About cavemum

The name I was given is Medina Tenour Whiteman: the first two parts mean City of Divine Light. I'm a writer, musician, translator, songwriter, plant-grower, thing-crafter and mother of three. London is my mind's nutritionist, Granada my heart's greenhouse, nature my language, love my home.

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


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).


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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)


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


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.


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 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.


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


“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

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



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.