Things No-one but Your Baby Teaches You

Waiting in sympathy as an old friend wonders if today will be the day she gives birth, I am reminded of what a steep learning curve first-time motherhood is. We learn about Henry XIII, cirrus clouds and sodding xylem and phloem at school, but anything related to womanhood, birth, or anything icky like that is woefully absent.

I remember one time at secondary school, a girl who’d dropped out to have a baby with a local squaddie came to talk to the female students, obviously under the pretext that she would deter us from doing the same thing. All I remember is her saying birth really hurt. That, a few textbook references to puberty in biology class, and our exuberant gym teacher’s ‘little chat’ with us around age 13 about our ‘P days’, was the sum total of education about our incipient womanhood.

So, when you decide you have finally outgrown your solitude and wouldn’t mind a wee bairn in your life, you have decades of programming to overcome, usually without any wise old women (except your mum, and she might give you the worst traumas of all) to advise, teach and reassure you. What do you do? Go online, to Mothering.com, or Mumsnet, or more radical places like natural birth forums (get thee to Google and the scales shall fall from your eyes). For so many women, the first baby they hold in their arms is their own.

There are so many new dexterities that you must learn when you become a parent, especially a mother: birthing; breast/bottle feeding; burping; lowering a sleeping baby into a cot without waking them up; calming a fractious baby when you haven’t slept for months and are pretty fractious yourself; wheeling buggies up and down stairs or hills, especially with heavy bags of shopping; cooking with a clingy baby in a sling or on a hip; having sex with your partner with a baby anywhere in a ten-metre radius; changing nappies in cars; removing snot without incurring loud screams; getting two or more kids ready for school with a baby to look after also; reading a book without falling asleep after half a page; putting a child into a car seat when they don’t feel like it; what to do about fevers, coughs, kids that don’t eat; finding ANY time to do yoga like you’re supposed to spend your maternity leave doing; preventing crawling babies from climbing up stairs or finding paints/cleaning products/that one nail in the corner under the sofa that you didn’t know existed…

…and then there’s also the subtle, invisible learning, like how to deal with tantrums, challenging behaviour and disrespect without taking it personally or turning into a fire-breathing dragon…

…not to mention the psychological issues dredged up from our own upbringing…

…and bang in the middle this practical PhD-cum-SAS training-cum-twenty year long meditation retreat, you’re meant to go back to full-time paid work?! What does it look like we’ve been doing, lying on a beach in the Bahamas having our cellulite wrapped in algae?!?!

Mothering is given minimal or no value in industrialised society. Women are just men with boob – which are meant for entertainment, not nutrition. We’re supposed to do everything men do, for two-thirds of the pay, and not complain that we also have a whole other job going on – the ‘Second Shift’ – which is far more personally important to us than the paid work, though impossible without the salary. And since nobody but other mothers will nod and commiserate, we sigh, label our complaints as ‘moaning’, and shut up and get on with it.

Nothing ever changed without people making a stink about it needing to be changed (a particularly a propos metaphor for people who have to change nappies on a regular basis). But we now have the financial necessity of having two incomes in order to maintain roofs that we rarely have time to spend under. Mothers already feel guilty that they’re not doing enough – how have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the idea of proving ourselves to be ‘as good as the guys’, fighting above our weight on an uneven playing field, and placing on ourselves this massive extra burden?

The female brain is far more complex, responsive, and therefore prone to frazzlement than the male brain. We have a smaller, lighter brain, but with a more convoluted cerebral cortex, meaning more surface area, meaning more neurones, meaning more thinking. Hence we are more prone to depression and anxiety, and often have a harder time falling asleep (especially annoying when your husband is snoring within seconds) even though the extra sleep does us a world of good. We need to make an effort to disconnect and relax our minds. Now those flower arranging classes don’t seem so superfluous, right?

Women have always worked, inside and outside of the home. I was once walking around Leh in Ladakh, the culturally Tibetan Himalayan region of India, when I saw a woman walking back from her allotment, bent double with a basket of produce on her back, while also knitting a complex patterned jumper for a small child. Multi-tasking is our (slightly clichéd) hallmark.

But when the work involved becomes very complex and stressful, in highly stimulating environments, and when your kids can’t just run about the village but are hyperactive, overstimulated creatures who need to be kept safe from cars, internet predators, and a whole host of constantly changing dangers, let alone all our own troubles that we have to process, our minds are under strain that we often don’t allow ourselves to recognise.

I don’t know how to end this optimistically except to urge anyone reading to recognise the effort, time, and thought that goes into parenting at large, to shed the patriarchal lens that edits out the female experience – as richly varied as it is – and start accommodating women who are raising small kids, often against huge odds. Yes, it makes us tough, but we don’t want to turn to armadillos. Early childhood is the beginning of a person’s life; we don’t need to burden it with unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Most of all, if we can deal with our own anxiety, embed rest, joy and simplicity into our lives, we model it for our children. This is one thing we can handle in a future that has always been uncertain and always will be. Godspeed and rest well!

On Weakness and the 🥀 Emoji

I hate being incapacitated. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do everything for myself: make my own clothes, write songs, poems, stories that I wanted to hear/read, grow my own food, and so on. 

This stubborn insistence on being self-sufficient has stood me in good stead in many ways: I can make a lot of things, relieving (I hope) some of the burden that a consumer lifestyle produces. Of course, raising three kids also meant I didn’t really have much choice; I had to learn to do things alone. Mainly, though, I just can’t stand the idea of needing to lean on people, of anyone being inconvenienced for my sake. 

All well and good, you say. But there’s a danger to this obsession with being capable. I take on too much; assume things will take less time than they end up taking; resist delegating as it’s a hassle, when actually it could take a weight off my shoulders.  

And so, after sustaining a bad sprain to my right ankle just before Christmas that rendered me pretty much kaput for six weeks, I go and sprain the other one yesterday 😓 Which gets me thinking…is this just dumb luck? Me being clumsy and disembodied because I’m spending too much time on a computer, up in my head? My feet are disconnected in some way from my brain?

Or…I need to recognise my weakness sometimes. Capability can lull you into a false sense of independence, which isolates at the same time that it seals the heart in armour. Not every fight should end in admitting defeat, but life doesn’t have to be one long fight. I’m starting to realise that accepting my limits would allow me to rest more, and perhaps not end up pushing myself so hard that I trip.

With these thoughts, and stuck on the sofa unable to move without pain, I picked up the Diwan of Sidi Muhammad ibn al-Habib (a well-thumbed copy, but still liable to yield gems), and I read this, in the introduction:  “…spiritual opening comes quickly to sincere fuqara [spiritual indigent] who realise the true attributes of their state: ignorance, weakness and neediness. He who realised his ignorance, Allah will sustain with beneficial knowledge, [and he who realised his weakness, Allah will sustain by His Strength], and so forth…”

And suddenly I get the use of the 🥀 emoji that I’ve seen so much lately on IG…swoon! There’s a secret in weakness…I wrote about it on this blog years ago, as it relates to the menstrual cycle. 

So I’ll be (reluctantly) putting my foot for the foreseeable. Maybe reading. Maybe knitting (it’s impossible to be completely inactive, I’m far too restless…knitting and crochet are nice slow crafts at least!) But also trying to realise my true human state, and in doing so, hope that a Divine one will come to replace it.

The Invisible Muslim

In late February 2020 – just in time to provide reading material for people entering coronavirus quarantine – my newest book, The Invisible Muslim, hit the bookstands. This travelogue-memoir deals principally with the complicated dance that takes place between religious and ethnic identities, particularly for white Muslims.

The idea for the book was first put to me by Samia Rahman, deputy editor of Critical Muslim, a quarterly journal to which I occasionally contribute. Samia suggested I pitch a book about my experiences as a white Muslim to CM’s publisher, Hurst, as they have a particularly international focus and are especially interested in stories from the periphery of the Islamic world.

My initial reaction was to cringe. How would a book like that be: ‘Me & My Whiteness: A Memoir by Cultural Appropriation Barbie’? Or ‘The Tragic Tale of the Little White Muslim Girl Who Didn’t Belong?’ The very idea of adding and centring yet another white person’s narrative to the vast amounts that already exist repelled me…but the idea didn’t go away.

Over a period of about five years, I found I’d think of the project nearly daily. I was realising I had a lot to say on the subject, as it’s one that has brought up many awkward questions throughout my life. How did whiteness shape my experience of being a Muslim? Did other Muslims give me special treatment, or invalidate my Islam as I was too European – or were those both possible reactions, albeit extremes of a very broad range? How to shape an Anglo-American Muslim identity when there were very few who had gone before me? And how did Islam work as a bridge between me and Muslims of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds?

All these might seem like personally specific trivialities, and in many ways they are. But seen in the context of global history, and the struggle against Islamophobia for those of us who live as minorities in majority secular or Christian states, they touch on much broader and more pressing concerns: can Islam overcome the stigma of Otherness and be accepted on these relatively new terrains?

It’s often been stated that Islam is like water: as it enters cultural containers it takes on their shapes and colours. This is why we have different manifestations of Islamic culture from Malaysia to Bangladesh, Iran to Bosnia, Somalia to Morocco, France to the US, and beyond. And yet there’s something that connects us.

We’re living in times of unprecedented globalisation, and diaspora cultures are almost ubiquitous; as children grow up in third cultures, a kind of religious Creole develops: a language that fuses two tongues and enables us to translate ideas across barriers that might formerly have seemed solid.

In the end, I realised that it was only my white fragility – my defensiveness at accusations of racism and resistance to relinquishing privilege – that was preventing me from talking frankly and critically about how whiteness impacts upon my own Muslim identity and experience. So I bit the bullet, partly as a kind of personal catharsis to put some of these questions to rest, and partly because I thought it might help others to talk about these uncomfortable questions themselves.

But I also believe that a piece of writing needs to be an artefact, something that weaves together history and poetry, texture and feeling and thought provocation, so that it becomes a kind of holograph of the writer’s being that you can stand up and walk around in. Thus The Invisible Muslim was born, a multifaceted meditation on longing and belonging, authenticity and spirituality, story and history, and the Veils that can block out the Other, or provide protection and a welcome invisibility.

You can get your copy at Hurst’s website or Blackwell’s (which seem to have free shipping abroad). Tag me (@medinatenour) if you bookstagram about it (I am, after all, an Instagran.)

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Reviews:

‘An important contribution to the conversation about diversity that deserves to be widely read. A rare perspective—peaceful, balanced, lucid and attractive. It might well be a glimpse into the future of a British Islam, confident in its identity, at ease with its setting.’ — Leila Aboulela, author of Bird SummonsMinaret and The Translator

‘A bold and beautifully written memoir of searing honesty and warmth. Whiteman gracefully grapples with the complex layers of identity, whiteness and culture as she maps out the landscape of her life, all the while drawing in history and belief in her uniquely eloquent style.’ — Remona Aly, journalist and broadcaster

‘Medina Tenour Whiteman has approached a unique, complicated branch of Muslim identity with sensitivity and nuance. This book shows that faith is more than adherence to ritual—it is also a means to find oneself.’ — Hussein Kesvani, author of Follow Me, Akhi

The News at 12.25: Travel Guide to Islamic Spain and More

Greetings!

It’s been some time since I posted here as I’ve been working on a few writing projects that have left my typing fingers a little tired. But don’t worry, many things are in motion.

Firstly, I wanted to share with you a book that I wrote (with some help from Tahira Larmore, my mum!), Huma’s Travel Guide to Islamic Spain. It’s now available to buy from this link. You can also order it through your local bookshop using the ISBN 978-1-906949-34-1.

This is a unique travel guide that focuses specifically on the Islamic heritage of Spain, not only in terms of monuments (and there’s plenty to read on those, all the usual favourites plus many others that you probably won’t have heard of), but also in the influence of Al-Andalus that can still be appreciated in the food, language, and culture of modern-day Spain.

You can find out about mosques and halal restaurants too, plus there’s a special section on how Muslims can avoid that ever-present pork when eating out in Spain, and a section at the end, written by Abd ar-Rahman Mangera, on the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) of travel. But it’s not just for Muslim travellers, anyone who is interested in the sophisticated civilisation of Al-Andalus will find plenty to open their mind and eyes. It’s woven through with history, poetry, anecdotes and even a few recipes. I hope you find it edifying as well as useful!

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(Note: travel guides tend to go out of date very quickly but the basic information should stay the same; just bear in mind that opening times can vary year on year, and restaurants and hotels may go out of business or change contact details. We’ve just noticed a clanger which somehow didn’t get fixed before going to print – on page 22 a picture of the Alhambra has a caption describing it as the Palacio de los Mondragones in Ronda! Hopefully it’s obvious enough not to fool anyone!)

In other news, a poem from my book Love is a Traveller, ‘Before She Outgrows Your Arms’, was featured today on BBC Radio 4, on a programme by Remona Aly called Something Understood. You can catch it tonight at 11pm UK time but it’ll be on BBC iPlayer for a few weeks too. I’m reading the poem and my dad Abdal-Lateef Whiteman is playing piano to accompany it. We really enjoyed this mixture so look forward to hearing more poems from the book and newer ones (I’m working on a new collection as we speak) with musical accompaniment.

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Aaaaaaaand not so long ago my piece of flash fiction, Texts I Never Sent You, was featured on Flash Fiction Magazine. I’m tinkering away with pieces of fiction and poems that I’m keeping under my hat for the time being, but a futuristic short story set in Casablanca is forthcoming on IIIT, so I’ll let you know once it’s available online or in print.

Musically I’ve been a bit quiet lately, although if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram you can hear the occasional clip I record to keep my hand in. I’ve been intending to do a crowdfunding campaign to record an album for, erm, four years! But somehow work, family etc. seem to delay things. Inshallah soon…

And now for the weather. Icy sprinkles over the north-west, marshmallows in the south, and a cold front, back and sides in the east. This broadcast was brought to you by Bessica Plumpton’s Baked Goods Inc.

[Serious theme music outro]

 

‘Buddha Would Blow a Fuse’: Fasting while Parenting

Until I had kids, fasting was a bit like taking a beautifully serene natural drug: beatific sensations, mild hallucination, strange taste in the mouth, that kind of thing.

Now that I have afternoons in which I crave siestas and get a house full (occasionally) of flying fists, books, shoes, rude words and sprayed saliva instead, I’ve had to start thinking of Ramadan in different terms.

It’s not just about reducing cholesterol, is it? Otherwise it would say in Qur’an ‘Thou shalt eat plenty of oats’. So there’s an element of that phenomenon all parents sooner or later lecture their kids about when they start whining about the ice-cream being the wrong sort of pink: character-building experiences.

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“Aww muuuuum, it’s not fuchsia enough!”

Camping! Cross-country running in horrible gym knickers! Fickle school chums! All these delights and more did an essential job in your life, to wit, sloughing a layer of immaturity off your puerile personality. It worked, didn’t it? Now that you can see what you don’t want your kids (or yourself) to be like, you can be thankful for all those times you had a red F mark, or failed to be chosen for the basketball team, or fell off the stage in a donkey outfit at the school nativity play.

But despite our lofty position of wisdom, having gone through untold trials and survived with our mettle burnished and bright, it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, around, oh, 5pm, our spiritual resolve starts to flag. The whinging starts to feel like a bradawl in the skull. The petty arguments about pop song lyrics start to burn like acid on the brain. At one point I couldn’t take it any more and howled at my children ‘I don’t know how anyone is supposed to fast with all this! The Buddha would blow a fuse!” Which at least got a laugh out of them.

How did Muslim women of yore put up with it? Possibly their kids were quietly attentive, polishing brass trays for fun and competing to memorise the Qur’an faster than the neighbour, but I suspect it had more to do with the fact that kids all over the world spent most of their days out of doors among other kids, and not raking over their mothers’ nerves with red-hot nails.

With the advent of the automobile, alas, that happy vision (conveniently excluding poxes and wolves) came to an end, and now we are confined to a strict schedule of kids’ outings, play dates and activities every afternoon, with only other harassed mums for company.

DRATTED CHARACTER-BUILDING AGAIN.

Joking aside, this time of year can bring on serious anxiety, depression, psychosis, even suicidal thoughts for some mums. Needless to say, a state that bad must qualify as an illness worthy of breaking the fast for.

You have to ask yourself: can I drive to that person’s house this afternoon? Can I take my kids to the park and just sit like a zombie on the bench? Will I feel horribly guilty if I just put the TV on and retire to my bed all month? Mother guilt mutates in Ramadan: her kids are studying the 99 Names…I feel about as spiritual as that turkey sausage I just grilled for the kids…

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Me, make food this good when I can’t eat it straight away? You must be kidding. My mum did.

What can we conclude from this? Firstly, that while the body works its way through energy stored, the mind is also trawling through all those dark thoughts it’s been storing away for a rainy day. Secondly, judging other parents should be on the list of things to avoid. But also that we often have set ideas about what spirituality ‘should’ look like. Lately I’ve been finding a lot of joy in playing Latin American music on my guitar while fasting. Sure beats watching the clock.

The greatest benefit I’ve found to fasting en famille, however, is that classic element of surprise for non-Muslims – the lack of water. The first Muslims were used to having little food to eat, but going for long hours without water was the tough part of fasting (especially in a desert) – hence the du’a when breaking the fast: ‘Thirst has gone and the veins are drenched, and the reward is assured, if God wills’. No reference to ‘Hurray for chicken wings’ there.

What happens when your mouth is dry? You stop talking so much. You reserve words for things that actually matter, like ‘Don’t put that lizard up your nose’. Of course, you can also physically remove the lizard yourself, but when energy is low you can’t run, or shout, or even explain. This is a revelation for someone who has relied on Doing Things Well for self-esteem, and therefore ended up doing far too much for her kids. (That’s me, in case you’re wondering.)

It also softens my main vice: sarcasm. It’s an ugly way to communicate, but a habitual one when stirred. Take away cruel speech and you open a lacuna in which a more honest, beautiful communication can bloom. Not having much energy also makes you take much more care about throwing it around needlessly; you might feel like a snail on Valium, but you’re going to be a snail that doesn’t waste time ooching around on non-vital errands. (Women have a monthly recollection of this, as I wrote about here.)

But I can’t describe fasting in Ramadan better than Suhaib Webb did recently – as a daily reminder of our life cycle: “We start the day strong; that’s youth. My mid-day, we start to to feel its impact; that’s middle age. By afternoon, we get feeble and tired; old. At sunset, our faculties begin to fade; death. Then, we break our fast, reminded of paradise.”

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This weakness can yields so much wisdom, if we can yield to it. We aren’t the captains of our ships, fearlessly making our own destinies like little gods. OK, maybe we’re like the second mates of our ships, but still, there’s a force that we must reckon with or we risk becoming narcissistic sollipsists, or just really intolerable people.

Besides, there’s the reminder of the inevitability of death, and then another day that follows it. There is no better way to put things into perspective short of sitting by a deathbed or washing a corpse. That’ll be us one day, no matter what we do with our lives.

On that cheery note…no really, it’s not sad. We’re like trees putting out shoots and flowers and then going to seed; who knows where they will grow? Or whose hearth our wood will warm?

More Than A Strike: Women’s Day and the Sweet Spot

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International Women’s Day brings with it a pot pourri of feelings for me. Some pleasant, rose-like, delicate, joyful, and uplifting (I went last night to a local production of The Vagina Monologues and was reminded once more of how wondrous it is to be female), while others are malodourous or sickly, bits of old sock and rancid cabbage that have fallen in with the fragrant twigs. There are so many challenges women face, from physical aggression and violence all the way through unequal pay and sexual harrassment in the workplace to the subtle disdain expressed in daily interactions with people who think less of us because of our gender.

About halfway through the morning I remembered the housework strike. Yay! I thought – time to put my feet up. Things didn’t pan out as I thought, however. My husband was still working on the house (we’ve been living in a building site for the last six months, and for four months before that he was working harder than he’s ever worked, learning on the job, to turn the ruin we bought into a home) and I had been out a lot over the past few days, so there was a build-up of chores that had come to a head.

So we struck a deal. Yesterday I had a fair bit of housework and even gardening to do, and today I’ve struck. Is it weird to hang my apron out of the window now? People might think I’m just being absent-minded.

To be honest, I have to give thanks that my husband cooks a lot, does a huge amount of childcare, washes up frequently, and when he attacks the kitchen or bathroom he stays up late listening to talks online while he cleans and leaves it like new. On top of that, he supports me working (even though with the kids my hours are limited) and his money is, as he says, my money. So striking isn’t exactly an urgent need for us, even though I like the idea of standing in solidarity for so many women who don’t enjoy those conditions.

On the other hand, a housework strike has the interesting effect of highlighting my own near-robotic cleaning and tidying behaviour (although you wouldn’t know it to see my house). Having to stop myself from “just sorting this out”, every ten minutes or more often, is hard. Am I habituated to the idea that women are designed to clean? Certainly we’ve programmed ourselves to – and for me that was a long, hard process, mostly because I had so much resistance. So many brilliant things I could be doing instead of menial work! Plus I have a very sore nerve that gets easily prodded when I see men leaning on or expecting women to clear up their mess, even women with whom they have no reciprocal support arrangement.

But the bottom line is that housework needs to be done, and if you don’t do it yourself, you end up paying a woman to do it for you. This does keep a good number of women in employment, even though it’s poorly paid and precarious work. Yet if you educate those women to have ‘better’ jobs, you create a vacuum (how appropriate) at the bottom of the work pyramid.

What ends up happening is that immigrants and people from disadvantaged backgrounds fill that gap, creating a kind of tiered system of care and support that further divides women, but this time on an ethnic or class basis. Can an economy handle everyone being highly educated? The reality for so many university graduates in the US and UK who can’t find anything but internships seems to testify that it can’t.

On a personal level, the ego loves to rail against being obliged to do ‘low’ work, especially if it’s for no pay. This is why Women’s Day is complicated for me: I have to strike (pardon the pun) a balance between empathy for female troubles and awareness of my own ego’s eagerness to demand more for itself. What it really comes down to is that a strike of housework isn’t enough – we need to go on strike from our egos, too.

Yes, the world changes when people complain, especially en masse and loudly (there’s a Spanish saying: ‘El que llora mama’ – ‘He who cries gets to breastfeed’). But on a day-to-day basis, surely it’s healthier to find a way to deal with the rage and resentment that being a woman can generate without letting it eat you up inside or destroy your relationships with resentment and blame. For all the advantages that feminism has brought with it (which I enjoy enough to be able to write this, so I ain’t complaining), there needs to be a parallel campaign to find the sweet spot between working for change on the outside AND on the inside.

That’s what I find so admirable about women, and men, when they are under pressure, in asymmetrical, unfair situations, and instead of falling into hatred and self-pity, allowing that anger to fester, feeding off the illusion of “It’s all his/her fault”, they rise above it, forgive even if they don’t forget, stay calm in the face of hurtful words, keep ploughing forward no matter what is thrown at them, and prove they are the better people. The world is not fair, life is not fair. But there are ways to deal with inequality that, while taking intelligent steps towards addressing that inequality wherever possible, do so with grace and wisdom. The inner peace it takes to achieve this spreads all around, like light from a window on a dark night spilling out and showing there is indeed a garden out there.

 

Buttons and Mirrors: Seeking a Cure for Firstworlditis

Despite the (not especially ironic) name of this blog, I haven’t written about parenting for a good long while, mainly because I’m usually to be found flailing my arms and tearing my hair out about it myself, and not sure I’d have anything constructive to say.

However, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my buttons: the things I am exceptionally sensitive to when it comes to my kids’ behaviour (obviously their essence is wonderful, as I try to remind myself when handling yet another crisis in the house involving fists, Nerf bullets, or pitch battles over the Latin name for avocados – I kid you not).

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Dusk over some avocado trees. It’s Persea americana, in case you’re interested.

Mainly, what bothers me is ingratitude. Actually, all the multitudinous things that bother me can all be boiled down to ingratitude. To wit: expecting someone else to deal with your dirty work (ingratitude towards people who really are cleaning up after you); grasping, demanding attitudes, without thanks or reciprocation (ingratitude towards gifts and help from others); wasteful, careless, destructive behaviour (ingratitude for the space and resources being enjoyed), etc. etc.

But as the psychologists would say, every conflict is a great big flashing LED arrow pointing to an opportunity to grow. So, not wanting to be a great big screaming Hollywood bratlet myself, I’ve decided the only way out of this thing is to go into it, and pray I come out the other side alive.

Affluenza

This disease of ‘firstworlditis’, or affluenza as some call it, has been noted by many people, and not all old fogeys harping on about the good old days of kids selling newspapers in blizzards to pay for their baby siblings’ tuberculosis medicine. (They did have to walk sixteen miles through minefields carrying their desks on their heads to school every day, eat mouse cassoulet for dinner and sleep in cardboard boxes by the side of the M1 in their day, but they’re not the only ones who can make comparisons.)

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Photo of my street about 60 years ago, when kids had to go to school in wheelbarrows.

About fifteen years ago, a friend of mine took a trip to the US right after a journey to Iran. In Iran she had visited an all-girls school where her friend was teaching English. The students had been given the task to write an essay about anything they wanted, and the results were very revealing: the essays were on subjects like love, faith, poetry, death, family…all very thoughtful and questioning.

When she later went to the US, my friend visited another friend (there are a lot of friends in these paragraphs, stay with me) who also worked at a high school, in Texas. He had also recently set an essay, in which the students had to write about whatever they liked. The essays were universally on topics such as ‘My New Trainers’, ‘My Motorbike’…

Clearly this isn’t exclusively a child-parent issue. In fact, adults can be the snottiest brats of the lot. Think about the gifts we have enjoyed for millions of years, the simplest things like rain, fertile soil, trees…and think of how much respect we used to have for the forces of nature, in the knowledge that we had to live in balance with it or its could crush us like so many cockroaches under its massive, environmental shoe. How the desire for more, bigger, now, has led to the wholesale destruction of life-giving forest, the desertification of once-rich soil by surface mining, a fatberg under London, and not one but TWO plastic waste islands in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, each roughly the size of Texas.

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Some local destruction. Kind of picturesque though.

 

Mirror Mirror

So this nerve that ingratitude hits in me is really just a small reflection of a much vaster problem, one that I’m an intrinsic part of, as a First World Baby who struggles to show gratitude due for all the gifts I enjoy all the time. There is a line in the Qur’an that says: ‘If We had willed it, We could have made rain salty.’ And elsewhere, the repeated refrain in Surat Ar-Rahman: ‘And which of Our favours do you deny?’

When the Sheikh of the Jerrahi Sufi Order, Tosun Bayrak, visited my hometown, I asked him about gratitude; I was going through a painful divorce (are any divorces painless?) and having trouble finding gratitude in myself. He was astounded, and simply explained all that I have to be thankful for – beginning with life itself. Tosun Baba passed away a few days ago, the same day as a family friend – reminders to treasure this gift while there’s time.

The mirror metaphor has a lot of meterage: part of ‘affluenza’ is the problem of surrounding a small, self-centred life with mirrors, cutting off the long view, both in space and time (the view of others, of the perspective of years…) and obsessing over small details, the lint collecting in our collective navels. How do I look, how do people see me…self-consciousness is like taking your perspective out of your own head and turning its floodlights, by turns critical and fawning, on your own figure as it goes about its business. If you have a hard time breaking through sadness to gratitude, try looking at what comes to you before you’ve even asked for it, and see how your heart bursts its banks.

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A local mirror. Also rather more tasteful than I had meant to portray.

Here’s another metaphor: the examples we are exposed to, both in real life and in fiction (TV, film, vlogs…) are a kind of artificial mirror that creates the same behaviour in us – if we aren’t alert to this tendency. Just seeing how we as a family start interacting after watching a mere hour of Disney tween sitcoms, in which every other line is a wisecrack and everyone is basically snapping each other’s heads off to canned laughter (watch Friends with the sound turned off and you’ll see what I mean), I am astonished how quickly we all start imitating them – including me.

By contrast, yesterday at Jum’ah, I noticed a woman there I hadn’t seen before, with the most beautifully serene, slightly bashful aura. I thought: this is what humility looks like – not humiliation, as so many people would have us believe humility is, arguing for brashness and swagger as a way of protecting our vulnerability. It made me see that humble does not mean having the air of a whipped dog – humiliated, broken, fearful.

In actual fact, real humility (not acted, ersatz humility, aka spiritual vanity), is the best kind of noble. A truly humble person is so because they are big enough to be aware of their own faults, brave enough to bring them into the presence of the Most High, and strong enough to work on them without losing hope for every mistake they know they’ll continue to make. And it’s beautiful to see; if only we saw it enough, all around, maybe we would start to mirror it too. Imagine a ring of mirrors like that.

How to Deal with Your Sh*t (Creatively)

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Believe it or not, there is a way to make the decomposing banana peels of your mind into fertile soil for creative growth. 

You will need:

1 stack of ‘rubbish’ (e.g. teenage love poems you now cringe at, hurriedly scribbled stories that you later look at and go ‘Gggggaaaaah!’, ideas that turn out to already have been done, etc.)

1 clothespeg (for your nose)

Some rubber gloves

A spade

Time

A strong stomach

Preferably a few friends to share the job with you

Yield: creative output limited only by the amount of coffee/childcare you can get your hands on.

Method:

Borrowing from a concept Natalie Goldman wrote about in her book Writing Down the Bones, this is a technique I love sharing at any creative writing workshops* and wish to see stretched far and wide for the positive results it yields. But the results might not be what you expect.

The method consists in mimicking the natural cycle of breakdown and fertility that a gardener knows so well. Dump your potato peelings, mouldy apples and wannabe David Bowie songs in a suitable place, where they will be neither too dry nor too wet. Sobbing uncontrollably over the heap from time to time does help to moisten it, but don’t overdo it or you’ll turn it into a soggy mess. Likewise, glaring at it with scalding derision will only kill the beneficial micro-organisms and roast the earthworms that will be busily breaking down your jetsam.

Layering your compost heap is also a great idea. It wants to have just the right p.h., slightly acidic, so if you pile too many citrus fruit peels in there it’ll be useful only for feeding to rhododendrons and blueberries. Jumble it up with sketches, songs, whatever. Good compost is food for plants: in a symbiotic process with humans, plants take what we consider to be revolting waste and turn it into something we find delicious. If you effect this method correctly, you’ll find tomatoes, potatoes, beans, squashes and all sorts of artistic wonders growing spontaneously out of your compost heap, seeded by all that detritus you thought was worth nothing.

The trick, however, is giving this pile of embarrassing scribbles, cack-handed scrawls and abandoned projects oxygen. Without it, the decomposition process becomes anaerobic, causing your otherwise excellent fertiliser to become something that is toxic to the earth and produces methane. You really want to destroy the ozone layer by incorrectly trashing your subpar sonatas? Hmm?

My permaculture teacher (http://supernatural-permaculture.com) said that if you can only do one thing to save the planet, make a compost heap. The metaphor also stands: if you want to contribute to the climate of the planet sliding towards consumerism, then wrap up your creative ‘mistakes’ in cling film and let them putrefy. Pretend that only experts can sing, make up stories, experiment with film. Stay mute while an elite take centre stage, and the streets fall silent.

Every master of every art had to start somewhere, with play, with experimenting, without letting their ‘failures’ sap their will to create. John Cleese once gave a lecture describing his process coming up with material for Monty Python: it involved starting the day with an hour or two of bouncing balls around, clowning, being silly. Then several more hours of more serious silliness. But you get the point.

The finished artistic products we consume should never put us off singing, writing, drawing, dancing, dreaming. Their creators have not only many years of practices behind them, but also most probably a whole team of other experts editing, composing, and encouraging them – not to mention providing financially backing.

Even though you might not want people to see them, your mistakes are not mistakes, your failures not failures. They might collectively stink, to your nose, but slap on those rubber gloves and that clothes peg and sort through the dregs patiently, heap them kindly, and watch the magic emerge. 

One of the comments from a participant in a creative writing workshop that made me happiest was “Thanks for making it OK to write rubbish.” Every participant in that workshop had produced raw, honest, beautiful work, many of them having little or no prior experience. It’s a liberating feeling to know you can chuck anything onto a page, and in a worst case scenario, it goes into the recycling. Back to the cycle of waste and productivity. It’s all good. 

*This isn’t really a plug for my creative writing road trip through Bosnia with Lazuli Ventures, honest. But here’s the link, now that you mention it: https://www.facebook.com/events/1304894962928452/?ti=icl 

It starts this Thursday so tune into the Lazuli Ventures FB page to check out what we’re to on the road. Happy scribbling!

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 our 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 or passports, keep embassies abroad, or enjoy the acceptance of other nations as a state? 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.