Cartoon Squirrels: Why Kids’ TV is Where Feminism Goes to Die

We’ve got into a pretty bad habit with the TV this year. It’s a slippery slope: first only weekends, then a little at midday to let me make lunch in peace, then before we know it were having to hide the cables to stop them switching it on day and night. In between beating myself up for sacrificing my crunchy ideals, it’s providing quite a lot of food for thought.
One thing I’ve noticed about children’s cartoons in recent years is that the heroes and heroines of the stories succeed because they have either supernatural powers or magical creatures to help them. I’m starting to get the feeling that this doesn’t give a very good example of succeeding in the world, in which we have to rely on our own wits and a bit of luck to get by. I happen to love the fantasy genre, but the problem I find with it is that they don’t show children using their own innate abilities to solve problems to defeat baddies. Insane as it sounds, I’m actually feeling nostalgic for the Famous Five.
If you look at, for example, Pokémon, Doraemon, Mini Mighty Kids, Ben 10, Monsters Vs Aliens, Shimmer and Shine (thanks for trying to represent Indians, but no thanks), PJ Masks, The Miraculous Ladybug, Star Versus the Forces of Evil, Danger Mouse, any of the Marvel characters, King Fu Panda (who uses Chi in pretty magical ways), the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, or practically any of the cartoons out there, the protagonists either use magical powers (which are usually exclusive to a few characters) or have magical beings that help them to succeed.
So kids watching these programs are repeatedly given the impression that if you want to defeat your demons, you need to have magic on your side. And once the show’s over, the TV off, and the disbelief no longer suspended, the sensation of impotence – already a sticking point for most kids – the feeling of being too small and weak to be able to have a positive effect in the world floods back in full force.
The shows that don’t involve magic are all protagonised by animals (Sherlock Yak, Bing, The Octonauts, Peppa Pig – who solves everything by jumping up and down in muddy puddles). One of the few programmes I can think of that show the protagonist using their own skills and ingenuity to solve problems is Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. In order to succeed, you just need to be white, blonde, six foot three with a waist the exact diameter of a chopstick, and have the privilege of fame, fortune, and wardrobe so vast you need to ride a horse to get to the other end of it.
Please don’t get me started on this show. The fact that the bitchy frenemy is a vaguely Mexican brunette called Raquel makes me start wondering if the alt-right funded it.
Which brings us to the representation of girls. Even more oh dear. Count the number of female puppies in Paw Patrol (1, occasionally 2 when they call on Everest with her snowmobile, to 6 male), you start to get royally pissed off with cartoon developers. Add the hapless mayoress (who, in a backfiring attempt to appear representative, is black), and the doe-eyed blonde pet pampering parlour girl, and you need to check your blood pressure. See also Superwings, where the only female superhero (among a bunch of, er, talking aeroplanes) is pink, annoying, and called Ditzy. Bob the Builder has a female sidekick who actually wears overalls (phew!) but only one ‘female’ machine, called Dizzy. Any more stereotypes of girls they want to throw in there?
This might sound like so much point scoring, but these images are etched deeply in kids’ minds. Story is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected – and if the mirror is warped, so is our self image. My daughter invariably says “I’m her!” about female characters in cartoons. Her favourites are the Mini Mighty Kids, in which animal characters find their flaws turn into superpowers; The Miraculous Ladybug, which features one of the most powerful female characters on kids’ TV, but still relies on magical powers; and Elena of Avalor, which at least portrays a kick-ass Latina princess, but one who needs to use flying jaguars to get around. Sophia the First is a car crash of elitist values with a sprinkling of magic.
The trouble is that when powerful, successful female characters are still a minority in cartoons, the message they put across is that these women are the exception that proves the rule.
The only cartoons that subvert the whole magic-will-solve-all-my-problems are either too grownup for kids to understand (like the Simpsons) or totally surreal ones like Spongebob Squarepants (which, weirdly enough, is a lot better dubbed into Spanish). But even then the only regular female character, who is luckily just as quixotic and silly as the others, is a squirrel in an air suit. Forget female power figures for a minute, do we have to be so divorced from reality to accept a girl who is just as inane as a boy? Gender Equality for Nutters!
I don’t want to underestimate children’s ability to escape into fantasy, or the benefit it gives them to dress up or use toys to imagine they’re someone (or something) else. Imagination is absolutely vital for so many areas of adult life, not only creativity (useful in business, everyday problem-solving, cooking with random fridge items…) but also in compassion. How can you have empathy for others if you can’t imagine yourself in their shoes? I would even argue that the root of extremism and literalism in religion is a total lack of imagination out of fear that it leads the pious soul astray. Bring back art, bring back free creative thought, and extremism is banished like mound from the underside of a leaky sink.
Fairy tales worked on archetypes, so the knight in shining armour defeating the dragon to rescue the fair maiden and live happily ever after isn’t a literal narrative of an actual male rescuing an actual female, but of the ‘masculine’ element in any person (representing self-sacrifice, valour, strength) overcoming their demons and liberating their ‘feminine’ element (beauty, grace, kindness, gentleness, wisdom) and the two sides of the self being united.
Folktales don’t have the visceral detail of modern cartoons, particularly CG animation movies. The child’s imagination is left to wander freely, and while they might play act being knight and princess, the message is a much simpler one, imprinted in a much less literal way.
Some Hans Christian Andersen stories were rewritten in modern retellings to make the girls more pathetic. In the original version of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid doesn’t get the prince; he falls for another princess, and even though she has the opportunity to kill him with the sea witch’s stone knife in order to recover her mermaid body and 200 year life span, she throws the knife into the sea and herself after it. Expecting to turn to sea foam (as mermaids do when they die, didn’t you know?), she is surprised to find she doesn’t; hearing musical voices above, she is taken up by the ‘Daughters of the Air’, mermaids who sacrificed themselves for others and earned another 200 years in which to bring fresh, healing winds to people around the world, after which they earn themselves an immortal soul and go to heaven.
Then again, sometimes original versions needed to be, er, edited: in her first incarnation, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t wake up when the prince finds and kisses her. Feeling rather put out that he’s come all this way for nothing, he rapes her and leaves her still asleep, and it’s the sound of her baby crying when she gives birth that provides her rude awakening. A moral tale warning girls not to trust old women lest they get raped by strangers in their sleep? Not sure how to interpret that one.
Cartoons that revive traditional folktales can actually tap into their subconscious messages while layering on more direct, modern meanings about girls, and kids in general. Moana came close to being a politically correct film, attacking male chauvinism in the form of the narcissistic demigod Maui, and placing a girl as the plucky heroine – and, indeed, a female as the great villain AND source of life. The entire cast (the humans, at least) were indigenous, and the only voice talent that wasn’t native Polynesian was a brainless chicken. Disney has come a long way since Pocahontas, it’s got to be said.
Other films that consistently show girls as beings who know their own mind and aren’t batting their eyelashes to persuade people to do things for them are those by Hayao Miyazaki. Although it’s one of my all-time favourite flicks, I haven’t shown my kids Spirited Away yet; the vile monsters that appear in their CG animated cartoons aren’t anywhere near as frightening as No Face in my opinion, the way that the Mexican folk tale La Llorona still gives me the shivers – something to do with the archetypal fears these stories tap into. But Howl’s Moving Castle and Laputa, Castle in the Sky were right up their street, with just as many thoughtful, intelligent, brave female characters as male, and just as many female baddies as male ones.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to police the numbers of male and female characters, or those of minorities; we should be able to let our imaginations run wild with the palette of human existence without forcing anything. The trouble is that we are all carrying around a load of prejudices, positive and negative, that are at work even when we aren’t conscious of them. So until we are free of bias, which is unlikely to ever happen entirely, we need to reverse engineer stories to unpick their meta narratives.
Meanwhile, what can we do about the sorry state of stories? Write better ones. Stories that weave the archetypes of old into contemporary settings with positive portrayals of girls and minorities. I have one brewing myself, so I shall stop ranting and get on with it…ask me how I’m getting on with it so I don’t slack off!

Danger of Surfing While Muslim

No, I’m not talking about burkinis again…I’m talking about The real risk to heart and mental health posed by scrolling for hours through social media posts that, through the wonders of logarithms (named for their inventor, Al-Khwarizmi – those darned Muslims at it again), present an echo chamber of your own opinions…except when you read the comments on public posts, and are temporarily traumatised by the burst of hatred towards Muslims and Islam in general.

The problem is that I actually agree with some of their points. There ARE issues, not just horrors of corrupt governments or backward laws but – as Jonathan A.C. Brown points out in his highly recommendable book Misquoting Muhammad – doctrinal sticking points that have produced, among hundreds of stances, a few very exaggerated ones.

These viewpoints are usually held by people so certain of their own correctness that they would not waste time listening to more broad-minded Muslims quoting the hadith that heads every major collection, ‘Al-‘amal fi’n-niyya’: actions are in intentions. Or that one of the keystone principles of Islam and therefore jurisprudence is to act with mercy, that is, minimising harm and judging with compassion.

To be quite frank, I’m just as terrified of these small but mouthy gang of ultra-conservative Muslims as the Islamophobes are. If they were to grill me on my views they would probably find me appallingly liberal (with any luck I’d give the Alt-Right a heart attack, too). I am forever thankful to be living in a country where I do have the freedom to espouse whatever views I wish; by the same token, not being tied to a chair by a Stasi agent in a dank underground bunker, I am under no obligation to give a full disclosure to anyone of my opinions.

However, I get the feeling that there is a tendency towards the monochrome in all these discussions. An American might well point fingers at parts of the Muslim World that shall remain unnamed for religious police, clerical corruption, abuse of immigrants, the squashing of women’s rights, restrictive laws and corporal or capital punishments. Without having spent a significant period of time in one of those countries, or grown up among immigrants from those countries, that is the undiluted image they see of Islam. It is unthinkable to them that there might be Muslims who are critical too, who are equally concerned about these issues – if not more so, being more affected by them both in their daily lives and in the wrench it makes on their hearts.

The average American is not thinking daily of Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes over Pakistan, Syria or Somalia, or a whole host of horrors that the USA has inflicted on the rest of the world. They don’t feel responsible for them; those are executive decisions made by a president they might not even have voted for, so how would they feel connected to them? They get up, have breakfast, go to school or work, come home, check out their friends’ news online, watch some TV, play basketball, go out for a meal…

But when a non-American thinks of America, they have the sneering image of Donald Trump seared into their retinas. We read about police brutality, about another ‘lone wolf’ attack at a school/university/abortion clinic, about a woman in Idaho getting 7 years in jail for publicly breastfeeding her baby, about the 13th amendment allowing the continuation of slavery and indentured labour of convicts, or about the real Bowling Green massacre, of native people killed and mutilated in the most hideous ways imaginable. We see viral videos shot on phones of white women screaming abuse at Mexicans in supermarket queues, or black people lying in puddles of blood in the street. We receive such a steady stream of diplomatic idiocy, pedestrian violence and cultural shallowness from the States that my 8 year old son (who doesn’t know the half of it) says he would never go to the place, despite being quarter American himself.

So where does this leave us? It’s easy to conclude that education is the answer, that the light of knowledge blasts away the darkness of ignorance…and although this is true, it’s also hopelessly hopeful. We know full well that most people don’t have the time or inclination to get to know people they have pegged down as murderers and rapists. I could preach til I’m purple in the face about the facts of ‘holy war’ in Islam* but an Isis supporter (or an Islamophobe – I’m seeing a pattern emerging here) would point blank refuse to listen. It’s confirmation bias on a soul-destroying scale.

But I don’t want my soul destroyed, thank you very much. I feel I need to take steps that don’t just involve unfriending someone who persistently posts horrors on Facebook, or teaching my logorithms to feed me more cake baking videos. I believe that all of us who are neck deep in the internet in general need to keep a check on how much time we spend filling out heads with horror, the way I have to police my kids’ screen time so they don’t end up racing to the iPad the second they come home from school and only go out grudgingly when I force them to. We need to be stern parents to the bratty children of our addictions.

‘Everything in moderation’ is, in a funny way, a fairly good analogy for the existence of horror in the world: of course it exists, it is unimaginable for the world to suddenly become all peaches and cream. If it did, people would probably get bored and irritable and start wars just for the hell of it. But look at the 99% of 99% of people’s lives which do go quite alright, actually; think of every bodily process currently going on inside you that you would die or suffer miserably without, and which you don’t pay the slightest attention to. Jackie Onassis’ father had a rare condition in which his eyelids didn’t work, and he had to stick them open with tape: how often do you thank your eyelids for blinking?

We do need to be aware of the horrors, to grieve for the wronged and the oppressed, and to campaign against those wrongs and oppressions. But the world isn’t all horror, and if we lose our perspective on things we’ll end up adding to the polarisation of which Donald Trump is currently the flame-headed figurehead. Write to your MP, march, sign petitions, do whatever you need to do, but don’t let your mind be taken over by images of horror, lest the lens you see the world through be coloured by them.

 
*in a nutshell: that no civilian can ever be targeted, full stop, and that no civilian can kill except in the ridiculously unlikely circumstances that another nation has suddenly invaded their own, overwhelmed their army and arrived at that person’s door, AND if they have the certainty that they will be killed and the women of the house will be raped regardless. This means that war may only legitimately be carried out defensively; NO MILITIA can say they are waging a war in the name of Islam or with religious legitimacy as they are not the army of a globally accepted state, which, for instance, Daesh does not qualify as on various counts. Does it issue visas? No. Apart from which, the methods used in such despicable attacks as suicide bombings are not only incomtrovertibly forbidden in Islam, but also considered accursed. For more see Sheikh Muhammad Al-Akiti’s brief and very readable fatwa, ‘Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians” (Aqsa Press, 2005).

 

Postscript: If you are a troll, and -in the ludicrous event that you have read this far – are considering leaving a disturbing comment, you know I’m going to delete them. Try gardening instead: it’s a far more pleasurable way to pass the time.

On Healing the Wrongs of White Ancestors and Why You Probably Don’t Want to Do It

Call me a lily-@$$ed bimbo, or a political correctness fascist, but I can’t use the term ‘non-white’ any more, and I can’t quite believe myself how long it’s taken to understand why.

First of all, lumping hundreds or even thousands of ethnicities into a one-size-fits-all term is embarrassingly dismissive. Then there’s the fact that anyone of any colour is described in a term that refers to whites, which normalises whiteness and makes everything else secondary or peripheral.

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Bet you didn’t know how many ethnic groups there were in Indonesia alone. Memorize their names – I’m going to test you on them tomorrow

The fact that it’s shorthand for when you just want to describe the prejudice incurred by this apparent difference – which virtually always involves light-skinned against dark-skinned – might make it attractive, but it is so insanely reductive that it really has no beneficial use at all.

The peaceful determination of the “Water Protectors” movement at Standing Rock has brought with it the sight of white Americans – described in this Guardian article as ‘non-Native Americans’ (what better way to remind ourselves who came first?) – standing in solidarity, and even begging forgiveness, from people who have been brutally repressed by the ancestors of those non-native Americans.

It cuts to the heart of the shame many of us feel at having ancestors who partook in these atrocities. My own great-grandparents on my American side had slaves; after Abolition they were kept on as farmhands, but were paid in chits which could only be redeemed in one general store. Guess who owned it.

Whites have a duty to speak louder than anyone else in the movement to make Black Lives Matter (at the risk of using ‘Black’ in the same broad way as ‘non-white’), partly because so many white supremacists just won’t listen to black people saying it, and partly because we are the inheritors of a poisonous system which we could potentially subvert. Trying to do so proves we wash our hands of the racism which is the source of the problem.

So what’s stopping more anti-racist whites visibly standing up against racism? Where are all the whites at a Black Lives Matter demonstration?

When there is such a brutal asymmetry in power, wealth, privilege, and domination of discourse and representation in favour of whites, it’s understandable that Blacks, Asians, Arabs, or anyone else (see how tempting it is to fall into the ‘non-white’ trap!) might look at white people who want to show solidarity with suspicion.

How can we understand, when we have never experienced the sharp edge of racism? Aren’t we just jumping on the bandwagon because it makes us look right-on? Will we there in the long run, or on the front lines? Can we truly be invested in the struggle when we aren’t afraid our children will be the next to appear on a tragic-but-glib news story about a shooting over a dangerous-looking packet of gum?

All that is true. But whites still need to worry about our children: we need to be concerned that our kids don’t grow up to perpetuate the myth of racial superiority or inferiority. It’s a massive task, one that seems as simple as repeating ‘we’re all equal’, but in truth we are up against a colossus of media representation that causes even tiny children to characterise black dolls as ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ and white dolls as ‘good’ or ‘pretty’ – whatever their own colour.

What’s more, white privilege is also poisonous to white people. Ever hear parents wondering how come their kids got so uppity, rude, disrespectful and self-centred? That’s entitlement, right there, and while it isn’t necessarily colour-bound, if the majority taking up space in the echelons of privilege are white, going to ‘good’ schools (which are almost always almost completely white), living in ‘good’ neighbourhoods (ditto), whose parents on the whole enjoy better economic stability…when are they ever going to get some perspective on the good things that have basically fallen out of the sky into their milky white laps?

Entitlement is poisonous in various ways. There’s the overriding feeling that you don’t really deserve the favours you’re receiving, because you haven’t earned them. Why do police smile benignly at me, even when I was living illegally in Spain for six years, when they frowned at my Middle Eastern husband who’s done nothing? Paradoxically, it makes you feel inferior for being given handouts without deserving them.

The trouble is that once you are in a privileged position, most people would not be so crazy as to give it up voluntarily. It’s the reason why so many African nations haven’t seen a cent of so many billions of dollars in IMF loans their corrupt leaders squirrelled away in Swiss banks. When you live in a warm, dry, safe, comfortable house, why would you choose to move to a hut with no central heating, A/C or flush toilet?

(For the answer to this question you will have to come to my town and ask the hippies. You might be surprised how coherent their arguments are.)

Most of us live in a bubble, we’ve got to admit it. Even making friends with the Gypsy kids on the next block can seem hard to achieve. But if you don’t take the leap and reach out, afraid that you’ll be rebuffed or mocked or shut out, how will you ever know?

See how quickly the Lakota spiritual healer Leonard Crow forgave the ‘non-native’ Americans who went to them seeking forgiveness: the most wronged have the greatest power to forgive, even the community that hurt them the most. There is so much healing in that act, a bursting open of hearts sealed with guilt and pride. Some of us might not have the traumas of Black or Native American people in our genes, but the consciousness of white people is wounded to the core, and we can’t be happy or free until it’s healed.

A Tiny Window in the Palace of Rahma

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“A mercy to all the worlds”:
Can you comprehend that?
The world of rocks, of mushrooms,
winds, seas, whales, mosquitos,
jinn, trees, underground rivers
bacteria, bears and ozone
the dizzying telescopic jump
the human mind can make from
the tiniest imaginable
– and where the imagination
can take you beyond –
to the vastest nebulas
digitally colored in pink and pistachio
for who knows what colours
we’d see them in up close

All the worlds:
angelic, demonic, uncertain
and solid, theoretical and tangible
the dead, the made and the
still only an idea
the embryo forming unknown
in its private universe
secrets that bud in longing hearts
genetic shifts as yet unstudied
the germ of a song
a singer wakes up humming
and whatever cats get up to
when we’re not around
the meaning of a child’s
felt pen diagram
the lutf that turns grass into milk
and manure into sweet oranges

If we imagine his mercy
was like ours, extending to our hands
the kindness we place in our words
sent on prayers, perhaps, to where it’s needed
we take all the worlds
and reduce them to a
kitchen knife
telephone wire
postman’s trolley
liable to electricity cuts and
over long breakfast breaks

You need imagination
to even see through
one tiny window in the palace of rahma
and if our imagination is so mean
clinging to the drainpipe of dogma
how can we ever get inside?

 

 

Note: Rahma is an Arabic word meaning ‘mercy’, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is described in Qur’an as “A mercy to all the worlds”. Lutf is also Arabic and means both ‘subtlety’ and ‘gentleness’ or ‘kindness’.

Hate Is No Substitute

Don’t touch me with that barge pole.
The disease you fear in me might travel
down your arm through the fibres
of that deceased sliver of tree and
burn a dot on my arm.

Don’t squint at me through that pinhole.
Your face is contorted
all the beauty your mother kissed into it
wrung to angry creases.

Don’t throw darts at me from behind that wall.
Your dartboard lies behind you
inside you
a whole room of
poison-filled balloons
that need puncturing.

You see, I can shake off this shit
before it hardens and turns to
shit-hardened armour
I can soak my blood-sodden
rag of a heart
in rose water
cook it with comfrey
til it stitches itself back together
I can call up cool breezes
to blow away the debris
reveal sand-polished jewels beneath
I can open a window
onto the vacuum created
when intellect left the room
I can rebuilt the city left a
concrete skeleton
for as long as my time runs on

But your time is running out
and every day wasted in
smearing excrescences on your
neighbour’s car window
is another chance for joy
wiped away and
hate is no
substitute.

Burkinis, Bling, and Criminally Bad Hairdos: Why Everyone Needs to Shut Up

 

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Yesterday at a beach on the Granada coast, we plopped our towels and parasol down on the white pebbles next to a family from North Africa.

It was one of those slightly awkward scenes, where I wanted to do the Muslim camaraderie thing and give salams, but also aware that I wasn’t in full burkini-esque gear to swim (though it was a sight more than most of the other swimmers, a blush short of their birthday suits) while she went into the water in long, looseish trousers and a tunic top with a small scarf tied back.

The usual irritating problematics of being scrutinized as a woman reared their ugly heads in me. Whatever you do, whatever you wear, if you happen to be endowed with mammary glands you are going to be judged by how you look. Frumpy, tarty, religious, free, on fleek, minging, this category, that category. Isn’t it one of the world’s favorite pastimes, observing women’s bodies and forming completely irrelevant opinions on them? If we were dead cows being scored up by a butcher we’d probably get more respect.

Reading that armed French police ordered a sleeping North African woman to remove her long-sleeved shirt on a beach in the interests of “good morals and secularism” made me want to barf into my surf shorts. Apparently it is now immoral to be too clothed. They didn’t reference the spurious link to Islamism, of course, in case the forces of logic might close in on them and shut the whole operation down.

What really grates is the reference to morality, that famously speculative field where pretty much anything can be passed off as good or right without a scrap of evidence. If they start criminalising clothing, what’s next – criminally bad makeup? Terrible coiffes? Mismatched colors? “You  combined purple trousers wiz an orange blouse?! Zis is an affront to French values! €43 euros or a night in ze clink!”

What often gets overlooked in the debate over women’s clothing whether or not they are themselves comfortable in it. Any woman who is not used to wearing an abaya (the black cloak worn in Gulf states and beyond) would initially find it cumbersome. You’d shut it in car doors, trip on it going up stairs and whatnot. Even wearing long skirts when you’re used to trousers feels weird.

But the opposite is also true, in a different way. If, for instance, you go out on what seems to be a sunny day wearing short sleeves, and suddenly it turns windy and cold (or starts to hail, as it might do in an August day in England), you feel underdressed, naked even. If you were quite comfortable in cardigan, and a bunch of armed policemen ordered you to take it off for the sake of public decency, and while you’re at it, take off those jeans, here are some regulation hot pants approved of by the Home Office, wouldn’t you feel stripped bare?

Yes, you would probably get used to it eventually – what, I imagine, right-wing French lawmakers want to happen in order to ‘integrate’ Muslims. But feeling exposed engenders a vulnerability that the law should never be responsible for.

The broader issue is, of course, whether covering up the body is a sign of shame, or the oppressive insistence of the other sex. The latter doesn’t need any comment. Every fibre of my being howls against the idea of a man telling me what not to wear, unless it’s to point out a nasty bolognese stain.

This is not diminished even when virtually every hijabi I know wears it out of choice; in Iran, for instance, some women complained about having to wear hijab publicly, while others didn’t seem bothered. In fact in many cases, when worn with dazzling sunglasses and half a bar of lipstick, it actually gave women a kind of 1950s glamour they were rather proud of (look up Tehran street style and you’ll see what I mean).

The former, however, is in serious need of unpacking. By traditional standards, pretty much anywhere on the planet except for a few ethnic groups in Subsaharan Africa and the Amazon, covering up signified dignity. Before the mechanized textile industry, fabric had to be laboriously made by hand, which made it expensive. The more of it you wore, the wore wealthy you appeared.

By contrast, there are narrations from the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s) regarding people who were so poor they didn’t have enough clothes to wear, impeding them from entering mosques. Shame consisted of having so little you were literally naked. One couple only had one item of clothing between them which they took turns wearing in order to pray. Hence the command not only to feed the poor but to clothe them.

It’s a classic byproduct of affluence that the more we have of something, the less we value it. Tons of food, produced for nothing by illegal immigrants in direly polluted greenhouses? Let a third of it rot in heaps because it’s not perfectly shaped! Too much food produced in restaurants? Chuck the leftovers into skips! We have so many clothes, some even sewn on boats on their way from China so as to be as cutting edge as possible, that half of it ends up in charity shops after six months. Of course we look at an excess of it with disdain.

Apart from that, Islam takes the view that whatever you value most, you don’t rub into people’s faces. It might be hard to believe, with all the bling in the Middle East, but the Islamic concept of modesty doesn’t simply mean covering the body; it refers to an overall attitude of concealing your gifts, partly to not arouse envy, but partly also to encourage you to appreciate them without needing other people’s awe. Kind of an inversion of our habit of sharing everything that happened to us on social media because we need a dozen likes to believe we truly exist.

The meanings we invest into clothing are deeply complicated – I’m only scratching the surface here. We could all do with reassessing our ideas of what it means, but we need to look in a mirror before projecting those ideas onto others.

It’s all a bit idiotic, really. Lower your eyes, mankind. And don’t use that as an excuse to judge women on their shoes, either.

The Knowledge You Know Without Knowing You Know It

There is knowledge that is shy,
dodges knowledge vampires
with their ravenous jawed eyes
and colander stomachs.

This knowledge didn’t listen at school,
doodled through every text
book and watched the swallows
out of the science block window.

It waits for you while you stand
slack-mouthed, spaced out
by a fountain on a wooded hill
noticing only the quick undulations
on the green surface, the sludgy floor
before announcing itself: Oh!

This knowledge whistles casually
on the police taped edges
of disaster areas, sidling in between
the last phone call and the silence
inserting itself, a comma, no argument.

Its footnotes kick up leaves,
stub their toes deliberately
on furniture it then
surreptitiously removes.

It doesn’t build up, fact upon figure,
but peels off in archaeological layers
burns iron-shaped patches in neat appearances
drops spiders down collars and
seats itself innocently in chairs
vacated by the shrieking pranked.

This knowledge is free but
still must be bought
no ads will defray its existence
and its scholars, its teachers, its institutions
won’t make you cleverer
but wider
more liquid
more swimmable
until you see it doesn’t creep up on you at all
but chips away at the plaster you hide your light behind
an inside job, a regular cat burglar
of personal hindrances
leaving only its own brilliance
reflected in your awe-struck face
a shine that cannot be caged in an image
and tied down, struggling, to a scrolling screen
like sushi for bottomless information appetites
and most would not take it for knowledge but
acceptance, or forgiving, or longing, or love,
but it will know you from the inside out
until you know yourself.

This knowledge will not give you riches:
it will prove that you are gold.

Chromatography

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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

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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.)