I am all elbows
leaning on ledges
eyelids falling involuntarily
after nights fractured
by screams as gums are
lacerated slowly by
a knife tip tooth
My corners catch on everyone
like gardener’s hands on silk
bunions build up on my edges
myelin thickens to muffle nerves
and stiffens my walk to a
peg doll pace
so I cease to bend
How can a woman come apart
– limbs popped out like a doll
in the inquisitive hands of a 5 year old –
and drag the pieces along by
fibres of some unearthly substance
below the threshold of her vision
whereby lunches occur in spite of her
beans falling out of the ceiling
into pans that manoeuvre themselves
onto the stove
loo roll replenishes itself
the baby picks up crumbs and helpfully eats them
crayons roll off the edges of the floor
into holes that return them to their place
like balls under a pool table
bread grows back from crusts
rugs stretch out like a man in bed
teabags multiply in hollow boxes
the emptiness inside cupboards
solidifies into the shapes of
jam jars and pasta twirls
If children can meet on Minecraft
and throw ocelots at zombies
while being safe
in their pyjamas on the sofa
surely I can
make magic too.
Having spent the last three days glued to screens, viewing hundreds of people’s responses to the Paris attacks – expressions of grief, solidarity, outrage, hatred at the perpetrators (and occasionally Islam and Muslims in general), vindications of European values and repetitions of Western governments’ hand in the origins of the problem, which nobody who needs to read ever does – I am struck by how unlike grieving all this is.
A person who has suddenly lost a loved one, in an act of brutal violence designed to sow fear and chaos as payback for a government’s actions abroad (who are we even talking about here? They all act the same), is not going to run to Facebook or Twitter and tell everyone what they’re feeling.
Real grief does that to you: instead of reaching outwards, you go inwards, as quickly and involuntarily as the initial blow, and you stay there in a protective cocoon in the deepest recesses of your being, licking your wounds.
I am guilty of broadcasting my official feelings about horrifying news items on many occasions. But I am realising now that I have merely been paying lip service to grief, responding to external events the way a government does, issuing statements expressing ‘deep regret and concern’ or other such bluster.
It’s only people who are superficially affected who can articulate feelings so soon, which – thankfully for us – is almost everyone. Only if you genuinely know someone who is affected would you need to reach out and send them your condolences, and often nothing is more effective than a wordless hug.
But why aren’t we more deeply affected by tragedies like the one we have just witnessed in Paris to the extent where we would just all go on retreat for a couple of days to process it? Do the victims need to be white and European to merit our bereavement by proxy? On the 5th of August, over 500 civilians were killed in Syria by US-led drone strikes, 100 of them children. Any one of those could have been our children. Except our children are safe at home in a country that is not at war. So the comparison is transparent, and our empathy transient and feeble.
Most of us want to be seen as compassionate beings, but the literal meaning of compassion is to share in the suffering of others, not to ‘share’ their suffering on the pantomime stage of social media. It must be that we are getting our sentiments out there as a way to pre-empt any idea that we are callous or – worst of all – complicit, a huge worry for Muslims living in the west who face a great deal of stigma by association.
Speaking out about injustice doesn’t mean wasting your words on other people’s newsfeeds: the people who could do with hearing it aren’t following you anyway.
Let’s not pretend any more. The true reason we should be grieving is the death of our hearts, which prefer the lazy option of proffering platitutes over the real work of going inwards, as deep as genuine grief takes us, to the enemies within: racism, arrogance, complacency, greed, selfishness, and being contented with meaningless material gains.
Where do we go with all this sadness, anger, frustration and fear? In. There is space for all of it in there. It doesn’t need an internet connection, and it might just bring the healing we desperately need.
Goodbye for a while…I need a lot of time to work on mine!
Addendum: after one reader pointed out how she had been relieved to hear other people’s outpourings of grief, I should add that there’s nothing wrong with getting things off your chest (by God, I started this blog as a means of doing it myself). This post is more a self-criticism of my own habit of trying to articulate feelings before I’ve let them go deep, a habit that social media exacerbates by making it so darn easy to publicly emote. It’s become a reflex for many of us. But there are times when the most important work happens in silence and solitude. Therefore…Adios!
It seems I have been singing so many qasidas* lately that new depths of my own vanity, ambition, immaturity, wounded pride and overall silliness are being clarified, like ghee simmering over a low heat.
Firstly there are the ambitions that don’t seem to disappear no matter how many steps closer I come, no matter how many achievements trickle into my life. It seems I’m not content to be the mother of three utterly hilarious beautiful creative inventive intelligent healthy beings (ALHAMDULILLAH!), nor that I am a writer as I’ve wanted to be since age 6, living in a beautiful place with no drizzle, and a community of amazing open-minded people who occasionally provide amusement with their bizarre antics.
No, there is always something else, always some other challenge that sets my jaw a-champing…and like a blindfold hamster believing it is going forward to some wondrous destination I am still always looking into an imaginary future where I’ll finally feel fulfilled by this, that or the other accolade.
Digging into this curious state of affairs I am finding that there is a very deep, childish sort of wound still being nursed by my unconscious being that lies behind my need to ‘be better’, one which goes back so far it has no visual clues to it, only a vague, pervasive, unsettling pain. My mother tells me that after my sister was born I refused to let her hug me for two years, just going all stiff (I was two at the time – I hasten to add that we have since become very close loving sisters, although it did take 22 years or so to get there).
It’s not like I was a neglected child – I was a longed-for baby who (according to my mum) received all the attention and adoration she could lavish on me, which was perhaps why it was such as shock when I was no longer the littlest one of the family. There is a photo of my mum holding my baby sister, aged 1 day, with our dear late grandmother cooing over them, and me in the foreground grimacing into the camera. She still bears a tiny scar on her cheek from where I was meant to kiss her as a baby but scratched her instead.
Could it really be that such an ancient, primary experience as losing first place in my parents’ affections has stayed with me all this time, morphing with age and accreting defenses to hide behind? Seeing how intensely my children react to seemingly small things like one getting 5 minutes more on the iPad than the other (these are the times we’re living in), I can imagine it might.
The emotions of children are all the more intense because they have no easy means of expressing themselves, other than through screaming or throwing things. The difficulty for us Brits is that such behaviour is generally totally out of the question, even if you’re 2. I suspect a lot of us have bottled up these pre-verbal angers and upsets, which have fermented over time and now provide a rich vintage of putrified infantile ire.
This then spirals forward into the present, either being channelled into other angers (xenophobia, racism, hating on Jeremy Corbyn…whatever’s the fad of the moment) or laying the foundations for a sensitivity to any similar kind of hurt (abandonment, isolation, criticism…).
Which makes me wonder this: is our collective attention-seeking, expressed through social media, merely an adult expression of the primary infantile experience of the loss of the mother’s adoring gaze, bathing her newborn in total love and devotion, making it sense that it is completely cared for and – well – interesting? Is this the root of the neediness that compels people like myself to perform, to ‘share’ compulsively, including on confessional blog posts like this one? Are we really just longing for the primordial breast??
So that is the resumé of my thoughts tonight. Facebook should be renamed Breastbook. The end.
*Sufi songs of love and longing for God, like the ones found in this book, which you need to buy: https://ianwhiteman.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/the-diwan-a-new-translation/
The angle he sees me at
makes me all triangles
jawbone, earlobe, nose
A table is an overhanging rock
on a wind-bitten mountain path
the room a cave cathedral
with electric stalactites
the stairs a Giant’s Causeway
our diminutive patio is a
basketball court, zones marked by
patches of cement
dogs are like elephants
except the neighbour’s pug
which is more like a chaise longue
children are Titans
and we adults are mobile skyscrapers
with the power to pick him up
and stride vast distances
yet he is not daunted
by his size. His reality is not
that he is 8 months small but
that we are infinitessimally tiny
and he is merely
one degree tinier
Writing with anything
on anything –
stubby felt tip in
older son’s school book –
grabbed at any time –
5.30 am after a night of
insomnia induced by
(a flea, or incipient allergy to lentils,
or too much coffee and thrillers)
I wonder if this
is what they call
Get up – don’t think! –
set the mechanisms of family in motion
food made, mouths opening,
“WASH YOUR HANDS!”
clean dishes, break up fisticuffs,
hang out laundry
(there is ALWAYS laundry)
continue thus until the bedtime story
is garbled as mouth loses contact
with brain and I crash out anywhere,
on anything –
is this surfing the crest of ego,
always slipping just out of its sticky reach?
It is khidmah, for sure,
although maybe my complaining
nullifies its bounties, or am I just
not taking time to witness them?
He sleeps on my lap now.
Here are the gifts: glossy curls
forming at the back of his head;
his hand laid flat on my belly
fingers kneading as he dreams;
his warm velour’d weight on me
and the breathing
deep and restful
even if I am not.
West is not a direction
limo on a
dirty Bombay street
an architecture masters
from the university of Madrid
hanging on a wall in Tehran
it’s a pizza on a plate in Cairo
an iPhone in a hand in São Paolo
a book by Sartre on a shelf in Phuket
a magician on a talent show
being watched on YouTube in Pakistan
It’s a breeze block in the wall of a house in Nairobi
an engineered seed in a sack in the Congo
a factory for dish scrubbers in China
a boat stuffed with young women sewing shirts
a van with a Moroccan man clinging underneath
a Khoi-San bushman longing for his homeland
from a high-rise in Johannesburg
a black woman in Nigeria bleaching her skin
burning her scalp to make her hair straight
It’s a million bake sales and sponsored skydives
Afghan orphans adopted by never-seen donors
a sign saying ‘Don’t be Silly’ at an anti-fascism rally
vans full of mens’ running shoes being driven to Calais
curses muttered at the £9m concrete wall they pass
It’s a 19-year-old activist being crushed under a tank in Tel Aviv
A London boy barefoot in the Amazon seeking
Wisdom from painted shamans
The tents we designed for refugees fleeing
Missiles we made and sold
It’s a ninety-year old English man who dies of cold in winter
because he can’t afford the heating bills
It’s a Spanish woman in a red dressing gown
And shiny peach lipstick wearing dirty crocs
walking her dog
It’s a young woman fighting to be free of a husband
who tells her “You’ll starve to death without me”
It’s an ice floe in Norway creaking downhill unseen
An Ann Summers party among suburban housewives
and a nun on a Soho street ladling out soup
It’s a pool of mercury on whose silver palm
The sky is distortedly clear
Whose glistening promises burn with their cold
If you ever get close enough to touch it
And it sends drops of itself scattering
Trying to reach the bamboo forests
And the warm red soil
And the forgiving ocean
To forget their nature and reflect
Some truer texture
But we are always an emulsion
We don’t dissolve
West is hope
And frustrated ambition
You might drown trying to reach it
or get dizzy trying to avoid it
because it’s east and south and north
It’s in a private school in Rabat
while the spirituality you seek is back home
in a quiet town in Europe
where there is enough abundance to let go of it
enough gloss to want freedom from it
There is Dunya wherever you go
Turn the atlas inside out
It all starts so well: the night before the celebration, everyone is excitedly ringing family members with their Eid Mubaraks, kids are fantasising about presents (if they haven’t persuaded their parents to open them already), mums are making cakes and shampooing kids ready for the next day.
Come morning, we’re in a red alert state of ironing and preparations (the only time I remember curling my hair is as a kid on Eid), putting on fancy frocks and unusual amounts of make-up, even cracking out the special perfume that never sees the light of day. On the way there everyone’s singing the Eid song, feeling a bit naughty for having the day off school/work, watching for others who are similarly garbed for a party.
The mosque slowly packs out; women start fanning their faces; the general buzz of talking and kissing long-unseen friends abates as the adhan goes for the prayer. There’s a brief moment when the build-up reaches its climax…then, two short rak’ahs later, everyone starts filtering out again, to eat (in our case a curious mish-mash of tortilla de patatas, pretzels and cake – ‘Eid tapas’).
And then…the togetherness fizzles out. Everyone drifts off to who knows where, confused by the too-early party preparations, strange mixtures of food and the mad rush of salaams. Some men disappear to slaughter sheep; a few conscientious vegetarians go to distribute cheese sandwiches to the homeless, and others go back to work in this dazed, showered-with-holy-water state.
Those who don’t have huge extended families to celebrate with, i.e. converts, exiles, parents whose children live elsewhere, find themselves adrift, either tagging along like the high school gooseberry to other people’s family gatherings (where they are of course welcomed as brethren, although that might mean they have to peel some potatoes), or clump together in twos and threes and go to cafés where they feel slightly giddy and unnecessarily sequinned. (I’m talking about being in the west, of course, where life goes on as usual around these islands of Islamic celebration.) Then they go home. And then there’s some meat.
This year, living among a vibrant, eclectic, if at times a little bonkers-around-the-edges Sufi community, Eid was eventually a blast. Someone had set up a tent and a generator making ‘Potato Tornadoes’ (fried potato cut into a spiral, on a stick. Yes these things exist.) There were also pony rides for the kids and a Ka’aba making craft workshop and I showed a few kids how to make origami animals, which was also fun, especially as Cavebaby mercifully slept the whole way through. Ali Keeler of Firdaus Ensemble also came down and sang some songs, which some of us managed to join in with, qasida jam style, while Cavebaby sat happily on a friend’s lap. So it was overall a fine time had by all.
But that initial blip brought back many of these alienating moments from my youth, coined as ‘Duff Eid Trauma’ by a friend. The scenario reminded her of many a duff Christmas, where too many people got too drunk and argued, and the kids’ presents weren’t quite was they wanted, and the turkey got burnt, and the tree shed needles into the sofa, and the dog ate the Christmas pudding and was sick on the pantry floor, and you ended up watching Mary Poppins for the fiftieth time in an atmosphere of tense obligatory cohabitation. It’s the same feeling of anti-climax, only you’re smelling of ‘oud and have too much kohl on for 10 o’clock in the morning. I don’t think anyone’s been quite so depressed from it as after a Duff Christmas, but there’s still this feeling that a wonderful time is being had by someone, in a family home with a halo of warmth and authenticity: the real Eid celebration.
It’s probably poppycock (I’m sure their kids were whining too), but living in a non-Muslim country certainly dims the glow of an Eid celebration. It feels like such an effort to raise an Islamic culture from where there is none that at times I wonder if we’re letting the meaning of it slip through our fingers. Even as a lifelong Muslim I still sometimes get a lingering sense that we’re in fancy dress, doing this ‘Islamic’ thing, that someone will sniff out our secret (that we’re culturally pretty European, actually) and the edifice of our outward religion will turn to mouse droppings.
Thankfully, these are also those times when we have the opportunity to wonder what our inward religion is about. If it’s not in the silver lurex jelabiyahs, or the prominently hanging tasbihs, the frankincense and bukhur or the miswaks, the scarves and turbans and embroidered hats, the prayer mats and the prayer domes and even the Arabic of the prayers we recite, what is it in?
When we look for the centre of this faith it reveals itself to be a fractal, spiralling in ever more fascinating ways the deeper it pulls us, but with ever fewer details. Cultural forms, interesting as they might be, fall off the edges. This country does this; that country does that. But it’s all peripheral, like the cupboards in the walls of the rabbit hole that Alice falls down on her way to Wonderland.
Before the words had shapes and sounds there were meanings that called them out of the darkness; before the meanings, a primordial call, a homing signal, a desire to work our way back to our source. Each time we rest our wandering feet on things and call them Islam they take us further away, not closer, from the end of this path, the heart of the spiral: Home.
One of the most thoughtful frontline accounts of the Calais Jungle.
Photograph courtesy of Viv Dawes, http://vivdawes.wix.com/vividpictures
From the first day I heard about the terrible plight of the refugees in Calais (their real plight, that is, not the media myth of economic migrants desperate to come and sponge off what’s left of our benefits system) I knew I had to do something to help. I had some ideas of what would help, and discussed them with a like-minded friend. But it became apparent, from reports from volunteers at what has become known as the Calais Jungle, most of the things I had thought of were no longer needed. However, what was needed was a huge waste removal operation.
We appealed for help, and had enough volunteers to fill two seven-seater people carriers. We begged, borrowed and bought shovels, garden forks, rakes, litter pickers (lots of litter pickers), industrial quantities of anti-bacterial hand wipes, gallons of disinfectant and thousands of rubbish…
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They carried a plague on their fingers
when they went to seek gold and sell guns
took a ruler and pen to a map
birthed nations by caesarean
sliced human terrain in hot places where
their germs settled into the hot skin
and they returned thinking
their hands were clean
only the sores on their palms were
hidden under the things they grasped
They took back their queen and flag but
the disease was marrow-deep
fed by fictions of our happiness
ads for things they cannot possess
because they are working in the factories that make them
films with white heroes and brown villains
until some took the bait offered
by canapé waitresses at arms fairs
grinning bankers offering loans to pay for it all
and one surgically created side
was pitted against another
so the wound never heals
And the sickness we gave them never left us
the pockmarks on our diseased body
are hollows in the wet sand
along the outline of our nation on the map
And we decry their assault on our fortress
calling their desperation
€1,500 to board a lethally overcrowded boat
the desire for a safe home and enough food
And while the borders grow metal spikes
develop a rash of guard dogs
ossify into concrete walls
a man and his wife
hold hands each night
and try to leap onto a train
travelling fast underwater
until they reach the promised land
Update: if you are London today (September 10th) head down to ExCel (Custom House or Prince Regent on the DLR) to join the Stop the Arms Fairs’s Conference at the Gates, aimed at disrupting as much as possible the world largest arms fair: