pushes ego to one side
a microcosm of the great cycle
returning to the beginning
each time older, knowing more
about loss and letting go –
and anyway, would I like my clothes
automatically folded
like a frozen pizza
its base machine-extruded
cheese grated and spread by metal
oregano sprinkled without a hand
technically food, but so
starkly unhuman?

So I suppose I won’t get much else done
the world will continue a mess
but at least my wardrobe
won’t be.

You Forget

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,
sealskin coats and jellabiyahs
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
crooned lullabies
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
returned.

Dear Bigot

Dear bigot
– 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
Muslimness.
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
Islamic-hued masses
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
still trying
always trying
to make things better.

(A poem prompted by this article by Juan Cole in The Nation.)