Chromatography

image

The lowest arms of the almond tree
hang scrawny, leafless, dark:
a reminder of winter.

I take off my paper sun hat
sweating (why did I wear black?)
sun bleached by a thin cloud veil
pushing the sleeping baby uphill,
4.30pm, July.

He’s poured water over a scarf that
I’ve arranged to shade him
and my red wool bag strap
bleeds pink into the blue.

His muscular eyebrows furrow
beneath dirty blond curls, the boy who was
dreamt of being welcomed by the arms of his
long-departed grandmother
in a Persian aunt’s sleeping head.

“Let us see your hair,” they had urged me;
“Is it real, the colour? Can we touch it?”

I grinned painfully, was their doll for a while,
let them thread my puny brows,
ruthlessly devoid forehead and top lip
of hairs only Iranian women can see.

We European women have been liberated of
facial hair!
I cried inwardly, eyes watering
with each every rip.

(She did do an excellent job.
My eyebrows, in dye, came alive.)

In the women’ section of the bus in Tehran
girls in school uniform laughed
still too pubescent to be allowed
the monthly ritual of a trip to the salon
their black brows luscious and combed
combined with blood red lips.

We got off a speeding fine
en route to Isfahan
because of the “khariji” guests
in the car: the free pass
that Europe grants
and who would rather pay?

“Pesar-e-khariji-e-man!”
“He’s so cute and blond,
he looks just like you!”

My husband says I’m his amulet,
lucky charm in official places,
a signal that he’s a
Middle Eastern Man Done Good.

But there is a ruefulness to his good fortune:
they glare at him like a shopkeeper at a thief.
He asks me not to wear a headscarf
lest they think he’s forced me.

Greedily, I seek out our son’s Asian features
glowing to think he’s struck out from
pork scratching pink
the pasty British skin on
a nose they’ve chosen to
sever from the face of the continent
forgetting the Viking, Saxon, Norman,
Roman and yet more exotic genes.

“¡Qué blanquito!”
How they praise him
for his pallour
to his caramel father’s ears.

A talisman. Not powerful enough to
stop the waiter snubbing his order
sneering at his polite reminder
or when, at the police commissary,
trying to fix my residency
after six years as an illegal American
always treated as though I belong
the Spanish official barked at him
for his papers – in order since a decade ago –
checked them on the system, tossed
the card back without meeting his eye.

(If they only knew
what a nightmare I am to live with
they would see he is my talisman, his patience
my salvation.)

We need to raise colour blind kids!
I rant silently on insomniac nights.
Those of us at the top of this
pyramid of privilege
didn’t rise here because of the
buoyancy of our merit:
our forebears clawed their way up
trampling millions of black and brown backs
and no-one else can rise until we step down because
we are taking up space!

Wash your feet honey:
they’re black with dirt.

Malaga is easy to fly through, I say.
Not for me, says she – they always make me
show under my skirt, my hijab.
Oh! Really? That’s outrageous!
But, you know, she says, drawing a circle
with one finger around her face,
wry Somali smile.

I don’t wear hijab through airports.
Am I being practical, or cowardly?
Would I beat out every last bandit
every ugly, self-congratulating thought
expose their emptiness as
phantom confidences
if I put myself in the same
rocking, overcrowded boat
with the flimsy life jackets
and the leaking hold?

We reach my parents’ house
forbidding black gates,
cornflower blue door.

Beside is a bougainvillea
bursting alternately with
deep fuchsia and
palest green lanterns.

Inside the summerhouse
the dark wood stain has bled through knots
forming irrevocable pools on the blond wood.

“Make me a new sandwich!”
“I took out the avocado…”
“But there’s still a stain
on the bread!”

My daughter is fuming, tearful;
a veil of reddish clay lies over her face
wiped unthinkingly at craft time earlier
and two tears have dried
leaving pale tracks with brown outlines.

Clean your face, honey,
your tears have run brown.

Every story is edited at bedtime,
the blackness accidental, not evil
the lily white princess made ruddy and tanned
her long golden hair darkened
water babies not just cherubic because they’ve been
washed of all that terrible oafish soot but
pure of heart and soul.

At the Jumu’ah meal she asks,
Are angels white?
With exquisite Senegalese women on all sides
I answer, no, they’re made of pure light:
light is all of the colors put together.

But science won’t stop her from thinking it.

Our heads need cleaning! I declaim silently
All these messages upon messages
that make us look down on others!

Black is beautiful. Brown is gorgeous.
Look at her style.

Sweetie, I can’t explain I why,
walls just look better white.

The kids splash my notebook
and the turqouise ink splits
inexplicably to vivid pink

I write my second draft
in indelible black.

Ramadan: How to Connect Even When You Can’t Fast

image

Dates and bread from the zawiya of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn al-Habib, may Allah sanctify his secret.

It’s that time again, the month where Muslims empty their bodies during the day and try to clear their hearts so as to become vessels that fill up the mercy that falls continuously, subtly, but – if you are watchful for it – is definitely palpable.

For the last nine years, I’ve tried to cadge a couple of Ramadans between babies, even – two separate years – squeezed in several days before realising I was pregnant (the last time it was only the kidney pain that alerted me to a false negative pregnancy test).

Though someone fasting 22 + hours in a Scandinavian country might want to punch me in the nose for saying this, it’s hard not to be able to fast again.

“Hard? Being excused because of breastfeeding is hard?? Grr…and we’re trying not to get angry!! Razzafrazzarazzafrazz….”

Ahem, well, the reasons behind the rukhsa (dispensation) is that breastfeeding is hard on the body anyway, as are all the conditions that excuse people from fasting (menstruation, pregnancy, illness, travelling, old age…) just as each one comes with its own gifts.

But not fasting yet another Ramadan is a reminder that I am always slightly on the edge of the Islamic community, at least on a temporal level. As European Muslims we tread an awkward path, with one foot among our spiritual brethren and one among our cultural brethren – and I for one don’t want to cut myself from either.

Fasting among people who think you’re dotty as the day is long is harder than going without food and water during the day. Explaining, being patient with other people’s judgements, bearing up even when you have to fast alone, all that is more exhausting than getting up early in the morning to have breakfast.

Not being the toughest of old beans, I’ve always tended towards keeping my faith fairly private, talking when asked but trying not to be too ostensible about it in order to avoid uncomfortable stares and unpleasant comments. It is cowardly of me. But it’s been my coping mechanism, a way to focus on God in all circumstances rather than be distracted by the waves I’m making.

So it’s comforting to be among other Muslims who share your experiences. Having lived through many a Ramadan in which I wasn’t part of a supportive community – one of which, at university, I had suhur and iftar every day alone (possibly the most depressing month of my life) – when Ramadan comes around I get excited about group iftars, which always turn into a party, no matter how drained people were ten minutes before.

Yet, as Muslims will always remind you, fasting is not about hunger per se: we empty ourselves of the world in order to be filled up with the Divine Presence. Like the ney, we realise our emptiness in order to let God make music through us.

It’s hard to have that experience if you’re working, say, at the checkout of a McDonald’s drivethrough. Fasting is the ideal time for reflection, study and prayer; you could say it super-charges your experience of them.

So, if for whatever reason you can’t fast, and if you can’t or don’t want to shut yourself away in a Muslim-only environment in order to make the most of Ramadan, how can you still feel connected to it?

Yesterday I was determined to go to tarawih prayers, having only the baby to look after, but he was too tired and grouchy to justify going. What’s the point of dragging miserable children to long prayers near midnight? I think it would probably put many kids (and the adults who have to put up with their crying) off praying altogether.

On the other hand, there is so much grace for people who are in service. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said that “Allah is in service to the servant for as long as he (or she) is in service”; and that for anyone who wakes in the night to attend to their weeping child it is equivalent to seventy years of prayer. (Finally, a reason to be thankful for teething!)

I need to be reminded at times that being in a state of worship does not necessarily mean being in a place of worship, or even physically engaged in visible prayer. For centuries we have associated religion with outward forms, when it is clear just from those two hadiths mentioned above (and there are hundreds more like them – “An hour of contemplation is worth a year of prayer“, etc. etc.) that connecting to the Divine can happen at any time, in any circumstances, by anyone.

That’s not to diminish the importance of outward worship, of course. I just can’t see how a Just, Kind, Forgiving, Loving God would be so unfair as to reserve these rewards only for people who have no hindrances to performing it.

I discovered recently that the root of the English word ‘mysticism’ is the Greek musein, meaning ‘to close the eyes and lips’. It might refer partly to fasting, for sure, but I think it also means fasting from looking around at the world, fasting from the desires that follow on from that, fasting from meaningless talk, and generally just shutting up and letting Reality reveal itself.

Rumi said, “Fast from thoughts, fast: thoughts are like the lion and the wild ass; men’s hearts are the thickets they haunt.”

………..

(That’s the sound of me shutting up.)

Before the Removal Men

Beloved friends leave us
keepsakes to remember them by
a curl of their hair in a locket
a scarf that still smells of their sandalwood
but You don’t have hair
or need for neckerchiefs
What You have is Spirit
or what You are is – the knots
words tie tongues in! –
instead, You left a trace of Yourself
in every human’s being
so we could close our eyes
shut our mouths
sink our yearning faces into it
and smell our way back to You

You left in us a doorway
that was once the only place we’d stand
backs turned to the
grimy storeroom of our brains
contemplating only Your garden
but noises from this side distract
furniture gets in the way, bruises shins
boxes of sentimental value build up
each one blocking out that marvellous door
by another cardboard square
until at last we place a wardrobe in front of it
and forget it ever existed
And we only remember
when the house is crumbling
the wardrobe eaten by woodworm
and in the moment the wrecking ball
tears off the roof
that golden opening blinks

God, help us clear away all this junk
before the removal men come
for us

Jobs for the Boys

farm boy

From ‘The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes’, collected by Iona and Peter Opie, Puffin, 1963

Today is the eighth birthday of my eldest child. This time eight years ago, I was giddy with tiredness and wonder, nestling in bed with a round-faced little sun of a boy. The first night I noticed how his chin would shudder forward like a tortoise’s, with that newborn quality of skin that is lost so soon – softer than air, and slightly bath-wrinkled.

I still see the same boy when he is asleep, though now a thousand preoccupations flit through my head at various times that obscure the view: mostly it’s when he’s lounging about the house after school reading comics, pestering me to play videogames, or – my biggest bugbear – to watch YouTubers play Minecraft. Really. Blue-haired twenty-year-olds who probably still live with their mums but who are gods to squillions of kids who aren’t even bothering to playing the game themselves. Agh.

I am realising that I place so many expectations on my firstborn, which were perhaps placed on me as a firstborn, or which I place on myself. There are vague notions of integrity and resilience, thinking-outside-the-box – which is in tension with the need for respecting authority (i.e. MINE) – and all sorts of health issues, from not eating tons of gacky sweets and Cheeto-type polystrene-covered-in-cheese-powder to going to bed early, changing socks regularly, getting fresh air (do children even notice when air isn’t fresh?), not staring at screens for long periods, and doing ‘improving’ things such as learning to play musical instruments or doing sports. No wonder all he feels like doing is flopping out and reading comics.

(I have to say I read them too when I was young – I was the one who introduced him to them. They are very funny, if you like surreal slapstick Spanish violence.)

But I wonder how children, boys in particular, are meant to get a ‘healthy’ picture of work, when there is no-one around – particularly men, their prototypes – to show them how it’s done, until they’re already adolescents and way too interested in squeezing their spots to be learning how to use a radial saw.

Basically, work is either too dangerous, or too child-unfriendly to be able to involve kids in, which is all to the detriment of children’s future working lives. By contrast, both of my parents worked from home: my dad had an office in the attic where he did graphic design, and my mum ran a shop on the ground floor (part of our house) from which she also sold books mail order.

This gave me a strong image of self-employment, which seemed as attractive then as it does now. My dad would take breaks from tiresome computer work to go into the garden and dig up potatoes, while my mum would play Motown, soul and country on a tape recorder and sing along loudly whenever she could get away with it. It seemed like the perfect way to balance different interests without having to be overburdened by any of them for too long – just right for a person with a lot of interests. Who needs a steady income, right?

Now, though, my eldest son sees me working on a computer or iPad – emails, translations, etc. – and the only work he sees my husband (his stepdad) doing at home is emails too. (My husband manages a mobile restaurant which he takes to trance festivals…not really the ideal environment for an 8-year-old to do work experience in.)

His father, on the other hand, is a carpenter, which might offer plenty of wonderful imaginary opportunities to whittle things together, but in practice usually involves heavy machinery that could slice your arm off if you’re not careful, as well as late nights keeping to deadlines and dusty, noisy site work. It’s all a bit stymying for a kid who wants to get stuck in and learn first hand, quite the opposite of the bad old days where boys of six would be expected to look after herds of sheep (“Little Boy Blue, go blow your horn, the sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn…”)

The general idea nowadays seems to be that kids should avoid all thought of adulthood until they near the end of school, by which time the classes themselves will have shaped their interests and nurtured their skills enough to give them a bash at choosing a career. But I don’t buy this one bit. I knew I wanted to be a writer, to live abroad and learn different languages, from my son’s age, and I never really wavered in that decision. Careers advice at GCSE told me I should be a prison warden.

Having time to daydream, play music, study, travel, make things, meet people…that always figured heavily in my career plan. Since leaving university I haven’t written a single CV. I can’t say I’m earning bags of money, of course…or that I even have that much time on my hands, with three kids on them too…but, you know, it’s the principle of the thing.

So how do we show children the realities of the adult world without stultifying them with computers from a tender age? I don’t really have any answers, but I get the feeling that we need to be less stultified by computer work ourselves, for a start. Maybe combine it with gardening jobs, or painting and decorating, all the manual labour jobs that self-made intellectuals look down on but which actually provide a neat bit of income, as well as mental space to stretch out in.

Then there are all those dreaded afternoon kid’s activities, which parents have to practically have a PA just to organise, especially with several kids who all want to go in different directions at once. Take my advice: have quintuplets, then you can just take them all to tennis and read a book in the stands.

Maybe what we need is activities that adults and kids take part in together (a tricky one to achieve when you have a toddler who rips everything to shreds, but one can dream). Perhaps pottery, or swimming, origami, or forest school outings where everyone can learn something and/or teach something to someone else. It all seems too separate, the pre-teen’s world and the adult’s, and yet there’s this terrifying gulf in the middle called Teenagehood to traverse without a canoe let alone a paddle in sight.

The blame often goes to peers luring kids off in the wrong direction, but peers only take the place of adult role models when those adult role models aren’t there, or when their lives are protected by plate glass. Apprenticeships could help for older kids, but the imprinting starts much younger. The very nature of modern adult work is at fault, and no-one can hope to change it but us.

A Sip of Sainthood (Women Can be in Two Places at Once)

Women can be in two places at once
hurrying down a high street with
a ten kilo sack of potatoes in each hand
and sitting on the porch of a bamboo hut
standing on stilts over the Indian Ocean

We can wait in line for churros with a baby on one hip
and drink tea with the mothers of future saints
as they give them a sip of sainthood from their breast

We might be writing shopping lists for
flip-flops, sellotape and fish
while clumsily walking a tightrope across a
busy street in downtown New York
for a whim or for charity
either way, no one will know but ourselves

We keep so much invisible
not just crumpled receipts and
crumby lipsticks but
food wished onto struggling sisters’ doorsteps
paperless PhDs in child psychology and
queenless OBEs for conflict resolution
blueprints for villages that would
bring the lonely ones back to the whole
theories on suffering and money,
love and class war
that race against laundry mountains
and school sports days for our attention
and always come in last place

But we can still be in two places at once
What’s more, we can be two places at once
a wall for children to bounce their frustrations off
and an orchard of every fruit your mouth can invent
a hive of everyday usefulness
and a well of rosewater too deep to plumb
a warren for loved ones to nestle in
when fanged beasts snarl outside
and the space between two nebulas
that statically explode in clouds of dust
so rich in minerals they could be
diamond blossoms

Snowstorm

image

There’s a snowstorm that appears
in the pauses when an orderly screen
of jewelley squares, mind-temptations
falls blank as though thinking
a shower of sparks that tumbles
the way this screen tumbled
from my hands to hit a Tehran pavement
as my excitement at the sight of an
old-style bakery–its heap of tiny pebbles
just visible through an arched eye,
golden in the flames
streaks of dough sliding gradually down
like hot ice floes–
fuelled my eagerness to capture it
grab a slice to serve back home at
tea parties
the triumphant traveller
returning with pockets stuffed with
nougat and Persian candy floss and
musings on this new foreignness (being
a foreigner everywhere myself)
but here the glass shattered
and the voyage out of the heart’s homeland
into the planes of mind and possession
is now scarred with an exquisite
flurry of cracks
a weeping willow
Japanese etched wave
interrupting the illusion
so I have to read around it
even though the glass is temporarily
held together with sticky tape
the destruction is not undone, only
left hanging in a perpetual crash
delighting in breaking up the sleekness
of my gadget like a Greek wedding guest
Oh the joy of smashing!
Of tearing at the cardboard box we call
normality
and shredding it to papery flakes!
throwing knick-knacks to the rocks
not fearing their demise
but glorying in the glory
drifting through the drifts
as liquid as a seaward current
as light as a seeker’s last breath
and as golden as the inner glow
that no screen could ever frame!

In Joyful Memory of Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore

Yesterday my dear friend, mentor and publisher passed away after several years of living with cancer, and a lifetime of prolific writing.

Coming of age in Beatnik California, among contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg and Laurence Ferlinghetti, he certainly didn’t write for critics or to be nominated any country’s Poet Laureate; rather his life’s mission was, as far as I can tell, to distill the medicinal quintessence of the Middle Eastern/North African spiritual path he had come to in his native tongue, always in the spirit of the utmost personal honesty.

Writing mostly (entirely, even) in the middle of the night, his poems were full of his characteristic whimsy and gravity, dazzling and at times dizzying changes of perspective from the gnat’s to the nova’s, and throughout them a rumination on life and its purpose and its end while, perhaps, peeling potatoes or watching geese fly over a Dutch barn. Here are a few poems on the subject of death I came across today from one of his 50+ works, The Fireater’s Lunchbreak:

DEATH IS COMING

Death is coming
and we’re going to have a

lawn party
though it be winter

I’m going to wear my hat

The wheels of earth are
revolving with a grinding sound

I can make out death’s face
in the mist

How can I believe it
with light all around?

Not even a little door
is needed that’s how fully

dimensional I feel and
green shoots growing in space

everywhere at once
in the winter chill

 

ONE WHITE HAIR

Death is a white hair that lands on our
lapel that can’t be returned to our head

Once we’re cut off from our source
how can we find our way again?

Unperturbed by events that showed us
death’s horrid doorways

the white hair that lands on our lapel
lies silent and still

Once we move off from our starting place
we’re sure to arrive where we’ve never been before

Only God can catch us with sure hands
and bathe us in sudsy waters

The eyes’ windows shut down at death
and His windows open

The heart’s windows are never closed
here or there

One hair alone is enough to show us –
Take heed of that falling hair!

 

LIKE THIS DEATH!

Death you funny old fogy
Death you amorous adolescent
ivy in your hair

Death you ring around the bathtub
Death you perfect slick icicle

Death you pork rind on sizzling bun
Death you bus out of control in the Andes

Death you pop-goes-the-weasel
Death you swansong in the full moonlight

Death you full swoon on an Algiers balcony
Death you sneering policeman caught red handed

Death you slip through a noose
Death you slipknot in a noose

Death you moose looking for breakfast
Death you ripe berry ready to be plucked

Tunnel out the living body into a new body
this time with no earth in it

Under the earth Death
Under the eye of the clock Death

Under God’s watchful Eye Death
in His breath Death His inbreath Death
and His outbreath Death

We are right there at the punch line
we’ve made the ball of light in the air
with our hands and
set it rolling

We are merrily along
hoping for the best death

Owl eye skunk drunk Death
punch drunk puckered over with the Kiss of Death

Smack!

Like this
Death!

 

His influence for meek, toe-deep writers like me was to show that in poetry anything is possible. A paperclip could be the metaphor for union with the Divine, or it could be used to pick the lock to another realm in which cups of coffee sang songs and a snore told fathomless secrets. Or it could just be a paperclip, and isn’t that just the best thing for it to be?

But far from forcing the frontiers of his imagination, he would wait at the limits of it patiently, watching for something to stride out of the Unseen like a snatch of a waking dream, or for the beginning of a story to start telling itself like an old friend recounting an adventure, and one line would lead to another like a silk scarf being pulling from a magician’s hat, until the poem had emerged in full and could wander off on its own, shaking its haunches in the sunlight.

Though his passing is sad, his memory is one of zany humour and enlightening frankness, which is a pretty wonderful legacy to have bequeathed. His website gives an overview of all of his books, with links to purchase them, and it is hoped that there will soon be an anthology for newcomers to his work who don’t know where to start. You can also find an obituary of Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore here, written by my dad who had been a friend and fellow traveller on the Sufi path for over forty years.

Bon voyage, ‘Abdal-Hayy, to the other world your soul always belonged in. And apologies for all this soppy stuff, you sweet old bologna loaf.

New Mountains (or, Woman with a Blue Rinse)

image

 

Where a scramble of wet paw prints
describes a recent canine hootenanny
a shrunken stooped lady in purple dressing gown
and slippers turns her patchy blue rinse
to squint at me while creaking uphill
clouds an unreal pink and burnt orange
candyfloss across an ageing turquoise sky

Walking, the house I imagined on the riverbed
appears two hundred yards up the road
irruptions in an in-carried map
that push places apart like
volcanic surges beneath passing feet
stretching the soil, new mountains, while
absent minds erase steps trodden
and insert whole bandstands of emotion
on sleepy street corners
where disgruntled long-haired tabbies
arch their backs among tumbling rocks
and Venus’s Navels, abandoned slopes
that have shrunken out of sight and retreated
off maps so long that if you walk into them
you might disappear, blink out of this scene
and into another’s moment of awakening
materialising, to their eyes, as an ancient woman
in an aubergine coloured robe
with a blue curled head and a cane
turning her head in amazement that
looks like sciatica and suspicion
vanishing around a corner again
and you return to your spot
which is now as wide as a sea
for everything you have seen in it

Lone Wolves

Running is falling when fear’s at your heels
Good men turn lone wolves in failure’s mirror
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Where he was when mama cried while she cooked
Until shocks ran from the hob to her heart?
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels

Spears are flung stupidly like porcupine
quills, harming backwards with poisonous ends
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Mothers’ arms become safety nests for the fled
Too necessary to crack with their weight
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels

In discomfort we are loved to an ache
There is bliss in being their world, and risk
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

The glitter of pristine snow was no lure
Hot coals of their need of him singed him raw
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Love is a Traveller…For Sale Online Now!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that my first collection of poems is now available to buy online here!

LOVE IS TRAVELLER  FC Jan 28  copy

According to the publisher, Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore at Ecstatic Exchange:

“With Medina Whiteman’s lively, metamorphosing voice, we have here finely detailed poetic stances on whatever attracts her and her pen, and her heart is here, and its centripetal ripples edge out to our own world and wash over it as if with our own sensibilities — and it is a welcoming thing, a sweet and healing thing to know these enlightened trails.”

And from a review by Michael Sugich, author of Signs on the Horizons:

“Love is a Traveller and We are Its Path” is an astonishing, accomplished, heartbreakingly beautiful work. Ms. Whiteman writes as a girl, a woman, a mother, and a wide-eyed, reflective observer of her world — as seeker, believer and sage. For her God is truly in the details. Each observation, whether earthy or supernal, is internalized and suffused with a piercing awareness of meaning, and a deep, abiding faith that shines through a world full of mundane and transcendent particulars.”

Ain’t Lateefa Spiker‘s cover art lovely? Here‘s the link to buy a copy yourself and see if you agree with them. Pass on the news, and happy reading!